Wine is a fermented alcoholic beverage, usually made from grapes - and yeast is the key ingredient that does that fermenting to create alcohol. Simply put, yeast is a living organism that in winemaking is used to convert, or eat up, the sugar in fruits to produce alcohol. As this happens flavours change and simple grape juice (or any fruit juice really) can be turned into wine.
However, yeast comes in different strains, the yeast you use to make bread isn’t the best to be making your wine. Even when it comes to yeast specifically for making wine, there are different kinds that have their own uses and specific characteristics. In this post we will:
- Compare popular dry wine yeasts for winemaking
- How to use dry wine yeast to ferment, and
- Frequently asked questions about wine yeast.
To begin with, for a brief overview of some popular wine yeasts refer to our dry wine yeast comparison chart:
Wine Yeast Comparison Chart
This is a versatile standard “Champagne” style wine yeast. Many recipes and wine-making kits use this strain of yeast.
General wine yeast great for fruit wines, reds, whites, and blushes. Also for ciders and stuck fermentation.
Alcohol tolerance up to 18%
Often recommended when making ice wine and wine from fresh grapes or fruits. It is good at surviving in colder temperatures (as low as 10°C) and in low nutrient environments. When fermented in cold environments it is noted for producing floral notes.
Capable of producing many wines, especially when using fresh grapes and fruit.
Unique qualities well suited for cold fermenting ice wine and other floral whites like Riesling and Gewurztraminer.
Alcohol tolerance up to 18%.
This yeast is noted for its ability to enhance the flavour and aroma of white wines and create a silky mouth-feel due to its creation of complex carbohydrates. It is also an excellent choice for fermenting mead (wine made out of honey), though extra yeast nutrients will be necessary in that case.
(sensitive to cold temperatures)
Best used for whites and rose wine. Especially when barrel fermented.
Also a yeast of choice for mead.
Alcohol tolerance up to 15%
This yeast is noted for its ability to soften acidic flavours and produce semi-sweet blushes and whites. It ferments quickly and doesn’t require as much aging.
Best used for blush and semi-sweet white wines (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, White Zinfandel) that will be enjoyed young.
Alcohol tolerance up to 14%
This is the yeast most noted for its ability to produce full-bodied red wines with colour and structure. It stabilizes tannins and produces spicy berry notes.
It also produces very little foam when fermenting.
Best used for complex mid-full bodied red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.
It can also add to the character of zinfandel and grenache.
Alcohol tolerance up to 16%
As you can see there are plenty of yeasts to choose from, but if you are unsure it is always best to just follow a recipe!
How do I Use a Dry Wine Yeast and Start Fermenting?
Once you have decided on a must, whether it be from fresh grapes, fruit, juice, or a kit, and have decided on a yeast then it is time to begin fermenting. This can be done in one of two ways: creating a yeast starter in advance and then pitching OR simply rehydrating and then pitching. In either case you add the yeast to your must after it’s gotten moist. Creating a yeast starter can be good for a healthy fermentation, but it is not absolutely necessary - so it’s really up to you.
Optional: Creating a Yeast Starter.
Remember that yeast is a living organism, and like us, it can experience shock. Simply rehydrating your dry yeast out of the packet and then tossing it into your primary fermenter, or even worse just pitching it in dry straight out of the package, is shocking to the yeast and not the best way to begin fermentation. But it will still work.
Creating a yeast starter gives your yeast time to strengthen itself and prepare for the coming fermentation. It has the benefit of not only ensuring that your yeast is fresh and ready to go, but also that your must begins fermenting almost immediately.
It is best to prepare your starter 2 days ahead of when you plan on starting your must. This can be difficult if working with fresh ingredients because you need to add a bit of your must into the starter. Unless you can keep the rest of your fresh ingredients refrigerated for a few days then you may have to opt for an alternative source of sugar - like a store bought juice when making the starter. This is okay, just make sure that there are no preservatives used in the product you choose. If working from concentrate you can simply take some aside and reseal the rest in the package.
If you’ve done the pre-planning and have some must or juice to use in the starter, then it’s a fairly simple process:
- Sanitize a glass, jar, bottle, or jug that the starter will begin in. Keep in mind that you will want to hold 1 pint (470ml) plus foam in the container.
- Add 1 pint/470ml of must or juice into the container. The liquid should be warm, but still within the temperature range of the yeast.
- Mix with ¼ teaspoon of yeast nutrient.
- Add yeast packet
- Cover with an airlock or clean cloth.
- Leave until fermentation peaks (lots of foam/bubbles are produced).
Yeast is a living organism, like us. So preparing a yeast starter to avoid shocking it is always good and safe idea. However, unlike us, commercial yeasts have been engineered by scientists to be strong and resilient to shock - so most of the time they can run the marathon of fermentation with simple rehydration. Yeast starters are more necessary if you plan on challenging your yeast with other factors such as:
- Temperature fluctuations
- Low nutrient musts (like mead or low fruit content recipes that rely that rely on sugar)
- Fermenting near the cold range of the yeast
- Fermenting near the hot range of the yeast
- Fermenting high sugar/high alcohol wine that is near the yeast’s alcohol tolerance level
If you are challenging your yeast with conditions like these, then it may be more necessary to use a yeast starter.
Rehydrating Your Yeast
If you decide not to create a yeast starter you can simply rehydrate your yeast the same day and begin fermenting. You’ll need a sanitized container like a simple glass jug or jar and a clean source of warm water.
Packets of yeast will generally have specific rehydration instructions which are best to follow. In general to rehydrate your yeast you will want to:
- Sanitize a glass jug or jar
- Add 5 times the yeasts weight in water into your vessel, generally 1 cup of de-chlorinated water. Make sure that the water is 30-40°C (86-104°F) for best results
- Add in the yeast and gently stir.
- Cover the container with an airlock or cloth and let sit for 20 minutes. Stir or swirl occasionally.
Once you have a yeast starter ready or are ready to have your yeast rehydrated it is time to begin fermentation of your grape must into wine. Like all processes in home wine making the first step is to sanitize all the equipment that will come into contact with your must:
- A primary fermentation vessel (carboy or pail)
- A stir spoon
- An airlock with bung to seal the primary fermenter.
- A thermometer
- A hydrometer
If you are unsure about equipment or how to sanitize, simply click on the link to read more about these topics.
Once you have your equipment ready follow these simple steps:
- Add your must into the primary fermenter. (Juice, crushed grapes or fruit, concentrated kit, honey mead mixture, etc.)
- Add any additional ingredients that are called for prior to fermentation. If using a concentrated kit you will want to add water to bring the volume to the required level. Some recipes may call for sugar to be added as well or pectic enzyme if using fresh fruits or grapes. Perhaps you are using oak chips or elderflowers - you can add them now.
- Use a thermometer to make sure that the must is within the yeasts temperature range and within 10°C of the temperature of your starter or rehydration container. Ideally they will be the same temperature.
- Take a hydrometer reading to measure the specific gravity (SG) of your must prior to fermentation. Make sure it is in the right range for the recipe you are using, you can add sugar if it is lower than what you want, or water if it is too high. Write your initial SG down so that it can be compared with the final SG at the end of fermentation - this will tell you how much alcohol was generated.
- Swirl your yeast mixture around and pour as much as possible into the must.
- Give your must a gentle stir and seal with an airlock.
That’s all there is to starting fermentation with a dry yeast! Most wine kits, recipes, juices, and so on that are within the 11-14% ABV range will take 2-3 weeks to fully ferment through. This all depends on temperature, nutrient and ph levels in the must, and alcohol level.
Remember that once fermentation begins to calm down - often after the first 1-2 weeks it is best to transfer your semi-finished wine into a secondary fermenter with less head space.
Frequently Asked Questions about Wine Yeast
Do I need yeast to make wine?
The short answer is most likely YES. Grapes and other fruits do have a wild yeast on the skin or peel. But that isn’t always a sure fire way to have a strong fermentation. If you are rinsing the grapes or fruits - be most certain that you will need yeast. For the minimal cost - we always recommend pitching some wine yeast.
Is my wine fermenting? How can I tell?
An easy way to tell if your wine is fermenting is by looking at it and listening to it. Fermenting wine will often have active bubbling rise through it as the yeast creates CO2 and this will also create a fizzy noise.
However, if fermentation has slowed or is near completion it may not be that easy to tell. Using a hydrometer is the only accurate way to tell if your wine is fermenting or whether it has stopped. As fermentation occurs the level of sugar in the must will be reduced as it converts to alcohol. This will cause the hydrometer to sink lower and give lower SG readings. If you get the same reading consistently over a few days then your wine has stopped fermenting. Just because your wine has stopped fermenting does not mean that your yeast is dead.
How do I stop my wine from fermenting any further? What if I want sweet wine?
Sometimes we don’t want our wine to ferment all the way through and become dry. To stop your wine from fermenting or to slow fermentation there are a few options. For one, moving your fermenter to a colder area once your wine has gotten near the desired sweetness is a good idea. It will progress slower so that the SG can be monitored more easily and will begin to clear.
Transferring off of the sediment and filtering are other ways to hinder fermentation.
The best way to stall fermentation at the desired level is to add stabilizing and preservative agents into the wine. Potassium metabisulphite or campden tablets will effectively kill most of the yeast in your wine and for the safest measure potassium sorbate will prevent it from reproducing. These stabilizing agents are included in concentrated kits and can also be purchased separately.
My wine has stopped fermenting, what do I do?
Sometimes fermentations stall out before we want them to. To check that this is in fact the case, make sure to take frequent SG readings with your hydrometer, often fermentation will begin to slow near the end - it does not mean that there is a problem.
If fermentation really has stopped then there are a few questions to ask:
- Has there been large temperature fluctuations from hot to cold where I am fermenting?
- Am I in the recommended temperature range for the yeast I am using?
- Am I using ingredients or a recipe that requires additional nutrients or additives for yeast to survive?
- Was the yeast I used expired or stored incorrectly? Did I not follow the correct pitching instructions?
- Have I added stabilizers or preservatives to the wine too early? Or have I accidentally mixed it with sanitizing products when transferring?
If you answered yes to any of the first 3 questions you might be able to “revive” your yeast and fermentation by correcting the problems. If there has been issues with temperature then find a suitable area that has a stable temperature in the recommended range. If you need additional additives or nutrients for your recipe to work, then add them. Once you’ve done this a dose of yeast nutrient and yeast energizer should get your yeast back on its feet. If it still does not resume, try pitching another yeast in.
If you answered yes to question 4 the problem might be in the yeast itself. You can try adding in some yeast nutrient and energizer, but you may have to purchase another yeast to get your wine going again.
If you answered yes to question 5 then sadly you may be out of luck with this batch. Small amounts of sodium metabisulphite, potassium metabisulphite, or campden tablets may be overcome with a few days of waiting and new packet of yeast. But, potassium sorbate is very hard to undo - most of the time fermentation will not take hold again if potassium sorbate has been added to the wine. If this is the case and the products that it has been mixed with are safe to consume you can always use your sweet wine to cook with. They can be great in baking, for sauces, glazes, and dressings.
If you’ve accidentally mixed the wine with a significant amount of a sanitizing product, for instance if you forget to drain a container before transferring into it or spill some into your fermenter, then it is best not to consume.
If none of these questions apply it may be worth testing the acidity of the must. Read more about acidity.
I pitched my yeast and it has not started to ferment, what do i do?
Depending on the strain of yeast, temperature conditions, and whether or not you have used a starter it can be normal for fermentation to not noticeably start for a couple days. If it doesn’t start right away, don't worry, unless you use a healthy starter it is very unusual that it would. If a couple of days have passed and it has still not started there may be a problem with the yeast. You can try to start again by pitching a new yeast with nutrient and energizer.
If it still does not start then the problem is most likely in the must itself. If you have used store-bought juices double check to make sure that there were no preservatives added. If using a kit check to make sure you did not accidentally add the wrong packets in, such as potassium sulphite and sorbate. If producing something like mead out of honey and water make sure that it is blended properly and not too syrupy or separated out.