Tip 1: Start with a starter!
Let's say you've been to the souq and bought a job lot of mixed fruit on a whim. You bring it home with no very clear idea of what to do with it and start chopping it up and chucking it into a bucket. Maybe you pour boiling water on it to sterilise it. Most disasters start this way.
Step 1 should always be the yeast starter. Start your yeast in 500 ml of supermarket grape juice (preservative-free and pasteurised). When it is fermenting well, add another 500 ml. Next day, you have a litre of strongly fermenting grape juice as a mono-culture of your chosen yeast. Now you are in control.
Step 2 - rinse your fruit in tap water to remove any surface pesticide residue. Pour your 1-litre starter into a large bowl. Chop up the fruit and immediately add it to the bowl. This is the best way to extract flavour and colour. You win on 4 counts:
- The alcohol in the starter is a solvent and a better extractor than water
- The enzymes from the yeast go to work on the fruit sugars, helping extraction
- The activity of the bubbling CO₂ keeps everything in motion
- The strong mono-culture is the best defence against contamination
Tip 2: Meaningful variation
Let's say you've made a drink that you're reasonably happy with. The obvious thing to do is repeat it to make sure that you can. This requires either a very good memory (just how much sugar did you add?) or, shock horror, good notes. The best way to get better is to write everything down. Then, on the grounds that there is always room for improvement, you might want to vary your repeat performance. But (and this is the tip!) make only one change per brew. That way, you learn the effects of each variable. If you make two or more changes, you might like the result but you won't really know why. For example, you might decide to dissolve your sugar addition in cranberry juice instead of water. Good idea, maybe. But if you also use a different yeast and chuck in some oak chips and half a pint of stewed tea, you won't be able to assign differences in the outcome to specific changes in the process. Maybe it doesn't matter, but if you want to get better at this, maybe it does!
Tip 3: Topping up
When you rack wine from the fermenter to a storage vessel you are often left with the problem of how to fill the vessel. It is bad to leave to much of an air space above the wine as this will cause oxidation, so you will have to top it up before sealing for storage. Don't use fruit juice as this is likely to referment, preventing clearing and creating pressure in the bottle. Cool boiled water is OK if the air space is small, but of course it dilutes the wine and lowers the ABV, The best solution is to top up with a dry wine from a previous batch. It's a good idea always to keep a bottle or two in reserve just for this purpose.