01 September 2012

Effective tax avoidance – start the homemade Christmas wine now...

Making your own wine is a great pastime on many levels....

Firstly, it's very cheap and the taxman doesn't get to surreptitiously steal a huge chunk of your hard-earned readies.   How big is the chunk ?  Read on...

Just think of the 'Three for £10' wine offer at ASDA that's been running for years; that's a bottle of wine for £3.33.  Now this wine has been made in Chile, California, Australia, South Africa or wherever.  Grapes have been planted, lovingly tended, harvested and pressed, the liquid collected, filtered and then fermented, cleared, put in a glass bottle, sealed, labelled and despatched half-way round the world and it's still only £3.33. 

However, consider that sum even further.  The UK excise duty payable on any standard 75cl bottle of wine of that strength is £1.90*  – yes, a staggering amount on any bottle of wine but a very high proportion of £3.33.  To add insult to injury, the £3.33 selling price also includes UK VAT (sales tax) at 20%, on the whole amount including the £1.90 duty, i.e. there's a tax upon a tax, and therefore the exchequer has just grabbed a further £0.56. 

So of the £10 you handed over at the ASDA checkout for your three bottles, £7.38 has immediately been snaffled by the government.

(* UK Duty rates from 26 March 2012 on still wine of 5.5% to 15% ABV = £253.39 per 100 litres)

The bottle of wine has therefore gone through all the stages described above, plus being distributed to the supermarkets, for only 87p.  In the supply chain everyone, the makers, shippers, distributors and the supermarkets has made a profit from just that 87p. 

Of course, some wines may be carried from afar in huge bulk and then bottled somewhere in the EU, but then even with an EU proportion of much higher labour and fuel costs, they've managed to get those bottles onto the shelves for just 87p....it might even be a loss-leader for ASDA, but I doubt it, since they've been selling 3 for a tenner for several years, and on our occasional forays in there that's usually all we've ever bought.

The government, of course, is much better off than anyone else – it's taken no risk, it's contributed nothing at all to any stage of the production or distribution processes, and yet it's walked off with 74% of the selling price.  To add further insult to yet more injury, it doesn't even need to move an inch to collect this money – it's imposed the entire administrative, accounting and payment obligations on the producers and distributors to place the readies directly in the government's pocket.

However, having had the rant on tax and duty, let's remember our philosophy of only bothering ourselves with what we can actually control.   We can't change the imposition of taxes and VAT, and so if we want to continue drinking wine (and we do....) then we can only try to avoid the taxation, and making your own wine is an effective option in this regard.

Secondly (long after you've forgotten there was a 'Firstly'...), making your own wine is very easy. 

There are many excellent books on the subject and they're all very interesting and informative, but they're generally aimed at winemaking purists and tend to pussyfoot around using real fruit, requiring chopping, pressing, boiling, straining through muslin etc, and generally regarding the whole process as some quaint and mystical arty-crafty pursuit for retired country gentlefolk rather than as a boon for money-conscious serious drinkers.

The books also tend to have recipes for smaller quantities, i.e. 5 litres, but it's easy enough to scale them up – these days, unless we were using our own fruit from the garden, then we'd never even consider making wine in less than 25 litre batches.

In reality, the easiest way is just to buy cartons of pure fruit juice when they're on special offer at the supermarkets.  Recently, LIDL was selling 2 litre cartons of its premium apple juice for £1.39, and it's possible to buy 'value range' apple juice in the discount stores for around 60p per litre at any time.  Apple juice makes seriously good wine, but you can use any fruit juice – wine from orange juice isn't bad (much better than it sounds) and tends to ferment very vigorously so it's good for making wine in a relatively short time.  Be wary of anything advertised as 'juice drinks' rather than juices.  100% fruit juices are necessary, even if they're made from concentrates.

(Incidentally, for red wine, using at least five one-litre bottles of 'Ribena' or similar concentrate is very good, but you must first boil all of the juice for several minutes to kill off the preservatives which would otherwise neutralise the yeast and prevent the start of fermentation.)

Take 22 litres of your chosen fruit juice, 4 kg of sugar, 100 ml of lemon juice, 2 teaspoons of super-enzyme powder, some yeast dissolved in warm water and then basically mix it all together in the container (making sure the sugar's fully dissolved – this can be done by heating some of the juice in a large pan and mixing in the sugar when it's warm), and then top it up with cold water in a sterilised 25 litre container with an airlock.  We usually also add a little very strong tea – two teabags in a quarter of a cup of boiling water and leave to stand for around ten minutes.  This adds tannin which gives a bit more bite to the wine and a taste which lingers longer on the palate.

You can even get away with less than 22 litres of juice in the mix, although experience tells us that as much juice as possible is better for the flavour.  22 or 23 litres is about the limit though, because adding the sugar and other ingredients increases the total volume of the mix.

Some of the other ingredients can also be sourced very cheaply.  Winemaker's yeast in 10g sachets is very pricey at around £1.10 per shot, but bakers' yeast works just as well at a fraction of this price. 

Sterilising powder from winemaking shops is quite expensive at around £4 or more for quite a small plastic container, but baby-bottle sterilising fluid from the supermarket is just as good and again costs a fraction of the price. 

However, buying some super-enzyme from a winemaking shop is a very good idea since adding it upfront really helps the wine to clear on its own during the later stages.

So, shake it up well in the container, fit the airlock and leave it on a corner of the kitchen worktop or anywhere else in a normal household temperature (despite what you might read, extra warm locations such as airing cupboards are not at all necessary), watch to ensure fermentation starts after two or three days (i.e. bubbles passing through the airlock) and then just forget about it for two months.

Then, when you think it's stopped fermenting, 'rack' it, which simply means syphoning off the wine from any settled solids at the bottom into another clean container.   

The amount of settled solids is minimal when using juices to make wine, but it can be a very thick deposit if you've pressed and sieved your own fruit.   Leave it again for another two months, check that it's crystal clear, then syphon it into sterilised bottles, fit some corks and it's ready for drinking almost immediately.

The basic hardware and materials you'll need are listed below :-

- at least 2 x 25 litre containers (one to ferment, one to rack into)
- bungs and airlocks for each container cap
- syphon tubing
- wine bottles (25 litres in the mix makes between 31-33 bottles of wine)
- new corks (relatively expensive, though it's essential to use new corks every time)
- corking device
- cheap plastic funnel
- sterilising fluid
- super-enzyme

25 litre plastic containers can be had new on eBay at a reasonable price, but searching the net wider finds companies selling used ex-food ingredient containers.  In 2009, we bought eight of them for £20 delivered.  We cleaned them out, drilled holes in the caps for bungs and airlocks, and then we were ready to go.  However, if you do use secondhand containers, make certain they've been only ever used for foodstuffs and not to store diesel, ethylene or chemical warfare agents....

75 litres of white in progress

The glass bottles can be had for 'free' – we knew we wanted to start making our own wine and so started saving those empty bottles from wine we'd bought – we've literally hundreds of bottles now.   If you usually get through four or five bottles of bought wine each week, then start off your first batch of homemade wine now and also start to save the empties of the wine you're buying  - you'll have enough in hand by the time the wine's ready to bottle.  Even if they're screwtop type caps, it doesn't matter because the corks simply fit into the smooth inner neck. 

A tip during bottling, sterilise some string along with the bottles, and insert the string into the neck before corking.  After popping in the cork alongside the string, very slowly pull the string out past the side of the cork (it can sometimes be tight !), and this makes a path for any trapped gases (carbon dioxide) to escape.  You can see and hear this as it happens.  Trapped gas in the wine can sometimes push the cork all the way out of the bottle, and if they're lying on their sides it can make quite a mess !  If you're using bottles that originally had screw caps, keep several of the caps to hand so if you see the odd cork being eased out, push it back in with your thumb and use the screwcap to hold the cork in place.

Finally, store the bottles on their sides to keep the corks from drying out.  We've several wooden wine racks of fifty-odd bottles capacity each.  We usually add a simple computer-printed sticky label to each bottle with the fruit type, start date and bottling date.

Additionally, in terms of equipment, you might eventually  want to invest in a hydrometer, a useful instrument with which you measure the specific gravity of the wine at every stage, and which gives you an indication of exactly how much sugar to add at the start and also the final alcoholic strength of the wine.  We have one of these, but it's only used very rarely and is not at all necessary for our 25 litre batches of 'quaffing' wine, which we know from experience will be medium dry-ish and around 12-13% alcohol by volume (ABV) simply by using 4 kg of sugar with the 22 litres of apple juice.

It might also help you in the future if you keep basic records of each batch, i.e. fruit source, amount of sugar, date started, date racked, date bottled, number of bottles from each batch, cost of ingredients etc.

As an example of the costs, our last 25 litre batch cost £18.85 in basic ingredients and should make 31-33 bottles.  The corks cost £5.70 for six dozen (i.e. for 72 – typical of the UK to sell such things in medieval units), making a total cost per bottle including the cork of around 67p.

As a final note on making wine, be wary of these '30 day' wine kits which you might see on the store shelves.  We've bought a few of them in the past but only for the fruit juice concentrate within the kit, and we discarded the rest.  I don't know if anyone has ever managed to make drinkable wine from them in just a month, but I've read the instructions and it seems a balls-aching series of precise tasks to follow; e.g. add a little of this one day, keep it at precisely XX degrees, and then add something else after a day, top it up to this particular level after exactly YY hours etc ....constructing a nuclear reactor would probably be simpler, and I'd sooner just chill out and allow four months or so of relative inactivity before enjoying the finished product...

Thirdly, it's an ideal hobby for those with a low boredom threshold, like myself, who have only occasional fits of enthusiasm.  Less than two hours to prepare the batch initially, nothing at all to do for another two months except keep an eye out to make sure the airlocks still have water in them and that the wine is fermenting, then an hour to rack it to another container, and after another two months of inactivity then two or three hours to sterilise the bottles and syphon the wine into them.

Fourthly, despite what anyone tells you, it doesn't taste at all bad.  Admittedly it can be different from the wine you're used to, but it's undoubtedly wine and you'll soon acquire a taste for it.

Fifthly, in the UK making wine for your own personal consumption is totally legal and tax-free in any quantities you like (but selling it on to anyone else isn't).   We currently have 150 litres in progress, with two 25 litre containers ready for bottling in the very near future, at which time we'll start off another couple of batches when the containers become free.

bottle of red made over a year ago

It's around a four-month process from starting to bottling, so get cracking now and hopefully you'll have some ready for Christmas....and enjoy.


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