“You can make wine out of anything but a rock!” So says Appalachian winemaker John Bulgin in The Foxfire Book of Wine Making, and my experience says he’s right. Being the frugal person I am, I’ve never been fond of paying beaucoup bucks for beverages. So when I’ve wanted wine, I’ve made it.*
In spring, I’ve raced my neighbors’ lawnmowers to behead dandelions for a flowery white wine. In early summer, I’ve stripped leaves from pruned grape vines for a beverage that rivals a good Riesling. In mid-and late summer, I’ve picked elderflowers and then elderberries for white and red wines, respectively. Even winter is a good time of year to make wine; though it sounds peculiar, potatoes combined with a touch of parsnip and a generous dose of ginger create a sweet dessert wine that will keep friends guessing at the secret ingredient. Loose tea, dried herbs, frozen or dried fruit, and even coffee can also be used year-round to make good wines.
Oddly enough, I’ve never made grape wine. I guess I’d rather eat the fruit straight and not ferment it.
Making wine is simple once you understand some basic principles. Sugar, yeast and water are the main actors in turning plants to wine. Yeasts consume sugar and water to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. Herbs provide micronutrients to the yeasts and give the wine its flavor.
The more sugar yeasts consume, the more alcohol they produce, until finally they produce so much alcohol – around 14 to 18 percent in volume – they can no longer survive. Any remaining sugar contributes to the wine’s sweetness. Three pounds of sugar to the gallon of water make a very sweet wine; two pounds produce a dry wine.
The best wines use specialty yeast strains cultivated over centuries by vintners and available at homebrewing shops (and even on Amazon). Some folks rely on wild yeasts naturally present in the air, but this is a risky approach, since exposing wine to air usually attracts spoilage microbes (especially vinegar-producing Acetobacter) in much greater proportions than alcohol-producing yeasts.
To prevent contamination by wild microbes, simmer or steep the herb in boiling water and sterilize any equipment with which the cooled brew comes into contact. There are specialty sanitizers available, but if you’re just trying winemaking on for size, keep it simple:
- Soak equipment in a solution of 2 tablespoons unscented chlorine bleach in a gallon of water for 10 minutes. Rinse with clean, hot tap water and use immediately.
- Alternatively, sterilize non-plastic equipment by boiling for 10 minutes.
The recipe for Basic Herbal Wine outlines the procedure for making herbal wines with standard kitchen equipment. You will need:
- A large, nonporous container (glass, ceramic, stainless steel or enameled metal)
- A plate or lid
- A sieve, cheesecloth or white T-shirt
- A large enameled or stainless steel pot
- A small drinking glass or jar, sterilized
- A sterilized glass, ceramic or food-grade plastic crock or carboy
- plastic wrap and rubber bands OR a tight-fitting lid and airlock (an inexpensive piece of equipment that allows gasses to escape the container but not enter it)
- Bottles with screw-on caps, jars with screw-on lids OR bottles and new corks, sterilized
- Sterile siphon or funnel
If you get hooked on homebrewing, the books in the resource list will give you guidance on more advanced winemaking techniques and tools.
Basic Herbal Wine
- 3-4 ounces dried herbs (such as tea, mint, chamomile, thyme or lemon balm) OR 3-4 quarts fresh, mild culinary herbs (such as basil, hyssop, or sage)
- 2 gallons water
- 4 pounds white sugar
- 1 packet wine yeast
- Place herbs in a nonporous, nonreactive container (such as an enamel or stainless steel pot). Pour in boiling water and cover with lid or plate. Steep until cool.
- Strain mixture through a sieve or cloth, squeezing out excess liquid.
- Bring strained infusion to a boil in an enameled or stainless steel pot, remove from heat, and stir in the sugar.
- Cool to lukewarm. Remove a bit of infusion into a glass, stir in the yeast and let sit 10 minutes or so, until yeast is dissolved and begins to work.
- Pour this into a sanitized crock, glass jug or carboy with the rest of the infusion. Cover with several layers of plastic wrap, secured with rubberbands, or a tight-fitting lid with an airlock. These keep vinegar bacteria and other microbes from getting into your brew.
- Let sit for one month or more, until vigorous bubbling stops and a thick layer of yeast covers the bottom of the vessel.
- Use a sterilized siphon or funnel to transfer into sterilized jugs or jars; compost the dregs.
- Cork jugs loosely or cover with secured plastic wrap and store in a cool, dark place. These methods of capping allow gases that continue forming to escape. If you cap too tightly, gas pressure could build inside the bottle and eventually cause it to explode – a dangerous mess.
- Occasionally, a cork might pop off. If so, replace the cork with a clean one and mark the bottle for drinking sooner rather than later, or bring the wine to the kitchen for cooking use.
- As the jugs sit, sediment continues to settle. After 1-2 months, tap the side of the container to see if any bubbles rise to the top. If so, try again in a few more weeks. If not, you’re ready to pour off the clear wine into sterilized bottles and cap or cork tightly. Store in a cool, dark place for five to nine months before serving. You can sneak a taste before that if you like, but it will probably taste like hooch.
That was a very long post, so I’ll stop for now. I’ll post some more specific recipes here in the future – perhaps I should have a regular “fermentation Friday”?
*And had something delicious to drink several months later!
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