So 2017 has departed and most people are trying to stick to whatever New Year’s resolution they’ve set themselves. I’m not great at adhering to strict regimes and, to be honest, I’m a bit boring – I don’t have any truly naughty indulgences or habits anymore. Instead, I prefer to set myself a new challenge, usually a new skill. This year I’m going to try to improve my DIY skills. I’ve even got a drill.
A couple of years ago, I decided that my New Year’s challenge was to have a go at winemaking. It was after Christmas and I realised we’d spent a fortune on bottles of wine as gifts and, being skint and a keen forager, I started to think of a way round this. I’ve come across hundreds of wine recipes in my herbal books but, as I’m now teetotal, it had never occurred to me to try them out. Alcohol makes my fibro symptoms much worse so, for several years, I’ve avoided drinking it. But our friends and family do like a drop, so we planned some tester brews.
Moving to our new home in December 2015, we inherited a hideous tin shed in the back garden. It was larger than our box room and, consequently, it took us until February 2016 to realise it housed 21 demijohns, squeezed in right at the back. They sported labels from the early 90s and were filthy, but we took it as a sign that we should stop procrastinating and get on with making some wine.
Growing up, I had helped my Mum to make wine and my Grandad to brew his nettle beer so I had a vague idea how to go about it. As it was early Spring we plumped for gorse flower as our maiden attempt. Later in the season we made oak leaf with the early vivid green leaves. In the Summer we concocted elderflower and then rhubarb and finally, at the end of Summer months, we tried bramble and apple. We gave most of the resulting bottles away as Christmas presents and asked people to let us know what they thought so we’d know what to make the following year.
The most popular were oak leaf (similar to a Riesling) and gorse which turned out like a Spanish light sherry. However, bramble and apple scored the highest, probably due to its similarity to ordinary red wine. The closest wine I can compare it to is Beaujolais with a fruity after taste but none of the acidity of grape wine.
So, having done our consumer research, we began again in the Spring of 2017 and made two batches of gorse, oak leaf and bramble and apple. We dropped elderflower entirely from our repertoire because it was too floral. The rhubarb was gorgeous but, despite our scrupulous hygiene, three out of four attempts went mouldy before we even got to the demijohn stage
To replace these, we tried two separate plum recipes. There is a wild plum tree nearby and every year I collect a few kilos to make chutney. This year the tree was groaning under the weight of fruit, so I picked a few more than usual and we experimented. I had some ginger root left over from the chutney, so we added that to the plums. The resulting wine was unique, very Christmassy with a real kick of ginger.
For our final wine we made Victoria plum. Our lovely neighbours next door have a Victoria plum tree and, knowing I’m a make do and mend kind of gal, knocked on the door with a ton of fruit. If you’ve ever read any of my articles, you’ll know I hate to waste stuff so having run out of jars there was only one thing to do with my plum glut – make more wine. I expected the resulting liquid to be the gorgeous dark pink that the wild plum wine had become but, in truth, it was closer to pumpkin juice in colour. As I write this the Victoria plum is still percolating under the stairs, so I still don’t know if it’s been a success. But it doesn’t really matter because other than sugar and a few other bits and pieces it was practically free to make.
There is a bit of outlay to begin with for equipment, but you can sometimes source stuff for free. If you ask around, there is bound to be someone with a demijohn in their garage. We were lucky to start off with loads of free ones but we still had to buy other equipment. We were also jammy enough to be given two plastic beer-making tubs with screw tops which we use for the first part of the wine process, so it really was quite cheap.
Make your own wine
• large plastic or earthenware tub (the fermentation vessel)
• wine yeast
• yeast nutrient
• cheesecloth to cover the tub and either elastic bands or string to secure it
• rubber bungs
• campden tablets
• wine syphon
• plastic topped corks
• wine bottles
You will also need white sugar. We’ve found the cheapest option is to buy five-kilo bags. We never buy bottles, instead we ask friends and neighbours to give us any empties. The plastic topped corks don’t fit all bottles, but we usually manage to source enough. All the fruit and foliage we use to make wine is free, but we sometimes have to add ingredients like lemons for pectin or strong black cold tea for tannin. The only guide we used was a very old copy of First Steps in Winemaking by C.J.J. Berry which I picked up for 10p in a charity shop. It’s a bit old fashioned and not always very clear to follow but between that and my memories of home winemaking we managed to work it out.
Most wine recipes are essentially the same – you take a quantity of fruit or flowers etc., put them in your fermentation tub and pour over four and a half litres of boiling water (this will make one demijohn’s worth of wine which usually equals six bottles of wine). Add in the sugar and stir it until it dissolves. Cover the mixture with a cheesecloth and, once it has cooled to 20°C, pour in the yeast and yeast nutrient, cover and leave for at least a week.
This fermenting mixture is called the must, and should be stirred once a day with a sterilised spoon. Once the must has thoroughly begun fermentation it can be sieved through a fresh cheesecloth. The resulting liquid is then transferred with a funnel into demijohns. These are then sealed with a rubber bung and a water-filled airlock to keep out anything that might affect the wine. The active liquid should give off gases which will create air bubbles in the airlock. Our cupboard in the living room houses our boiler so we keep our active demijohns in there. The warmth is perfect for the fermentation process and I can often hear them bubbling and plinking away.
After a couple of months, we usually transfer the embryonic wine into a fresh demijohn leaving any silt at the bottom of the old demijohn. This is called racking off and we tend to repeat this process a couple of times to ensure the wine is as clear as possible. If the wine is still looking cloudy we move it to a cold cupboard in the vestibule which usually does the trick in a few weeks. When the airlocks have stopped bubbling it should be fine to bottle the wine. We find the longer you leave the wine the better it is. I should mention it is important to sterilise everything in the winemaking process either with boiling water or a campden tablet solution.
The first flower of the season is gorse. I’ve shared a gorse wine recipe before, but we’ve improved on it with practice and here is our final version which makes one demijohn of wine.
Gorse Flower Wine
2 to 3 pint glasses full of freshly picked gorse flowers
the zest and juice of 6 lemons
½ pint of cold black tea made with 4 tea bags
½ sachet of wine yeast
1 teaspoon of yeast nutrient
1.5 kilos of sugar
Put the flowers, lemon juice, zest and sugar into your sterilised fermenting vessel. Boil 4.5 litres of water and pour over the contents of the fermenting tub. Stir the mixture gently to ensure that the sugar dissolves. Add the cold black tea and stir again then cover with your cheesecloth. Once the mixture has cooled to 20°C add the wine yeast and nutrient, then secure the cheesecloth cover and place the tub somewhere warm but out of direct sunlight. Leave the ‘must’ to begin the fermentation process for a week, stirring daily with a sterilised spoon. After a week strain the liquid through a cheesecloth and transfer to a demijohn. Seal with a bung and airlock and leave for at least two months. Then rack off and leave for a further few months. Rack off again and move to a cooler cupboard for another few months then bottle. We make this in February but think it is best to drink around December.
This year we will be attempting hawthorn flower wine, a recipe I discovered in a Southport Wine Club pamphlet dated 1974. Once you get into the swing of the winemaking process it’s so easy. It takes minimal effort to produce unique and potent wines. Their purity also minimises the chance of a hangover. What’s not to like?
DISCLAIMER: These are some of my personal experiences combined with information I have researched over a number of years. I am not encouraging people to self-medicate. In the treatment of specific conditions it is best to consult a herbalist or your GP. If you should develop an adverse reaction to any of the plants mentioned above then please stop using them immediately. Always take care when identifying plants.