Country winemaking notes

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[blackberries in a wineglass]

Drink for free

Well, almost! Fruit from the hedgerows costs nothing, and a well-made country wine should be every bit as enjoyable as a "posh" commercial one, with the advantages of low cost (essentially just the sugar and yeast) and a story or two to tell your guests while they sip it!

I've made quite a lot of wine since being introduced to the art by a local farmer when I was 14. My brews haven't all been world-class, but most have been drinkable, and some even memorable! So here are some notes on the process, and a few warnings about the pitfalls to avoid. As usual, this is intended to supplement, rather then replace, the wealth of advice available to beginners. So I'm going to assume you know already, for instance, the importance of thoroughly cleaning and sterilising every container and item of equipment that you use for winemaking. And of minimising contact with the air throughout the process.

Foraging and harvesting

I strongly recommend starting with an appropriate hedgerow fruit. Some flowers, vegetables and cereals can be used to make excellent wines, but these generally require more skill and experience, without which they can easily turn out to be somewhat, er, challenging to the palate.

Blackberry wine is deep red and fragrant, almost burgundy-like, and fairly easy to make using either hot or cold water. Elderberry can be a tad more austere, more the claret style, but every bit as good, especially with food. I recommend using hot water, as elderberries need to be cooked slightly. Plums, damsons and sloes make a pleasant light rosé, but it can be reluctant to clear. Much as I dislike additives, a pectolytic enzyme works wonders with these fruits. I don't make (or drink) very much white wine, but I can recommend apples as a good ingredient, minced and used in a cold-water recipe.

As with jam-making, fruit should be fully ripe but not overripe. If you have the luxury of choosing between different pickings, go for fruit which has plenty of mouth-filling flavour, with some definite sharpness to it. Sweetness is less important - you'll be adding far more sugar than the fruit contains, and it'll all be converted to alcohol anyway - so try to imagine the taste without it. Remember also that some of the acid will combine with alcohol as the wine ages, adding a whole range of complex flavours. So you really need that acid, plus a good deal of patience, to achieve greatness.

Blackberries are usually at their best in late August, when there are still a few red and even green ones on the bush. Don't wait until they're all black, because by then the only flavour left will be a faintly woody one. You'll be able to pick shedloads, but rest assured the wine will be bland.


[Blackberry 2006]

A traditional glass "demijohn" jar holds 8 pints (4.5 litres), which will fill six standard wine bottles. So it's usual to aim for a multiple of this quantity when you make a batch of wine. However, you need to start the fermentation with about 25% more volume, to allow for losses due to fermentation (half the sugar disappears as carbon dioxide gas) and the sediment left behind during the 2 or 3 rackings afterwards.

To make a gallon of dry blackberry wine, you'll need:

Note: About 1½ pt (0.85 l) of the water is used to make the sugar syrup. This amount, plus any that you'll need to activate the yeast, should be subtracted from the total to get the net amount to pour onto the fruit.

The above quantities should give very roughly 13% alcohol, for an average year's crop. Clearly the sugar content of the berries can and does vary a lot, and if you want to do the job more scientifically, refer to the hydrometer notes below. The character of the yeast will affect the flavour of the wine - if you have a choice, I recommend a Burgundy type with blackberries.


[Crushing the berries]

Wash the blackberries if you want to, then put them in a bin or bucket that will hold 2 gallons, and is safe with acidic liquids and boiling water (avoid metals other than stainless steel, and brightly-coloured plastics which could leach chemicals into the wine).

Blackberries, unlike red grapes, have plenty of colour in the juice as well as the skins. So the first thing to do is to release that juice by crushing them. A good way to do this is to press down with one hand inside a thick-based glass measuring jug, but not too hard! Apart from avoiding breakage, you don't want to squash the pips, which would spoil the flavour of the wine.

Heat the water to boiling point, then carefully pour it onto the pulp. Stir well, then cover with a loose-fitting lid (to avoid the bucket collapsing when the steam condenses!).

Leave the mash to cool down overnight, then add the sodium metabisulphite to guard against bacterial growth (the inhibiting agent, sulphur dioxide, won't stay in solution in hot liquid). One-eighth teaspoon per gallon gives a sulphite concentration of about 100ppm. Yeasts vary in their tolerance, but some will be reluctant to ferment if you exceed this amount.

Then cover tightly and leave for 3-4 days, stirring once or twice if you remember.

An alternative method, closer in principle to that for making red grape wine, is to add cold water, sugar and yeast to the crushed berries, and ferment "on the pulp" for a few days, before straining and pressing. This can make a fresher and more fragrant wine, but you need to be much more careful with hygiene without the sterilising effect of boiling water. You should boil and cool the water in any case, and it's convenient to add the sugar to it while doing so.

[Squeezing the pulp]

Preparing the Must

First make the sugar syrup, using a large-ish pan to allow for foaming and expansion - it will occupy nearly 3 pt (1.7 l). Heat 1½ pt (0.85 l) water to boiling point, then keep it simmering as you stir in the sugar a little at a time. Cool to room temperature, either naturally or (faster) by standing the pan in cold water. You should also activate the yeast if necessary; in the old days we used to do this days in advance, but now most yeasts just take a few minutes and some can be sprinkled dry onto the must.

Stretch a fine-mesh straining bag over the rim of a second bin or bucket, then scoop the mash into it with a jug. Lift off the bag and squeeze out the remaining juice with your hands, twisting it round to keep the pulp within. Sterilise the bag before use, and again before putting it back in storage. This is best done by putting it in a small pan full of simmering water for a few minutes.

Add the sugar syrup, then taste the mix - fruit varies enormously, and if it's already noticeably sharp, then you might want to add less acid than I suggest. With most wines, the acid test (literally!) is that you can taste a definite sharpness behind the sweetness of the unfermented must. So, add appropriate lemon juice or citric acid, yeast nutrient if you wish (I'm not convinced it's necessary in fruit wines) and activated yeast, then stir well.


[Initial fermentation in bin]

Dried wine yeasts, like ale yeasts, have changed a lot since the 1970s. I used to conduct the whole fermentation under airlocks in glass jars, but modern yeasts are far too vigorous, some even throwing a thick surface crop that will eventually find its way into any airlock. So nowadays I start the fermentation in the bin, with just a loose-fitting lid on, and leave it there until things have quietened down a bit - usually about 10 days.

Skim off any gross excess of yeast or sludge every couple of days, and if you're fermenting "on the pulp" give it a good stir to keep the solid matter below the surface.

[Later fermentation in jars]

When it looks safe to do so, syphon the must into a suitable set of glass "demijohn" jars with airlocks. A tiny pinch of sodium metabisulphite will guard against mould growth in the airlock water, but don't overdo it, as a sudden fall in temperature near the end of fermentation may cause a few drops to back-syphon into the jar. Top up the airlocks as necessary.

It's well worth acquiring a few smaller jars if you can get them. Old cider flagons often come in useful sizes - the one on the right in this photo holds about 3 pints. Half-gallon jars are extremely useful, if you can find any. Smaller quantities can be fermented in bottles, in which case a wad of cotton wool is usually used instead of an airlock, but it's important not to leave wine like this after fermentation, as air could easily get in and spoil it without the protective CO2 layer.


Wines made from autumn fruits may go on fermenting for 2-3 months, and it's often necessary to keep them in a warm room to ensure completion. Once the airlock bubbles have ceased and the wine tastes dry, you can rack it, i.e. syphon it into new jars, leaving the yeast sediment behind. I usually do this around the end of the year, and fit solid bungs to keep the air out, but always be wary of a slow continued ferment if the weather turns warm. In such cases you may need to re-fit the airlocks for a while.

Blackberry wine is usually crystal clear by the following spring, but if you're not in a hurry to bottle it, then it's worth racking it once more so that it can continue maturing in bulk with no yeast sediment whatsoever. Always keep the containers full (with just an inch or so of air space for expansion). This can be difficult if you don't have a variety of smaller jars/bottles; usually you end up with a small amount of wine left over after racking (drink it!) but once or twice I've had to add to the bulk. Rather than use plain boiled water, a mixture of 2 parts water and 1 part cheap (37.5%) vodka will keep the alcohol level steady. A further small addition of sulphite is a wise precaution if you rack more than once.


[Leak test in progress]

Corks are the traditional closure for wine bottles, but I've found it very difficult to source good quality ones in recent years, and I'm now building up a stock of screw-top bottles with a view to abandoning corks altogether. Whatever type of bottle you use, it's worth finding a commercial wine that you enjoy, that's supplied in punted bottles (with a dome inside the base which traps any sediment neatly around the edge) from which the label(s) can be soaked off easily. I'm pleased to say I've never had to resort to buying bottles from a home brew shop!

Immediately before bottling, transfer some strong metabisulphite solution to each bottle in turn, followed by a quick rinse with cold, previously-boiled water. Allow the rinsed bottles to stand for a few minutes before tipping out any remaining water. Then syphon the wine into the bottles, filling them to within an inch of the screw cap, or the anticipated base of the cork.

[Filled bottles]

To put corks in, you really need a machine of some kind - I use one which compresses the cork in a two-part metal clamp, while a lever-operated piston pushes it into the bottle. Although I'm told a professional machine will deal with dry corks, I've always soaked mine for a few minutes in hot (not boiling) water to make the process smoother. Leave the corked bottles upright for a while to allow any compressed air to escape, then lay them down and keep a careful eye open for seepage. Any that do leak will usually be OK if stood upright for a few more hours so that the cork expands fully. When you're happy they're all continent, shrink-wrap capsules over the tops give a nice finish. Given great care, you can use the stream of hot air directly above a gas burner to shrink them, instead of the kettle steam that's usually recommended.

After bottling, allow a few months for the wine to stabilise before sampling. It's absolutely vital to store corked bottles on their sides to keep the corks expanded, a fact which supermarkets and off-licences ought to learn! Screw-top bottles, on the other hand, should be kept upright - if you're in any doubt whatever about ongoing fermentation, just loosen the top of one bottle slightly and briefly, listening for any "fizz".

The final job, and in many ways the most enjoyable, is to design and print some labels. I find a glue stick ideal for attaching them, as they soak off very easily when you need to re-use the bottles. Trimming the corners, as in this photo, not only looks nice but also helps to avoid them getting damaged through handling.


Hydrometer Notes

Not to be confused with an hygrometer (which measures humidity), an hydrometer measures the density of a liquid. It's just a sealed glass tube with a weighted bulb at one end; when you float it in a liquid such as wine must, the thin end sticks up above the surface, by an amount that depends primarily on the amount of dissolved sugar. There's a scale marked on the tube, from which you can read a decimal number called the Specific Gravity (S.G.) at the point where it meets the liquid surface. Pure water has an S.G. of 1.000 (check this from time to time, to make sure your hydrometer is accurate). A typical wine must, with enough sugar in it to produce 13-14% alcohol, will measure around 1.100

Why is this device useful? Firstly, you can measure how much sugar has been extracted from the fruit, and thus work out how much you need to add to get a given alcohol content in the wine. Secondly, when the fermentation has stopped, you can check that all the sugar has been converted, by looking for a low S.G. (typically slightly less than 1, e.g. 0.995, because alcohol is lighter than water). If you measure 1.000 or more, you'll probably want to leave the wine under airlocks for a bit longer, unless you're aiming to make a sparkling wine or a series of explosions!

Hydrometers are usually supplied with a set of tables relating S.G. to amounts of sugar added to, or already dissolved in (note the distinction), each unit volume of water. If you can cope with a bit of maths, you might find these guidelines useful (based on imperial units):

The mass of sugar in V pints of solution with S.G. G is about 52V(G-1) ounces.
The volume of M ounces of dissolved sugar is about (M/34) pints.

Armed with an hydrometer, I usually mash the fruit with a little less water, and add a little less sugar, than I've stated in the recipe. Then I measure the S.G. and assess the volume before starting the fermentation, adding more sugar syrup when I've calculated how much is needed. I used to do this calculation with all sorts of tables, but now use the following formulae, derived from the above:

To get V2 pints at S.G. G2
from V1 pints at S.G. G1
add 52(V2(G2-1)-V1(G1-1)) ounces of sugar (=M)
dissolved in V2-V1-(M/34) pints of water.

Be aware that hydrometers are very temperature-sensitive, and only show the correct S.G in "cold" liquids (they're usually calibrated at 15°C). Always lower the instrument gently into the liquid - if you drop it in, then it's liable to fall onto the base of the container and break. And, especially when measuring a fermenting wine, spin the tube to release any bubbles clinging to it, which might make it float too high.

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