Country Wines intro

Country Wines

In an earlier age, many country homes had a specialty wine, stored in bottles in the cellar, brought up and opened for special visitors.  But it wasn’t made from grapes.

Canadians have become complacent about wine.  We buy it in the liquor store (at a government-supporting 130% mark-up over cost) when we can just as easily make it ourselves for almost nothing.

We’re also conditioned to think of drinkable wines as being made only from grapes.  But grapes are over-rated.  Why did grapes become the fruit of choice for making wine?  Because grapes contain more sugar than almost any other fruit, and more sugar produces more alcohol.  From grapes, one can make a drink with a self-preserving 10-14% alcohol content and with perfect acid content.  Alcohol, like sugar or salt or vinegar in sufficient concentration, prevents spoilage, which before refrigeration was a crucial consideration.  Other fruit (apples, pomegranates, plums, wild berries) contain less natural sugar and usually less acid, so their fermented juice spoils more easily, i.e., turns into vinegar.

One problem: grapes need a lot of sunshine and water to produce sugar.  We Maritimers are well aware of the climactic obstacles to growing wine grapes.  Although recent genetic experiments have produced varieties that can survive in cooler and gloomier climates, without sufficient sunshine their juice simply is not as good for wine-making as those grown in the Republic of Georgia (Caucasia being the most likely original home thousands of years ago of both the grape and wine) or France or California.

But why stick with grapes for wine-making?  Although other fruit are less sweet and need to have their sugar content boosted, white sugar is widely available and works well.  (Honey works, but overwhelms the fruit flavour and produces “mead” or “metheglin”.)  And the variety of taste among fruit is vast, far wider than among varieties of grapes.  Wine connoisseurs recommend a wine because it has “hints” of pears or apricots or orange blossoms.  Why not, then, make a wine directly from those fruits or flowers?

Country folk in England discovered that sugar imported from the colonies opened up all sorts of wine-making possibilities. Country people in New England and the Canadian Maritimes tried out the old English recipes, and they worked. (Remember Anne of Green Gables, inadvertently getting tipsy from drinking blackberry wine that she thought was only fruit syrup?)

I was introduced to home-made wine as a youngster visiting English cousins in the 1960s. Every spring, cousin Mark and his family went out picking elderflowers that grew wild in great profusion along the river Cam, from which he made a delicious, golden, delicately-flavoured, perfumed wine.  I had no idea one could make wine oneself, dry or sweet according to taste, as good as any boughten variety.  He presented me with a copy of his recipe book, Home Made Wines, Syrups, and Cordials{footnote}published in 1954 by England’s NFWI [National Federation of Women’s Institutes]{/footnote}.

Since then we’ve collected hundreds of other wine recipes from which we’ve made wine at home from fruit that we’ve picked in season: blueberries, elderberries, plums, apples, red currants, cherries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, high-bush cranberries; from flowers: dandelions, elderflowers, golden rod; from vegetables: rhubarb, parsnips, ginger.   I haven’t come near to exhausting my recipes.  I have yet to make fruit wines from: rosehips, loganberries, hawthornberries; flower wines from: purple clover, meadowsweet, marigolds; vegetable wines from: pea-pods, potatoes, lettuce (Arugula wine, anyone?); cereal wines from: rice, wheat, corn; tree wines from: birch sap, oak leaves, willow bark (the source of ASA — aspirin with your wine!).

An embarrassment of riches. Our favourite and specialty is blueberry wine, which we’ve been making from our own blueberries ever since we moved to our farm outside Fredericton two decades ago.  Visitors are astonished at its colour and clarity, its perfumed bouquet, its delicacy and balance of flavours.  We even won a gold medal in 2007 when we submitted a sample bottle in the amateur category to the Indy International Wine Competition (www.indyinternational.org).

Most people who haven’t tried making wine at home are hesitant to try.  The “how-to” books make it sound dreadfully complicated.  Wine made from “wine kits” are often undrinkable, and little wonder: inexpensive wine kits consist of leftover, concentrated, treated grape juice.  On the other hand, natural fruit has no additives, and making wine from it is as simple as making a loaf of bread.  Mostly, the wine makes itself.  The tiny yeast plants like to be left alone, at room temperature, to feed on the sugar molecules, from which they produce alcohol and carbon dioxide.  All they need is to be free of oxygen during the process (so they don’t produce vinegar), but that turns out to be easy.

There are three basic steps to making wine at home from fruit, flowers or vegetables:

1. Extract the juice and sweeten it

2. Ferment the sweetened juice (the “must”) with yeast

3. Rack the wine (siphon it off the sediment, the “lees”)

So long as the equipment (pails, plastic tubing, glass jars, bottles) are clean and oxygen is kept away from the fermenting “must”, it is almost impossible to go wrong.

See Specific Recipes