Originally written for ‘Growing Today’

I’m not a professional winemaker, or even a very knowledgeable one when it comes to technical things like hydrometers and calculating alcohol levels.I’m simply frugal by nature and enjoy a tipple.According to my little notebook I started my first batch of Dandelion Flower wine in 1992. Unfortunately I didn’t get round to recording just when we imbibed it, but I know it was a great success.The Garden Group who visited that day still talk about it.

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I might not give winemaking a thought for months on end and then suddenly there’s a glut of something (yes, we did have a glut of dandelion flowers) and out come the recipe books again.

I started out with great trepidation, overawed by all the strict instructions and descriptions of what could go wrong.I have found basically three rules to follow: sterilise everything you use, don’t throw any wine out in a hurry and don’t drink it in a hurry, have stood me in good stead.

I have a large box in the store room in which I keep the tools of the trade – sodium metabisulphite powder and campden tablets, pectolase (an enzyme which breaks down pectin), yeast nutrient, a selection of air locks and bungs (all these are available from a wine-making shop). I also have a honey straining lid – which is a nylon mesh cap which fits over the top of a bucket, 2m of clear hose, about the thickness of a pencil, some recycled plastic champagne corks, a plastic jug and funnel, large wooden spoon, selection of measuring spoons, bottle brush, large packet of sultanas, a bag of sugar, 2 or 3 large white polypails at the ready, and tucked in the fridge some packets of yeast (not bread yeast) “white wine and champagne” and “red” types.These are also available at your nearest wine making shop and are not very expensive.

Geoff and I visited the local glass recycling depot and picked up about a dozen sherry flagons with lids.These are our “fermentation vessels” and we save wine bottles or get friends to save them for us for the final bottling.

When you first start the wine off, it needs a warm spot, we put our bottles on a high shelf in the living room and pray we won’t have an earthquake.I am still fascinated watching the process in action as the gases blip through the airlock. If two or three are on the go at once they make intriguing melodies.When the temperature is warm and steady the wine stops working in a short time, a few weeks perhaps. In the Autumn and Winter you may find it takes some months – the wine blipping getting underway in the evenings when you light the fire.

“What have you been up to today?”

“Oh, I’ve been racking off”

Sounds a bit dubious and definitely not for those of a delicate disposition.Years ago I saw a wonderful movie of Laurel & Hardy bottling wine, the skinny one (I can never remember who is who) was siphoning wine into bottles, and whenever the bottle was full the siphon hose kept running, in the end he put it in his mouth. Needless to say things got out of hand very quickly.

Whenever Geoff and I settle down for a session of racking off – the image of Laurel and Hardy springs to mind. Since we usually rack off a few wines at one go (and of course tasting is compulsory) we usually end up quite chirpy. I did read somewhere that the wine maker should taste the wine at every stage of the process and I have found this an interesting exercise in becoming familiar with the wine process. “Racking off” is not so much the bottling procedure as drawing the clearing wine off of the sediment and requires some nifty co-ordination, not only of mouth, plastic hose and bottle top, but also steering the other end of the hose so that you don’t accidentally suck up all the dregs – one moment of distraction is all it takes.

Once the fermentation process is complete, and the wine is sitting in its new clean bottle, happily racked off, it can be put in a cool, dark position and left alone.If more sediment appears you can rack it off again as required. When the wine is clear, or as clear as its going to get, it can be bottled into sterile wine bottles. I boil the recycled champagne corks for a minute or two then pop them in the tops.I know for serious winemakers this is a sin and only corks should be used.The plastic corks are handy if you want to give a friend a little taste, as you can pop the top back in.

Don’t be discouraged if your juvenile wine smells odd and tastes worse, in time it will improve.There are terrifying descriptions, of slime, oily scums and vinegars blighting your work, but I have had no problems in six years using a pretty basic but systematic cleansing routine.

Before you start making anything, gather together the equipment you need, I usually put 2 or 3 teaspoons of sodium metabisulphite into 2 or 3 litres of very hot water.I can’t find a book telling me do this, but it does seem to work, beware – the fumes are nasty so don’t breath them in.The alternative method is to use 4 campden tablets, crushed, and one teaspoon of citric acid in ½ litre of hot water for final rinsing.I make my solution in the polypail I’m intending to start the wine in, anything else I may need, jug, spoons, jar for wine starter etc I put in the bucket.Slosh it all around so that the sides and lid are covered too.When I’m ready to use the bucket, I tip the solution into the 3 flagons (for a gallon mix) and put the lids on.Rinse the bucket, spoons etc in hot water and only put them on a clean surface – like the inside of the bucket lid, rinsed of course.

Step by Step:

1.Extracting Juice & Flavour:

There are four basic methods of doing this –

a)Pressing: As in grape wines.

b)Cold infusion: Leaving the fruit in cold water for a few days to soften and yield more flavour.

c)Pulp fermentation: Fruit is pulped, covered with boiling water and left to cool.Yeast starter is added and breaks down the natural sugars in the fruit, also extracting colours and flavours.

d)Boiling:Used mainly for vegetables.If used with fruit, pectolase is used later to break down pectin and help clear the wine.

2.Yeast Starter

It can be frustrating to get to the point where you’re ready to put your brew into fermentation vessels, only to find that you should have started the yeast starter.

In a sterile jar I put about a cup of juice from the bucket or 1 cup boiled, cooled water, 1 tsp sugar and 1 tsp of yeast.Cover the top with paper and an elastic band.Leave 24 hours to go forth and multiply.

So don’t forget to make this in advance of needing it.

3.Pressing the Pulp

This is where the honey sieve comes in useful.A fine piece of net curtain will do the trick.Don’t make it too small, you’ll need to gather up the corners to squeeze out the juice from the pulp.

4.The “Must” is Wine in the Making

The brew is adjusted by the addition of some, or all, of the following –

  • acid – citric or citrus fruit juice
  • tannin (tea)
  • yeast nutrient
  • sugar
  • pectolase

This adjustment creates a perfect environment for the yeast to get multiplying.

After mixing everything thoroughly, so that the sugar is well dissolved, the mixture is put into the fermentation vessels.Remember the sherry flagons?Tip out the sodium metabisulphate or campden brew and rinse with hot water.Put a sterile bung and air lock in the top of each flagon and fill each air lock about half full with campden solution.

5.Secondary Fermentation

This is the fun bit, when the yeast goes crazy and converts the sugar half and half into alcohol and carbon dioxide (in the blips through the air lock).

If you’ve followed your recipe carefully the yeast will be in top form, with all it’s needs lovingly met by you.Warmth, sugar, acid, environment, nutrients, tannin for astringency and an air lock to exclude air and possible bugs such as vinegar flies.

If your brew gets really carried away, put a cottonwool stopper in the top instead of an air lock until things settle down.I remember once a brew of plum wine decided to escape overnight.In the morning there was this trail of purple foam up and out of the airlocks and along the top of the shelf.

Racking Off: As mentioned before, you do this when the fermentation process has stopped, absolutely.It’s not too urgent, you may want to wait a while to be sure, or you may simply forget all about it for some time.The wine is siphoned off the lees, or the sediment at the bottom.Remember science classes?You need to put the full bottle up so that it’s bottom is higher than the empty bottle’s top.I balance one bottle on the kitchen window sill and the other in the sink.Put your hose in the top bottle, making sure the end isn’t in the lees and suck gently.After a mouthful or two of wine put the hose into the empty bottle and fill it up.Don’t forget to clean everything before use, the bottles, hose, funnel etc.

Storage: The wine can be stored now in a cool, dark place, with a sterile screw lid on it.Time will help to clear the wine and maybe another racking or two if necessary.Once clear, it can be put into sterile wine bottles and corked – don’t forget to label it and put a date on.

Recipes:

Whenever I make a new wine I have a little card that ties on the bucket and then the flagon, with the days/dates I need to remember to attend to it.I file these now instead of keeping a notebook.

AGRIMONY WINE:

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This is an unusual wine, definitely medicinal.We try to make at least half a gallon in the Autumn to see us through winter colds and flu.

A good bunch of Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) – flowering tops if possible

4 pints (2.3 litres) of water

3-1/2 lb (1.75kg) brown sugar

2 lemons (smallish)

3 oranges

2oz (50gm) of green, root ginger

wine yeast

Crush ginger, put with Agrimony and boil in water until a good colour.Pour liquid onto sugar, sliced lemons and oranges.Allow to stand 2 or 3 days.Add yeast starter.Strain and put into fermentation vessels to work.Ready to use after 6 months.

You will find it has a definite medicinal flavour and taken last thing at night often wards off sore throats and colds.It does improve in flavour with time.

CRABAPPLE AND DATE WINE:

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This has to be one of best wines we’ve made.It looks beautiful steeping in the bucket, the essence of Autumn all warm browns and reds.It tasted very unpromising after a year, but after two it was divine, amber coloured, quite dry and full bodied.Unfortunately, we’ve just polished off the last bottle and now will have to wait at least two years for another batch to mature.

5 lbs (2.25kg) of crab apples

2 lb (900 gms) dates

2-1/2 lb (1.15kg) sugar (

1 gallon (4.6 litres) of boiling water

juice of 4 lemons or 1 tsp citric acid

½ pint(225ml)strong, cold, black tea

yeast – I’ve used “white wine yeast”

yeast nutrient 1 tsp

pectolase 1 tsp

The day before make up yeast starter using water, yeast and sugar.Then wash the crabapples, remove stalks and any rotten bits.Crush them up (See cider recipe for our method of crushing apples).

Put the crabapples into your polypail, add chopped dates and sugar.Pour on boiling water, stir well and leave to cool until lukewarm.

*It is important that you add the yeast to water no warmer than blood heat or you will kill it.

When cool add lemon juice, tea, yeast, yeast nutrient and pectolase.Put the lid on carefully to keep any fruit flies out.Keep in a warm place for 5 days, stirring every day.

Strain well and put the liquid into fermentation vessels with airlocks.Rack as wine clears and bottle when clear and fermentation is complete.Keep for at least nine months, then try it and see what you think.

If you’re not sure leave it longer.

Serve chilled.

DANDELION FLOWER WINE:

I’m not a 100% sure that there will be dandelions flowering at the time this goes to print.There certainly are plenty here now at the end of February and they are beckoning me to pick them.If you can’t find enough now, you’ll just have to save this recipe for the Spring.

This wine is a dry, dry white, great to have with a meal and I am convinced it is good for your liver at the same time – what could be better?

You will need to pick 4 pints of flowerheads for a gallon of wine – that’s a lot of flowers.Pick them with no stalk and put into a basket or paper bag.Then trot home as fast as you can.By the way don’t cram the flowers into your jug too brutally, just shake them down.

To business, you will need:

4 pints (2.3 litres) dandelion flowers

7 pints (4 litres) hot water

18oz (500 gm) chopped sultanas

3 tsp citric acid

1-1/2 lb (675 gm) white sugar

Sauterne wine yeast and nutrient

1 fl oz (25ml) glycerine (optional)

wine finings – I used beer finings from the supermarket and they were fine (no pun intended)

2 campden tablets

Don’t forget to get your yeast starter started.

Put the flowers into your bucket, pour the hot water over them, add citric acid and leave to cool.Over the next 24 hours repeatedly squash the flowers against the side of the bucket with a wooden spoon.I leave the spoon in the bucket over this time.Keep a lid on it.It smells weird, don’t panic!

After 24 hours strain and squeeze the juice out of the flowers.To the flower water in the bucket add chopped sultanas, nutrient and activated yeast.Cover with the lid and leave 5 days, stirring each day.Then strain the “must”, I just put that in to check that you’ve been paying attention.Stir the sugar into the must well.Put into fermentation vessels with airlocks.

When fermentation has finished add the finings and 2 crushed campden tablets.Re-fit airlock and put jars in the coolest place you can find, until wine is clear and bright – about 1 week.

Rack into a clean jar, you can add glycerine now if you want.Store in a cool, dark place for five to six months then bottle.Keep a little longer before drinking.I found the wine mellowed between 12 months and 2 years.

Serve chilled.

ELDERBERRY & APPLE WINE:

Every home should have an Elder tree, they have so many uses, easily enough to fill a whole article.Apart from numerous medicinal and cosmetic uses, both the flowers and berries are edible and make wonderful drinks as well.

We have 3 large trees here, but are hard pressed to get a huge crops of berries – the birds swoop on them as soon as they are ripe.Next year I shall devise some method of keeping the feathered marauders off.

I pick the berries as they ripen and either freeze them or dry them.They can be used like currants and make delicious pies with apples.With this recipe I had only 1 lb of berries so I made up the weight with apples.It is a surprisingly strong red colour.

3 lbs Elderberries – weighed on the stems}

4 lbs Apples} 3.2 kg total

1 gallon water (4.6 l)

juice of 4 lemons

red wine yeast

yeast nutrient 1 tsp

pectolase 1 tsp

3 lbs sugar (1.35kg)

Start yeast starter a day before starting wine.

Remove berries from stems, using a fork.Put into a pail and crush.Wash, chop and pulp apples, put into pan with the water, bring to boil and boil for 15 mins.Strain liquid onto the Elderberries.Cool to lukewarm, add yeast starter, nutrient and pectolase.

Put the lid on and leave the bucket in a warm place to ferment for 4 or 5 days.Stir every day.

Make a syrup using sugar and 1 pint (575ml) boiling water.When cool, pour the strained liquid onto the syrup.Put into fermentation vessels.Rack and bottle when ready.

Leave at least one year, preferably three, before drinking – mine’s a year old now and is still a bit rough, but nicely dry.I must admit I’m overdue racking it off – this weekend perhaps!

BLACKBERRY WINE:

Our brew of this, which we put down in March 1995 is like a rich port with a distinctive blackberry fragrance and after taste (I just popped into the Storeroom to try it!)

3 lbs (1.35kg) blackberries

8 oz (225gm) raisins

4 lbs (1.8kg) sugar

1 gallon (4.6l) water

Bordeaux yeast

yeast nutrient 1 tsp

pectolase 1 tsp

Make yeast starter the day before.

Wash the blackberries, removing any over-ripe ones.Put into your trusty bucket and squash well, hands do this job well.Add raisins and sugar.Pour boiling water over this mixture, it smells delicious.Leave to cool then add the yeast starter, nutrient and pectolase.Leave for 5 days, stirring once or twice a day.Strain, squeezing all the juice out of the blackberries.Put into fermentation vessels with airlocks.Rack when necessary – after fermentation is finished, bottle when clear.Drink when you think it tastes good, after at least six months.

CIDER:

Well this is technically an apple wine since water is added to the fruit pulp.I grew up in Devon, UK, and mis-spent my late teens in acquaintance with scrumpy cider, cheap and potent.

This recipe comes from an old farmhouse recipe book from England and I reckon the cider tastes pretty much like the real thing.It is a refreshing drink, but it can hit your central nervous system without warning on the second or third glass.Fortunately, I have never known anyone feel the worse for wear the next day.

Gather together as many apples as you can, preferably with a range of flavours, hard tangy apples are a good addition.We clean outa large plastic dustbin (kept only for this purpose, I hasten to add) wash out with metabisulphite or campden solution and rinse with boiling water.Also clean a flat piece of untreated wood, to use as a paddle for stirring the mix.

We have evolved our own system for processing apples – best done outside.Scrub your sledge hammer clean, then wrap in 3 or 4 clean plastic bags.We have an old preserving pot, the cut up apples are put in here a few at a time.Put on some lively music, reggae is good and get that sledgehammer going.(Actually the sledge hammer has been superceded by a fencing rammer) It’s a surprisingly efficient system, especially if you can round up a few helpers.As the apples are crushed put them into the dustbin, or buckets and cover with water – rain-water if possible.

When the bin is filled within, say, 15cm of the top, stir it well and cover tightly with a square of net curtain and then the lid of the bin.Each day for 10 days, stir with the wooden paddle and push the pulp down well.This drink relies on natural, wild yeasts found in the apples.We have been making it each Autumn for 10 years or so and the only time it failed, I discovered Geoff had experimented by adding feijoas to it – yeuch!

When the pulp has nearly stopped bubbling, 10 days or so, strain the mixture.We use a sterile pillowcase for this and twist the top tightly with a stick to get as much liquid out as possible.The pigs get the apples pulp – in small doses.Measure the liquid and for each gallon (4.6 litres) add 1-3/8 lbs sugar.Stir thoroughly.There are 2 systems from here – one is to drill a small hole in the lid of the bin and fit an air lock and leave for a week or two and then bottle.Or put this liquid straight into plastic fizzy drink bottles and put a wad of cotton wool into the top of each one, to keep the bugs out.When the fermentation is nearly finished, after about a week, remove cottonwool and put screw tops on, or if you’ve had the cider in a bulk container, now is the time to bottle it.Sometimes you will need to defuse the bottles from time to time – the drink can be very fizzy – and maybe rack off once.

In 2 or 3 months time this drink is ready to try.It is best drunk within the year.

METHEGLIN:

Thought to be derived from the Welsh meodyglyn – a medical drink.It is fermented honey with either herbs or spices added.Geoff made a batch some years ago, using the cappings from our hives.He put in a selection of herbs and spices.When it was ready to drink a strange thing happened, I thought it was bitter, Geoff thought I was mad.So one by one we tried it on our friends and the men unanimously liked it, and the women found it bitter.We think it was too much Angelica.

4 lbs (1.8 kg) Brown honey

1 large lemon

70 oz (200gms) demerara sugar

¾ oz (20gms) citric, tartaric acid or malic acid or a mix of the three

6 pints (3.5 litres) warm water

Maury yeast

1 gm potassium sorbate

1 campden tablet

½ teaspoon each ground ginger, mace, cinnamon and cloves

OR

A bunch of herbs including some, or all, of the following:mint, rosemary, sorrel, lemon balm, yarrow burnet, thyme, marjoram, Elderflowers, Angelica borage

Make yeast starter the day before needed.

Dissolve honey in warm water, thinly peel lemon rind and add to honey solution along with the acid and spices or herbs.You can use some of each if you like but be careful not to overpower the flavours.

When the above solution is cool, add strained lemon juice, yeast starter and nutrient.Pour into fermentation vessels (or a bucket and lid with air lock), add air locks.Leave in a warm place to ferment for 7 days.Remove lemon peelings and herbs and stir in sugar – simplest to tip the whole lot into a bucket again.Put back into fermentation vessels with air locks.

Now our directions said to ferment down to a specific gravity of 1.020 but Geoff tells me he ignored this.If you do this, add the crushed campden tablet and potassium sorbate to terminate fermentation.

Our metheglin fermented itself out and then we added a little more honey to sweeten it to taste.Rack when necessary to clear.Store for at least one year and serve cool, not chilled, or warmed, with mince pies – sounds good to me.

I don’t want you to think that I am only interested in alcohol.We have a couple of cordial recipes that we make every year or two.

BLACKBERRY CORDIAL

This is a great hot drink for winter evenings, especially if you have a bit of a cold or sore throat.The original recipe uses white wine vinegar, but we prefer cider vinegar.

Pour 1 pint (600ml) of vinegar over 2 pints (1200ml) of ripe blackberries in n earthenware or glass container.Leave standing in a warm place for a week.Stir each day and crush the berries against the sides of the container.Strain off the liquid at the end of this time and add 1lb (450gm) sugar and ½ lb (225gm) of honey.Bring to the boil, then cool and bottle.Store in a dark place.Use 1 tblsp of cordial in a cup of hot water.

ROSE HIP SYRUP

I haven’t made this since I was a young mother, in Devon, over 20 years ago – of course I was brought up on a daily dose of it.This recipe is probably the very syrup that was available in England in the 1950’s, as it was given by the Ministry of Food during WWII.

Gather 2 lbs (900gms) rosehips, set up your kitchen in such a way that you can coarsely mince the hips and pop them straight into 3 pints (1-75 litres) of boiling water.Bring the water to the boil again.Pour the rosehip solution into a jelly bag, catching the first cupful of liquid and returning it to the bag.This precaution is to avoid ingesting any of the irritant hairs that surround the seeds.

Rose Hips

Put juice into a clean saucepan and boil to reduce to about 1-1/2 pints (750ml) then add 1-1/2 lbs (565gms) of sugar and boil for 5 minutes.

Pour into hot sterilised bottles and seal at once.

Store in a dark place.Use small bottles as the syrup doesn’t keep long once opened.Possibly it will keep longer these days with more efficient refrigeration.The syrup can be taken straight, or in water, or used as a topping for puddings, desserts and ice creams or added to milk as a drink.Commercial syrups aimed to contain 70mg of Vitamin C per 28 ml syrup.During the war a school group cooked up a batch of syrup, ignoring some of the instructions for preserving Vitamin C and their syrup was tested and found to contain 65mg of Vitamin C per 28ml.Just a guideline in case you wonder how much Vitamin C you are producing.

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