It’s the season of anticipation if you’re a home winemaker, like me. The chokecherries are hanging ripe and heavy this year. The crab apples are abundant and beginning to show their pinkish blush. The wild plums look plentiful, too, although it’ll probably still be a month or so before they’re ripe for the plucking. All-in-all it looks like I’ll be busy in my makeshift winery this fall, crafting the varieties that will keep us in very enjoyable wine right through the coming year.
I’ve always liked the concept of self-sufficiency, which we’ve tried to achieve in multiple ways around our house. We grow a big garden and maintain a season-extending greenhouse. Jodi cans tons of the produce, which keeps us in homegrown veggies throughout the year. We harvest wild rice. We pick gallons of blueberries (most years) and shoot a deer in the fall to put some top-quality meat in the freezer as well.
And for the past couple years, we’ve been making our own wine. It was a logical extension of our desire for self-sufficiency, but it had been a skill I figured I would wait to learn during the glide path into semi-retirement. But thanks to the mentoring of George and Barb Peyla, whose wine-making prowess I’ve written about before, I delved into it a bit ahead of schedule.
Since then, we’ve all but abandoned store-bought wines for our homemade wines crafted from the wild fruits we’re now beginning to gather for another fall season of winemaking.
Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way, that just might get you thinking about venturing into home wine-making for yourself.
Find an experienced mentor who can help you. Sure, there are plenty of books out there on winemaking and I’ve read several. But the first time I’d tried making a batch, I was a nervous wreck. I always assumed that winemaking was complicated so naturally I figured I would ruin my first batch. I had George and Barb on speed dial the whole time and they patiently walked me through each step along the way. And my very first batch of chokecherry wine came out great, which only heightened my interest in pursuing the craft.
Also, see if you can find someone with the equipment who either isn’t making wine these days or has some extra equipment. Try a few batches before you go out and buy a bunch of winemaking gear. If you decide it’s not for you, you haven’t invested much other than your time.
Nothing beats chokecherries. I know, the accepted wisdom is that grapes are the best fruit for winemaking, but we’ve never had a batch of chokecherry wine that was anything short of yummy. Chokecherries are easy to find and gather by the gallon. If you have a blueberry rake, try using that little device to harvest your chokecherries. You can fill a gallon bucket in no time— just make sure to pick them when they’re black. That’s when they have maximum flavor and minimum astringency (that’s the pucker factor). Just be sure not to pick the berries I’ve got my eye on!
Lots of fruits can make excellent wine. Wild plum wine comes with a spectacular blush color (like a deep sunset), while rhubarb has all the hallmarks for a very nice white wine, similar in color to a chardonnay. My batch of crab apple wine, which has a light pinkish hue, was always a hit wherever we brought a bottle, so much so that it was the first of our batches to run low. I’m saving the couple remaining bottles for at least another year or two to see how well they age.
Be patient with some wines before bottling. If there’s a mistake I made with a couple of early batches, it was that I didn’t let them sit long enough to truly clarify. My first batch of chokecherry was crystal clear after a couple weeks of sitting in a carboy, so I assumed it worked that way with other fruits as well. Turns out, some need to sit, sometimes for months, to give everything a chance to settle out. My first batch of plum wine definitely taught me patience— it took four months to fully clarify but the end product was beautiful in a glass.
Try steam extracting your juice. While most winemakers undertake their initial fermentation using a mash of smashed fruits, we extract our fruit juices using a Mehu Liisa steam juicer. It’s the best method for juicing fruits there is, and one big advantage is that the steamed juice clarifies in a third the time of the traditional method. And if you end up with a bit left over, you can use the juice for other things. My wife Jodi adds sugar and boils the leftover chokecherry juice into syrup, which is great on pancakes or cornbread. She adds leftover rhubarb to her homemade kombucha for extra flavor. Then compost the remains from the steamer and it will be a good addition to your garden soil next year. Nothing goes to waste!
• Experiment and keep good records as you do it. Once you have the basic process down, which took me about three batches, winemaking really gets fun. You can always just make batch after batch of the same stuff, but I’ve started to tinker with recipes in hopes of hitting on the next truly great batch of wine.
• Give the wine some time. I had read that the aging process can really alter the taste and feel of wine and you can really experience that when you make your own. My first batch of plum wine was a bit more astringent than I preferred, but after a year in the bottle, it’s mellowed nicely and is now one of my favorites. The chokecherry wines also age very nicely.
• Make enough to share. Most home winemakers make wine in five-gallon batches, which will leave you with anywhere from 22-24 bottles by the time you’re done. That certainly makes for enough to share. Besides, it’s always fun when you’re at a party (remember we used to go to those on occasion?) and your bottle is the first one to be emptied.
If nothing else, winemaking has extended my interest in the harvest of wild fruits beyond the blueberry season, right into the fall. In a year like this one, it looks like we’ll be picking for weeks to come.