Making Country Wines

 

by Michael Barwise

 

As the berry and soft fruit season approaches, our thoughts turn to wine-making. It’s a lovely way of preserving the tastes of Summer and Autumn through the following year. However many published recipes result in over-sweet, thin-flavoured wines that fizzing for ever, and occasionally first attempts taste horrid and are thrown away. So many beginners abandon country wine making before they really get to grips with it. Both quality and reliability can be much better, provided some basic principles are adhered to. The three main are: cleanliness and sterility, sugar content and expected alcohol, and proper preparation of the juice or must.

 

Sterility is absolutely fundamental, as contamination by unwanted yeasts and bacteria will ruin the wine. Proprietary wine-makers’ cleaning powders are available, or dilute bleach can be used. Vessels should be rinsed three times after using cleaning powder, or at least four times after using bleach. Absence of any smell of bleach is the indicator of adequate rinsing. Swill about half to one litre of cold water round the container for each rinse, emptying it completely each time. This is much more economical than filling the container to the brim. After sterilisation, tubes, pipes, and stoppers should be rinsed under running water for about half a minute. Cold tap water from the mains is used for all rinsing. Equipment can also be scalded with boiling water. The fruit needs sterilising as well, but this happens as part of the extraction process.

 

Home-made country wines are best made as dry as possible, as it is very difficult to stop the yeast working if there is a significant amount of residual sugar in the wine. For the beginner, wines should ideally finish up between 10% and 12% alcohol, using a basic wine yeast that has an upper limit of 14%. This means fairly accurate measurement and calculation of the required amount of sugar, allowing as far as possible for the amount of natural sugar in the fruit. The total amount of sugar required is about 16 grammes per litre of juice for each 1% of expected alcohol. Thus a 10% strength wine requires 160 grammes of sugar per litre of juice, or if you use honey, 230 grammes per litre of juice for a 10% wine, due to the water content of the honey.

 

The natural sugar in the fruit is allowed for using a wine-makers hydrometer. However, some fruit (notably sloes) contains a lot of nonfermentable material that makes the measurement unreliable. In general, wild fruit contains about 90 grammes of sugar per litre (equivalent to about 6% alcohol). If an higher reading is obtained, pectolase enzyme should be added to the juice and left overnight before testing again. The reading will probably be lower and more reliable. The measured sugar content is first converted to equivalent alcohol on the hydrometer scale, and the difference between this and the required alcohol is converted back to arrive at the added sugar quantity depending on whether plain sugar or honey is being used.

 

The best way to extract berry juice is in a double boiler, as the temperature should not exceed about 80 degrees C to avoid spoiling the flavour. I use a stainless steel bucket inside an electric tea urn which has proved well worth the investment. Most berries will benefit from being deep frozen first, as this helps to break down the pulp. They can be left overnight to thaw in the double boiler and then brought up to temperature with a lid on and held there for about half an hour. The heat should then be turned off and the closed double boiler insulated with towels, pillows &c. to keep the heat in overnight. The following morning, pectolase enzyme is added, stirred in, and left for 24 hours. Next day, the juice is extracted by pouring through a jelly bag into another pot, squeezing as necessary. If you have a fruit press, this will recover the juice more easily, but heavy pressing must be avoided as it can crush the seeds and introduce bitterness. No water is generally added to the juice. The only exceptions I have found are raspberry which is too strongly flavoured, and rowan that will not ferment, unless an equal volume of water is added to the juice.

 

The extracted juice is then measured into the cleaned double boiler and brought back to 80 degrees while the extra sugar is added and dissolved. After no more than half an hour, the hot must (juice plus sugar) is poured into a sterilised fermenter and closed with a wine-makers’ trap or bubble tube. I use cheap whisky in my traps as it has a sterilant action and is also more visible than water. The fermenter should be about half full at this stage to leave room for the must to work, so for 5 litres of wine (about 6 bottles) you will need a 10 litre fermenter. The 5 litre demijohns sold at the chemists are only large enough to ferment about 3 litres (just over two bottles) of wine effectively. You will need to start two of these to make a total of five litres of wine.

 

The following day, when the must is at room temperature, the yeast is prepared strictly according to the supplier’s instructions and “pitched” or poured into the must. The trap is replaced and you are free to relax. After about half a day fermentation should be very visible. Twenty-four hours after pitching, you may add some proprietary yeast nutrient dissolved in cooled boiled water to help the yeast work. I use about 1 gramme per litre of “Minavit”. From then on you do nothing until the bubbling practically stops and the must becomes fairly clear. Once this has happened, carefully siphon off the clear must from the sediment into a sterilised vessel and close it with a trap. At this stage, the wine should completely fill the vessel, so you will need the content of two 5 litre fermenters to fill one vessel. Excess air can now spoil the wine so this is important. This process is repeated (probably three times) at intervals of between one and two months until no visible sediment remains (probably around eight months after you started the wine). Now for a secret technique. Transfer the wine to a polythene jerrican, squeeze out as much air as possible, and put it in the deep freeze. Yes – freeze it solid. This has no effect on the taste of the wine, but it does help to kill off the remaining yeast. Freeze and thaw the wine three or four times without opening the jerrican, before thawing it for bottling. Bottles, corks and bottling equipment must be sterile, and I have come round to polythene corks despite tradition, as they are easier to sterilise. Ideally the wine should be filtered before bottling, but the cheap gravity-fed filters do not work well, and a proper filter is quite expensive. The bottled wine should be stored below 5 degrees and should be consumed within twelve months if filtered or six months if not. This is only a very brief overview, but I hope it gives some idea of the important factors in country wine making at home.

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