Country Wine Season

It's mid-May, the southern hemisphere juices have come and gone, and now we're all waiting for grapes (or juice) from California (and perhaps more, but I'll talk about that another time). Anyhow, this could be a slow time for us winemakers. 

Or it could be a fun time to do an experiment! 

Note, this is written with the goal of sparking some creative endeavors, assuming you have some winemaking experience. This is not a perfect step-by-step by any means. 


While grapes provide all the right stuff to make a balanced wine (tannins, acid, sugar, and water content all in balance), just about any fruit (or anything else) could be used to make a wine. "Country wines," as they're sometimes called, can be exciting and fun. In the northeast, we're looking towards strawberries (and rhubarb, which is as good together in wine as they are in pies) coming up very soon. Cherries, Raspberries, and Boysenberries aren't far off now either. 

As mentioned, grapes have the balance naturally. What happens when you make a wine that lacks the balance? Let's be absurd for a moment: garlic wine. Garlic has too little sugar on its own, has virtually no tannin, has too high a pH for yeast (5.8)... well, it's just not going to happen without adding a lot of stuff. Clearly doesn't have the water volume either. 

So - for one gallon, you're going to need that gallon of water. Some volume of garlic - say ten heads (low temperature roasted, wrapped in foil, until soft is best). Water, check. Flavor, check. Now about tannins? You can use oak chips as wine makers do, but to be more subtle, chopped raisins are fine. Half a cup or so; a cup of dark brewed tea can work. Most wine makers make it easy: a couple grams (or more, as desired) of "wine tannin" available at most winemaking retailers. These are often derived from oak or chestnut, but the powder is inexpensive and does the job cleanly. Sugar comes next. Just about any will do, but each has its own flavor and characteristics. I prefer raw sugar, not bleached stuff. 

About 2 lbs of sugar in a gallon has about 11.9% potential alcohol. So 2 to 2.2 lbs (1 kilo) is a nice spot. Per gallon of water, that is. 

Okay, now for acid. Traditionalists might use citrus peels or juice, or some combination. Acid blend (a mix of tartaric, malic, and citric) is available and not expensive either. Right now in 2022, it might be cheaper than the citrus fruit! 

How much acid to add? 

This is the biggest point to make: there are recipes for any country wine you might like, but if you aren't testing your acid and pH, you won't know the right amount. Wine yeast likes a pH around 3.4 to 3.6 - that isn't very close to the 5.8 garlic provides (granted, there's more water, and your water might be closer to yeast desired range than you'd expect. So measure it. Or wing it. It's your experiment, right? Truly, though, at least have pH strips to make sure you're in yeast-viable range. Ideal might be 3.4 to 3.6, but most yeast strains will work +/- 0.4 on that (3.0 to 4.0). They'll struggle at the far ends, for fair warning. 

Okay, so what if the pH is too low? That's unusual, but can happen with citrus wines. That's for another time - for now, back to berries, since no one really wants to make garlic wine, right? Confession: I've made garlic and onion wine several times, but only to make it into vinegar. Can't beat the salad dressings and marinades that makes! 

Okay, berries are about to be in season. What do they need? The very same stuff. They will bring a little more fermentable sugar, so if you're using a few pounds of berries to make a gallon, that's going to provide some sugar. Often times 1.5 lbs per gallon of sugar does the job. Yes, you can check with a hydrometer, but it won't be perfect - it's unlikely all the sugar will be all dissolved into solution. I think going for over 11% abv is a safe goal; as long as you're keeping it under 16% you should be fine.

But there's another thing to add: pectic enzyme! It doesn't do much on garlic, but the skin of berries are loaded with good flavor assuming they can be broken up. The pectic enzyme does that and more: it helps the wine clear later. Use according to directions. 

Get your pH strips, add some raisins or tannin (tea works for some creative wines, but I wouldn't suggest against berries - you'll taste it), and add acid to hit your desired pH. If you're doing acid testing, do that first. It's a bit advanced, but you can figure out exactly what acid and how much to add. That's for another time. 

What do you really need to get this going?

A small fermenter, the fruit of your choice, sugar, tannin (or raisins), acid blend (or citrus fruits), pectic enzyme, pH strips, and water. Acid testing kits run about $10 and can help you get more accuracy, but be careful to keep those reagents away from anything you'll consume. 

Pick a very tolerant yeast. 71B is my go-to for alternate fruit wines, but there are plenty of other options. 

Take lots of notes. This is fun, and if you make something you're in love with, remember: while the quality of the fruit plays a role, if you can't repeat your process you might not have a shot at success again.

One more fun fact: blackberries are nearly perfectly balanced including water levels. Most blackberry wine recipes add water, sugar, etc., but this is because the yield per pound is so small - while normally 15 or 16 lbs of grapes will produce a gallon, you'll need closer to 40+ lbs of blackberries - they're mostly pits! Almost every recipe - even for blackberry juice - has them macerated in added water. This is not a cost-effective wine to make, but using water and the concepts above it certainly is.

I hope you are finding some ideas to pursue - please leave a comment if you have questions or would like a little more direction!



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