I Have So Much Wine

Today is all about dark wine. It wasn’t meant to be, but completely by accident all my dark, autumnal-looking wines were due to be racked at roughly the same time. Which is good, because they all catch the autumn light in such a way it’s a shame they live in the basement. I’ve read that exposure to light can give wine off flavors. I’m not sure off flavors are a real concern for someone at my level, so I may consider relocation. It would be the most roundabout stained glass in town.
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Then again, sunlight beating down on my wine might heat it up to an uncomfortable extent. This may be a sight that comes only every month or two. It’s more special that way. From left to right we have Raspberry Melomel, Elderberry Wine, Plum Wine, and Strawberry Wine. “Melomel” is the beautiful old fashioned-sounding term for mead flavored with fruit. The even older fashioned-sounding “metheglin” is mead flavored with herbs or spices. If I learn the professional language, I’m one step closer to being a professional myself. Right?

Speaking of metheglin, I racked my lavender metheglin last week, and it received rave reviews. It’s incredibly strong (I’m still getting the hang of the hydrometer) but the little bit I tried tasted lovely, especially with a little honey mixed in. One of my roommates said it reminded him of Viking’s Blod, a household favorite mead, so I took it as the highest of compliments. Viking’s Blod don’t come cheap, so I’d dearly love to be able to replicate it. The recipes I’ve found involve hibiscus, not lavender, so I may need to explore the world of flower-flavored metheglins.

But enough about future projects. In the here and now, I’m still racking this elderberry wine which, as you may remember, tasted like vinegar back in July. I sure remember. I’m still dutifully racking it every month in the hopes that it will, as the recipe suggests, improve with age.

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And as far as my monthly notes are concerned, my hopes are not unwarranted. In July this wine was “…Not good” and I was “hoping for an ageing miracle.” In August another ellipsis introduced an incredulous “…getting better?” Now, in September, I swear it was downright close to drinkable. It tastes and looks to me like a very dry red wine. Is this stuff actually improving, or is my palate getting more and more accustomed to dubious homemade fruit wine? The latter is almost definitely true, but I’m hoping the former is a little bit true, too. We’ll see.

I also racked a mulberry melomel that had been fermenting in a bucket for a few weeks. True to form, I’m following a half-remembered friend-of-a-friend forum post recipe and hoping for the best. In a departure from my usual methods, I soaked the berries and sugar in water overnight and added the resulting strained and simmered juice to the honey and more water. After it had cooled, I combined it with raisins and yeast and let it sit in an air-locked bucket for two weeks. I opened it up to find some very alcoholic reconstituted grapes floating on a sea of hooch. I have got to get my alcohol content under control before I go blind.

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Despite its potency, the mulberry melomel is really delicious. It has a light mulberry flavor with a strong honey base. And its color is fantastic. It reminds me of freshly pressed cider and has an opacity to it that I hope doesn’t disappear. So far I haven’t made a mead I don’t like. The honey makes for such a warm background to other flavors that it avoids that astringency I tend to get in straight fruit wines. Once winter kicks in and the fresh fruit is from California, meads brewed with dried herbs and spices might be just the thing.

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I counted, and I have eleven and a half gallons of wine sitting in my basement. None of it’s ready yet, but in a few months’ time my apartment may have to have a serious Bacchanal.

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The Best-Laid Meads

My first mead was good!20150724_114023_HDR I’m as surprised as anyone. And since the only thing to do with moderate success is run with it until you trip over yourself, I’ve whipped up two more meads. They’re flavored, more ambitious, and a lot more free-wheeling. On the left we have raspberry mead, and on the right we have lavender mead. Both are bubbling away nicely.

Now for a note on honey. Here’s the thing about honey: it don’t come cheap. Or more correctly, it don’t come cheap unless you buy the cheap stuff. There will come a day when I have the money to buy humanely raised meat and raw, local honey. I hope. But it is not this day. Particularly when I’m still learning, I’d rather not pay top dollar for my honey. For my first batch of mead I used generic brand, pasteurized clover honey from my neighborhood grocery store (as far from purist as you can get) because I didn’t know what to expect and didn’t want to spend too much. And I was so happy with the results. So for the moment I’m sticking with my cheapo, heated, store brand bulk honey and aiming for quantity (and therefore variety) rather than quality.

That being said, I’m trying to make improvements in quality where I can. I thought my grocery store strawberry wine was a little lacking, so I’ve flavored my crappy honey with home grown ingredients. The raspberries were grown in my parents’ garden and frozen at peak ripeness. The lavender was donated by my community garden neighbor Ken, who’s getting overwhelmed by his huge lavender bush.20150724_161453_HDR

I wish I had that kind of problem. This is my lavender bush at present.

It’s over a year old and still so tiny!

Anyway, I had a hard time finding a definitive recipe for lavender mead online. There were plenty of rumors and memories of friends of friends who make it all the time, but nothing really concrete. And the few details that were concrete varied wildly, from steeping the lavender into tea, to leaving it whole in the mead for a month, to leaving it out completely until bottling. I’d already picked my lavender, so that last one was right out. In the end I decided to make up my own recipe, roughly adapted from this guy’s vague remembering.

In a sterilized pot I heated some water to 160F, then20150721_212127_HDR added an ounce and a half of lavender flowers. I let them steep until the water turned to a nice golden brown tea and the whole house smelled like lavender. I may have driven my roommates away for the night.

I let the tea cool a bit, then combined it in a gallon carboy with three pounds of honey. I topped the carboy up with water, added yeast nutrient and sodium metabisulfite, shook it up, and let it sit for a day with a towel over the top.

This may not have been a good idea.

I swear I’ve added nutrient and metabisulfite to must simultaneously before, but maybe never in a fully topped up carboy. When I checked on it the next day, the must had bubbled up into what was by then a very crusty towel. My suspicion is that I 20150721_224210_HDRwas feeding the natural yeasts from the lavender at the same as I was inhibiting them, and the feeding won out in the end. If this is the case, I may have some sub-par mead on the way.

Then again, I may have just shaken it too vigorously and the bubbling over happened in the first minute.

Only time will tell. Or maybe it won’t.

My raspberry mead had some hangups, too. Actually, raspberry mead isn’t called mead, but melomel – a fermented mixture of honey and fruit.

My raspberry melomel had some hangups, too.

I thawed and smushed the raspberries (just under two pounds) and shook them up with three pounds of honey, some sodium metabisulfite, acid blend, pectic enzyme, and enough water to equal a gallon. I did not add any yeast nutrient, because the recipe I was vaguely following didn’t say to. Maybe these recipes know what they’re talking about, because this one did not bubble over in the night.

The next day, however, I continued to follow my recipe closely and set my yeast and nutrient in a cup of water to get it started. I then poured it into the carboy and the liquid filled up straight to the top. No room for even a single bubble. Until now I’ve been pitching my yeast straight into the must, and for some reason it didn’t occur to me that extra water would mean extra volume. Whoops.

I had to get some of the liquid out; I was afraid that the very first bubble was going to pop the cork off this thing. The whole top layer was yeast, though. I wanted to get rid of the liquid in the middle. I eased the auto siphon in and the carboy promptly overflowed. There went a lot of my yeast. I released some liquid and pulled out the siphon. It was coated in a lot more of my yeast. No!

There was no immediate activity in the airlock, and I was worried I’d completely eradicated the yeast. I didn’t want to add more, though, in case I wound up with too much. I decided I’d give it until morning to start fermenting, and went to bed uneasy.20150724_114124

Lo and behold, this is what I woke up to! The next morning the raspberry melomel was bubbling with a vengeance, as was the lavender. They’ve both been put in cool and dark storage in the cellar.

The main lesson I’ve learned is that there’s no reason to do a primary fermentation in a carboy. I’m not sure what possessed me to do it, and to do it twice! The little bit of liquid I removed from the melomel tasted fantastic, though, so I have high hopes.

Just as long as those seeds don’t sprout…