Strawberry and Rhubarb Wines

No, not strawberry rhubarb wine. Though there’s an idea…

I’m making strawberry wine and I’m also making rhubarb wine. Both of these wines hold the hallowed title of Good Enough to Do Again. These were two of my earliest and roughest attempts at wine making, but somehow they turned out the best.

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Last year’s rhubarb wine did not inspire confidence at first. It looked like dishwater and tasted pretty strange. But recently a bottle of it worked its way into the fridge, and I was as surprised as anyone to find that it tasted really good. Everyone says that ageing wine improves it, but I’ve always been dubious. What could possibly be going on in that bottle? But I’ve been at this long enough that some of my bottles are starting to reach the 1 year mark, now, and I have to admit to seeing a difference. (At least with the rhubarb. The bottle of last year’s blueberry I opened seems to have spoiled).

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So I’m back at it! The rhubarb is mostly from my parents’ garden, with a little supplemented from our community garden. I followed this recipe scaled down to one gallon.

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The strawberry wine I did not scale down. Last summer I made two separate gallon batches that were rousing successes, so I decided to shoot for 5 gallons this time. Sticking to my cheap guns, I bought these bargain berries at the bulk supply store. Maybe I’ll do a smaller batch with real local berries and conduct a dispiriting taste test.

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I sanitized my biggest bucket and lined it with a nylon cloth. My first strawberry wine had a lot of debris in it and actually started to sprout. Not this time!

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Berry by berry I removed the hulls and quartered the fruit. All 18 pounds of it. The recipe I’m following recommends 12.5 pounds for a dry wine and 25 pounds for a dessert wine. My past recipes have been light on fruit and then backsweetened with honey. This time I’ve upped the fruit and sugar and am hoping for a natural residual sweetness.

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The berries cut, I barely covered them with water and added a dash of wine tannin, a healthy dose of pectic enzyme, and 1/4 teaspoon of sodium metabisulfite. I draped a towel over the bucket and left it in the closet overnight. During that period the pectic enzyme and water started to break down the fruit and the sodium metabisulfite sanitized it. At least that’s what I’m told.

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By the next night the pectic enzyme had certainly gotten to work. The berries were already limp and pale and the water had become a thick juice.

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I added water up to the 6 gallon line, and then I went sugar crazy. I checked the gravity after mixing in what felt like an unholy amount of the stuff – it was right around 1.060. My recipe recommended 1.078 for dry and 1.100 for dessert, so either way I had to keep going.

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In the end I used one entire 10 lb. bag of sugar on the nose. This brought my gravity to just under 1.100, or a tiny bit less sweet than dessert wine.

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Finally I added 5 teaspoons of yeast nutrient and a 5 gram packet of champagne yeast. I covered it loosely with the bucket lid and pushed it to the back of the closet. By the next day it was bubbling vigorously and giving the bedroom a very distinctive smell.

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I gave the fermentation exactly a week, stirring and prodding the fruit bag a couple times a day. Once the bubbling started to slow (and I found someone big to lift the bucket up onto the counter for me) I racked it into a five gallon carboy.

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The nylon bag was a lifesaver. I’ve fought some vicious battles with fruit pulp in my time, but the bag just lifted straight out. That being said, a week’s fermentation didn’t leave much inside it. What had been a huge volume of fruit got condensed down to little chunks of seeds and fibers. Strawberries, it turns out, are mostly water.

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Since the strawberries added more than I was expecting to the liquid, I actually collected 6 gallons of wine instead of 5. I filled the big carboy completely with free runnings and a 1 gallon jug with juice squeezed directly from the nylon bag… into an unsanitized bowl. Because I am a fool. I hadn’t been planning on squeezing juice from the bag, so I’d just plopped it in any old bowl. Thank the lord the 5 gallon filled up before I had the chance to fill it with rogue bowl microbes. As it stands I may have contaminated that extra gallon, but it was a bonus gallon anyway. And I may get lucky. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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All told I have some beautiful colors. The two on the left are strawberry, already producing some impressive sediment, nylon bag or no. The one on the right is rhubarb, basically sediment-free and a fantastic shade of pink.

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Maybe I’ll serve the two together and let people make their own strawberry/rhubarb.

Wine Successes and Unsuccesses

IMG_20150714_212055272The wines are resurfacing! For the past month or so, they’ve been bubbling and settling away in the cellar. Every now and I again I check on them to make sure they haven’t exploded and created an ant paradise. Since I went through such a wine frenzy, everything was brewed at roughly the same time. Meaning everything has to go through its next step at roughly the same time. Meaning now!

I dragged everything upstairs and we had a Grand Tasting. Most of the wines just needed to be racked, but how can you not taste a little bit? These are our findings.

Rhubarb Wine: Still looks like dishwater, but not unpleasant. I have hope for this one. I racked away a lot of lees, so I can imagine it clearing up some day. The taste is basically unchanged.

IMG_20150714_211444152IMG_20150714_211446317Grapefruit Wine: Close to undrinkable. To be honest, the main problem with the grapefruit wine is that it tastes so much like a grapefruit. I’m not sure what I expected in that regard. I’ve been picturing something light and crisp and sweet, more with the fragrance of grapefruit than anything. And that still may be achievable, with a lot of ageing and a lot of back sweetening. This wine has such an edge to it, I can’t imagine it would be any fun to drink dry.

Blueberry Wine: A strong contender. This was one of the house favorites. It’s got a very distinct blueberry flavor that borders on being too tanniny. There was a huge amount of sediment in this one, and I had to make up for the missing volume with water. It’s so dark and strong, though, even with the added water, that I think it’ll be alright. For the future, though, I need to invest in some glass marbles for bringing up volume.

IMG_20150714_211500365IMG_20150714_211458292Elderberry Wine: Basically vinegar. I don’t know where I went wrong with this one. I had such high hopes for it when I racked it the first time. It was dark and raisiny, by far the closest thing to grape wine I’ve made so far. But something has obviously changed between then and now, most likely one of those stray foreign yeasts I’m always sanitizing against. Everything I’ve read has said that if you do one thing right, it should be sanitizing. I try to sanitize faithfully, but I do have a cat and roommates and a kitchen that’s far from spotless. At my level a bad wine now and again may just be par for the course. The recipe I’m following does say that this wine improves with age, so I’ve racked it and put it back in the cellar in the hopes that the long road to improvement includes an early vinegary phase.

Mead: Genuinely good. I started the mead and the strawberry wine earlier than than all rest and had racked them both once already. According to my recipes, this meant that I could bottle them or let them age, depending on my tastes. Mead apparently gains a lot more complexity if you age it, and some people whose blogs I’ve read wouldn’t dream of drinking mead that’s under a year old. I’m new to this, though, and impatient. And the mead was really very good. So I decided to bottle it! I can always make another batch and age it for longer to do a comparison.

My only complaint with the mead was that it was very dry. I like sweet wine, and the flavor of honey especially feels disjointed to me when it’s not accompanied by sweetness. Everyone who tried it said they liked it just the way it was, though, so I split the difference. I siphoned the whole carboy off into a bucket and added some Sodium Metabisulfite and Potassium Sorbate to inhibit any remaining yeast. This is absolutely necessary if you’re back sweetening with honey, but I’m paranoid about exploding bottles and figured it couldn’t hurt for my unsweetened batch, too. 20150719_142420_HDR

I filled five bottles with the unsweetened stuff. Maybe I’ll hide one of these bottles from myself in the cellar to see how it ages. To sweeten the rest of the mead, I just added honey, stirred, and tasted until I was satisfied. I’m really happy with the result. It has a strong alcoholic body to it, with a sweet finish. It’s very obviously made of honey. And the alcoholic body is strong. Back in May I was too eager to get started to take any hydrometer readings (something I will be doing from now on), but I wouldn’t be surprised if the alcohol content is at or over 20%. I’ve put it in beer bottles with the idea that they can be shared or portioned out over a day or two like wine bottles. Or drunk by one person after a particularly hard day.

Strawberry Wine: Also good. I’m so happy my bizarre sprouting wine has come out okay. Over the past month it’s settled beautifully and really cleared up. It has an amazing summery smell. According to the recipe, it can be bottled very young, so I took the same tack as with the mead and back sweetened it to taste with honey. Since this batch had been downsized to a half gallon that still produced a lot of sediment, I got only six beer bottles’ worth.20150719_234355_HDR I like the look of a hodgepodge of saved bottles, and I even threw in an old Jarritos bottle to show off the beautiful clear blush. I chose to use beer bottles because this wine, too, is incredibly boozy. I have an open bottle in the fridge right now that I’ve been nursing over several sittings, like a liqueur. My only regret is that I think you can taste the fact that I used grocery store strawberries that had been shipped from who knows where. Sweet as it is, I think there’s a noticeable undertone of that white, foam-like core you get in big, under-ripe strawberries. I’m going to hunt down some farmer’s market berries and attempt another batch, because I think it could be really great.

Wine Progress

Mango wine has been put on hold. Avid readers may remember that I was keeping twenty pounds of mangoes under my desk, waiting for them to soften. But it’s been a hot week, and my six gallon bucket had blueberries fermenting in it. So I, forward thinker that I am, moved the mangoes to the cellar, where they could keep nice and cool. 20150614_171256_HDR

And something ate them!

I don’t know if was a badger, or a rat, or a man living in the walls, but whoever it is is well nourished now. I’ll have to buy some more when they’re softer in the store and I have a fermenter ready for them. And watch my back when I’m in the cellar.

But it’s not all tragedy on the wine front.

I freed up that 6 gallon bucket of blueberry wine and moved it to a carboy. I also learned from my strawberry adventure that even with the pump, regular old siphoning is a lot easier. Although it does look like an IV drip…

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My mead also finally stopped its bubbling, and I moved it to a new carboy. It came up a little short, and I had to top it up with some water, which I hope wasn’t a mistake. That meant I only got to try a tiny bit that was left behind, but I was amazed at how… meady it tasted. Like something I might pay money for and not regret. Which is the goal, I suppose.

I learned my lesson from the sprouting strawberry wine and bought a pair of pantyhose to act as a filter bag for the grapefruit wine I started. I cut off one of the legs, jammed it full of grapefruit segments and zest, and then tied the end off.

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Ooh la la.

The other leg is full of dried elderberries, which I ordered online. Apparently they were grown in Norway! I’ve since found a Pick Your Own farm in Connecticut that has them. Maybe I’ll go there and get a feel for what they look like before I start foraging mysterious roadside berries.

Last but not least, I racked the rhubarb out of that horrible Mr. Beer keg which, to its credit, did not leak out of any new places. I was right in resigning myself to no healthy pink blush. I wasn’t anticipating this color, though, which unkind critics might call “dishwater” but I’m choosing to call “pearl.” I’m really curious to see if it settles over time into something transparent.20150615_172143_HDR

Even after filling the carboy so high, there was a lot left over. And wouldn’t you know, it’s palatable! Very tart and crisp. I could see it being a decent summer wine. Which is too bad, because it probably won’t be done until the fall.

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Rhubarb Connections

I’ve gotten really into craigslist deals again recently. These fascinations with it are always ebbing and flowing, but since I’m learning to drive my boyfriend’s manual car, there’s been a serious flowing as of late. Turns out there’s a real freedom to emailing a stranger and knowing you can arrange to meet them around your schedule. And with a car, no less!

This weekend, however, both boyfriend and car were away, so when I found an ad for mature rhubarb plants for $12, I had to call ahead and confirm that the planter would fit into my bike’s milk crate. 20150606_142439It did.

Along with eight enormous stalks of rhubarb.

I did the deal with a lovely older lady. I told her I was planning on making rhubarb wine, and she regaled me with stories of tomato wine made with the guy she was going with at the time, as she called him. They opened one bottle and loved it, so they took it to the local wine festival, where it quickly became apparent that every other bottle was swill. At the end of the day they sold out, though, because theirs was the only table that still had wine and all the festival goers were too sloshed by then to care what it tasted like. She was great. I want to be her when I grow up.

The plant has found a place among all the other driveway plants. My dealer suggested that I bottom water it, presumably because it was in desperate need of watering but it was so sunny out. I didn’t ask her rationale. I just went along with it and set the pot in a big dish of water, which it promptly sucked up. I gave it another dish, then watered it from the top as well in the evening. It seems happy enough, though I’m not positive I’ll be able to harvest from it this summer.

20150609_214526_HDRThe day I brought it home, I hacked up my stalks and mixed them with sugar, then covered it all and left it in the closet for three days. It started as a solid mass, but during that time a whole lot of liquid was drawn out. From everything I’ve read, you want especially red stalks to make for a nice blush to the wine. As you can see, any blush to this stuff is going to be a seasick green. Oh well. The price was right.

I added water to the20150609_230227_HDR rhubarb, then strained it into my primary fermenting vessel with some yeast, yeast nutrient, and some grape juice concentrate. My snazzy new craigslist bucket is is full of blueberries, so the job has fallen to Mr. Beer. My mom got me a Mr. Beer kit for Christmas. It made a huge amount of an alright light beer that I still drink every now and again. It also gave me this pretty handy food grade plastic keg with an airlock-esque lid. Perfect! Who needs a bucket?

20150609_230325…Oh wait. What’s that? All over the paper towel that’s been conveniently laid down…

Enhance!

That’s some very sticky rhubarb juice.

That’s a pretty fast-flowing leak.

 Uh-oh20150609_231213_HDR.

Luckily, my canner is just the right size to balance this thing more or less securely in such a way that the liquid can’t reach the lid or that damn spigot. Also luckily, it only has to stay in this precarious postion for a week before it moves to a real glass demijohn.

Mr. Beer will not ride again, I think.