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.

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.