Strawberry Wine Forever

Back in May I started 5 gallons of strawberry wine. It’s September now, which means it’s time to bottle!

Actually according to my post-it, I should have bottled back in July. But a little extra ageing never hurt anybody.

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I siphoned all the wine into my huge bucket. I had hoped that using extra strawberries during fermentation would leave some residual sweetness, but I hoped wrong. It was extremely dry.

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I like sweet wine, and I think the strawberry really benefits from the sweetness, so I mixed up some honey in warm water and added it as the wine was siphoning.

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I put in 5 Campden tablets and 2 1/2 tsp potassium sorbate to keep the yeast from going after the new sugar source.

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With a bucket full of wine, I started bottling.

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My parents drink more than I do (though that’s not saying much), and they diligently save their empty bottles for me. I like the motley look.

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The bottles full, it was time to cork. Technically, I have a corker. In the strictly legal definition of the word, I do. It is, however, terrible. With one hand you have to squeeze two handles together to compress the cork, and with the other you have to press down on a lever to drive it into the bottle. All while not shooting your open bottle of wine off across the room. I tried to use it myself. I really did, and I just didn’t have the strength. My roommate Will stepped up to the plate and just barely managed it. What a man!

My birthday’s coming up, and I think I know what to ask for.

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It was a real struggle, but we got there in the end with 8 regular bottles and 8 double-wides. I’ll have to order up some new labels.

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I think I’ll call it Uncle Beth’s Fancy-Ass Wine

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.

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.

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.

Accidental Gardening

20150612_114023_HDRMy strawberry wine appears to be sprouting. While interesting, this isn’t exactly what I was going for.

This is still very much a learning process, and today’s lesson is in straining your fruit must thoroughly. A search has found me one person on reddit who had exactly the same problem. There were a few assurances that it should be alright, lots of confusion, and not one but two references to The Circle of Life. There was general encouragement to plant the seeds, which I’m going to do, because why not? And there was more or less a consensus that I should get the wine out of there as 20150612_112956quickly as possible. So I’m going to rack the wine, about two weeks before I was intending to, and I’m going to hope it keeps fermenting. I’m also going to rack it into a half gallon bottle, because today’s lesson is also in head space, of which I apparently have way too much. All that residual air is no good.

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Doing my best to keep the siphon in the middle of the fermenter, between the sediment on the bottom and the seeds on top, I’m sending the wine through a mesh strainer in a funnel, hoping against hope it’ll catch the seeds but allow the yeast to pass through. I have a racking cane with a pump, so I usually don’t even bother putting my secondary vessel on the ground to siphon. The funnel, however, just barely fits into the lip of this jug, so I’m balancing it between my knee and the kitchen cabinets. When the person you usually conscript into holding things has been conscripted into photography instead, you have20150612_122718 to improvise.

A half gallon of wine has survived the transfer. There’s still sediment in the bottom, but no seeds have made an appearance and there’s already activity in the air lock, which means some of the yeast made it as well. The jug is a growler from Endless Brewing, a great little brewery from my hometown. If you find yourself in rural Pennsylvania and craving beer, go to them and tell them I sent you.

There’s still quite a lot left over, but not enough to justify saving in a separate container. It smells fantastic, and I have visions of whiling away the afternoon writing and sipping my young strawberry wine.

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I’m just going to tell myself it needs to age.

A Brewing Operation

I am on a wine kick. I’m not sure where it came from. A year ago my roommate and I made a mostly successful IPA from an ancient graduation gift beer kit. Since then we’ve made two more downright drinkable beers from Brooklyn Brewery kits,20150607_182116 although I think I may have overdone it on the carbonation… Look at that head!

I’ve been itching to make something more homemade, though, and since it’s June, fruit wine seems like a good direction to go. I bought this fabulous 6 gallon carboy off a very nice craigslist man, along with a 6 gallon bucket with a grommeted lid and more supplies than you can shake a stick at, all for $40.20150608_112228

It’s a lot of responsibility, coming up with a wine I can afford and am confident I might like enough to make 5 to 6 gallons of the stuff. I’ve settled on mango wine, mainly because mangoes were on sale and are a heck of a lot cheaper than berries. I will be following this 32-year-old recipe from the Rare Fruit Archives of Australia because it’s the first one I found that sounded doable. And because I like the sound of it.

That will be a separate post, though, as I’m still waiting for the champagne yeast to come in the mail, and I’m typing with my feet drawn up on my chair because there are twenty pounds of mangoes softening in paper grocery bags under my desk. Until then, a quick look around at the operation I’m trying to get going.

No one has lived in the apartment below ours for a year now. 20150607_120427_LLSThis means their basement storage room is unoccupied, apart from all the junk they left behind. Until someone new moves in, I’m appropriating it as my wine cellar! There’s a great, reasonably dark shelf for finished bottles, where I’ve put what’s left of the beer. And another, darker shelf for all that caution tape the neighbors were hoarding…

I’ve also got two wines fermenting20150607_121114 down here already. I brought them out into the light for a photo-op; they’ve been living off to the left of the frame in a dark corner. I’ve read many a forum argument about whether dark is necessary for wine or just an old wives’ tale. The jury appears to be out, but I figure if I’ve got the dark I might as well use it.

The pink fermenter on the right is a strawberry wine. When I transferred it from its primary vessel I had a terrible time separating the liquid from the berry sludge that formed, and now I have a pitifully shallow fermenter that still somehow has a ton of sediment. When I rack it again I’ll have to decide if I make up for the lost space with water or just move it to a half-gallon jug.

The yellow fermenter is mead that I’ll be racking as soon as the bubbling dies down. By the numbers it should be any day now, but the yeast is still going strong.20150607_120859

The bubbles in the airlock have actually formed a very cool honeycomb pattern. For a while I had a half-baked idea that this had something to do with the high honey content. And then I found the same pattern in the strawberry airlock.

And then I realized that idea was ridiculous.