Creating Wine from Wild Plants

In Stalking the Good Life, the late naturalist Euell Gibbons wrote about wild berries. "Actually," he wrote, "I begin picking berries about the time the last spring snow melts away." He then describes in one chapter a succession of harvests of wild wintergreen berries (teaberries), strawberries, red raspberries, black raspberries, wineberries, dewberries, blackberries, blueberries, huckleberries, squaw huckleberries (deerberries), and elderberries. Elsewhere in the book he describes harvests of wild barberries, black haws, cherries, chokecherries, cranberries, grapes, juneberries, wild raisins, squashberries, shadbush berries, serviceberries, sarvisberries, sugar pears, and sugar plums. These are just some of the berries -- but a sampling of what is out there -- growing in the wild and available to be harvested and turned into wine.

No matter where you live in the world, you live but a short walk or drive away from more edible wild plants than you probably ever imagined. Ancient man was successful as a species because he was capable of eating a very large variety of plants and animals. Many plants bear fruit or other components that can be made into wine suitable for just about any palate. On the pages that follow, I will be describing but a few of the thousands of wild edible plants in the United States and Canada which are suitable in one way or another for winemaking. Readers living outside this geographic area should not turn away. Many of the plants featured herein have relatives scattered all over the globe, and I have consistently tried to identify the genus (and species) of each plant featured so that distant relatives can be identified and recipes adapted to suit them.

Adapting Recipes

Okay, you're out walking in the woods and come across a thick stand of salmonberries. You pull a couple of plastic bags from your day pack and an hour later you're heading for home with 8-10 pounds of sweet (but slightly tart), fresh fruit. You check your well-thumbed copy of First Steps in Winemaking and strike out. Then you fire up the computer and start burning up the search engines. Nothing! What to do? Well, hopefully you've got a bookmark set to The Winemaking Home Page and are therefore in luck. No, I don't have a salmonberry wine recipe (yet), but I can tell you how to make salmonberry wine. More accurately, I can tell you how to adapt a recipe to serve your purposes, and that's better than nothing.

The first thing you do is ask yourself, "What is a salmonberry similar to?" By similar, I mean most like in type of fruit, taste, pulp, firmness, color, skin or rind if that applied, and type plant. It is unwise to compare fruit from vining plants with fruit from bushes or trees unless there simply is no alternative. So, let's compare the salmonberry with similar berries.

Well, it looks like a salmon-colored blackberry, but tastes more like a red raspberry, wineberry or thimbleberry.

Except, in reality, it tastes like none of these. Still, it comes closer in taste to a red raspberry than a blackberry, wineberry or thimbleberry. We might be able to narrow it down further, but this will do--quite nicely, actually. Start with a red raspberry wine recipe and go from there. But first, there are a few things you need to think about.

Fruit Content

With few exceptions, the more fruit you use in making a wine, the fruitier tasting it will be. This can be good or it can be too much. If good, so much the better. If too much, you have a problem. You can blend it with a complementary but weaker tasting wine or with a "second" wine made from the same fruit pulp as the first batch--if you happened to have made one. There really isn't much more you can do. Why is this important?

It's important for two reasons. When making a wine by recipe that specifies a varied quantity--such as 4-6 lbs--you can be assured that using the lesser quantity will make an acceptable wine, but using the larger quantity will make a fruitier wine. If you opt to use the larger quantity, you would be wise to also make a "second" batch using the pressed pulp from the first batch. This will always make a weaker wine, but one that is almost always acceptable on its own merit. More importantly, you'll have that "second" wine to use in blending with the first batch should its taste be too strong for you.

But it's also important when adapting a recipe for another ingredient. If the substituted ingredient lacks the fullness of flavor of the original ingredient called for in the recipe, you'll need to adjust the quantity upwards to make up for what is naturally lacking. In the case of substituting salmonberries for red raspberries, I can tell you right off that salmonberries lack the flavor and aroma raspberries are so famous for. Thus, you'll want to adjust the quantity upwards, but not too much. Berry wines should be subtle, not overpowering. My red raspberry recipe calls for 3-4 lbs of fruit. If using salmonberries instead of raspberries, use 4-5 lbs.

Another thing to consider about fruit content is that when using less fruit rather than more, the lesser amount, if within the recipe limitations, will usually produce a wine that more closely approximates the taste of grape wine, albeit the approximation may take a leap of imagination. What I mean is this: in truth, grape wines do not taste like grape juice, and fruit wines should not taste like fruit juice. My favorite peach wine recipe calls for 3 lbs of peaches per gallon, but I will reduce the amount of fruit to 2-1/2 lbs for an exceptionally flavorable crop. Conversely, for a weakly flavored crop I might increase the amount to 3-1/2 lbs.

Sugar Content and Supplementation

More than anything else, it is the conversion of sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol by the action of yeast that makes wine. A critical amount of sugar simply must be present or you are wasting your time and ingredients. When this amount is absent, you must add sugar.

The amount you must add, of course, depends on how much is there to begin with. You determine this by using a hydrometer to measure the specific gravity (S.G.) of the diluted liquor. What I mean by prepared liquor is the combined ingredients in the recipes less the sugar and yeast. If you measured the S.G. of the fruit juice alone and added sugar to attain a starting S.G. of, say, 1.095, that reading would be meaningless the moment you added water and other ingredients. So, combine the ingredients less the sugar and yeast, measure the S.G., and then add sugar to raise the S.G. accordingly.

This is especially important when adapting a recipe to a substitute ingredient. The substitute ingredient almost certainly will not contain exactly the same natural sugar as the ingredient specified in the recipe. You then adjust the sugar content accordingly. This will probably mean an amount close to that called for in the recipe, but not exactly the same amount.

Sugar can be added in several forms and several ways, but usually this boils down to adding refined sugar or adding honey. Unless a recipe specifically calls for honey, I always use sugar, and unless it specifically calls for light or dark brown sugar, I use finely granulated white cane sugar. Cane and beet sugar are both sucrose and are chemically the same. Unrefined brown sugar can still be found, but it is imported these days and usually costs more than domestic brown sugar. Domestic brown sugar is really refined sugar with molasses added. It will affect both taste and color of the wine, but for some wines it is required. Corn sugar is dextrose, preferred for beer making but traditionally avoided by winemakers. Terry Garey and a few others say you can use it if you want to, but long ago I was taught "vinters scorn what comes from corn;" this ditty may be unfounded, but I've never wanted to risk a batch of wine testing its veracity.

Honey is another subject altogether. It comes in many, many flavors, depending upon the flowers the bees predominately visited while collecting pollens and nectares used to make it. These flavors do affect the wine, but so does the honey itself. Honey tends to mellow out a wine and contributes ever so slightly to body. Some people prefer it for that reason alone, while others prefer it for ecological reasons.

I use it only when the recipe calls for it, when I know the wine will otherwise be thin, or when I want to impart a specific flavor to the wine--such as heather, clover, orange, or mesquite.

My problem with honey is that it slows down the clarification process considerably. Honey contains pollen, and pollen takes a long time to settle out. Even when settled, it can easily be lifted from the lees by the siphoning action of racking, and then it must again settle out. If you filter your wine, this is much less a problem than if you don't.

Acidity

Salmon berries are just a little bit more tart than red raspberries. This means it contains something red raspberries don't contain, or lacks something red raspberries don't. Tartness is usually caused by acid, but it could be caused by tannin, pectin, or simply a natural flavor. In the case of salmonberries, it's acid. If the difference were great, you'd want to adjust the amount of added acid in the recipe to be adapted downward, but in this case the difference is so slight as to be negligible. Indeed, the amount of acid blend you might remove from the red raspberry wine recipe is so small that it might easily be absent depending upon how you measure 1/2 tsp. A pinch less might be justified, but that is only about 20-30 grains of the crystalline blend, and that is not worth fretting about.

On the other hand, if the berries were unusually tart, you might cut the amount of acid blend used by 1/8 to 1/5. You wouldn't want to reduce it by more, as acid is essential to the health and reproduction of yeast.

Acidity should not generally be a worry if you have compared your fruit wisely and correctly. If in doubt, however, use an acid testing kit and adjust acidity to no more than 0.60% tartaric.

Wine Recipes

For these or many other great recipes visit the Winemaking home page

Agarita Wine
Barberry Wine
Black Raspberry Wine
Black Cherry Wine
Chokecherry Wine
Dandelion Wine
Highbush Cranberry Wine
Red Clover Wines
Red Raspberry Wine
Staghorn Sumac Wine

The Author:

Jack Keller is president of the San Antonio Regional Wine Guild. He is a schooled historian, dry-fly fisherman, collector of stamps, Hummel figurines and Christine Rosamond lithographs, and lives with his wife Donna and English Springer Spaniel Colita in Pleasanton, Texas. He works for the United States Army Medical Research Detachment (San Antonio) of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. He is a prolific award-winning winemaker and has authored many articles on home winemaking and other subjects. http://winemaking.jackkeller.net

Photo Credit: Freedigitalphotos.net

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