Fermentation - Country Wine

Introduction

When you hear the word 'wine,' what do you think of?  Something fancy, expensive?  Something imported from France, or California?  And it's definitely made from grapes, right?  How limited is our concept of wine!  In fact, wine is so much more than all that: wine is whatever you make it.  Making your own wine is easy, inexpensive, and a great way to preserve summer's abundance in whatever form you have it.  'Country wine' is the term for a wine made with any fruit other than grapes.  Berries are particularly well-suited for wine-making due to their vibrant colors and inherent sweetness, but great wine can be made with any fruit, vegetable, flower, or combination of the three.

For a true wine-making story, from start to dry finish, read our blog post about making a tayberry wine.

The Basics: Country wine is made by fermenting sweetened fruit juice.  After steeping fruit or berries in water to release their flavors, yeast is added, which converts sugar to acids, alcohol, and carbon dioxide.  Sugar is usually added to feed the yeasts because fruits and berries don't contain as much natural sugar as grapes. 

Quick Reference
 Batch Size Fruit Sugar
1/2 gal. 2 lbs. 0.75 - 1 lb.
1 gal. 4 lbs. 1.5 - 2 lbs.
3 gal. 12 lbs. 4.5 - 6 lbs.
5 gal. 20 lbs. 7.5 - 10
Materials
  • Pot or food-grade plastic bucket (or 2) with lid 
  • potato masher
  • Pot to boil water 
  • 1 packet wine yeast (available at homebrew supply stores) 
  • Sugar
  • Mesh steeping bag or cheesecloth-lined strainer
  • Siphon Hose (flexible plastic tubing)
  • Carboy or glass jug that will take a rubber stopper
  • rubber stopper and airlock
  • (option for 1/2 gal batch: 1/2 gal mason jar with reCap lid)
Instructions
  1. Remove stem and hulls from fruit.  Wash fruit by rinsing small batches in cool water and pouring off debris with excess water.  If you're using soft fruits like peaches, plums, or berries and you have a mesh steeping bag, place fruit inside it and place bag in pot or bucket.  Mash fruit with a potato masher.  Pour enough boiling water over the fruit just to cover it.  
  2. If using hard fruits or vegetables like apples or carrots, it is best to boil them in the water until they soften up.  Then, place in mesh bag and mash. 
  3. Cover bucket with lid and let cool to room temperature.
  4. When fruit/water mixture is cool, remove 1 cup water from bucket and sprinkle yeast over it.  Let it sit out until it gets foamy, indicating that the yeast is active.  (A single packet of commercial yeast can be used for 1 to 5 gallon batches.  For 1/2 gallon batch, half a packet will suffice.)
  5. Pour yeasty water back into bucket with fruit and stir well to distribute yeast evenly throughout.  Set aside for 2-3 days, stirring occasionally to oxygenate.  (Note, no sugar has been added yet; the yeast should have a chance to feast on the natural fruit sugars before table sugar is added, as described in Sandor Katz's book Wild Fermentation.)
  6. Combine sugar and an equal amount of water in a pot; heat and stir until sugar dissolves into a syrup.  
  7. Let syrup cool to room temperature.  Pour cooled syrup into the fruit/water mixture and stir until completely mixed.  
  8. Re-cover with lid (loosely) and leave to ferment at room temperature for 3 to 5 days.
  9. If fruit is in a mesh steeping bag, remove it and squeeze excess fruit juice out.  If not, strain fruit solids out of wine by pouring wine mixture into second bucket through strainer lined with cheesecloth or muslin.  Siphon wine into carboy or jug.  At this point, the amount of wine isn't equal to a full batch.  
  10. If you used the steeping bag and already squeezed remaining fruit juice out, then just top up the carboy or jug with room-temperature water.  If didn't and you now have a strainer full of fruit, then 'sparge' remaining fruit flavor by estimating the amount of water needed to fill the carboy of jug and pour this additional water through the fruit-filled strainer.  Siphon the resulting liquid into the carboy or jug until full to the neck. 
  11. Place rubber stopper and airlock into opening of carboy (or jug) and fill airlock with water.
  12. Place carboy in a cool, dark place and leave to ferment for 6 months or more.  Fermentation will gradually slow down, but it may be vigorous enough in the beginning to bubble up and leak around the airlock.  To prevent a mess, place a tray under the carboy to collect any overflow.  If it does happen, simply remove the airlock, clean it and the opening of the carboy with a clean cloth, and fill and replace the airlock.
  13. Bottle your wine!  You can recycle commercial wine bottles if you have access to a corker (there are hand-held and larger floor models).  Swing-top bottles are a also an option, albeit a non-traditional one.
Frequently Asked Questions

How do I determine how much sugar to use?

The first consideration is the type of fruit you plan to use: how sweet or tart is it?  Naturally-occurring fruit sugar (fructose) is fermentable and contributes to the production of alcohol, as does the added sugar.  The amount of sugar added (plus the fruit sugar) will, therefore, determine how alcoholic your wine is... to a point.  

The other thing to consider is whether you want a sweet or dry wine. As the level of alcohol increases, the environment becomes inhospitable to the very yeasts that create the alcohol and they start to die off.  Any unfermented sugar that remains simply makes your wine taste sweet.  Using only as much sugar as will ferment before the yeasts die off results in a 'dry' wine, which has no remaining sweetness.  To ensure a balance of sweet and tart flavors in the end product, some people will "back-sweeten" their wine, meaning they add some sugar back after it's done fermenting.

Can I make wine with honey instead of sugar?

Absolutely!  Any fermentable sugar--honey, sorghum, rice syrup, maple syrup, molasses--can be used to make wine.  However, alternative sweeteners such as these have unique and quite strong flavor profiles and will impart their own character to the wine, potentially overwhelming the fruit flavor you're really after.  Besides being neutral in flavor, plain sugar has the added benefit of being cheaper than the others by far.

If I don't have a siphon hose, can I just pour the wine from the bucket into the carboy or jug using a funnel?

You could do that, but the agitation of pouring would expose the wine to a lot of oxygen.  Oxidation causes fruits to turn brown and the wine to age prematurely.  Siphoning is the best way to move a volume of liquid without disturbing its surface.  A brewer's siphon hose also usually has a tip on it that filters solids so the wine can be as clear as possible.  

Some people use campden tablets (sodium or potassium metabisulfite) to prevent oxidation, as well as to kill stray bacteria and fungi that can cause off-flavors to develop in home-made wines.  

Additional Resources:
Katz, Sandor.  Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live Culture Foods.   A go-to reference around here for all things fermentable.  Katz illuminates his recipes and instructions with great anecdotes from the intentional community in which he resides, including the making of some crazy wines like carrot, tomato, and even jalapeno!
http://www.grit.com/farm-and-garden/fruit-wine-zm0z13jazgou.aspx?ViewAll=True   A much more detailed run-down of the wine-making process, including discussion of equipment and additives that are frequently called for in country wine recipes but not explained.

Country Wine Supplies