Making Wine From Wild Berries

How to make table or dessert wine from fruits collected in the wild. How to identify the fruit, prepare for fermentation, and clarify.

Making wine is a relatively easy thing to do. Fruit will ferment all by itself, without any additives because there is wild yeast already present on the fruit. However to make wine that is tasty and worth the time and effort you will expend on the project it is necessary to take a few precautions and inoculate the fruit with a cultured strain of wine yeast.

GETTING STARTED

Before you can start making wine you have to secure a supply of fruit. Wild blackberries, raspberries, elderberries, and fox grapes are fairly easy to find and harvest.

Blackberries are relatively common and can be found in almost all parts of the country. They freely grow in pastures and on the edges of woodlands and can be easily identified by the thorny canes and shiny black fruits made up of numerous tiny balls, each containing a seed. Before the berries ripen they go through many color changes from green to pale pink, bright red and finally blackish-purple. Blackberries are not hollow but solid fruits. If the plants receive adequate rain or are growing by a stream they will become quite large and sweet. In drier years the berries will be small and may be bitter tasting. The sugar content will vary widely and it is important to take careful hydrometer readings.

Wild raspberries grow on thorny canes very similar to blackberries and often in close proximity. It is very easy to tell the plants apart however. The raspberry canes will have a coating that looks like white mold. This is called "bloom" and is not a disease but the natural way the plant grows. When ripe, raspberries will fall off the stem. Any berry that clings tightly to the plant is not ripe and should be left on the cane. Wild raspberries are much smaller than blackberries, are always dull not shiny, are made up of very tiny seed-containing balls, and are hollow.

Elderberries grow in damp areas near stream banks and roadside ditches. The plants are thorn-less and can be as tall as six to eight feet. The stems are hollow and the leaves compound and very large. In the early spring they can be spotted by the large flat umbels of tiny white or cream-colored flowers. These flower umbels are edible and are often dipped in batter, fried, and eaten as fritters. The berries turn dark purple when they are ripe and can be harvested by snipping off the umbels. They are not very sweet.

Fox or scuppernong grapes grow in woodlands all over the east coast. The best fruits can be found in the southern states. The vines are very vigorous and grow up into trees, sometimes making a dense canopy. They are easy to spot in the winter because the thick vines are very distinctive, being chestnut-brown colored and having a papery bark that sometimes hangs off in long strings. The grapes are very large spheres, an inch and a half in diameter, dark purple, and contain a pair of large seeds.

HOW MUCH FRUIT?

If you find a good source of wild fruit, pick as much as you can as it can be frozen for later use. You will need four to six pounds to make a gallon batch of wine. Any fruit that you freeze should be weighed first and the weight marked on the bags. Try to freeze in quantities that are large enough to make a batch of wine.

WHAT YOU WILL NEED

To make a gallon of wine, you will need a plastic pail (minimum 1.5 gallon capacity) with a lid, a 1.5 gallon glass bottle or jug, a hydrometer, sugar, wine yeast, yeast nutrient, pectic enzyme, campden tablets, some muslin, a fermentation lock, corks, and empty wine bottles.

SPECIFIC GRAVITY AND THE HYDROMETER

Taking readings of the Specific Gravity (S.G.) of your must is how the ultimate alcohol content is determined. When making beer, this step may be ignored and the beer will still turn out fine. However with wine it is crucial that you know the S.G. of your must during fermentation so that you can keep the fermentation going and produce a product with the correct alcohol content without shutting down fermentation.



Water is heavier than alcohol and the addition of sugar makes it heavier still. Start out with a S.G. reading of 1.078 to 1.080 for table wines and 1.100 for dessert wines. If you are much higher than this initially you will not get a good fermentation. As the must ferments you will continue taking readings and add sugar when the S.G. drops to around 1.010 add some more sugar, dissolved in a little of the must, and bring the reading back up to 1.020.

Table wine will finish with a S.G. of 1.000, about 10% alcohol. Dessert wines will be heavier, finishing at 1.020 and have higher alcohol content, 12% or more.

THE METHOD

Wash and carefully pick over the fruit. Remove all stems, leaves, and other trash from the fruit and freeze in plastic bags for a few days. Remove the fruit from the freezer and allow it to thaw in the refrigerator. Pour the thawed fruit into the sanitized pail, cover with the lid, and allow to warm up to room temperature. Boil a gallon of good-quality water and pour over the room-temperature thawed fruit. This will pasteurize the fruit, killing any wild yeast that may be present.

When the fruit has cooled add a teaspoonful of pectic enzyme and one campden tablet. Because the fruit was previously frozen it will juice freely without being mashed or chopped. Allow the fruit mixture to sit, covered, for 24 hours, stirring occasionally.

The next day take a hydrometer reading and bring the S.G. up to 1.080 by adding as much sugar as needed. Add in the yeast and yeast nutrient, you now have a "must." Cover the pail with the muslin and set the lid on loosely so that carbon dioxide can escape but insects cannot get into the fermenting fruit. Allow the mixture to ferment for three days. As fermentation progresses, the fruit will form a dense layer on the surface. This is called a "cap" and should be pressed down into the liquid twice daily.

On the fourth day strain the fruit out of the liquid by pouring it though the muslin into a plastic colander, pressing to remove as much juice as possible. Take a hydrometer reading and bring the S.G. back up to 1.080. Pour the liquid into a glass jug for secondary fermentation. If you are making dessert wine, make sure that the secondary fermentation vessel is large enough to hold all of the fermenting must and still have enough room for more sugar. Insert a three-piece fermentation lock in the stopper and fill it 2/3 full with water. Put the fermentation vessel in a warm place, about 70° F, and try to avoid sudden changes in temperature.

As the fermentation continues, take hydrometer readings and add sugar in four-ounce increments when the reading falls below 1.010. You should add an additional 12 to 22 ounces of sugar this way depending on how sweet you want the finished product to be. For dry table wine, you will add sugar in 4 installments and for dessert wine you will have to do five or six.

WHEN FERMENTATION CEASES

When bubbles are no longer coming out of the fermentation lock and your wine has a S.G. of about 1.00 for table wine and 1.020 for dessert wine, it is finished. You will notice that it is starting to clear and there is a thick layer of sediment, the lees, in the bottom of the jug. Let it sit for a few more days to clarify some more then siphon off into a clean one-gallon jug as much of the clear fluid as possible without disturbing the lees. You want to fill the jug as full as possible to keep oxygen off the new wine. Insert a stopper and place the jug in a cool dark place to clarify.

Three months in the new vessel should be sufficient to have cleared it up. There will be another, much thinner layer of sediment on the bottom of the jug. Again siphon off into another clean jug, add a campden tablet, and return to the cool dark place for another three months. If you are a little short of wine to fill the jug, a little boiled sugar water can be added to bring it to the top.

After the second three-month ageing the wine should be brilliantly clear and is now ready for bottling. After bottling it should be stored for an additional six months before drinking.

© High Speed Ventures 2011