I’ve been reading various books about making country wines and other boozy projects. A little known secret I’ve unearthed is that you can make “wine” from pretty much any fruit or vegetable matter, from peaches to rhubarb, parsnips to zucchini, even nettles and flowers. And contrary to standard grape winemaking practices, the basics are, well, very basic.
Essentially: Prepare fruit or whatever you’re using; add sugar, yeast and (sometimes) water; ferment once; strain; ferment some more.
There are other varying steps of straining or racking , boiling the fruit, and so on, depending on what your basis is, but for the most part, that’s the process. Not too scientific. And, as it turns out, the most involved parts can be done during baby’s naptimes on a solo weekend with my husband out of town (read: not difficult or time-consuming).
After I’d been casually reading and giving some consideration to attempting some sort of home beverage brewing– we have made beer and wonderful pinot noir before according to all the official, proper methods, but I had something simpler, more old-school homesteady, in mind– I’d also been keeping an impatient eye on our lousy drought-stricken plum tree. Last weekend it became abundantly obvious that the fruit would never ripen. Rather, the ripest of them were still tiny and greenish, like good-sized olives, many beginning to shrivel.
Clearly the drought had claimed the year’s plums. But over my husband’s eye-rolls, I picked the tree clean and hauled my pathetic bounty into the kitchen. They amounted to six quarts.
Since I gave absolutely zero consideration to peeling and pitting the plums, I rinsed them and removed the stems, then dumped them into our 20-quart stainless pot. I poured in 14 quarts of water, then boiled them until they had plumped up like about-to-burst cranberries. I scooped many against the side to squeeze out the flesh, but didn’t bother with most. Surprisingly, the sorry-looking fruit was smelling quite nice (though I couldn’t say the same of their appearance).
I then waited a few hours, enough time to pop (start) the packet of liquid yeast that had been sitting in our fridge and also have my husband purchase an enormous bag of white sugar. By then the plum mixture had cooled to room temperature, and I measured in 11 cups of white sugar and stirred it well to dissolve and aerate. Then I dumped in the yeast, stirred some more, covered it loosely, and set the pot on a large baking tray in an out-of-the-way place (a good choice, since it overflowed in a sticky mess as it fermented wildly).
I’d been worried that the yeast was too old to work properly, but after a day, the concoction came to life with frothy, foaming activity. It smelled lovely, and looked like this before each stirring, which I did twice a day:
(Yikes, I know.) After stirring, white foam fizzed over the top.
The following Friday, five days later, the fermentation had slowed down slightly and I was excited to move along when my daughter went down for her afternoon nap. I filled a six-gallon beer-brewing tub with no-rinse sterilizer solution– I can’t resist rinsing most items, anyway, with all that chemical froth– and dropped in my stirring implements, strainers and syphoning hose. Then I syphoned the solution into my 5-gallon carboy.
Next, I scooped my plum must through a medium mesh strainer into the tub, pressing out liquid and depositing the solids into the chicken bowl (meanwhile wondering if the chickens would be staggering around with a buzz). I let that sit overnight, covered.
In the morning, the surface looked like a freshly baked cookie.
At morning naptime, I again scooped the concoction through a strainer, our finer mesh conical style, and agitated it as the liquid slowly drained through leaving a saucy deposit that again went to the chickens. Then I added 10 more cups of sugar, the remainder of the 10-pound bag. I stirred it up and let that settle until afternoon naptime.
Finally, that afternoon, I syphoned the mix, keeping the hose below the surface but above the level of sediment at the bottom, into the carboy. I found little sediment dropped out; the wine has remained highly opaque even after days of secondary fermentation, much like unfiltered cider.
Those six quarts of plums yielded four gallons of wine-to-be. I popped an airlock in the top of the carboy and placed it out of the way where it can bubble away for the next few months.
The dregs that I withheld from the carboy were lovely and plummy, sweet and effervescent, and the alcohol was already substantially present.
Certainly my process was imperfect and leaves much to improvement and tweaking. Some recipes and articles warn that pits impart a bitter off-taste, as can the natural yeasts present on the plums’ skin in the initial fermentation. My sterilization practices were imperfect, but not ignored.
The bottom line for my first country winemaking endeavor: if the result is alcoholic and the least bit palatable, I will call it a triumph. And I look forward to future experimentation with whatever fruit I can get my hands on.