How to Make Herbal Wine
"You can make wine out of anything but a rock!" Appalachian winemaker John Bulgin explains in The Foxfire Book of Winemaking. My experience says he's right. When local lawns are covered with dandelions, I race my neighbors' lawnmowers to behead the little beasts for my favorite herbal wine. When I prune back the grape arbor in midsummer, I strip leaves from excised vines for a beverage that rivals a good Riesling. And when a local farm had a surplus of nicked potatoes, I combined them with ginger and other herbs to create a sweet dessert wine that kept my friends guessing the secret ingredient.
Winemaking most likely began in the Neolithic Period (8500 to 400 b.c.), and early archaeological evidence places winemaking at a site near Mesopotamia (ca. 4000 b.c.) and another in what is now Georgia (the former Soviet state, not the home of Atlanta) between 5000 and 7000 b.c. The Old English word wyrt, which evolved into wort, described a liquor made from mashing and fermenting plant leaves. Plainly, we humans have been at this business of turning herbs into wine for a very long time. If our ancestors could do it, you can too.
Making wine from herbs is simple once you understand the basic principles. Sugar, yeast and water are the main actors in turning plants to wine. Yeasts consume sugar and water to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. Herbs provide micronutrients to the yeasts and give the wine its flavor.
The more sugar yeasts consume, the more alcohol they produce, until finally they produce so much alcohol - around 14 to 18 percent of the volume - they can no longer survive. Any remaining sugar contributes to the wine's sweetness. Three pounds of sugar to one gallon of water makes a very sweet wine; two pounds produces a dry wine.
The best wines use specialty yeast strains cultivated over centuries by vintners and available at home-brewing shops. Some folks rely on wild yeasts naturally present in the air, but this is a risky approach because exposing wine to air usually attracts spoilage microbes (especially vinegar-producing Acetobacter) in much greater proportions than alcohol-producing yeasts. To further prevent contamination by wild microbes, simmer or steep herbs in boiling water, and sterilize any equipment with which the cooled brew comes into contact. Soak equipment in a solution of 2 tablespoons chlorine bleach in a gallon of water for 10 minutes. Rinse, air dry and use immediately. Alternatively, sterilize nonplastic equipment by boiling for 10 minutes.
What You'll Need
The recipe for basic worty wine, also known as herbal wine, outlines the procedure for making your beverage with standard kitchen equipment. You will need:
- A large, nonporous container (glass, ceramic, stainless steel or enameled metal)
- A plate or lid
- A sieve, cheesecloth or white T-shirt
- A large enameled or stainless steel pot
- A small drinking glass or jar, sterilized
- A sterilized glass, ceramic or food-grade plastic crock or carboy
- Plastic wrap and rubber bands OR a tight-fitting lid and airlock (a piece of equipment, costing $1 or $2 at brewing shops, that allows gasses to escape the container but not enter it)
- Bottles with screw-on caps, jars with screw-on lids OR bottles and new corks, sterilized
- Sterile siphon or funnel
Basic Worty Wine
"When your wine turns to vinegar, make switchel or shrub."
- 3 to 4 quarts fresh lemon balm, mint, hyssop, sage or other culinary herb
- 2 gallons water
- 4 pounds white or raw sugar
- 1 packet wine yeast
1. Place herbs in a nonporous, nonreactive container. Pour in boiling water and cover with lid or plate. Let steep for 1 to 3 days.
2. Strain mixture through a sieve or cloth, squeezing out excess liquid.
3. Bring strained infusion to a boil in an enameled or stainless steel pot, remove from heat and stir in the sugar.
4. Cool to lukewarm. Remove a bit of infusion into a glass, stir in the yeast and let sit 10 minutes or so, until yeast is dissolved and begins to work.
5. Pour this into a crock or carboy with the rest of the infusion. Cover with several layers of plastic wrap, secured with rubber bands, or a tight-fitting lid with an airlock. Let sit for 1 month or more, until vigorous bubbling stops and a thick layer of yeast covers the bottom of the vessel.
6. Siphon or funnel wine into sterilized jugs or jars; compost the vitamin-rich dregs or save for soup. Cork jugs loosely or cover with secured plastic wrap and store in a cool, dark place. These methods of capping allow gasses that continue to form to escape. If you cap too tightly, gas pressure could build inside the bottle and eventually cause it to explode - a dangerous mess.
7. Occasionally, a cork might pop off. If so, replace the cork with a clean one and mark the bottle for drinking sooner rather than later, or bring the wine to the kitchen for cooking use.
8. As the jugs sit, sediment continues to form. After 1 to 2 months, tap the side of the container to see if any bubbles rise to the top. If so, try again in a few more weeks. If not, you're ready to
pour off the clear wine into sterilized bottles and cap or cork tightly. Store in a cool, dark place for 5 to 9 months before serving. You can sneak a taste before that if you like, but it will probably taste like hooch.
Grape Leaf Wine
Grape leaves produce a tangy and surprisingly fruity wine. Those wishing to experiment may substitute edible leaves of other nonaromatic plants such as raspberry, blackberry, currant and stinging nettles. Even very young oak and walnut leaves are popular with herbal winemakers.
- 4 pounds grape leaves
- 2 gallons water
- 8 cups white sugar
- 1 packet wine yeast
1. Place grape leaves in a crock or large stainless steel pot. Boil the water and pour it over the leaves. Cover and let sit 3 days, stirring a couple times a day. Strain. Proceed with steps 2 through 8 from Basic Worty Wine.
Potato Spice Wine
I took inspiration for this recipe from M.A. Jagendorf's Folk Wines, Cordials and Brandies. The heat of the ginger makes the wine taste as if it had a higher alcohol content than it actually does, but this property mellows with age.
- 3 pounds potatoes, clean, unpeeled and quartered
- 1 pound wheat berries or brown rice
- 2 gallons water
- 2 lemons, sliced into rounds
- 2 oranges, sliced into rounds
- 2 ounces fresh gingerroot, minced
- 8 cardamom pods
- 4 allspice corns
- 5 pounds white sugar
- 1 packet wine yeast
1. Simmer potatoes and grain in water for 25 minutes. Strain. Add lemons, oranges, ginger and other spices. Boil for 15 minutes, pour into crock, cover with plate or lid and let sit 2 to 3 days. Proceed with steps 2 through 8 from Basic Worty Wine.
Pick flowers midmorning to early afternoon, when the dew has dissipated, but they are still open like a lion's mane. You may substitute any edible flower. Use half the volume of blossoms if you choose something fragrant, like linden or elderflowers.
- 6 quarts dandelion flowers, stalks removed
- 2 gallons boiling water
- 2 oranges
- 1 lemon
- 4 pounds sugar
- 1 packet wine yeast
1. Pick flowers from an area free of pesticides. Put them into a crock with the boiling water. Let sit overnight. Strain. Juice the oranges and lemons and set aside. Put the rinds and dandelion infusion into pot. Simmer, covered, for 25 minutes. Strain juice into crock. Proceed with steps 2 through 8 from Basic Worty Wine.
2. I recently took a sip of seductively aromatic homemade wine, only to discover that it had turned to vinegar. Some vintners would have despaired over the loss, but I take a more sanguine approach. Many decades ago, poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, "When handed a lemon, make lemonade." I say, "When your wine turns to vinegar, make switchel or shrub."
3. Switchel and shrub were popular vinegar-based soft drinks in the days before soda fountains and canned pop. If you don't manage to produce vinegar accidentally, you can do it on purpose by covering your wine at any point after Step 4 with cheesecloth instead of a lid or cork. Wait a few weeks or months and - voila!
Switchel and shrub were popular vinegar-based soft drinks in the days before soda fountains and canned pop. If you don't manage to produce vinegar accidentally, you can do it on purpose by covering your wine at any point after Step 4 with cheesecloth instead of a lid or cork. Wait a few weeks or months and - voila!
- 2 parts vinegar
- 2 parts molasses or sorghum
- 4 parts raw sugar or maple syrup
- 1 part grated gingerroot (Zingiber officinale)
1. Put vinegar and molasses in a stainless steel or other nonreactive pot.
2. Add grated ginger.
3. Simmer slowly, covered, for 10 to 15 minutes.
4. Strain, add sugar and let cool.
5. Store in the refrigerator to mix up switchel as needed; 1 part syrup to 8 parts water is a good guideline.
Traditional shrub calls for soaking fruit in an equal measure of vinegar for a couple of weeks, straining, then adding sugar and water. This recipe offers an herb-infused variation.
- 2 cups fresh lemon verbena
- About 1 1/2 cups vinegar
- 1 to 4 cups sugar, according to taste
- 1 gallon cold water
1. Pack herbs into a pint jar; pour vinegar over herbs until jar is full. Let sit a few weeks, or heat the herbs and vinegar on the stove for 10 to 15 minutes. Strain. Stir remaining vinegar with sugar and water. Serve chilled.
If you get hooked on home brewing, the books in the resource list will give you guidance on more advanced winemaking techniques and tools.
More on Making Herbal Wines
Allison Adams, Lori Gillespie and Kelly Shropshire. The Foxfire Book of Winemaking. E.P. Dutton: New York, 1987.
Steve Brill. The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook. Harvard Common Press: Boston, 2002.
Terry Garey. The Joy of Home Winemaking. Avon Books: New York, 1996.
Molly Harris and Helen Peacocke. Country Wines. Alan Sutton, Wolfeboro Falls, New Hampshire, 1991.
M.A. Jagendorf. Folk Wines, Cordials and Brandies. Vanguard Press: New York, 1963.
Steven A. Krause. Wine from the Wilds. Stackpole Books: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1982.
Pattie Vargas and Rich Gulling. Making Wild Wines and Meads. Story Books: North Adams, Massachusetts, 1999.
Article reprinted with permission from The Herb Companion magazine, a division of
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Article written by Kathryn Kingsbury
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