Elderberry wine, made correctly, is every bit as good as wine made from its cousin the grape. Aged, oaked and mellowed, wine from elderberries bears a close resemblance to some of the huskier, more brooding red grape wines; Mourvedre and Petit Verdot spring to mind. Elderberry wine is a wonderful drink when the weather turns cold and you find yourself in front of a fire with friends and food.
Even so, for years I have hesitated to write about elderberry wine on this site. It’s not because what I do is some sort of secret, it’s because what I do involves a lot more time and technical tinkering than almost every other fruit wine recipe I’ve ever read. I make wine pretty close to the way professional winemakers do — I have to, in a state full of grape snobs. It’s a method more science than art.
Balance is what I seek. A fine wine has acidity, alcohol and tannin all in proper proportion. One the prime problems in fruit wines is lack of balance. Some fruits are too acidic. Some too sweet. A few are too tannic. Grapes are the fruit closest to achieving perfection all on their own, which is why they “won” in the great winemaking game of life.
Elderberries, as it happens, come very close to this as well. They have excellent tannin levels, wonderful color, and reasonable amounts of sugar and acid. All you need to do is adjust these levels and you are on your way to making a wonderful wine. As you read these instructions, keep in mind that this method also works with other fruits. Other good wine fruits include: plums, blueberries, blackberries, huckleberries, apples and pears.
Oh, and for the record, I make wine only from the Western blue elderberry, Sambucus mexicana. You can also use the Eastern blue elderberry, S. nigra. Do not make wine from red elderberries.
It all begins in the field. You want to pick elderberries that are at their peak of ripeness. How do you know when that is? For starters, the elderberry season runs from July to early October, depending on where you are. Within that period, you will get some bushes ripening before others, and even on the same bush you’ll have some clusters riper than the ones next to it.
Look for a cluster that is fully ripe — no green berries — and whose stem has turned pink. If you want to get extra picky, only choose those clusters that already have a few elderberry raisins on them: These will be the ripest.
I snip off the whole cluster with shears and put them in paper grocery bags. At home, I strip the berries from the clusters by hand. A lot of people prefer to freeze the fruit before stripping the berries. This does make the process, which can be tedious, a lot faster, but you absolutely must thaw only a few clusters at a time. Once thawed, the berries get mushy. Pre-freezing also takes up a lot of space, which I don’t have. But either method works fine.
Now you need to juice or crush your fruit. I normally do this in a clean five-gallon bucket. You can do it all by hand, or crush it with a potato masher, a blender, or your very clean feet (watch out, though, elderberries will stain your skin for days), or even a blender. Be careful with blenders or food processors, though, as you will want to avoid crushing too many seeds. Seeds contain bitter elements that can overwhelm your wine. Crush just enough to get broken-up fruit.
Elderberries are not pectin-rich, but many fruits do contain a lot of pectin. Pectin is great for setting jam, but not for wine. To prevent your wine from jelling, buy pectic enzyme for these fruits. The enzyme eats up the pectin, and using it also extracts more flavor and color from the fruit skins. Fruits high in pectin include citrus, blackberries, apples, cranberries, gooseberries, and plums. Other low-pectin fruits include apricots, blueberries, cherries, elderberries, peaches, pears, raspberries, and strawberries.
Once you’ve crushed your fruit, you will need to add water for volume. My recipe below is for 3 gallons, which is a good starter volume. Three gallons makes 15 bottles. For experienced winemakers, 5 gallons is better. Once you have added water, it is time to break out your hydrometer and acid test kit.
Mix the juice and water and pour a little into your hydrometer’s test tube. Drop the hydrometer into the tube and read the scale. Most hydrometers have several ways to measure sugar levels on them, and I prefer Brix (pronounced “bricks”), which is the scale professional winemakers use. An ideal red grape juice being made into wine will have a Brix rating of about 24.5; an ideal white grape juice is about 22.5. You want your sugar levels above 20 and below 28 Brix.
It is not likely that your elderberries will be in this window. “Fixing” your juice requires some math. The following formula is adapted from one I found in the excellent book, The Way to Make Wine.
(Target Brix – Initial Brix reading) x 0.125 x gallons of juice = pounds of sugar to add
Let’s say you’ve crushed 12 pounds of elderberries and added water up to the 3-gallon mark. You check the sugar level, and it comes out to 17 Brix. You want it higher, around 24 Brix, meaning the difference between your target and your initial Brix is 7 points. Following the formula, you multiply 7 x 0.125 x 3, meaning and you find you need about 2.6 pounds of sugar to hit your target. Easy, right?
Not so fast. Sugar acts weird, so once you have determined your target sugar levels, dissolve the amount you think you need in a little water and add in four batches. After each batch, stir the juice, wait 5 minutes or so, and take another reading. Keep adding until you are within 1- to 2 Brix of your target. A rule of thumb is to shoot low with fruit wines, and here’s why: They will often pick up sugar overnight, so your initial Brix reading can be artificially low.
Temperature adds another wrinkle. Your Brix reading will be skewed if your juice is really cold or warm. Hydrometers assume your juice is 60°F. If the juice is instead, say 45°F, you need to subtract a half-Brix from what your hydrometer reads. If your juice is 75°F, you need to add about a half-Brix. You don’t need to alter the temperature of your wine to do the hydrometer test, but you do need to know it.
Phew. OK, now you have enough sugar to ferment a wine with roughly 12 to 14.5 percent alcohol, – perfect for table wines. But what about this crazy acid thing?
The acid test confirms that your juice has enough acid to withstand aging without going bad. Acid also makes the drink taste bright, not dull. There are several ways to measure total acidity. I use a test kit where you take some juice, put a few drops of one chemical in it, then add another chemical drop by drop until the juice changes color. The number of drops you use of the second chemical corresponds to the total acidity of the juice.
Fruit wines can be all over the map on acidity. You want the total acidity (TA) to be between 6 and 10 grams per liter. In most cases, you will need to add tartaric acid, although blackberries, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, plums, and strawberries are generally high enough in acid already.
Always test your acidity, even with high-acid fruits. You might not need to adjust it, but it is good information to know. If you find your acidity is too low, use this formula: To increase the TA by 1 gram per liter, add 4 grams of tartaric acid for every gallon — yeah, I know I just gave you a formula in both metric and English measurements. Sue me. Always recheck your TA after each 4-gram batch you add, so that you don’t add too much. Too much acidity makes an unpleasantly tart wine. More water and sugar will offset this.
Still with me? Just remember, this is the hard part. Do this and you’ve gone a long way toward making a drinkable, age-able wine that has the potential to age well – and this , which is a helluva lot more than many fruit winemakers can say.
Now, ready for the yeast? Hold your horses. First, I advise adding into the juice a pinch – less than 1 gram — of K-meta, potassium metabisulfite. This is your insurance that wild yeasts will not jump on your sweet, lovely juice until you are ready to add the good yeast. Simply sprinkle it on and stir the juice.
This next part is optional. I recommend “cold soaking” your elderberry wine for up to 3 days. It extracts more color and body from the skins of the fruit, and is an excellent choice when working with blueberries, huckleberries, and plums, too. You know those big, burly Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa? Almost all of those wineries do this. Here’s how you cold soak:
- Cool your juice to below 50°F, by any means necessary. Put it in the fridge, or drop in either a sealed ice pack or a plastic soda or milk carton filled with ice into the juice. Don’t let the juice climb above 50°F or it might begin to ferment. Keep changing the ice cartons as they melt to keep your juice cool.
- Cover the juice. Lay a sheet of plastic wrap over it—right on the top of the juice and crushed fruit. You want no air touching the juice, if at all possible. Advanced winemakers pump carbon dioxide over the juice, which is heavier than air, forming a gas seal. Gas canisters are available at brew shops.
- Be sure to add any pectic enzyme when you start this process. You want it to get to work before you add your yeast.
Even if you don’t cold soak, you will need to add pectic enzyme and any tannin into your juice on the first day, about 12 hours after you put in the K-meta. Cold -soaking or no, once you’ve added any pectic enzyme or tannin, cover the bucket and walk away until tomorrow.
Day Two (if you are not cold -soaking) begins with your yeast. Start by mixing into the juice half the amount of yeast nutrient, the diammonium phosphate, that you intend to use for the whole wine-making process. Now get your tap water hot, measuring it with a thermometer until it hits 100°F. Pour a one-half- cup of the hot water into a measuring cup and then add the yeast. Just sprinkle the yeast on top of the water. Wait 5 minutes before stirring it in gently. Wait another 15 minutes. Now you can add your yeast to the juice.
If your juice is colder than 70°F, just let the yeast sit on top of the juice for 30 minutes. This lets it acclimate to the colder juice; shocked yeast can die, or delay fermentation. If you are cold- soaking, you will want to let your juice come up to temperature early in the day, and pitch the yeast when it has warmed to at least 60°F. After the yeast has acclimated, stir it in and put the bucket cover on. Now walk away.
Yeast will take a day or so to get rolling, but by morning you should see it bubbling, and the temperature of the juice should have risen. Now your job is easy. Take the juice’s temperature every day. This helps you track fermentation. It will rise steadily as fermentation gets started, then drop as the initial fermentation finishes, usually after 3 to 6 days.
For elderberries and other dark fruits, during the fermentation you will also need to churn the juice at least twice a day, and up to four times a day. Simply stick your clean arm in the juice and swish it around. This aerates your yeast and blows off any hydrogen sulfide (an unwanted by-product of yeast fermentation), and will result in a wine with more color and body. If you are making white fruit wines, aerate the juice no more than once a day; skip it altogether if you have nothing floating on the top of the juice.
On Day Two of the fermentation, add the rest of your yeast nutrient. This will help the yeasts eat up the last of the sugar.
The initial fermentation should be done in 3 to 6 days; five days is normal. After the temperature tops out, ideally at about 80°F for reds, the temperature should drop toward room temperature. When it does hit room temperature, that’s a good sign the initial ferment is done. Now you’ll need to separate your wine – because that’s what it is now – from the solids. Serious winemakers use a grape press. I’d suggest something called a press bag, which is essentially a giant jelly bag. Get ready to be messy.
First, ladle off the “free run” juice into the 3-gallon carboy – this is what looks like wine in the bucket , not mushy fruit. Try not to get any debris in there. If this is impossible, pour a bit of the debris-laden juice though a fine-mesh sieve into another bucket, or a big bowl. Using the big carboy funnel, pour the strained juice from the bowl into the 3-gallon carboy.
Now you will want to get all the wine locked in the elderberry skins into the carboy. Scoop the skins into the press bag (you can use a standard jelly bag, too) and squeeze it over that fine-meshed sieve — with a layer of cheesecloth over the mesh — into a bowl. It will get gunked up frequently, so you will have to rinse the cheesecloth from time to time. Pour the strained juice into the carboy. This step will result in a cleaner, clearer wine down the road.
It is vital that you fill your carboys to within an inch or so of the bottom of the airlock stopper.: This prevents your wine from oxidizing and protects it from wild yeasts or bacteria. After filling, you may have more than 3 gallons. If so, pour any excess into a glass container that will just about hold the amount of excess; you want to minimize air in the containers. If you find yourself short of the 3 gallons for some reason, top off the new wine with a comparable wine: For elderberries, I typically use a commercial Mourvedre or Petit Verdot to top off. You want the wine to come up to about a one-half- inch below where your rubber stopper will be. Don’t worry about this no longer being “your wine.” The amount of commercial wine you add in the entire process will be less than 5 percent.
Top the carboys with their airlocks and stoppers, and put them in a cool, dark place. This is especially important with white wines, which can oxidize and turn amber if left in the light too long. You will soon notice two things: First, the suspended solids in the juice should be settling to the bottom. Second, the wine will be bubbling slightly. This is called secondary fermentation, and it is important that this step be done before you bottle, unless you like exploding bottles.
I let my wines age in the carboys like this for several months before I begin to mess with them. A good rule of thumb is to wait two 2 months. After this time elapses, you will need to “rack” your wines. This is where that second 3-gallon carboy comes in, as well as the wine siphon.
Clean the inside of the new carboy by adding a pinch of K-meta to it, then swishing around a lot of water. Pour out and rinse well. Now add 1 gram more of K-meta: This will help the wine age safely. If you fail to use sulfites, your wine can develop “off” flavors or aromas or even turn to vinegar.
To rack your wine, use the flexible tubing to siphon it from the old carboy into the new one, making sure you get as little of the sediment that has fallen to the bottom as possible. To do this, set the full carboy higher than the empty one. Now put one end of the tubing midway into the full carboy, and get yourself close to the other carboy. You will need to be quick on this next step: Suck the air from the tube, pulling the wine with it. The moment you get a splash of new wine on your lips, stick the tubing into the new carboy. Suction should siphon the wine from one carboy into another. It is better to leave some wine in the carboy than to transfer too much sediment.
Due to the sediment, you will have a lower volume of wine than you thought. What to do? You have a choice: Add some more commercial wine, or add oak cubes. Oak cubes simulate aging wine in oak barrels. I add oak cubes for my elderberry wines. How many? Depends. I buy French oak, toasted medium, which are pretty mild. A heavy-toasted American oak will be stronger. The more powerful the oak flavor, the shorter the time it should stay in the wine. In no case would I use more than a handful in a 3-gallon batch.
If you do add oak cubes, taste your new wine after 3 months to see if it is getting oaky. If it is, siphon the wine off the oak cubes into a clean carboy and replace the lost volume with table wine.
BOTTLING AND BEYOND
When can I drink my wine, you ask? No earlier than 6 months, if you want decent wine. Honestly, elderberry wine needs at least a year. Wine ages differently in the carboy than in the bottle, and both steps are necessary. I typically bottle my red wines after a year or so. I then age them in the bottle for several more months before drinking. But that’s just me. You can bottle anytime after 4 months or so.
When you bottle, be sure to use real cork if you plan on aging your wine a long time. Synthetic corks do not allow a wine to breathe, so they’re fine for whites and roses, but not for your big elderberry, damson, blackberry, or blueberry reds. Do yourself a favor and label your bottles. You will forget which is which if you do not.
What if, after all this, you make a bad batch? It happens, after all, even to me – and I have been making wines for more than 20 years. If it is OK, just not really worth drinking, go back to the brew shop and buy a “mother ” to make wine vinegar out of it; a mother is a starter culture for making vinegar. Pour all the iffy wine into a big crock or pail, and drop the mother in. Keep the crock covered (but let air get in), and within a few weeks you should have vinegar.
What if it is really bad? Well, it is no sin to chuck it. And the great thing about making fruit wines, is that unlike the grape harvest, which comes but once a year, you can make a fruit or flower wine anytime. Salud!
This is the basic recipe for red fruit wines. It will work with blackberries, blueberries, plums, or any other dark fruit or berry. All these wines age very well, and do well with added oak. If you make them correctly and age them a few years, you can shock your wine snob friends. Serve it first, and tell them what it is later.
Makes 3 gallons.
- 9 to 15 pounds elderberries, stems removed
- 10 quarts water (spring water is best)
- 3 to 6 pounds of sugar (see above for exact amount)
- Tartaric acid (see above for exact amount)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons pectic enzyme
- 3 teaspoons yeast nutrient
- Wine yeast
- Crush the berries by hand, or pulse them in a food processor in batches just enough to break up the berries. Do not liquefy them.
- Pour the crushed berries into a large pot with 10 quarts of water. Add 3 pounds of the sugar. Bring to a simmer, then turn off the heat. Heating elderberries makes them easier to digest, and helps set the color of the wine.
- Pour the juice into a freshly cleaned 5-gallon bucket and let it cool to room temperature. Test the juice for acid and sugar. Both may be a little low, so be prepared to add another 1 to -3 pounds of sugar and possibly tartaric acid. Add tartaric acid to get the juice to about 7 grams per liter. You might not need to add any – I’ve had elderberry batches that needed no additional acid and, others that needed a lot. We’re dealing with a wild food, and wild foods are variable.
- Add the pectic enzyme (and tannin, for blueberries and blackberries and blueberries), and chill to below 50°F in the fridge or with ice packs. Lay a sheet of plastic wrap on the juice to keep out air. Keep the juice covered and at this temperature for up to 3 days. The longer you cold soak, the more flavor you extract. (But you run a higher risk of oxidation, which will turn the wine an unappetizing brown, or of spontaneous fermentation, which can ruin the whole batch.)
- On the third day, bring the juice up to room temperature. Add half the yeast nutrient as the juice warms. Once the juice is at room temperature, hydrate your yeast and add it in, then follow the above directions from here.