The Wine Pages: Homebrew winemaking
The most important homemade homebrew wine of the year is without a doubt that made from the fine fruit of the blackberry bush. The fruit is rich and tangy, with a nice amount of tannin and acid - superb for making wine. This year the weather in the UK has been fantastic for fruit of all types, especially blackberries. Even now in mid august, large hauls of blackberries can be found ripe and ready to ferment into a fine blackberry wine.
As we all know, blackberries are never purchased. One goes and finds a good hedgerow, and gets scratched to death by the killer blackberry brambles as you pick the fruit for free. Make sure you collect from different bushes and different sizes/grades so you get a good variety of fruit. Always remember, the best blackberries will always be just out of reach, so take something infinitely long to help pick the awkward blackberries.
How many blackberries do you need to make blackberry wine? A good question. A lot of recipes advocate 3lb to 4lb of black berries. Such recipes need to have their acidity raised by careful addition of some wine making acid to get the correct balance. Personally, I think blackberries are perfect for making a rich and full bodied wine. It will take longer to mature, but ultimately more satisfying to have a full bodied blackberry wine rather than a thin and weedy one. I suggest at least 5lb of blackberries to make a gallon of wine - preferably more, 6lb to 7lb per gallon gets you into the region where you don't have to add any more acid for a standard dry wine.
If you feel so inclined, make a lighter bodied wine with 3-4lb of blackberries, and perhaps a small amount of red grape juice concentrate.
Picking blackberries should not be a solitary occupation. Take friends with you who delight in drinking your homemade homebrew wine. Two people should be able to collect a good 10lb of blackberries in an hours picking. My last trip I was picking for 45 minutes with my mother and collected nearly 12lb of fruit! Take friends of different heights. A short chum for the low hanging fruit, and a lanky mate for the high stuff. A pair of thick trousers and a pair of gloves can help protect you. Do on a week night - about 7.30pm - most folk are too lazy to go blackberry picking during the week.
So, aim for 6lb of blackberries for each gallon of wine. Crush them with you hands and make up with water to about the 5 litre mark. You are going to loose some volume due to all the racking blackberry wine needs. Add pectin enzyme and yeast nutrient. Increase the sugar until the gravity is about 1085. I find that the original gravity of the squashed blackberries + water is about 1020. Some people claim you should add boiling water - but I dislike using boiling water in wine making. The idea is to help the extraction of the flavour and kill the nasty bugs and yeasts, however, some the flavour compounds of fruit are very delicate and don't respond well to boiling water. Never boil the wine, and preferably use sulfite to control the bugs, not hot water.
The starting gravity is a matter of preference. Anywhere above 1075 will make a drinkable wine that lasts. I reckon 1085 - 1090 is good - gives about 13% alcohol - any closer to 1090 and above and you find you're making a wine to strong to drink it any quantity. On the other hand, feel free to chuck extra sugar in and make a strong sweet port.
Now use your imagination to embellish the blackberry wine recipe. All wines benefit from some amounts of additional ingredients. Blackberry wine doesn't normally need to the usual addition of red grape juice to bolster it - not if you are using a decent amount of fruit. But some sultanas won't go amiss. Add a few bananas, some raspberries, anything you like to add extra interest to the wine. One word of warning - go easy on the black currents - their flavour tends to overpower. A few elderberries are nice too - but it is best not to overdo it.
Add a red wine yeast and leave the whole thing to ferment to dryness. Then proceed normally, racking and clearing the wine. Once it is stabilised for a few months you will want to adjust the acidity. If you got the volume of fruit around 6lb you probably won't need to add any extra acid, but it depends on many factors. Do it by taste and adjust the acid so the blackberry wine is slightly tart.
Check that it is well loaded up with sulphite and leave to mature in bulk for 12 months. If you are making it with a lot of fruit, you shouldn't start drinking last years blackberry wine before starting to make this years. If you want something that is going to keep maturing, just increase the acidity a bit further, and chuck in a few elderberries to the recipe. I heard a story once of a guy who made wine out of neat elderberry and blackberry juice - it took a decade to mature!
If you have a particularly large amount of fruit, up the quantity to nearly 10lb, and keep feeding the sugar in until you get a really strong sweet port - delicious and will age for ever - especially if you chuck in a half bottle of cheap brandy!
If you find you've made a large quantity of heavy bodied blackberry wine, and fancy a few bottles of lighter bodied stuff, blend in some apple wine. a bottle of lightish apple wine blended into a gallon of heavy bodied blackberry wine makes a delightful blend. Perhaps add a glass or two of strongly flavoured elderflower for extra bouquet - but it is wise not to overdo the elderflower! It is easy enough to "water down" with white wine, but you can never increase the body of wine easily, so it is best to be generous with the fruit at the making stage, and worry about fine tuning it once it has had a chance to mature.
Like elderflower, blackberry wine is a classic English wine - the raw materials are free and plentiful - you very much get the feeling of making something for nothing! If you like a lot of wine, you save a lot of money. Cheap wine! To put it into perspective, I could pick enough blackberries to make 5 gallons of wine in about 2 to 3 hours. The rest of the homebrew winemaking process is maybe another 2 hours over the next year or so. It will cost me a fiver in sugar, and, maybe another few quid for chemicals and corks and so forth. Call it a tenner tops. This makes me 30 bottles of wine. Each bottle of blackberry wine therefore costs me about 30p and 5 or 10 minutes of time. Ok, so it won't be 100 quid a bottle quality, but it ain't bad!