The Wine Pages: Homebrew winemaking
In wine making circles, elderflower tends to provoke some pretty strong opinions. Some folks hate them. They consider them a cheap and unsubtle method of forcing some character into an otherwise dull base wine. Many wine kits used to feature a small pack of dried elderflowers to help make up for the poor quality in the grape concentrate. Elderflower wine is considered the ultimate wine making heresy: A bottle of elderflower wine tends to taste of little but elderflowers.
I am in the other camp. I actually rather enjoy the taste and scent of elderflowers. Occasionally I will make a fully flavoured elderflower wine. If you want to criticise it, and claim that elderflower wine is nothing more interesting than alcoholic elderflower cordial, then for heavens sake call it "Alcoholic Elderflower Cordial", but please just stop whinging and get on an enjoy one of the most captivating and interesting flavours that you can find in the English springtime hedgerow. Elderflowers are wonderful - enjoy them with whatever label offends you least.
Although it is all very noble to go out on a hot sunny spring day and collect fresh elderflowers, this isn't a luxury us busy working types can always manage. If you do go hunting, remember a couple of things. Elderflowers come in many varieties, and some of them smell downright repulsive - so sniff carefully. You must also remember that the elderflower is the forebearer of the Elderberry. This means two things. First, we must be careful not to strip-mine all the elderflower for miles around, otherwise we will not have any elderberries in the autumn. The other pointer is that elderflowers are bright and highly visible, whereas elderberries are dark and a bugger to find. So in the spring make a note of the location of the elderflower bushes, so that you can find them later in the year to harvest the elderberries.
If you've not collected fresh elderflowers, I find that a packet of dried elderflowers makes for a fine substitute. These are cheap and easily available from just about any homebrew winemaking shop. I always keep some "in stock" - and frequently add a pinch, or a spoonful to other wines, especially my homemade homebrew white dessert wines. A few dried elderflowers adds an extra dimension to the wine.
If I am going to all the trouble of making elderflower wine, I make a point of using a lot of elderflower. If you are making something which is "Alcoholic Elderflower Cordial" then you might as well do it properly!
I will use 25g of dried elderflowers for a gallon of wine. I normally start with a small can of white grape juice concentrate. I make this up to 4 litres with warm water and sugar and acid mix until I have just under a gallon of medium hot liquid with a gravity of 1090 and acid around 3.5ppm. Less sugar is better, as elderflowers make a nice dry white wine in my opinion.
I will also add a tip of a teaspoon of grape tannin, and then pour the liquid into a demi-john with 25g of dried elderflowers. Notice I don't pour boiling water onto the elderflowers. Although I can't prove it, I always get the feeling that elderflowers are ultimately a very delicate creation and can't benefit from having boiling water cooking them - especially when the dried elderflowers have already endured the trauma of the commercial drying process: But I'd rather not know what the entails.
Yeast. Yeast for homemade homebrew elderflower wine is another topic that poeple have opinions on. I reckon that Gervin - No 5 White Label yeast is probably the best for making elderflower wine. Sometimes I use whatever yeast I happen to have kicking around - more often than not a Sauternes yeast.
Now leave it to ferment on the dried flowers. You will want a good dose of nutrient so that the ferment carries to dryness. I never strain it off the dried flowers for at least a week. I reckon a long ferment on the dried elderflowers gives a good flavour. I've left the dried elderflowers in for over a month before now!
It should ferment out to a gravity of around 990. Then you just need to rack and campden and follow your normal clearing process. A couple of months in the bottle and you've got some nice strongly flavoured wine. My mother loves it!
If you are using fresh seaonsal elderflowers then you may use as many or as few as you like. A bucket of elderflower heads will make a fine gallon of wine. Don't be too fussy about removing all the petals from the stalks. I normally use a fork to work the flower heads and discard all the thicker parts of the stalk. More stalks essentially equals more tannin in the finished wine. Again you can leave the wine fermenting on the flowers for as long as you like - a day makes a light wine - a couple of weeks for something heavier.
Of course, you may wish to try your hand at Sparkling Elderflower Champagne - this is my simple recipe!
If you're feeling very brave, take a 5 gallon bucket and fill it with sugary water around 1100 gravity. Chuck in all the elderflowers you like, a spoon of acid and a truck load of nutrient. Let this ferment out, strain and then double distill to make elderflower vodka - quite an experience, I can tell you!