Cheery concoctions

Wine can be made from fruit, herbs, flowers and pretty much anything edible that grows in gardens and hedgerows

 Left to right: Glasses of homemade rhubarb and hawthorn wine,haw wine, sloe gin, strawberry liqueur, dandelion wine, blackberry wine. Photograph: Richard Johnston

Left to right: Glasses of homemade rhubarb and hawthorn wine,haw wine, sloe gin, strawberry liqueur, dandelion wine, blackberry wine. Photograph: Richard Johnston

Sat, Nov 23, 2013, 01:00

Hic. I confess to writing this in a state of mild and pleasant inebriation, having just spent an enjoyable hour in my neighbour’s kitchen sampling her impressive “cellar” of homemade wines and liqueurs, all based on ingredients either harvested from her garden or foraged from local hedgerows.

I now know that damson wine is the colour of garnets and is sweet, rich and earthy, whereas one made from the pale spring blossoms of the hawthorn or May bush is golden in hue and not unlike a sherry. Strawberry liqueur, on the other hand, tastes of sun-soaked June days and is the colour of flamingoes. As for homemade elderberry wine, I’d describe it as deep, dark and fruity, without being overly heavy, with a flavour that speaks of the early autumn hedgerows where those inky berries once grew.

The same goes for the light, dry and fragrant blackberry wine I sampled, as well as the amber-coloured one made from scarlet haws, a fresh batch of which I spotted gently fermenting in glass demi-johns nearby. As for the rhubarb and hawthorn wine that my neighbour also gave me to taste, I wish I could remember more. Just as well, perhaps, that I drew the line at sampling the sloe gin which smelled of wild, mountainous places, or the blackcurrant cassis which was the colour of a midnight sky.

Up until today, my opinion of homemade wines had been jaundiced by the vivid memory of a week-long hangover caused, many years ago, by drinking my mother’s homemade elderflower wine; an elderly batch we’d been warned not to imbibe and which was so potent and so strangely hallucinogenic in its properties that after a few glasses, I was convinced the family cat was engaging me in conversation. Various friends who sampled the same wine still speak of it in hushed tones to this day.

But enough said. When they are well made, homemade wines (see how I stress the “well made” bit) are a revelation – smooth, subtle, very drinkable, and a lovely way to sip the seasons from a glass.

It’s not just fruit, berries or flowers that can be used in this way but also many different vegetables, although some are more suitable than others. For example, I’ve never known anyone who’s actually tasted it to speak highly of wine made from peas or beans, despite many recipes promising the contrary. But the same can’t be said of parsnips, which are used to make one of the very best (and strongest) homemade white wines, or even to make a dry sherry.

You can also make a homemade wine from marrows. Or beetroots. Or carrots. Or celery. Or from weeds such as dandelion flowers, nettles, or bramble tips. Or even from herbs; sage leaves, for example, can be used to make a white wine, as can those of parsley, salad burnet or lemon thyme (one of the most surprisingly delicious homemade white wines that I sampled at my neighbour’s house was made from ginger).

Truth be told, you can make wine from pretty much anything that grows in your garden or can be foraged from local hedgerows, just as long as it tastes pleasant, and isn’t poisonous or a protected species. This includes primroses, pansies, wallflowers, marigolds, honeysuckle, rose petals, rowan berries, and gorse, whose yellow, coconut-scented flowers are prickly to pick but make a beautifully fragrant wine.

You can even use the sap of sycamore, walnut or birch trees, so long as you’re careful to take it in spring in small amounts from mature trees, to only bore to just beyond the bark and to carefully plug the hole afterwards (birch sap wine was supposedly a particular favourite of Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria).

Just don’t expect any of these homemade wines to taste like one made of grapes, a not uncommon preconception of many people sampling them for the first time. Because to do that, as my winemaking neighbour says, “is like expecting fish to taste like meat”.

Be warned, also, that the art of making good wine doesn’t belong to the more intuitive “a pinch of this, a sprinkle of that” style of cookery. Instead, there is a science to it. Use a good reference book, (my neighbour recommends C.J.J. Berry’s First Steps in Winemaking), while online blogs such as Two Thirsty Gardeners, whose “digging and swigging through the seasons” tag is hard to resist – are also well worth reading. For equipment, check out online Irish suppliers such as HomeBrewWest (homebrewwest.ie) or homebrew.ie, which deliver countrywide and stock everything from demi-johns, carboys and corkers to sterilisers, additives and the different yeasts which affect the body and flavour of the wine.

Finally, be patient. The fact is that just like gardens, homemade wines are one of those things that improve hugely with time. With the odd exception.


ffallon@irishtimes.com

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