Long ago, elderberry wine was a staple in farm houses across the northern world. All across England, Northern and Eastern Europe, and the New World as well, houses had bottles of this wine in the cellar just waiting to brighten dark winter nights.
For those of us far north of wine country, elderberry wine was everyday fare. It has fallen out of favor in recent centuries, and most have forgotten about it. Fortunately, this luscious beverage is one of the easiest fruit wines to make at home.
If you have elderberry bushes nearby, keep a basket handy in late summer. A few pounds of elderberries will yield a batch of full-bodied, warming winter wine.
Know Your Elders
There are a few varieties of elderberries in North America. The best varieties for wine are Sambucus canadensis and Sambucus nigra. The former is the America elderberry, while the latter is its European cousin.
Both grow enthusiastically in the wild. They’re easy to spot with their long, slim leaves and clusters of purple-black berries in late summer and early autumn. We have a few elders in the garden, and patch of wild elders down by the water.
Elderberries love growing in sunny spots by streams and rivers. As such, keep your eyes open for ripe berries between August and October.
When your elderberries are ripe, gather them into baskets. You’ll need at least 3.5 lbs for this recipe, which is about 35-40 full heads of berries.
These berries don’t keep well, so you want to have all the other supplies on hand. Wine-making calls for a few specialty items, so check out local brewing shops or natural food stores. Make sure to leave enough time to order items online if you can’t find them locally.
- Large stock pot.
- 1 sterilized brew bin, or food-grade bucket,1-5 gallon sized. Plastic buckets are fine if they’re sterilized and rated as food grade. Gallon crocks are also great.
- 2 demijohns – 1 gallon or greater in size.
- Twin bubble airlock and stopper (or bung).
- A large straining bag. Triple-layered cheese cloth works well.
- Siphon tube
- 6 wine bottles. Reusing old wine bottles is always a great option.
Additionally, you can also purchase basic wine-making kits that include most of the items listed above. In fact, that might be the easier route, especially if you plan to make wine fairly often.
Along with the equipment, there are a few ingredients to have on hand. Along with 3.5 lbs of elderberries, you’ll need:
- 3.5lbs granulated sugar.
- Juice of one, moderately sized lemon. Make sure the seeds don’t get into your wine.
- Wine stabilizer/stopper
- Red wine yeast
When you’ve finished picking your elderberries, bring them home as quickly as possible and remove the berries from the stems. I like to rake them around gently with a fork to detach the stems. In addition, keep an eye out for insects and dirt as you work.
You can rinse the berries gently in fresh water after removing the stems, but you don’t have to. Elderberries tend to stay pretty clean.
Next, put all your berries in a big stock pot and mash them up. You can use your hands, but know that elderberries will stain your hands for days if you mash them up without gloves. Wear powder-free latex gloves or use a masher to smash your berries into goo.
When the berries are crushed, add five pints of water to the pot. Basically there should just be enough to cover the fruit. Bring the berry and water mixture to a boil. As soon as the mixture begins to boil, turn the heat down to low and add in the sugar and lemon juice.
Stir the mixture as it simmers on low heat until the sugar has dissolved completely. At this point, there may be some foam and scum rising to the top of the pot as it simmers down. That’s fine, don’t worry. Just skim it off with a slotted spoon and discard it.
The First Rest
Remove the pot from heat, and add another 3 pints of cold water. Use either filtered or spring water, not tap water. Stir in the cold water to cool down the mixture then pour it into your brew bin or fermenting bucket.
Add in the red wine yeast and stir it well, but gently. Cover the mixture and leave it to ferment. Fermenting will take 4-7 days.
The first day, the yeast will make the mixture foam up. It will calm down somewhat as the day go on, and by day 4 or 5 you will have a stable, dark red liquid coated with a layer of smashed elderberries.
If the mixture is still foaming on day 4 or 5, leave it for a day or two before straining. By day 6 everything should be stable enough to strain. Foaming means that your mixture is still fermenting, so let it work itself out.
Once the mixture is done fermenting, you can strain it out for the second round of winemaking!
Grab your straining bag, or triple-layered cheesecloth. If you’re using the latter, secure it around the edges of a well-cleaned, sterilized bowl, and pour the mixture through it.
When everything is out of the fermenting bucket and into the bowl, grab the ends of your cheesecloth and lift it up and out of the way. Be sure to squeeze out every drop of liquid before adding the leftover berry bits to your compost pile.
Now strain it again, using fresh cheesecloth and another clean bowl. This will catch all the tiny bits you may have missed the first time. You’ll be left with a clear, red liquid that’s all ready to transform into wine.
The Second Rest
This beautiful liquid can now be funnelled into your demijohn. The amount of liquid you’ll have will probably be just shy of a gallon or so. Top it off with a splash or two of filtered or spring water, and a half-cup of sugar.
Elderberries tend to be a bit bitter, so you don’t have to worry about your wine being unbearably sweet with all this sugar.
When the demijohn is full, fit it with the airlock and stopper. Now you can tuck it away in a cool, dark place like your root cellar and just wait. Your wine will have to sit for about six weeks.
After about six weeks, bubbles will stop forming in your wine. In addition, you may see a little layer of sediment at the bottom of the demijohn. These two signs mean that the second rest is done: your wine is ready to rack.
Final Steps: Racking and Bottling
Racking your wine just means you move everything but the sediment to a new, clean bottle. It makes the end product more clear and clean that it otherwise would be.
Take your full demijohn and your clean, empty demijohn. Set the full one on the counter and the empty one a few feet below. I set mine on a table and on the floor. Use the siphon to transfer the liquid from the old to the new demijohn.
Now, put the airlock and stopper on the new demijohn and put the wine back in it’s cool, dry place.
Quick Siphoning How-to:
Siphoning is easy. If you’ve never done it before, here’s all the information you’ll ever need.
Dip the siphon in the full demijohn and suck (with your mouth) the other end. You’ll quickly taste something like a light, new wine. Then, quickly pop that end into the empty demijohn below. The siphon will fill up the demijohn quickly all by itself now.
It’s exciting to get a quick taste of your developing wine, isn’t it? It also allows you to do a bit of quality control. If the wine tastes very tannin-heavy or bitter, you can add a little bit of simple syrup.
Add the syrup slowly to avoid making your wine too sweet. It’s okay: you can taste test a second, or third time—I won’t tell. Your wine will have to rest for at least 6 months this last time. Elderberry wine loves to age, so if you can wait, give it a whole year to develop its full flavor.
Whenever you’re ready after the rest, bottle up your wine. It’s really important to be careful at this point. You’ve worked so hard to make this beautiful wine that spills are absolutely devastating.
You can minimize losses by getting everything set up in advance and taking your time. Go slowly, ask a friend to help. When the bottles are full, cork them up and you’re all done.
Now, I know you don’t want to hear this last part. You can start drinking your elderberry wine right away, but try to save it for a while. Giving it a year or two to mature will turn a good wine into an amazing one.
This wine is delicious and fun, and ideal for holiday celebrations. Drink it at Christmas or New Year’s with a cardamom cake, or a charcuterie board. Waiting is the hardest part of the whole process, but your wine is worth it. Besides, if you make a batch every year, you won’t have to wait for a holiday to enjoy a glass.