You can make wine out of anything but a rock!” Appalachian winemaker John Bulgin explains in The Foxfire Book of Winemaking. My experience says he’s right. When local lawns are covered with dandelions, I race my neighbors’ lawnmowers to behead the little beasts for my favorite herbal wine. When I prune back the grape arbor in midsummer, I strip leaves from excised vines for a beverage that rivals a good Riesling. And when a local farm had a surplus of nicked potatoes, I combined them with ginger and other herbs to create a sweet dessert wine that kept my friends guessing the secret ingredient.
Winemaking most likely began in the Neolithic Period (8500 to 400 b.c.), and early archaeological evidence places winemaking at a site near Mesopotamia (ca. 4000 b.c.) and another in what is now Georgia (the former Soviet state, not the home of Atlanta) between 5000 and 7000 b.c. The Old English word wyrt, which evolved into wort, described a liquor made from mashing and fermenting plant leaves. Plainly, we humans have been at this business of turning herbs into wine for a very long time. If our ancestors could do it, you can too.
Making wine from herbs is simple once you understand the basic principles. Sugar, yeast and water are the main actors in turning plants to wine. Yeasts consume sugar and water to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. Herbs provide micronutrients to the yeasts and give the wine its flavor.
The more sugar yeasts consume, the more alcohol they produce, until finally they produce so much alcohol—around 14 to 18 percent of the volume—they can no longer survive. Any remaining sugar contributes to the wine’s sweetness. Three pounds of sugar to one gallon of water makes a very sweet wine; two pounds produces a dry wine.
The best wines use specialty yeast strains cultivated over centuries by vintners and available at home-brewing shops. Some folks rely on wild yeasts naturally present in the air, but this is a risky approach because exposing wine to air usually attracts spoilage microbes (especially vinegar-producing Acetobacter) in much greater proportions than alcohol-producing yeasts. To further prevent contamination by wild microbes, simmer or steep herbs in boiling water, and sterilize any equipment with which the cooled brew comes into contact. Soak equipment in a solution of 2 tablespoons chlorine bleach in a gallon of water for 10 minutes. Rinse, air dry and use immediately. Alternatively, sterilize nonplastic equipment by boiling for 10 minutes.
What You’ll Need
The recipe for basic worty wine, also known as herbal wine, outlines the procedure for making your beverage with standard kitchen equipment. You will need:
• A large, nonporous container (glass, ceramic, stainless steel or enameled metal)
• A plate or lid
• A sieve, cheesecloth or white T-shirt
• A large enameled or stainless steel pot
• A small drinking glass or jar, sterilized
• A sterilized glass, ceramic or food-grade plastic crock or carboy
• Plastic wrap and rubber bands OR a tight-fitting lid and airlock (a piece of equipment, costing $1 or $2 at brewing shops, that allows gasses to escape the container but not enter it)
• Bottles with screw-on caps, jars with screw-on lids OR bottles and new corks, sterilized
• Sterile siphon or funnel
If you get hooked on home brewing, the books in the resource list will give you guidance on more advanced winemaking techniques and tools.
More on Making Herbal Wines
Allison Adams, Lori Gillespie and Kelly Shropshire. The Foxfire Book of Winemaking. E.P. Dutton: New York, 1987.
Steve Brill. The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook. Harvard Common Press: Boston, 2002.
Terry Garey. The Joy of Home Winemaking. Avon Books: New York, 1996.
Molly Harris and Helen Peacocke. Country Wines. Alan Sutton, Wolfeboro Falls, New Hampshire, 1991.
M.A. Jagendorf. Folk Wines, Cordials and Brandies. Vanguard Press: New York, 1963.
Steven A. Krause. Wine from the Wilds. Stackpole Books: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1982.
Pattie Vargas and Rich Gulling. Making Wild Wines and Meads. Story Books: North Adams, Massachusetts, 1999.