Call me crazy, but I’ve never been a big fan of vinegar in cooking. Herbal vinegars are a staple in many kitchens, but when I’m cooking creatively (and that always includes herbs), I like the flavor that wine provides; I rarely seek the astringency of vinegar outside of the salad bowl. It’s only logical that this culinary quirk would eventually lead me into learning how to make herbal wine from home.
Wine Making Primer:
Herbal Wine Recipes:
Nearly all the herbal wines I’ve seen in shops have been made by soaking herbs in a commercial grape wine. That’s certainly a quick and simple way to impart an herbal flavor to wine, but it’s completely different from starting from scratch and fermenting herbs into wine. That is what I call herbal wine. I’ve been making wine from wild and orchard fruit for years, and since I started making herbal wines, I’ve become really hooked.
When I first began investigating herbal wines, I found a few published references, some with recipes, on wine made from the flowers of dandelion, elder, and rose. These may be herbs, but they aren’t usually used in cooking, and so I had to call upon my experiences in making herbal jellies and fruit wines, along with a healthy dose of experimentation, to come up with workable recipes for wines made with culinary herbs such as thyme and rosemary. The field is wide open: we herb lovers can go crazy experimenting with our favorite varieties and combinations.
I make at least 100 gallons of wine every year now, 5 gallons at a time. (Federal law allows a two-person household to make up to 200 gallons of wine or beer per year without a permit as long as it’s for personal consumption. Single-person households are limited to 100 gallons per year.) This may seem like a lot of wine, especially to someone who doesn’t drink it, but it allows me to use herbal wine daily in cooking, build a collection of aging bottles, share generously with my friends, and give personalized gifts.
Unlike other ways of preserving herbs, herbal wines actually improve as the years pass. That giant tarragon harvest can be transformed into a special wine that will be just reaching maturity three years hence and will provide pleasure for years to come.
You’ll probably want to start by making one gallon at a time, but I’m guessing you’ll be surprised at how quickly it disappears.
The basic technique for making herbal wine involves brewing a strong herb tea in a pail (primary fermenter), adding sugar, yeast, and a few other ingredients, and letting the mixture ferment. The yeast feeds on the sugar and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol. Fermentation is vigorous at first. After about a week, the mixture is strained into a jug (secondary fermenter), where it continues to ferment for a number of weeks, after which the wine is aged and bottled.
Herbal wine can be made easily in any kitchen with little specialized equipment. The hardest part is waiting for the wine to age enough for drinking. Lighter wines may be ready in as little as three months whereas more strongly flavored ones may need to age a year or more. Many wines improve with age, and a wine that tastes good after six months will be dramatically better a year later. That’s one reason I make large batches: I can succumb to early temptation and still have enough left to age properly.
Cleanliness of equipment is of the utmost importance in ensuring that your wine will not be spoiled by unwanted organisms or other contaminants. I use three tablespoons of sodium metabisulfite dissolved in a gallon of water to sterilize equipment and bottles and to purify the water in the fermentation locks, which are placed in the neck of secondary fermenters to exclude air while letting carbon dioxide escape. Commercial wine makers have long used sulfites to sterilize the fruit mash, or must, before adding yeast to halt any fermentation caused by undesirable wild yeasts and to preserve the finished wine, but excellent herbal wines can be made without adding sulfites.
Any herbs or herb combinations can be made into wine. Culinary herbs such as basil, rosemary, sage, thyme, and tarragon are obvious choices for cooking wines; flowers such as dandelion, elder flower, and rose make exquisite drinking wines that can also be used for cooking; and lemon balm, lemon verbena, and the various mints make wines that are great for both cooking and drinking. Citrus flavors complement herbs well in addition to supplying acids necessary to limit oxidation; you might try oranges in peppermint wine or lemons in lemon balm wine.
You’ll need at least half an ounce of dried herbs per gallon of wine; an ounce gives a stronger flavor for a cooking wine. If you’re using fresh herbs, you’ll need three to five times as much, but I find that dried herbs seem to brew a better tea for the starting must. Spices such as ginger and nutmeg can be added to the herbs when the tea is brewed. My wife and I started a wine of chamomile and star anise on our first romantic morning together, and it remains a treasure of our wine cellar.
The recipes given here use a little more than two pounds of sugar per gallon of liquid, which gives an alcohol content in the finished wine of 10 to 11 percent, similar to that of most commercial wines. Increasing the amount of sugar to three pounds per gallon will produce a wine with almost 14 percent alcohol, but the wine will be somewhat sweeter.
Most large and medium-size cities have a wine-making and brewing shop, a great place to learn about wine making as well as a convenient source of supplies. Many mail-order sources also are in business to help you get started in wine making. The following offer free catalogs.
• The Cellar, 14411 Greenwood Ave. N., PO Box 33525, Seattle WA. (800) 342-1871.
• E. C. Kraus, 9001 E. Hwy. 24, PO Box 7850, Independence, MO 64054. (816) 254-7448.
• U-Brew, 1207 Hwy. 17 S., North Myrtle Beach, SC 29582. (800) 845-4441.
Richard Bender is a creative herb enthusiast and nurseryman in Fort Collins, Colorado, who is currently working on a book on herbal bonsai.
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