Town dwellers are apt to think that wine-making is only for country people," wrote Isabella Beeton in the section on "home-made wines" in her Book of Household Management, "but wines can be made equally well in town, and the fruits or flowers picked on a day's excursion into the country can, with a little trouble, be turned into wine for future enjoyment."
The original domestic goddess was, of course, wise about many things – how to stuff a duckling, fire a housemaid and fillet a trout, for example – and here too she was privy to a great truth. She knew, as many city types have since forgotten, that it is possible to make booze out of all sorts of things. Her Victorian doorstopper includes recipes for 30 home-made wines using a variety of fruit and also vegetables, including blackberries, beetroots and parsnips.
The grape, despite its reputation, is not indispensable to wine-making. Yeast is not picky. Set it to work on something that contains natural sugars – be it mango, turnip or dandelion – and it will produce alcohol. The ancient Britons also understood this. They did not sit around dry-mouthed waiting for the arrival of the Romans and their vines. No, instead they produced imaginative concoctions based on fermented honey, herbs and fruit.
Considering that the ingredients for fruit wine are largely free, that there is no VAT to pay on the finished product, and that most of us are struggling to keep ourselves in Chablis at the moment, it would most likely seem inexplicable to both Mrs Beeton and the Barbarian British that we are not all currently setting up mini-wineries in our under stairs cupboards. However, reading further in Mrs Beeton's book, the reason for this becomes all too clear: making fruit wine sounds really complicated.
"Fermentation can be rather a tricky process," she cautions, before stipulating the use of isinglass (which is derived from fish bladders), a glass syringe, rubber tubing, sealing wax, and a host of other things in order to do it properly. The truth is that Mrs Beeton, although an authority on many things, is not the best person to turn to if you want to make home-made fruit wine.
Far better to seek the advice of the small, but dedicated, band of contemporary commercial fruit wine-makers in the UK. They are few – Cairn O'Mohr, Lurgashall, and Carr Taylor are some of the biggest – but the quality of their products is improving year by year. Cairn O'Mohr's sparkling strawberry wine and Carr Taylor's ginger wine both received prizes at this year's Great Taste Awards, organised by the Guild of Fine Food. And, crucially, these vintners do not insist on the use of sealing wax in the wine-making process.
Alex Carr Taylor's winery is in Westfield, near Hastings, in East Sussex. He produces 25 to 30,000 bottles of fruit wine a year, including redcurrant, blackcurrant, elderberry, cherry, and ginger wine. His winery is both beautiful – vine-covered, south-facing, hedgerowed – and no-nonsense. There is no attempt to hide the fact that this is a busy winery getting on with the job of making booze. Tourists rub shoulders with staff, tractors and prefab huts.
Carr Taylor's attitude to making fruit wine is also, thankfully, straightforward. "As long as you have ripe fruit, sugar and yeast, you shouldn't go far wrong," he tells me, before remembering another crucial ingredient. "Patience is also important," he says, "but if you have a little of that, there is no reason why you can't make drinkable wine for your table."
The heart of his winery is a small, makeshift room next to the wine press. Alex calls it "the lab", and tells me he can often be found in there working on his latest concoctions. To a town dweller such as myself, it is incredibly exciting. There are wine bottles with cryptic scribbles on their labels, test tubes filled with strange coloured liquids, a large pestle and mortar, syringes, thermometers, measuring cylinders, and a sack of sugar on the floor.
Alex's father set up the Carr Taylor vineyard in the early 1970s, and Alex has lived there since he was a toddler, worked there since he left university, and been in charge for the last three years. He lives on site and frequently works 20-hour days at harvest time, yet he retains child-like levels of enthusiasm. "Wine-making is a fantastic mixture of the scientific and the creative," he says, explaining that he is currently experimenting with ways to make his wine clearer and longer-lasting (hence the test tubes and the enigmatic scribbles).
He offers to show me how to make redcurrant wine, and reassures me that there will be no need for measuring cylinders or syringes, unless I'm particularly keen to use them. The first task is to mash the redcurrants through a sieve. As ever, patience is important. You have to do it slowly and carefully so that the pips aren't damaged, as this would make the wine bitter. The next step is to boil up some water and dissolve sugar and yeast nutrient into it. The redcurrant juice and pulp are then added, along with pectic enzyme (which can be bought online).
This first stage of the wine-making process is not time-consuming, nor tricky. In fact it is a messy, mad professor-ish type of exercise, which leaves you with red fingers and a little lump of joy in your heart. In two weeks, my wine will be drinkable and I can then either throw it straight down my throat or leave it for up to six months to improve its flavour.
However, Alex tells me that the real pleasure is not in drinking your first bottle, but in perfecting your wine over time. It took him five years to get the recipe for his award-winning ginger wine right. And I can tell you that it was worth the wait. Later, I try his wines. I try them all, and they go down a treat. They are not enigmatic or surprising like grape wines – redcurrant wine tastes like redcurrants, only sweeter and warmer. But they are delicious, soothing and extremely sinkable. Fruit wines, it becomes clear to me as I pour my second glass of redcurrant wine, are certainly worth what Mrs Beeton called the "little effort" involved in making them.
If you want to cheat, you can order Carr Taylor's fruit wines online: carr-taylor.co.uk.
If you do decide to make fruit wine yourself, please email me and tell me how it goes: email@example.com .
Blackberry wine By Mrs Beeton
Ripe blackberries: four gallons
Boiling water: four gallons
Crush the blackberries and pour over them the boiling water. Stir well, cover and leave undisturbed for four to five days. Without breaking up the crust on the surface, strain off the liquid. For every gallon of liquid add 1Ib of sugar, pour into a clean cask, reserving about a gallon to fill the cask as fermentation ends. This wine clears itself, but adding isinglass is recommended. Let it stand for a fortnight. Then add a stick of cinnamon and 1 gill of brandy per gallon of wine, secure the bung and leave undisturbed for 12 months. Note: Unless the blackberries are very ripe, double the above sugar will be needed.
Redcurrant wine By Alex Carr Taylor
1 sachet wine yeast
2-3g yeast nutrient
tablet ( tsp) pectic enzyme
Ingredients such as yeast, nutrients and pectic enzymes can be bought online from most home-brew websites or a local home-brew shop. Ensure all equipment is clean and sterile. Plastic and metal implements can be sterilised in boiling water.
Use ripe fruit and wash well. Remove the stalks and make sure there is no other foreign matter left amongst the berries. Mash and strain the berries through a nylon bag or sieve into a fermenting vessel. (Be careful not to break or damage the pips as this can lead to a bitter taste). Keep the redcurrant pulp of skins in the nylon bag, tie the top and leave the bag to soak in the juice.
Boil the water and dissolve the sugar and yeast nutrient into it. Cool the water until it is just warm to the touch, add the juice and pulp, and then the pectic enzyme. One crushed Campden tablet should then be added to preserve freshness and colour.
After 24 hours, the yeast should be rehydrated (as per instructions on the packet) and stirred into the juice to start fermentation. A little extra aeration by stirring at this stage will help the yeast multiply.
After three days remove the pulp bag (to avoid any further bitter flavour). By now the colour should be sufficiently pink.
Allow the fermentation to continue to completion (that is when there is no more bubbling – meaning that all the sugar had been used up). Siphon the liquid off the sediment into a clean storage jar. The storage jar or demijohn should have a narrow neck in to which a simple airlock can be fitted. This allows gases out but prevents air getting in. Add another crushed Campden tablet to the liquid and allow to settle and clear for approximately two weeks. As a light dry wine it can be drunk now. Rack off the sediment, add half a crushed Campden tablet, leave for 24 hours and enjoy.
Alternatively, add either standard granulated sugar or apple juice to taste, add 1 Campden tablet and a gram of potassium sorbate (to prevent yeast regrowth), bottle and drink when desired. A two-to-six-month bottle maturation period can help.