Introduction: Making Rhubarb Blush (a Country Wine)
At the start of May here in Ontario, the rhubarb patch consists of barely discernible nubs in the midst of mulch and manure. In three weeks, the stalks are an inch thick, juicy, and ready to be made into sauce, crisp, cake, juice, and WINE!
This wine is made with rhubarb, sugar, white grape juice, wine yeast, yeast nutrient, and enough elderberries to give it a becoming blush (I've used black raspberries for blushing the wine as well).
Step 1: Equipment and the Recipe
You'll need the following equipment to make a gallon of this wine:
- a bucket for gathering your rhubarb
- a paring knife to trim it
- a chopping knife and cutting board to chop it
- a scale to weigh it as well as the sugar
- a 6 quart or larger bowl or other food safe container for juice extraction
- a cover for the extraction container
- large spoon for stirring
- a mesh strainer
- straining cloth
- a container to hold the strained juice and added water up to a gallon
- a measuring cup or small pot to hold water being added
- a fermentation vessel
- a fermentation lock to fit the fermentation vessel
- a siphon hose
- five bottles with screw caps or corks that fit
Do not attempt this unless you have basic knife skills, basic measuring skills, and patience! Wine making involves a lot of waiting.
The recipe I started with uses weight measures for the rhubarb and sugar, rather than volumes. Approximate volumes are in parentheses.
3 pounds rhubarb in 1/2 inch slices (about 3 quarts)
2 1/2 pounds white sugar (6 cups)
1 1/4 cup frozen or fresh elderberries or 1/2 cup elderberry juice (or 2 cups black raspberries)
2 cups white grape juice
enough filtered water to make up one gallon
1/2 package wine yeast (champagne yeast is the best to use, since it readily settles)
1/2 teaspoon yeast nutrient (get this at a wine-making supply store)
Step 2: Picking the Rhubarb
When the dandelions bloom, it's time to check the rhubarb.
To prolong a healthy harvest from your patch, you should pick only a third of each plant at a time. I have four plants. They are very healthy from summer mulch and fall applications of compost. Over the course of four days, I picked enough rhubarb to make three gallons of wine. In another week, I'll be able to do so again, but I won't because I only have three gallon fermenters. I'll make juice and sauce instead.
I pick the stalks whose stems are the longest and biggest around with the biggest leaves. This usually opens up space nicely for younger, smaller stems to grow. If I see any seed stalks starting, I pick those too to keep the patch producing stems rather than seed.
To pick a stalk, grip it firmly just above where it comes from the ground (and root mass) and pull. It's quite natural to hear a "pop" as it detaches. If the stem breaks, be sure to pull the remainder out, as it could rot and bring disease to the rest of the plant.
Step 3: Trimming the Rhubarb
Cut off the leaves off (with about a half-inch of stem or so) and cut off the stem bottoms (where is looks like the bottom of a celery stalk).
The leaves are poisonous to livestock, having a high oxalic acid content, so their best use is as mulch around fruit trees. They do a good job keeping down weeds and grass while they brown and break down.
I usually cut the stalks in halves or thirds to fit in my bucket. You will need almost four quarts of stalks.
Step 4: Washing and Chopping the Rhubarb
Back in the house I stopper my stainless steel sink, dump in the rhubarb, and cover it with cool water to wash it.
I don't spray my rhubarb, so I'm mainly washing to get rid of brown skin and some dirt on the stalk ends where it comes out of the ground.
I take out four or five stalks at a time and chop it into half-inch slices. You want lots of open surface on the rhubarb for the juice extraction step.
I have a digital kitchen scale which has a tare function: I can put a bowl or other container on the scale, turn on the scale, and it registers a weight of zero. I chop and add rhubarb to the container until the weight registers as three pounds. A little over or under won't matter. If you don't have a scale, be sure you have half-inch slices and measure out three quarts into your large bowl.
I next weigh out 2 1/2 pounds of white sugar. For this Instructable, I did a volume measure and got 6 cups. This produces a dry wine. Using more sugar will not increase alcohol content of your wine, it will only make it sweeter. Another quarter-pound of sugar will produce a medium wine; another half-pound will produce a rather sweet wine. In a dry wine, all of the sugar is converted to enough alcohol to kill the yeast and stop fermentation. The increased amounts of sugar simply stay in the wine as the fermentation stops. You can substitute organic sugar if you are making a medium or sweet wine, since you will be consuming sugar in your finished wine.
Substitution of other sugars for white or organic sugar is your own taste adventure: if the sugar has any flavor of its own, it will surely come through in the wine.
Step 5: Juice Extraction
I love this method of extracting juice! The sugar pulls liquid from the rhubarb (and it shrinks by nearly a third).
Actually it is extracting a syrup, since so much sugar is used. Combine the cut rhubarb, berries and sugar in a large bowl. Cover (because you don't want ants finding this and starting a parade!) and set aside for 24 hours. Stir every 4 hours or so, mostly to encourage all of the sugar to dissolve into the syrup.
Step 6: Straining the Juice
Ta-da! twenty four hours later and it's time to make up your fermentation base.
First, strain all the syrup out of your rhubarb/berry blend.
Second, add two cups of white grape juice (fairly neutral in taste and adds a little substance to your country wine -- I grow my own white grapes and juice them in the fall.)
Third, rinse your rhubarb mixture with filtered water to get out all of the sugar you can. The easiest way to do this is put your rhubarb mixture back into the empty bowl and add a quart of filtered water to it. Strain and repeat. Now squeeze what liquid you can from the rhubarb mixture in your straining cloth.
You could throw the rhubarb mixture away, but it cooks up to a lovely sauce or makes a great pie filling -- pre-sweetened!
Add enough filtered water to make four quarts (one gallon). I now have a stock pot with a 4 quarts mark on its side. Before I got it, I measured the liquid with my 2 quart measure into a plain six quart pot.
Add your 1/2 package of wine yeast and 1/2 teaspoon of yeast nutrient and cover it while you get your fermentation vessel ready.
Step 7: Setting Up Your Fermentation Vessel
I don't add sulphite to any wine I make, but I do keep made up sanitizing solution on hand: 2 tsp of potassium metabisulphite (from a wine-making supplier) in 1 liter (35 oz) of cold water. Be careful with the stuff as you make this up as the powder or vapors from the solution can cause an allergic reaction and irritation to skin, eyes, and respiratory tract.
I have three one-gallon jugs that I use as fermentation vessels. I thoroughly wash these after I bottle wine and store them away with a half-inch of solution in the bottom of them. I also use the solution as pre-wash the bottles I put the wine into. And I use the solution in setting up the fermentation locks.
This jug once held apple cider. I prefer to use glass rather than plastic for fermenting wine. Food-safe plastic will work too. What is most important, though, is that the vessel be clean, sterile, and rinsed of the sanitizing solution, and that you are able to fit a fermentation lock to it. Some locks install via holes in rubber stoppers; some screw on (obviously to jugs with matching screw tops). Seek the advice of wine-making supplier staff if you have an unusual fermentation vessel.
Why sterilize? You want only the wine yeast to be growing in your wine: no bacteria, molds, or wild yeasts.
Carefully pour your proto-wine (with yeast and nutrient!) into your fermentation vessel. Leave some room in the neck. Attach the fermentation lock. Remove its lid and fill with enough sanitizing solution that the inner lock piece starts to float (usually half the height of the lock) Put the lid back on. Fermentation produces gas; the lock allows the gas to escape safely (so your jug won't explode!) while preventing air with its wild yeast, molds and bacteria from entering.
Set the fermentation vessel in a dark place whose temperature is between 60 and 75 degrees F. Temperatures below that greatly slows fermentation and temperatures above that accelerate fermentation so that things other than alcohol are produced (giving it real rot-gut character!).
Leave for six weeks. Fermentation may be done in 4 weeks, but a 2 week "settling" period will uncloud the wine considerably. When no bubbles appear in the fermentation lock as you jiggle the jug, fermentation is done. If your wine is in a place at the lower end of the temperature spectrum, fermentation may take a little longer.
Step 8: Bottling and Drinking the Wine
It's six weeks later and nothing happens when you jiggle your fermentation jug. You notice that it's clearer towards the top than it is at the bottom of the jug. In fact, there's a layer of thickish stuff at the bottom of jug -- this is dead yeast and solids that have precipitated out of the wine's liquid. It's time to bottle.
One gallon of wine will fill 5 25 oz or 750 ml bottles. I prefer dark glass bottles for my wine. Perrier comes in 750 ml bottles that are a dark green and strong enough to withstand carbonation. The screw caps are fairly sturdy and plastic lined. I don't drink Perrier, but a fellow around the block does to the tune of more than a dozen bottles a week in his recycling bin. Five bottles are an easy carry home on a Friday morning.
Another thing I like about Perrier bottles is that the labels readily soak off and they ve a smooth shape that is easy to clean, especially if you throw a tablespoon of BBs inside them, swish them around, and empty them out into a small strainer. Once the labels are off and the bottles are clean, I rinse each with a couple of tablespoons of sanitizing solution, rinse again with plain water, and then they are ready to fill.
I use a siphon hose to decant from the jug to the bottles. A four foot length of 1/4 inch plastic hose (such as you use in aquariums) will suffice. I set the jug on a table and the bottles to be filled in a pan on a chair or stool. The bottom of the jug should be above the top of the bottles to guarantee working. Remove the fermentation lock and insert the hose so its end is about an inch above the bottom of the jug (and the gucky stuff). With your head at table level suck on the other end of the hose to get the flow going. Plug that end with your finger and direct it your first bottle. Fill to within three to two inches of the top, plug the end with your finger and transfer the hose to the next bottle. Continue until all bottles are filled. You will have to tilt the jug on the last bottle to get the last of the clearer wine, letting the top end of the hose curve into the angled pool.
Cap your bottles. Dry the outside of the bottles. If you are using labels you've printed yourself, apply them with washable white glue (the stuff they sell for school kids). The labels will adhere well but be easy to remove for next year's wine.
Store upright in a cool, dark place -- like a cellar. The wine should age for at least six months from the time of bottling. It's even better if you hold off drinking the wine you started in May until the following May.
The wine will clear more as the year progresses and you will see sediment in the bottom of your bottles. When you open a bottle to drink it, carefully pour it into another clean bottle, leaving the sediment behind. This wine is best drunk cold.
Thoroughly wash the bottle you decanted from and store it away for your next batch of wine.