The First of the Cabin Wines

By , March 23, 2012

We’ve recently advanced in our home wine making, starting a couple batches of genuine cottage wine. Or, perhaps more appropriately, cabin wine. In the last week I have started batches from locally harvested plants.

I made a half-batch of rose hip wine using a quart of home canned juice from our pantry. I also started a batch of birch wine using sap tapped from the trees in our dooryard.

birch taps

Tapping suckers takes less equipment than tapping a mature tree (Photo: Mark Zeiger).

While I’m excited to be making wines from local harvests rather than store-bought, I’m not particularly hopeful about either of these batches. The first homemade wine I ever tasted was rose hip. That was about 10 years ago, and I don’t think my nose hairs have straightened out yet. It tasted unbelievably sour; I barely managed a few sips. The result of our new effort will be approached with extreme caution. At least I’ll have some say over adjusting the taste should it not suit us.

I can’t imagine what the birch wine will taste like, but the color won’t be particularly appealing. Even so, it’s a fun experiment.

The birch tree in our dooryard has a cluster of suckers growing at its base, small birch saplings. These are greatly admired by our local moose, who come to eat them every winter and spring. Last year, after the moose had browsed the tips off of them, Aly noticed sap leaking from the broken tops. She stuck some bottles over them, and in a short time had enough birch sap to sample. It tastes like mild, herby sugar water.

Most of our wine making books include recipes for birch wine. I’ve been anxious to make “indigenous” wines, but had thought I’d need to wait till summer, or even autumn, until I remembered birch wine. I don’t consider it wholly local, since the recipes call for lemons or oranges—hardly to be found growing in these parts—but it seemed worth a try, nevertheless.

Michelle has talked about cutting the birch suckers out of the yard for several years. Not only do they contribute to moose visits, but in the summer months they host clouds of black flies. I figured I’d cut them out for her, a little bit at a time.

I clipped the browsed saplings a few inches lower than what the moose had left, and slipped a clean wine bottle or plastic milk jug over the tip. If the container wasn’t heavy enough to bend the sapling over, I tied them down with twine so that the sap dripping out the cut end would fall into the container rather than run down the stem. Every couple of days I emptied the bottles into another jug, pouring through a fine-mesh sieve to catch bark scraps, bugs, and other contaminants.

We had a run of perfect “sugaring” weather, with nights at or below freezing, and sunny, 40° days. The sap didn’t flow copiously, but it accumulated drop by drop. Once I’d gathered about a half gallon, I treated it with half of a campden tablet to kill any wild yeast or bacteria I’d collected. After that, I simply heated the sap enough to dissolve a few cups of sugar in it, poured it over a diced lemon, and added yeast.

Some readers may wonder why I don’t try making syrup out of the sap. I forget the ratio, but I believe it takes 60 gallons of sap to boil down to 1 gallon of syrup. That’s far too much energy and effort for us. Better to add sugar to the sap and make wine than try to boil it down to syrup.

I’ve discovered that beer growlers from the local brewery make excellent fermenters for half-gallon batches. The holed stoppers and threaded airlock caps I have for one-gallon jugs fit these perfectly.

Whether the end result of either of these cabin wines will be something we’ll want to drink remains to be seen, but at least we’re getting started on working with locally-harvested materials. That gives us a good deal of satisfaction.

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