Dear Wine Wizard,
I have started making country wines. My winemaking book does not clearly dictate whether there is a general guideline for properly aging country wines. Currently we have made strawberry wine in dry and semi-sweet styles and blackberry wine in dry and semi-sweet styles. However, we would like to make many more wines from fruit other than grapes and wonder how long we should or can wait until drinking them.
Wine Wizard replies: The most general guidelines the Wine Wiz can give you for aging wines from fruits, vegetables and herbs are these: Always cellar any wine at least six months before opening the first bottle and try to consume within three or four years. Many fruit and vegetable wines lack the natural acidity, alcohol content, tannin and phenolic concentration of grape-based wines, all of which contribute appreciably to the longevity and “graceful” aging of the wine.
That being said, there are some things you can add to or change about your “country wines” (non grape-based wines) if you want them to be able to stand up better to the test of time. Starting off with a properly-balanced must is perhaps the most important first step. Try to shoot for an initial sugar content of at least 19 ºBrix, a pH of 3.0–3.75 and a TA of 5.0–8.0 g/L. If you can’t measure the acids, it’s best to at least measure the sugar with a hydrometer and adjust the must with an acid blend of tartaric and malic acids to taste. You want the initial must or juice to taste just a bit more sweet and tart than a juice you’d be comfortable drinking at the breakfast table. Adjusting the acid and the sugar will give you more alcohol in the finished product, more “zing” on the palate as well as added protection against premature aging.
If your wine is going to be darker in color, like your blackberry wine for example, you may want to add some additional tannin or phenolic compounds to the must before you ferment. These will help the wine have a pleasing mouthfeel, body and “grip” and will also provide invaluable protection against excessive oxidation in the bottle. Tannins and phenolics can sometimes be purchased in home winemaking stores as commercial powders and potions but perhaps the most natural way to add them is to add grape juice or grape juice concentrate. Try to obtain these from a home winemaking supply store and not from the supermarket as those frozen cardboard tubes of Concord grape juice have often been treated with high levels of potassium sorbate, a preservative which inhibits yeast growth — good for juice in a supermarket but not good for juice that you want to become wine! The best part about using grape juice or grape juice concentrates in country wines is that they add good amounts of sugars, acids and nutrients that yeast need to perform a happy, healthy fermentation. This is one of the reasons why so many herb, flower, fruit and vegetable recipes call for grape juice as the base.
Thirdly, it is important to age your wine bottles in the right conditions. Store your wine bottles on their side so the cork can remain moist. Dried-out corks pull away from the sides of the bottleneck, creating a pathway for wine to leak out and oxygen (as well as microbes) to leak in. Be sure to keep your wine away from sunlight as UV rays can penetrate the bottle and damage the contents. Aside from accelerating oxidation, sunlight can actually cause certain sulfur (not sulfur dioxide) molecules to be released into the wine, resulting in stinky, skunky aromas. Most importantly, keep your wines stored in a place where the temperature is 55–75 ºF (13 ºC) and doesn’t have a swing from high to low more than 10 ºF (~6 ºC) during the year.
To make a delicious and age-worthy wine, most fruits and vegetables need extra help from talented winemakers like you who are always willing to adjust their musts.