It’s elderberry season… a month early. Hurray for global warming! Screw global warming but back to the elderberries.
The warm but wet weather has shifted elder trees into high gear so the berries have ripened a month earlier than last year. Not only that but the berries seem nice and juicy bursting with flavour. In an odd twist there are even one or two elder flowers blossoming at the same time due to the on again off again efforts of the sun to poke his head through the clouds.
Making elderberry wine is not for the faint hearted. You have to wait a year minimum for elderberry wine to mature, probably 2 or more even. You cannot wander into Lidl and browse for elderberries – some mail order companies do sell dried berries though.. Elderberries are foraged and you need about 2kg of berries per gallon of wine being made. First find some elder trees, they are scrubby looking bushes easily identified by the floral elder flowers in April. Leaves are almost certainly in groups of five and the berries mature to become ink black in red stemmed clusters about this time of year!
Not only must you identify them correctly but you have to be patient too picking them only when they fully ripe. All the berries have to turn a rich deep black – check the undersides of the berries to really see if they are mature with no red glinting back. The stems turn red and if the cluster has been unmolested by hungry birds they droop due to th fruity goodness. If a few birds have pecked the berries they are less likely to weigh down the bunch. Some berries may have even started to raisin and these are no problem simply being sun dried elderberries that will release flavour into the wine when fermenting.
When picking stay away from clusters that have been… er… crapped on by hungry birds, or those that look mildewy. South facing clusters ripen first as do trees that are close to water but they are more likely to covered in mildew, cobwebs and flies sadly. Picking a fully ripe cluster of berries should be easy as they snap easily off as the stems become brittle. Less mature berries will need a firmer pull or even a pair of scissors. Best to be patient and wait. Never pick clusters that have green or red berries as you are just wasting fruit and will cause an elderberry arms race with other foragers as they try to keep up. The trees are not yours to own either, you have no right to the berries and don’t damage branches getting at them as they are food for migrating birds and small mammals when they fall to the ground. If they are out of reach they are out of bounds in my view.
2kg is a lot of berries so a few foraging trips may be needed over a few weeks as bunches mature at different times. The berries keep in the freezer and this is in fact beneficial as freezing will destroy up to half the pectin if done for seven days or more as well as bursting internal cell walls to allow more juice to be extracted. Once you get elderberries home it is essential to pluck the berries from the stems this can easily be done with a gentle rolling with your hands though some use a fork for ease. I find the fork pulls small stems with them so it causes more problems that is solves. If a few immature berries have made it into your possession they will float when you rinse them. Sugar laden ripe berries are heavier than water and sink.
STEMS MUST NOT BE USED IN WINE MAKING AS THEY ARE TOXIC.
Stems might not kill you but could cause problems for people with heart problems or children. It should be noted that the leaves are too so don’t have any ideas turning an oak leaf wine recipe into an elder leaf wine recipe. The roots can be fatal if ingested so no licking.
As Elderberries are the Englishman’s grape they need no tannin adding artificially and in fact it is easy to create an overly tannic wine. Little acid is added to get them into shape and sugar is relatively high too. The skins are thick and contain a high level of flavour so cold maceration will help extract flavour, aroma and colour. I have mine cold soaking for five days but plan to remove the berries early in primary fermentation. This is to limit the extraction of too much tannin through alcoholic extraction – this does mean I can reuse the skins and yeast adding 2kg of blackberries and sugar to make a second run of “Elder and Black” wine.
Elderberry wine will be started at the weekend so check back for that…
A few days later the second run Elder and Black will start will full details given so keep an eye out for that too…