Tag: country wines

Garden Update: September 2023

As the height of summer passes and we inch our way slowly toward fall, we find ourselves entering the busiest part of the year for me. While my husband is the primary gardener, I’m the primary food preserver—and everything needs to be preserved in the next few weeks.

Harvesting and Preserving

We learned our lesson last year. We used to like keeping things in the ground as long as possible, meaning that when we get the notification that frost is coming (usually in mid- to late-October), we then hurry to harvest everything all at once. And that means having to preserve non-stop for days or weeks to make sure nothing goes rotten.

I think I really burned myself out last year.

This year, we’re harvesting things when we think they’re ready rather than leaving them as long as possible. Really, an extra couple weeks won’t make much difference.

This means that this past weekend we harvested all the beets—53 pounds—and I pickled 26 pints / half-litres. We also gave some away to both our neighbours, my mom, and some friends of ours. We still have a small pile left. If I can find the motivation, I might try turning them into beet chips.

This past weekend also saw our potato harvest—234 pounds of Yukon gold and red-skinned potatoes. Thankfully, these don’t need anything done with them, at least not right away. In the past, a restaurant has taken some of our Yukon gold potatoes off of us, so I’m hoping they’ll be interested again this year. The red-skinned potatoes are good for canning, so once things settle down in November/December, I might look at canning some potatoes. These make great last-minute additions to dinner (fry them up like gnocchi) or breakfasts (fry them up like hash browns)—and since canning fully cooks them in the process, adding them to dinner or breakfast just takes as long as heating them up and maybe getting a little crispy on the outside. I’m hoping to convince a coworker to teach me how to make gnocchi, as I’d love to have bags of homemade gnocchi in the freezer, ready to be pulled out for dinners.

The tomatoes are ripening at a nice pace. They keep me busy but don’t overwhelm me. I just finished canning a batch of salsa and I’m stewing up a batch of butter chicken sauce that’ll be canned later today.

Looking ahead, I think this next week or two is going to be the herb-harvest period. We’ve got lots of basil that I’ll turn into pesto, lots of oregano that I’ll dry for kitchen use, some mint I’ll dry for a friend for tea, and rosemary that I’ll likely turn into a batch of rosemary wine. We also have some thyme, but I don’t know if I have a use for it—I could dry it, but it’s not really something I cook with—so I might just leave that one in the garden.

A lot of the other remaining things can wait till I have time. The peppers are slowly ripening but they’re fine sitting on the plant until I’m ready; the carrots and parsnips can wait till we have time; and the black beans and kidney beans are slowly drying and I’m in no rush to harvest them.

Legal Mustard

A few years ago, a wild mustard plant took root in our garden and we decided to let it grow. Though mustard leaves are edible, we never really came to like them. The seeds, though…I taught myself how to collect mustard seeds and make homemade mustard.

The first batch was terrible. Absolutely terrible. I threw it in the back of the fridge and forgot about it. And when the following spring rolled around and we were doing our first barbecue, I pulled out that mustard with a wary look. We gave it a try and ohmygod it was delicious. The flavour clearly matures over time.

Mustard plants grow millions of seeds and no matter how hard you try to collect them all, some always scatter. Year after year our mustard harvest grew as the plants spread. We never had to plant them ourselves—nature took care of it all.

Then, last year, we got a letter from the city about property maintenance bylaws. The letter was very unclear but mentioned tall grass (we have about two square feet of grass that got a little long) and noxious weeds. After researching it, wild mustard is a noxious weed. We had to tear it all out.

Turns out, after we tore it all out and contacted the inspector to verify we’d done everything right, he told us he hadn’t even noticed the wild mustard. The letter was just about the tall grass and the generic language included noxious weeds even though that wasn’t what he flagged for our property.

(Wild mustard is a noxious weed because it resembles canola and can infiltrate canola fields. If a canola harvest has too much mustard in it, the whole lot has to be dumped.)

We’ve still got half a jar of now-illegal mustard in the back of the fridge that I pull out when friends are over.

This year, we discovered the seed catalogue we order from has mustard—a legal kind!

The mustard plants are slowly dying off now—the seeds are harvested when the plant is brown and brittle—and I’m throwing the plants in one of those large paper lawn bags. In a few weeks I’ll work on harvesting the seeds and then set out to return to the world of mustard-making.

Since this is a new variety, the heat level of the seeds might be different. Wild mustard was black and dark brown seeds, which are the hottest. I’m not sure what colour these seeds are yet. But I’m looking forward to the adventure.

Looking Ahead to 2024

We’ve been gardening at this scale for a few years now, but we always learn new things and make new plans.

Next year our front yard will fully be fruit-only. My husband is planning to take out the horseradish plant before the summer is over, which is the only non-fruit/non-flower plant on that part of the property.

In the past, our neighbour who lets us use his yard has talked about moving to somewhere that requires less work and upkeep, and he’s talking about it again. This means we have to start coming up with contingency plans in case he does follow through on the idea of moving. (Given what’s been going on in this part of the city, if our neighbour moves, his house will be torn down, his property divided, and two or three new houses will go up in their place. The garden will be gone.)

This year we started gardening a little strip in our other neighbour’s yard. I think they don’t like mowing the lawn, so they’re eager for us to convert their whole property to garden space. If we lose our big space, this could be the route we go.

We’ve also talked about how we could downsize things and do it all on our property. (Do we really need 234 pounds of potatoes, 130 ears of corn, and 53 pounds of beets?)

Lately, my husband has been connecting with a meditation retreat place just outside the city and has volunteered some of his time to help out in their garden. They’ve offered to let us take some of the space for our own use. It’s a bit of a drive, but it’s a big space and it could be ideal for things that don’t need lots of attention (since we can’t get out there everyday), like onions, carrots, parsnips, and potatoes.

Of course, for all the talk of moving, our neighbour with the giant garden might end up staying there for several more years. But it’s always good to talk about these things so that if and when it happens, it’s not a disaster and we already have a plan in place. It also gets us thinking of what we’re growing and why. Like, this year we grew honeydew melon and realized that neither of us really like honeydew melon. If we’re crunched for space, that’ll be the first to go.

Update since I wrote the draft of this post: I decided to give honeydew melon wine a try—and I had just enough melon!

Honeydew melon wine (green) and corn cob wine (yellow).

Wine Failures

In my recent post about winemaking, I listed the country wines / garden wines I’ve made and the ones that are currently in process.

Well, I’ve had two disasters—one is salvageable and the other, well, we’ll see.

I noticed the airlock on the chokecherry wine wasn’t bubbling. This is concerning as it means that the yeast might not have taken hold and might’ve died off. If that’s the case, then I don’t have a bucket of wine, but rather a bucket of sugary juice that runs the risk of going mouldy.

I do these big batches of wine over at my mom’s place where there’s more room, so I’ll head over there this weekend and see if it’s salvageable. It’s certainly possible that the lid isn’t airtight and the excess gas is escaping elsewhere (and it is indeed fermenting), which is why the airlock isn’t bubbling. We’ll see.

Edit since I wrote up the first draft of this post: The chokecherry wine is indeed fermenting. It smells alcoholic and there have been some positive changes (like there’s no longer a layer of sugar on the bottom). I’m not sure what’s going on with the airlock not bubbling, but wine is certainly being made.

That seems to be the exact problem I had with the Saskatoon wine, though that one is salvageable.

The Saskatoon wine did actively ferment during primary (the first stage of fermentation where the yeast is most active), but after moving it to a new jar (called a secondary), the bubbling seemed to have died off quickly. I left it like that for a few weeks to see what would happen…but no bubbles ever came.

Well, it had certainly fermented earlier, so I knew the yeast had taken hold and survived, so maybe this was a wine that just finished early for some reason? It could have a low sugar content and the yeast ate up all their food quickly.

Anyway, I bottled it and let it sit around for a few weeks. I started to worry, though, that I might’ve bottled it too early. Maybe the lid wasn’t tight enough and gas escaped that way rather than through the airlock?

It didn’t take much convincing my husband when I said we should try a bottle of Saskatoon wine to see if it turned out.

I opened the first bottle…and it shot out like a geyser. There was wine everywhere.

Clearly, I had my answer. The wine had not finished fermenting before I bottled it and it continued to ferment in the wine bottle. This creates a safety hazard because if the pressure builds up too much, it could shatter the bottles. Not only would that be messy, but it’s potentially dangerous.

We opened two more bottles to see if they were the same. They did not shoot out geyser-like.

Anyway, now we had three open bottles of wine, though one was half-empty after the geyser. These are 375 ml bottles (half the standard wine bottle), so collectively it was just shy of a litre of wine.

We got some snacks, poured out the wine, and settled in for the first couple episodes of The Enfield Haunting.

The wine was great! I definitely want to try it again next year and see how it tastes when it’s fully and properly fermented and aged.

There were still three more bottles of Saskatoon wine, but we didn’t want to drink that all in one night. We have a friend that was really interested in trying this wine, so we wanted to save it for our next hangout.

To be safe, I put the three bottles in extra-large Ziplock bags, hoping that this would prevent glass shards and massive spills if they shatter, and then put them in the bottom of the fridge, as the cold air will slow the fermenting if it’s still occurring. When we bring it to our friend’s place, we’ll tell him to put on rubber gloves (in case the bottle shatters in his hand…which has happened to my husband once and required a hospital visit) and do it outside (in case it’s another geyser).

Preparing for Winter

Though Winter is still a few months away, we’ll soon be in fall and then very quickly the snow will fly.

The next month or so will see me harvesting the last of what we’ve got (which is still a lot) and finding ways to preserve it. Last year, we managed to grow enough veggies to last us the year, except for mushrooms, which we don’t grow. I’m hoping this year is the same. Although I’m soon going to an indoor mushroom growing workshop, so mushrooms might soon be off our grocery list.

The only thing we buy in the produce section at the grocery store are mushrooms, apples, oranges, bananas, and ginger (which we’ve got in our garden this year!). That’s it. The rapidly rising cost of fruits and veggies hasn’t really hit us.

As the food preserving winds down in October, I hope to get back into baking bread and bagels. I’ve been maintaining my sourdough starter but haven’t had time to use it to make anything.

I’ve also got other projects I’ve been long neglecting because of the garden. Outside of this, I’m an author and a publisher and while I’ve managed to keep the publishing going, I really need to get back into writing. My favourite part of winter is the slower pace and just enjoying all of the food and drink that we’ve grown and preserved. It tastes so much better when we know we did it all ourselves.

For my husband, preparing for winter means slowly clearing out the gardens and planting the garlic so they come up right as the spring rolls around. As the snow falls, he wedges tree branches in our chain link fence and strings Christmas lights through them, giving it all a sort of enchanted forest look.

And as we get into the real depths of winter, well, that’s when the seed catalogue arrives in our mailbox and we start preparing for the upcoming spring.

A Rough Guide to Making Country Wines

Country wines are generally wines made with fruit other than grapes. Considering these wines are usually the output of my garden and I’m not located in the country, I sometimes refer to these as garden wines.

But whether you call them country wines or garden wines or something else, the process is still the same and the output is usually delicious.

I’ve learned over the years that fermenting—wines, kombucha, fermentation as preservation—is as much an art as it is a science.

Yes, there’s the obvious science stuff; fermentation is the process of using beneficial bacteria and yeast to produce a desired effect on foods. In winemaking, fermentation involves yeast turning sugar into alcohol.

However, once the basic science stuff is accommodated, art comes in. For winemaking that could mean tweaking a recipe to get a desired taste, upping the sugar content to increase the alcohol content, paying attention to the wine to get a sense of the fermentation stages and process (since I often find with country wines that the fermentation period varies wildly from the recipes I follow), and more.

So far I’ve tried:

  • Dandelion wine (now a regular summer project for me)
  • Lemon wine (a bit lemony, which I guess is to be expected, but it received mixed reviews)
  • Parsnip wine (surprisingly very good)
  • Rhubarb wine (a favourite of a friend of mine)
  • Apple wine (delicious and will definitely be making more)
  • Lilac wine (unbelievably good)
  • Saskatoon wine (recently bottled, haven’t tried yet)
  • Cherry wine (going to bottle soon, haven’t tried yet)
  • Grape wine (going to bottle in a couple weeks, haven’t tried yet)
  • Chokecherry wine (currently fermenting, haven’t had it before)
  • Corn cob wine (just started this batch yesterday, haven’t had it before)
  • Beetroot wine (just starting this batch today, haven’t had it before)

The Equipment You Need

While country wines are dirt cheap to make—the ingredients are often fruit, sugar, water, yeast, and a few additives—there is a start-up cost with the needed equipment. Even then, there are things you need, and things you can get by without.

Country wines are often small one-gallon batches, which means you’re using smaller (and cheaper!) equipment than if you’re making full five-gallon batches from winemaking kits. (There are even mason jar micro-batch wine recipes if you search the internet enough!) However, if you like a garden wine and have enough fruit, you can always quintuple a recipe and use the traditional five-gallon equipment.

Everything I’ll list here is on the assumption of equipment needed for one-gallon batches:

  • Fermentation vessels, which are a fancy term to mean jars or buckets. Ideally you have two because you have to transfer the wine from one to the other a few times to remove sediment, but you could get by only having one of you transfer the wine to a temporary vessel (like several jars or jugs) while you clean out your vessel, then return the wine to it.
  • Airlocks / waterlocks, which are important to control the flow of air and, more importantly, any unwanted yeasts in the air that could spoil a batch of wine. (There’s yeast all around us!)
  • Bottles and corks. Since country wines are typically small batches, I like to use 375ml bottles, so the wine spreads out a little better. 375ml is half a standard wine bottle. You’ll also need corks and a corker (a device to put the cork in the bottle). Bottles can be reused, corks cannot.
  • Siphon, to move the wine from one vessel to the other.
    • Here’s one on Amazon, and it’s made for one gallon vessels. If you’re doing bigger batches with bigger equipment, you’ll need a longer siphon.
    • I actually don’t use this. I have a siphon but it’s for the big 5-gallon jugs, making it quite oversized for a little one-gallon jar. I usually use a clean ladle and carefully ladle the wine from one vessel to the other, leaving most sediment behind. If I also have to filter out chunks of fruit, I set a fine-mesh wire strainer over the empty vessel to catch the fruit as I transfer the wine. When transferring the wine to bottle—usually done by siphoning directly into the bottles—I use a funnel and ladle the wine in. It’s not the best, but it does the job.
  • Yeast. There are different yeasts meant for different types of wine. To be honest, I’m not the best with planning ahead so I often just use the one I have on hand. **Do not use bread yeast as you’ll get off flavours.**
  • Pectin enzyme, which is needed to break up naturally occurring pectin that comes on some fruits. Pectin is what sets jam and jelly nice and solid, not something you want in your wine.
  • Acid blend, which is needed to acidify some wines.
    • Here’s some on Amazon.
    • Alternatively, you can use lemon juice at a ratio of one tablespoon of lemon juice in place of one teaspoon of acid blend. I use lemon juice.
  • Tannin powder, to add tannins to some wines. This gives the mouth feel we associate with wine.
    • Here’s some on Amazon.
    • Alternatively, you can brew a cup of black tea / English Breakfast tea, let it cool, and dump it in. I always go with the tea option.
  • Yeast nutrient, as not all fruits give the micronutrients yeast needs to thrive.

The Stages of Winemaking

Once you get all the ingredients (which may include fruit/flowers, sugar, nutrients, acid, water, yeast, etc.) into your fermentation vessel, these are the general stages:

Primary Fermentation

Fermentation at the stage can be fast and furious, and sometimes the contents can shoot up the airlock and spill over.

The yeast is hungrily and greedily consuming the sugar and converting it to alcohol.

The fermentation vessel used here—even if it’s the same vessel you use throughout the process—is often called the “primary”. So if a recipe calls for stirring your primary or putting everything in your primary, it’s referring to the stage.

Secondary Fermentation

After a while, usually a few weeks, the speed of fermentation slows. The bubbles in the airlock are slower-paced.

At this point, you’ll usually rack the wine into your secondary. This is a fancy way of saying to move the wine into a new vessel, leaving sediment (or even fruit or flowers) behind.

This is typically done by siphoning the wine from one vessel to the other—or using a ladle like I do.

If you move the vessel before racking it—I usually keep mine in the corner of the counter and have to move it closer—it’s a good idea to let it sit for half an hour or more before racking. Moving can stir up the sediment, so you want it to settle before you rack it.

Racking and Clarifying

Recipes will often have you racking the wine—transferring it to a new vessel—a few times. As the yeast continues to work, sediment continues to accumulate. Some wines produce a lot of sediment (like dandelion wine) and others not so much (my saskatoon wine, currently fermenting, seems to give little sediment).

Bottling and Aging

Eventually the wine will finish fermenting. Regardless of the timeline given by the recipe, figure this out for yourself. Watch the airlock closely; if there are no bubbles in a five to ten minute period, the wine is likely done and the yeast has died off.

The risk of bottling too early is that if the yeast is still active and producing carbon dioxide as a byproduct of fermentation, pressure builds up in the bottle and it could explode. I once bottled a batch of dandelion wine too early—it ended up coming out sparkling like a moscato, but could have easily exploded. I was lucky!

Transfer to bottles, either with a siphon or a ladle and funnel, and then insert a cork.

Most wines need to age, which means just sit around in their bottles, for anywhere from a few weeks to a year. You can certainly drink it before it’s done aging, but the taste might not be as good. The difference aging makes can sometimes be drastic. I tasted my apple wine while bottling, opened and drank a bottle midway through aging, and enjoyed some fully-aged—and each of these three tastes were wildly different.

Learning the Process

Learning to make wine feels intimidating. However, the way to learn is to just dive in and do it.

If you can invest in the equipment necessary, a good starter is a full wine kit from a wine store. Those have easy to follow instructions and very little goes wrong. That’s how I got my start, and it gave me the confidence to move on to country wines. (The downside is that these kits are made for five-gallon equipment, not the one-gallon equipment you’d be buying for country wines.)

If you’re a first timer or have never been comfortable with the process, but want to try it, find a country wine recipe with clear instructions and that tells you how to identify the steps, such as knowing when primary fermentation is over and it’s ready to rack into the secondary. The resource section below will help you find such recipes.

Country Wine Resources

This website will be a resource as I get recipes uploaded. Click on Recipe Index in the menu and look for the wine section. (As of writing this, the wine section doesn’t exist yet… but it will!)

Practical Self-Reliance—this is my go-to homesteading resource and highly recommend it. Ashley has several wine recipes with clear instructions, including information on substitutes for special ingredients and what to do if you don’t have all the equipment. Her Dandelion Wine recipe was my first country wine.

I now do five-gallon batches of dandelion wine because it’s so well loved.

Jack Keller’s archive—Jack was a leader in the country wine community online and wrote a very popular blog filled with recipes. After his passing, his community archived all of his country wine recipes in a downloadable PDF meant for sharing widely. I’ve got a copy saved here that you can download for yourself. These are more for the experienced winemaker, or at least for the brave soul that likes to experiment, because some of them feel like fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants directions.

Tasty Experiments

Country wines don’t usually taste like store-bought wines, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less enjoyable. You’ll find out which ones you love and which you don’t care for. My husband loves my dandelion wine and a friend of ours loves my rhubarb wine.

But it’s the experimenting that makes this extra fun and the final product extra rewarding. It’s looking at something in your garden and six months later pouring it into a glass to impress your friends. It’s about making something special and unique, something you can’t buy, something that can only come from someone putting in the time and effort to create something delicious.