It is nearly that time of year again when the Elderflowers start to bloom and people want to make "Elderflower Wine" and "Elderflower Champagne". If you have made wine before, it is relatively straightforward to make both of these varieties, but many online (and TV) guides suggest that it is really easy to do it without any experience, equipment or common sense.
One of the best known recipes/methods is the one advocated in the episode of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's "River Cottage", in which he makes "Elderflower Champagne". As Hugh likes everything to be as organic and natural as possible, and is limited by the length of the time slots for each segment within his show, his recipe and method has a habit of producing varying results and exploding bottles...
One of the big issues with this wine is that many people like to use the natural yeast that is present on the elderflowers to initiate the fermentation. This is fine provided that the flowers have been picked on a nice dry day and there is lots of yeast on them. If they are picked on a damp day, or following a period of rainfall, there may be very little natural yeast present and as a result the fermentation may be slow to non-existent. There is also no way of know what strain of yeast you are using or how it will behave. For this reason, many people prefer to take a slightly more interventionist approach and control of the process rather than trusting to luck.
If you have never made wine at all before, it might be worth starting with a wine kit as this will allow you to learn the techniques of fermentation and processing without having to fret about balancing the mixture and getting the initial "Must" settings right.
These are general guidelines, not "hard and fast" rules and all the timings are subject to change depending upon which yeast you use, how much sugar is present and how warm/cold it is.
Even if you do, your yeast won't read these instructions and will do exactly what it wants to do in its own timeframe !
5-10 Elderflowers Blossoms depending on how strong a flavour you like (or 15g of dried flowers)
700-1000g sugar depending on how strong an alcoholic drink you want to produce
The juice of 3 Lemons (or 3 teaspoons of Citric Acid)
1/4 teaspoon of Wine Tannin
1 Packet of "Champagne Style" Yeast - now called "Sparkling" wine yeast to comply with EU regulations (If you use a different yeast, you will almost certainly get a different result)
1 teaspoon of Yeast Nutrient
1 crushed Campden Tablet
1 Gallon of water.
140ml White Grape Concentrate or 250g chopped raisins (Optional ingredient)
- Clean, sterilise and rinse a 10ltr polythene bucket.
- Trim the flowers from the stems and put them into the bucket.
- Boil 4 litres of the water and pour over the flowers.
- Add the crushed campden tablet and leave for 24 hours for the natural yeast to be destroyed.
- Boil 1 litres of water and dissolve the sugar. 700g will produce about 7-8% alcohol, 1kg will produce about 10-11% alcohol.
- Add the sugar solution, lemon juice (or citric acid) and the tannin. Made this way, the wine and champagne will be very light bodied. If you prefer a richer bodied wine, add the concentrate or raisins at this point.
- Check that the temperature of the mix is between 18°and 24°C and add the yeast and yeast nutrient.
- Use a hydrometer to take the gravity reading and make a note of it so that you can later calculate the approximate alcohol content.
- Cover* and leave in a warm place to ferment for 4-5 days.
- Strain the mixture through a muslin bag or nylon straining bag into a demijohn and check the gravity.
- Decide whether you are planning on making Elderflower Wine or "Elderflower Champgne" and then follow the appropriate instructions below.
*If your bucket has an "airtight lid", you will need to either fit an airlock or loosely fit the lid in order to let the CO2 escape, or risk having the lid being blown off as the pressure increases. Older recipes suggest covering the bucket with a clean (sometimes damp) cloth or tea towel. The choice is yours.
If you are making elderflower wine, you would fit an airlock to the demijohn and leave it to ferment until completely finished and displaying a gravity reading of 994-998 for two consecutive days when checked with a hydrometer. Depending on the ambient temperature and the amount, and type, of yeast present, this can take anything from a few days to several weeks and will produce a dry wine. If you would prefer a sweet wine, you should monitor the gravity until it reaches 1004-1008 and then add a crushed campden tablet. This will kill the yeast and leave some unfermented sugar in the wine as sweetness. Alternatively, you could ferment it until dry (which would give more alcohol) and then sweeten it using a non-fermenting artificial sweetener such as Sorbitol.
As soon as fermentation has completely finished, syphon it into a clean demijohn, seal with an airlock and leave it in a cool place to clear before bottling. It may take a while to clear, depending on the ambient temperature, but once it is clear, you should syphon it off the sediment and into your bottles. Normal wine bottles are absolutely fine for storing this product.
When making "Elderflower Champagne", you still ferment the wine in the demijohn but, as you need to create a fizz in the bottle, a slightly different method is adopted as you approach the end of the fermentation period. Normal wine bottles are not strong enough to store this product and withstand the pressure, so you will need to use Champagne bottles, Grolsch Style Bottles or PET Bottles.
Some methods/recipes advocate that you bottle the fermenting wine before it reaches the end of fermentation and then allow the fermentation to complete in the bottle. This is absolutely fine provided that you limit the amount of sugar being fermented in the bottle to a minimum and you use suitably strong bottles. However, because of the differing rates of fermentation that can result from varying strains of yeast and ambient temperature, stating that the wine is safe to bottle after 4-6 days in the primary fermentation bucket isn't always accurate and can lead to exploding bottles unless you release some of the pressure each day by opening the lid and allowing some of the built up CO2 to escape.
Using the unfermented sugar still present in your wine as the priming agent is a perfectly safe and acceptable method of generating the fizz providing that you approach the process from a position of knowledge and exercise proper caution. The easiest way to do this is to measure the gravity with a hydrometer and bottle it when the fermentation in the demijohn has slowed down and the hydrometer reading is around 1004-1008. If you are bottling in Grolsch type bottles or champagne bottles then the lower figure is probably more appropriate whereas the higher reading is acceptable if using plastic PET bottles as these are designed to withstand a greater pressure.
A more reliable method is to wait until the fermentation has abated and the hydrometer reading has dropped below 1000 (preferably in the 994-998 range and stable for two consecutive days) and then bottle the wine into bottles that have been primed with granulated sugar at a rate of 1/2 teaspoon per pint/500ml of the total capacity of the bottle. If you exceed this rate, the wine will be much fizzier. It is safer to use a dedicated measuring spoon, rather than guess with a "normal" teaspoon, or to make up a syrup solution of 20g of sugar in 60ml of warm water and then distribute it evenly amongst your bottles. (20g should be suffiecient to prime 1 gallon/6 standard size bottles but you may need to make up 80ml of syrup if using 8*1 pint beer bottles as it will be easier to split - especially if you use a 10ml syringe to add it to each bottle)
The finished "champagne" will be quite dry, so you will need to sweeten it to taste with a non fermenting sugar if you prefer a sweeter "champagne". For this you can use a wine sweetener such as Sorbitol, a non-fermenting sugar such as Lactose or any proprietary artificial sweetener. I would normally taste the champagne prior to bottling and adjust to taste at this point.
As the "elderflower champagne" clears, which can take a few weeks depending on the temperature, it will deposit a layer of yeast sediment on the base of the bottle. Care should be taken to avoid disturbing this when you open the bottle and start to pour the wine. If you are using one of the larger 2ltr PET bottles to store it, you may need to decant the whole bottle into a suitable jug and then dispense it from there. Chilling it to serving temperature should minimise the disturbance, but if it gets too cold, you may find that the sudden release of pressure when you open it causes the dissolved CO2 to expand rapidly and cause both a "foam over" of volcanic proportions and drag the sediment up from the bottom of the bottle.
If you have access to a ready supply of traditional champagne or cava bottles and are keen to have truly clear wine, you could always make use of the hollow champagne caps and cages and remove the sediment before serving. At the bottling stage, one of the plastic caps is inserted into the bottle and secured with a cage. The bottle is then turned upside down so that the sediment present in the bottle sinks into the hollow in the cap. When the wine is completely clear, the neck of the bottle is inserted into a bucket of salted, icy water. This should cause a plug of ice to form in the neck of the bottle. The plastic cork can now be removed and replaced with a clean one and a new cage. The ice plug in the neck of the bottle will eventually melt, leaving you with crystal clear, fizzy "elderflower champagne".
You can download a copy of these instructions by clicking HERE