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Elderberry wine recipe: elder & black

Elderberry wine is very rich and port-like, but this recipe blends it with blackberries to give a lighter wine without sacrificing flavour. This article assumes you have some basic homebrewing skills under your belt – if you’ve not tried wine making before, we suggest you start off with elderflower wine or brewing from a kit to learn the basics.

elderberriesElder trees are native to Britain, and the clusters of glossy blue-black berries are irresistible to birds and wine makers alike. The berries have been used in wine making since Roman times at least, mostly to add colour and body to otherwise disappointing wines – but they also make cracking jams and pies, and are very useful to reduce the symptoms of flu.

The problem with ‘straight’ elderberry wine is that it’s just too rich. Full-bodied and porty, it delivers a kick like a mule and anyone who has a second glass risks a world-class headache. It also takes at least two years to mature, although the flavour when it gets there is unbeatable. How then to get a less potent wine out of elderberries?

This recipe gets round both problems by combining elderberries with blackberries. Blackberry wine is quick to mature and has less body than elderberry wine, so a 50:50 mix of the two is just about perfect. ‘Elder and black’ is rich and distinctive, but not so potent that you have to be afraid of that second glass. Ready to drink in a year, it’s at its fruity best by Christmas the year after it was made.

This recipe is a step up from our elderflower wine recipe, and not the easiest wine for beginners to try. If you really want to have a go, read the elderflower wine recipe first – and the articles that it links to, especially sterilisation and homebrew equipment.

“Elder and black” elderberry wine recipe

To make one gallon (4.5 litres)

  • 1kg (2.2lb) elderberries
  • 1kg (2.2 lb) blackberries
  • 4.5L (8 pints) water
  • 1.5kg (3.3lb) sugar
  • 1tsp yeast nutrient
  • Juice of one lemon
  • 1tsp pectolase
  • 1 sachet red wine yeast (NB one sachet is enough for up to 5 gallons)
  1. Strip the elderberries off their stalks and mash them together with the blackberries in a sterilised brew bin or lidded food grade plastic tub. Pour over 2.25 litres (4 pints) of boiling water, and leave to cool.
  2. When at room temperature add the yeast nutrient, lemon juice, pectolase and red wine yeast, following the instructions on the sachet. Stir well, cover and leave for a week, stirring daily with a ladle or similar implement which has been scalded with boiling water.
  3. Strain through a straining bag into another sterilised container. Resist the urge to squeeze the bag, as this can lead to problems with haze – leave it to drip through overnight if necessary.
  4. Add the sugar and top up to 4.5L (one gallon) again. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, and stand the container on several thicknesses of newspaper until the initial fermentation dies down. Be warned – in warm conditions it can produce a lot of (staining) froth, which is why we haven’t put it in a demijohn yet!
  5. Once the ferment begins to subside, transfer the wine to a demijohn if you are using one, and leave to ferment. From here on the process is the same as our elderflower wine recipe, apart from the longer maturing time. Just rack, stop, clear and bottle (or not) as usual. Remember to store the wine away from light, to preserve the glorious colour.
elderberry wine recipe - just add nice labels

just add celebration!

Tips for picking blackberries

The amount of blackberries that you pick is what will determine the volume of wine that you can make this year (since picking elderberries is relatively quick). Blackberries grow on the bramble, a fearsomely armoured roadside weed – but choose plants away from busy roads if you can. For the tastiest, juciest blackberries, pick from the south side of a plant (where the light is good), working only above knee height so you can be sure the plant hasn’t been contaminated by passing dogs.

Harvesting reasonable amounts of blackberries successfully is all about preparation. Choose long sleeves and trousers made of close-weave, snag-proof material. A plastic bag is no good for collecting berries because it tends to get ripped quickly; a plastic bucket is much more reliable. A plastic mug with a handle is also a really good idea.

Because you are in competition with birds and other human foragers, getting the biggest and best berries usually means reaching into the bush. This is where your snag-proof clothing comes in handy! Push the vines out of the way using the plastic mug. Pick the berries and put them into the mug with your other hand, so that you aren’t constantly reaching in and out of the bush. When you disentangle yourself from the bush, tip the contents of the mug into your collecting bucket.

At the end of your blackberry picking session, pick the fruit over for any visible insects and leaves and then freeze it overnight. Although not essential, this trick makes mashing the fruit much easier – but do remember to leave it out to defrost the night before you need it!

Tips for picking elderberries

Elderberries (right) grow on little sprigs, and need to be removed from them before brewing. You can harvest lots of elderberries very quickly if you just cut the sprigs from the trees using scissors, but you then have the tedious job of stripping them from the springs when you get home. You can use a fork for this, but it’s much quicker using a rake comb or other wide-toothed comb.

As an alternative, use a belt or strap to hang a collecting bucket around your neck leaving both hands free for harvesting. Make sure that you can get it off easily if it gets caught on something. Pull the sprigs towards you using one hand, and strip the berries into your bucket using a rake comb held in your other hand. Once you get the knack, this is the fastest way to collect large amounts of berries (provided you don’t mind looking foolish doing it).

Please note that elder branches are not as strong as they look, particularly when they are young – don’t yank them around too hard.

Removing elderberry and blackberry juice stains

Both elderberry and blackberry juice stain everything they come into contact with, including skin. To remove juice from fabric, saturate the stain with white vinegar and then tamp it thoroughly with a clean dry cloth, working in towards the middle to avoid spreading it. Wash the item out thoroughly with plenty of cold water, and finally launder as normal.

 

Bottles image courtesy DanaK~WaterPenny on Flickr

Other wine making and homebrew articles

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19 Responses to “Elderberry wine recipe: elder & black”

  1. karen says:

    I think the trick would be not to pick all the elder flowers to make champagne – otherwise there will be no berries to make the wine!

    • Andy McKee says:

      Perfectly true – since elderflowers weigh so little I generally take them from further away and leave the trees nearest the plot for berries. It’s never a good idea to completely strip a tree anyway, since you need to leave some for the local wildlife!

  2. James says:

    For the elderberry stripping I find the best sort of comb is a Afro comb. You can even connect it to a box /ice cream tub to catch the berries.

  3. sam says:

    Hi I have made this wine but a few the elderberries were green I have head they contain poison should i still use it

    • Andy McKee says:

      Ooh gosh, I only just saw this. They’re mildly poisonous (stomach upset) so it depends how many you used. I’d go ahead with the brew but be cautious the first time you try it.

  4. sam says:

    Hi, it roes not say but when you have added the sugar snd topped up toa gallon, do you leave it to ferment or do you still need to stir daily.
    Thanks

  5. Jo says:

    Hi Andy,

    I have a massive tree full of ripe elderberries, however I am struggling to find 5kg of blackberries. (I am making 5 gallons!)
    Can I substitute some of the blackberries for cherries? My freezer is full of the cherries we picked from our tree a couple of months ago.

    Thanks
    Jo

    • Andy McKee says:

      Hi Jo – I don’t see why not, although unless you are sure that the variety is low in pectin (most ‘cooking cherries’ have very little) it’d be a good idea to add pectolase. Good luck!

  6. Martin Block says:

    I have picked both the black berries and elderberies, and i am ready to start.
    I have all ingredients except “pectolase”. Is it essential, what are the risks without it?’

    • Andy McKee says:

      Yes, it’s essential and you can get it from any homebrew supplier including the one in the sidebar. Pectolase is an enzyme that helps break down the pulp and, more importantly, prevents a pectin haze forming in the wine later. If you had to start before reading this reply, go ahead and add it later.

  7. Ruby says:

    Full bodied and porty?

    My attempts at elderberry wine have been thin, sour and barely drinkable. The best, as it happens, was the first, which was done on a whim, contained an unsafe amount of stalks and green ones, and a mixture of sugars as I hadn’t enough plain white.

    It may be that my elder tree is just not very good, but I would be interested in any suggestions as to what might be going wrong.

    • Andy McKee says:

      You said it yourself – using green berries will give you sour, thin wine. Include absolutely no stalks – they’re mildly poisonous although they don’t impact much on the flavour. Only pick heads that are fully ripe – if you want to be picky, choose ones that have a couple of ‘raisins’ on, these are still fine. The other thing that can make it unpalatable is squeezing out the straining bag too much – the more you strain it, the higher the tannin content of the wine will be.

  8. RockySpears says:

    If you put all the stripped berries in a bucket with cold water, the green ones and shriveled ones will float to the top and you can skim them off with a sieve.
    Pectolase is available in many seemingly odd places such as Boyes stores and Wilkinsons.
    Given that the finished wine will be very dark, you can forgo the pectolase altogether if you want, as it is unlikely you will be able to see through a glass of it.

    • Andy McKee says:

      Elder and black is see-throughable – just – but using pectolase also means less sediment as the wine ages. I’ve never found that there’s much difference in flavour (although the manufacturers say otherwise!)

  9. alec davis says:

    To remove the elderberries from the stalks quickly and easily use a paint stirrer in an elecrtric drill. Put the berries in a bucket with wateer to just cover them and whizz them up for a few seconds – the berries will be stripped off the stalks in no time. Pour the whole lot through a plastic garden sieve into another bucket and the stalks will be removed, after which you can crush the berries in the usual way and extract the juice.

  10. Colm says:

    After day 6 (before staining), I saw some white spots start to show up on the surface as I went to stir. On day 7 this had formed into a thin light purple skin. There was a sharp smell from it, but it didn’t taste bad like mold or anything. I strained it out anyway… Do you know what this might be or is it normal?

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