One of the first signs of spring around my house is the lovely red buds that come nosing up out of newly thawed soil in my rhubarb beds. This year however, this sight aroused mild anxiety in me as I’ve been remiss in using up the rhubarb in my freezer. I have two highly productive rhubarb beds and pick and freeze their bounty religiously throughout the season. However, with no kids in the house and a slowing metabolism, I’m not making as much jam and pie and cake as I used to. I have an antidote to this problem however: rhubarb wine! I first made rhubarb wine last year and was pleasantly surprised at my success right off the bat. I hadn’t drunk any homemade wine since a memorable ski trip when I was a freshman in college and my roommate’s father brought along a heavenly bottle of homemade cherry wine. I’d vowed then to learn how to make wine myself but forgotten that vow until faced with a daunting spring freezer full of rhubarb.
Wine-making harnesses the power of fermentation, and requires attention, equipment, and a bit of intuition. So it is best to make your first attempt when you have some time. It requires sugar, yeast, water, and flavor. Making traditional wine, from grapes, the sugar is in the grape, wild yeast of the correct variety live on the grape, and flavor comes from the grape skin and fruit. When making wine from other fruits, or vegetables (rhubarb is a vegetable) it is necessary to add sugar and the correct variety of yeast. The wine-making process is simple: you add the correct amount of sugar to the fruit, add a pectin-dissolving enzyme so the wine doesn’t jell, kill any wild yeast, add a little food for the domestic yeast, and then add the yeast. The yeast grow and multiply, metabolizing the sugar into alcohol and other byproducts (such as B vitamins) in the process and dying when the alcohol content gets too high. It is your job as winemaker to keep the yeast happy. The difficulty of this process depends on what fruit you are trying to make into wine. Some fruits are more hospitable than others to yeast. Yeast are kept happy initially through: regular stirring of the must to keep them suspended, and maintaining a room temperature of 70 to 75° F. Once the fruit is removed from the must, it is necessary to maintain an oxygen-free environment for the yeast to flourish, this is accomplished by moving the young wine into a secondary fermentation vessel (a carboy) with minimal air space at the top, fitted with an air lock. The carboy can be occasionally shaken or stirred to resuspend the yeast, particularly if it appears that fermentation is slowing. In some instances, it is necessary to give the yeast some additional nutrients to encourage them to metabolize all the suspended sugar. After the sugar has been mostly converted to alcohol, the next step is to clarify the wine by allowing the remaining suspended solids or ‘lees’ to settle and siphoning the wine off them. Finally, the yeast is killed, either by cold shock or chemical means, to prevent their disastrous re-awakening after being bottled. Throughout winemaking, the taste and specific gravity (SG) or potential alcohol (PA) of the must or wine should be monitored regularly and ideally careful notes taken. This tells the winemaker how fast fermentation is proceeding, which can vary a lot depending on the room temperature, type of fruit, and yeast variety.
I’ve also made delicious blueberry, salmonberry, and red huckleberry wines. If you get overzealous in your winemaking, as I tend to, these make great Christmas or birthday gifts. A cautionary note: use the right yeast, and don’t get lazy and let your yeast die early, leaving you nearly undrinkably sweet Boone’s Farm instead of beautifully crisp but lightly fruity homemade Rhubarb wine. There are many great home brewing forums and blogs with recipes and help with common problems available online. Reading through them regularly during brewing will help your confidence and improve the quality of your final product. Ultimately though, you are fermenting for yourself, so taste regularly and enjoy! This is an overview, see below for specific directions and recipe.
New food grade plastic 5-gallon bucket with lid
Paint strainer bag
Clean 6-ft 4×4 or other pounding implement
2 4-gallon glass carboys
2 S-shaped air locks
Long stirring spoon
8 ft length of 5/8-in plastic tubing
6 lb frozen chopped rhubarb
5 lb sugar
2 gal water
¼ t tannin
2 t pectic enzyme
2 t yeast nutrient
2 Campden tablets
2 packages ‘Cotes de Blancs’ yeast
Remove rhubarb from freezer, put in strainer bag in 5-gallon bucket, and pound to crush. (It is important that the rhubarb have been frozen for at least several days to break down cell walls so that it can be metabolized well by the yeast.)
Put water and sugar in large stock pot and bring to boil.
Pour hot sugar water over crushed rhubarb.
Let must cool.
Add tannin, yeast nutrient, and crushed Campden tablet to cooled rhubarb must. The tannin adjusts flavor and acidity, the yeast nutrient feeds the yeast to keep them healthy, the Campden tablet kills any wild yeast that might otherwise outcompete domestic yeast, creating an off flavor.
After approximately 12 hours add pectic enzyme to must. (fruit/sugar/water/yeast slurry) to dissolve any fruit pectin to prevent a gelatinous wine.
24 hours later, add the yeast to the prepared must.
Stir daily for 3-10 days at 70 to 75° F.
Remove paint bag full of rhubarb, allowing bag to drain into sterilized glass carboy.
Siphon raw wine into glass carboy, making sure not to leave sediment (containing yeast) behind, close with rubber stopper and air lock filled with Campden-treated water, continue fermentation at temperature of 60 to 65° F.
Continue to monitor fermentation process daily until all bubbling ceases, after about two weeks. Rack wine off lees (sediment which has dropped to the bottom of the carboy) into second carboy taking care to minimize exposure to oxygen in process.
Close with rubber stopper and air lock filled with Campden-treated water
Continue to monitor wine, racking approximately every month or as lees develop. The settling process for rhubarb wine is somewhat extended and can be helped by cold-treatment or by several chemical means if desired. Or you can simply serve a slightly cloudy wine if the flavor is not too yeasty.
When desired clarity is reached, kill yeast either by cold treatment or by using potassium sorbate.
Bottle wine, let settle for several days and then store on its side. This wine can be drunk at an age of about 6 months. I have heard varying things about the effectiveness of further ageing, but the consensus seems to be that fruit wines don’t generally improve much with age. You might let a few bottles go and see what happens, drinking at various intervals and taking notes.
Garey, T. 1996. The Joy of Home Winemaking. Harper. New York, NY.
Katz, S. 2013. The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World. Chelsea Green Publishing.