What do you think about elderberry wine? Do you think they’ve always been the humble second fiddle compared to the legendary grape wines?
We’re here to change your mind!
In this guide, you’ll learn about the wonders of this complex fruit, plus we’ll show you how to make full use of the proud elderberry, apart from just jam. Let’s get started!
Learn to Pick Elderberries Like a Pro
Making elderberry wine starts with picking the right berries. You want to pick only mature berries.
If you’re unsure about the elderberries you’re looking at, try to harvest only completely ripe clusters of elderberries.
This means no younger berries. Full pink stems are a good sign.
You can harvest more by snipping off entire clusters, but don’t forget to remove the berries from the stems by hand once you get home.
Another option is to take a fork and use it like a comb. “Comb” the berries off the stems and into a large, clean bowl. Once the stems are all separated, you’ll need to clean your berries.
Fill a second large bowl with cold water. Gently pour all of your berries inside.
The berries ready for use in wine will completely sink, while any unusable berries and other “bad apples” like bugs will float to the top.
Use a sieve to get rid of these other bits and drain the remaining berries.
If you want extra flavor from your juice, you can choose to freeze your berries instead of using them fresh. Just cook them before you start the process.
How’s Your Acidity?
First, we should explain. The “acid” in wines measures how tart-tasting they are. This can be difficult to balance for fruit wines since their acid content can vary wildly.
Look at blackberries and strawberries, for example. They’re already tart enough so that they won’t need much adjusting.
Meanwhile, elderberries are high in fumaric acids, and grapes can be too tannic. Just in case, check the acidity of your fruit.
To balance your acids, sprinkle in 4 grams of tartaric acid per gallon of your wine. This will improve the tartaric acidity by 1 gram per liter.
If you find that you’ve added too much tartness, you can just sweeten it with extra sugar and water. Check the acid in your juice with an acid test kit!
Crush Just Right!
With your potato masher in hand, you should take your fresh (or frozen) fruit, then get them crushed in a fermentation bin.
If you have very clean hands, you can also just use your hands to do the crushing.
Before you get crushing, BEWARE the elderberry juice. It’ll stain your clothes and skin like nothing else!
Wear some sterilized rubber gloves so that you don’t look like the inside of a wine skin.
We don’t recommend it, but you can also place your berries into a blender or food processor for easier mashing.
The issue here is that you’re likely to have crushed seeds in your young juice. These seeds are extremely bitter and are bound to overwhelm your wine.
There’s also the matter of pectins in your fruit. You’ll need to pick up some pectic enzyme for your wine so that it won’t become cloudy with a pectin haze.
Mind Your Sugar Content!
Pull out your hydrometer because you’ll probably have to adjust how sweet your elderberry wine is.
Once you have your crushed juice, add some water to it. Now take a little of your mixture and pour it into your hydrometer’s test tube. Read the scale, looking specifically for the “Brix” measurement.
Winemakers use “Brix” to measure the sugar content in their wine. This unit and your preferred sweetness level come with their own special formula, so get ready for some math.
Here’s the formula:
(Intended Brix – Actual Brix reading) x 0.125 gallons of juice = Lbs of sugar you need
Make sure you use slightly less sugar per gallon for this formula because fruit wines can (and WILL) get sweeter as they ferment!
Elderberries: A Deadly Beauty
Are you planning on planting some elderberry bushes on your property?
Just make sure you keep any pigs you have away from the berries if you are. The elderberry’s taste hides its toxic nature.
There are dozens of varieties of elderberries, but they all share a common toxicity.
Most parts of the elderberry bush are toxic to both humans and animals, including the stems and other parts.
But the roots are the worst of them all; They’re well-known for having killed rooting animals.
As another tip, stay away from any green elderberries you find. These are not yet mature berries and thus are also unsafe for consumption.
All species of berries will cause you to become sick if you eat the berries raw or eat too much. But one of the many species of elderberry is a different matter entirely.
Beware the American Red!
The infamous American Red elderberry is the most toxic of its brethren. You’ll be able to spot mature American Red berries because of their distinctly sharp red color and the yellowish juice they produce.
American Reds (and all elderberries, actually) produce a substance called sambunigrin, which eventually turns into the poison cyanide.
On the other hand, some kinds of elderberries were developed to have less of a tannin flavor.
Despite their poisonous nature, elderberries owe part of their medicinal properties to the cyanide inside them.
After all, the only difference between medicine and poison is the amount.
In this case, however, just make sure you do NOT use the American Red for anything, no matter the amount.
Other elderberries will be fine to use. After all, making wine will not require enough fruit to make you sick.
Just in case you’re still uncertain, cook any of the berries that you intend to use over a low flame for about 20 minutes. Once they’ve been cooked, you can safely add them to your mix.
Wait, What’s That Goo?
If toxicity wasn’t enough, elderberries also have a strange tendency to produce goo when left alone!
If you see this goo in your primary fermentation bucket, you’re in for a tough time cleaning up.
That’s because whatever this goo is made of, it’s strong enough to stick to and stain your bucket, no matter what cleaning product you use to try and get it off.
The sheer tenacity of this goo has caused many an elderberry winemaker to curse it and wonder where on earth it came from.
Where Is It Coming From?
Two popular theories have sprung up around this mysterious goo.
First, it was believed that it was somehow coming from the stems of the berries, but it’s been observed showing up in a bucket completely free of stems.
Second, it’s been guessed that it’s the waxy, blue coating of the berries themselves.
At this point, the evidence is inconclusive. All we know is that it’s a huge pain to get rid of…normally.
Ditch your soaps, solvents, and water to get rid of the goo! Instead, douse the goo in vegetable oil, and then wipe your bucket clean with fresh paper towels.
The next step is to bring more soap, but make sure it comes with a degreaser.
Wash like normal, then rinse your wine-making bucket out thoroughly. Now sanitize it with a sulfite cleaning solution.
Remember to Keep It Clean
Here’s an important reminder before you begin making wine. No matter what wine recipe you’ll be making, remember to sanitize every bottle you use throughout the process.
However, don’t just stop at the bottles! Every tool or cooking utensil you use during the process should be sanitized every time you use it.
Contamination is a real risk during the wine-making process and can ruin an entire batch.
This is both for your and the wine’s safety!
If you keep your setup clean while making wine, you’ll eliminate the risk of contaminants getting into your wine.
As a result, your wine won’t spoil during fermentation.
We’re not here to police anyone’s sanitizing, but the level of cleanliness you adhere to will depend on you. At the very least, we recommend you pour boiling water on any cooking implements you use, like pots and spoons.
This lowers the chances of an uninvited guest sneaking into your wine.
You might also be worried about the dreaded pectin haze. It’s not a sign of contamination, but make sure you add enough pectic enzyme to counteract it.
Keep your elderberry wine clean and delicious!
The Long Haul
Be advised that this wine is unlike other fruit wines. Other recipes will be ready for bottling and enjoyment within a few months, but NOT this one.
If you also decide to back sweeten some of the bottles in the batch, take care not to wake up the yeast again.
If the yeast gets enough extra sugar, it will restart fermentation and could cause problems for you down the road.
We advise you only open your elderberry wine after it’s fermented for a few years.
To help you time your drinking party, remember to label and date your bottles! You will forget the brewing date otherwise.
Think of it like a vintage of your very own!
We’ve gone on long enough about how great elderberry wine is. Now it’s time for the recipe!
Elderberry Wine Recipe
You’ll be able to taste amazingly balanced levels of tannin and sweetness in every bottle of this amazing wine!
Wine Making Kit
The main recipe we’ll be using is nice and simple, but you’ll still have to pick up some basic wine-making tools. You can also find most of this equipment in a wine starter kit.
- Potato Masher
- Primary and Secondary Fermentation Bucket
- Siphon Tube
- Airlock and Bung
- Fine Press Bag (Or Jelly Bag)
- Acid test kit (Optional)
Elderberry Wine Ingredients
Here’s what you’ll need to make one of the most delicious red wines around!
- Elderberries, 2.6lbs
- Wine yeast, 1 sachet
- 1 Tsp of Yeast nutrient
- 1 Gallon of water
- 2.4lbs of sugar
- 2 Tsp Acid blend
- 1/2 tsp. of Potassium sorbate
- 1/2 tsp. Pectic enzyme
If you liked this recipe, you should know that it also works with other fruit, like apples and blackberries. Note that this will make enough for 1 gallon or 4.5 liters of wine.
1.) First, bring your water to a boil, then stir in the sugar to dissolve it. Remove it from the heat.
2.) Get your elderberries inside the straining bag, then place them inside a sterilized primary fermentation bin. Crush them thoroughly with a potato masher.
3.) Pour the boiling water over the crushed berries, stirring the whole time. Once it’s cooled, add the yeast nutrient and acid blend.
Throw in the Campden tablet, but make sure it’s properly ground up so that it will dissolve better. Stir well, then cover it with an airlock. Wait for another 12 hours.
4.) Once it’s been 12 hours, throw in the pectic enzyme, and stir well. Set it aside for 24 hours.
5.) After 24 hours, add the yeast into the fermentation bin, but do not mix it in. Refit the airlock and wait.
6.) Mix up the wine once per day for the first week. Lift out the straining bag and let it drain after 2 weeks have passed. Don’t squeeze it!
7.) 24 hours after straining, rack the wine into a demijohn. Take a specific gravity reading for calculating alcohol content.
8.) Let it sit for another 3-4 months, and rack it again if any extra sediment or clouds appear. Once the wine comes out clear, bottle it up!
FAQs and Extras
We’ll tell you more about elderberries in this section, whether you’re a green brewer or a veteran homemade winemaker!
Elderberries: The Handyman of Wines
Did you know that in the past, commercial wineries would use elderberries to adjust the color of their grape wines?
This was seen as a way of “cutting” the quality of their wine, but elderberry wine is perfectly delicious on its own.
Elderberries are great for adding tannins, and home winemakers can use them for color just fine. This is just on the off chance that you have a bottle of red wine or two that’s not quite as rich in color.
Before you go and crush your berries for a different batch of homemade wine, you can throw some elderberries into the mix first.
We don’t recommend this because you’ll risk imparting the strong taste and bitterness of the elderberries into a wine that might not take to it.
Instead, try this second, safer option. Take your elderberry wine and blend it with the weaker-colored grape wine you’re trying to adjust.
How Much Will I Need?
This process is pretty exacting, so make sure to start with a few smaller test runs before you start mixing up wines left and right.
These are also known as “bench trials,” if you want to be specific.
Since you won’t know off the bat exactly how much elderberry wine you’ll need to improve the tannins and flavor of your grape wine, start small.
Pour your blended wine into smaller (but still sterile) containers like flip-top bottles, and let them sit for some time while their flavors get to know each other.
Once enough time has passed, and you think they’ve melded, take a sip!
You’ll want to add roughly 3% to 7% elderberry wine to get the right color without adding too much tannin flavor to the original wine.
From Bush to Table: Harvest Elderberries at Home
You can easily grow elderberries at home! Just keep an eye on the climate of your state. Elderberries like it cold, so make sure you live in a more northern state before planting any bushes!
Spring and fall are the best seasons for planting these berries and make sure your lawn has well-drained soil.
Don’t forget to also take note of your soil’s pH level! Elderberries will thrive within a soil pH range of 5.5 and 6.5.
Unfortunately, you can’t just plant one bush and call it a day. Since the elderberry isn’t great at self-fertilizing, you’ll need to put down at least two plants.
On the bright side, they’re long-term plants and spreaders to boot, so they’ll grow huge once they get going.
Leave a distance of at least 6 feet between each bush. They’ll grow to be a handsome (and useful) hedge with time, so we advise planting them at the edge of your property.
Prepare for them to grow up until they’re 13 feet tall!
Caring for Your Elderberries
Elderberries are not deep-root fruits. This means that they’re extremely susceptible to weeds when the bushes are still young.
For this reason, you’ll need to be vigilant around them for the first few years post-planting. Give them lots of water to compensate for their shallow roots!
Pick out any nasty weeds threatening your bushes by hand, and give them lots of food to grow with additional mulch.
Once they’ve grown enough, the shade from the elderberry hedge will heavily discourage weed growth around it.
You can also boost their growth with a 10-10-10 fertilizer. Use no more than 1 pound of this per plant, and apply it once a year for matured bushes.
Freshly-planted elderberries will need to be fertilized twice a year.
Bring Out Your Garden Shears!
There’s more than plant care going on with these needy bushes! New canes will sprout in your elderberry bush yearly.
These canes should be fully grown by the end of the first year. But come the second year, these canes will grow wider and spread further to the sides.
This is their most productive stage, so expect a bounty of fruits once your elderberry bush becomes two! Elderberry canes need to be pruned once they’ve passed their prime at two.
Any canes that have survived for longer than three years must be cut away.
While you’re cleaning up, look for any canes that have died or are suffering from cane borer.
These are also bad news for your bush, so prune them. We advise pruning your bushes during the wintertime, as the plant will be dormant throughout the season.
Always aim to have an equal number of cane-ages. Balance the first, second, and third-year canes.
Fortunately, elderberries are as tough as they are cold-resistant, so you shouldn’t expect your bushes to fall prey to disease or pests, minus the cane borer.
Extra Recipes for Elderberries
This bush doesn’t stop with just fresh elderberries! Dried elderberries, plus your leftover elderberry pulp can also be used to make an excellent drink!
Whatever you opt to use, there’ll be a recipe to fit your materials here. It’s time to get mashing!
Dried Elderberry Wine Recipe
While it’s true that you should always opt for fresh fruits, sometimes they’re just not available. Maybe it’s off-season, or you just can’t find them anywhere.
In these two situations, dried elderberries will do in a pinch. You can buy some at your local wine shop. In this section, we’ll break down how to make 1 gallon of dried elderberry wine.
Make sure you have all of the same winemaking tools and equipment as above, and keep them sterile for your safety.
Here are the ingredients you’ll need:
- 1/4-1/3lbs Dried elderberries
- 2 and 1/2lbs. Sugar
- 3 and 1/2qts. Water
- 12oz. of Red grape concentrate (Preferably Welch’s)
- 1tsp. of Yeast nutrient
- 2tsp. of Acid blend
- 1 Campden tablet
- Wine yeast (We leave the brand up to you!)
1.) First, bring the water to a boil, then add all of the sugar. Stir the solution until the sugar has completely dissolved.
2.) Wash your dried elderberries, and put them in your straining bag. Weigh it down with a few clean marbles. Ensure the bag is tied securely, then place everything in your primary fermentation bin.
3.) Pour your boiling water mixture over the berries, then cover the fermentation bin. Let it cool for a few hours.
4.) Once the juice has cooled, mix in the well-crushed Campden tablet. Follow the tablet with the acid blend and yeast nutrient, and stir until they’ve all dissolved. Seal the bin again and wait for another 12 hours.
5.) Wake up the wine yeast with a starter solution, then pitch it into your juice and leave it to ferment. Stir the mixture once per day, and squeeze the bag as well. (Hopefully, you’re wearing rubber gloves at this stage!)
6.) Once the juice gives a specific gravity reading of 1.010, transfer it to a secondary fermentation bin, and seal it with an airlock. Let it sit until it is dry. (Dry referring to the taste.)
7.) Rack it again after 30 days, and repeat the racking until the wine is clear. Bottle it, and let it ferment for at least 3 more months before enjoying. Aging this wine further will improve the flavor.
Elderberry Rose Recipe
After you’ve finished making the original elderberry wine recipe, don’t throw away the pulp inside the bag! Save it to make this pleasingly cool rose.
This recipe will make 1 gallon of rose.
You will need:
- Elderberry pulp from the first wine
- 1lb of Ripe bananas
- 12oz. of White grape concentrate (Like Welch’s)
- 2lbs. of Granulated sugar
- 2 Campden tablets
- 1/2tsp. Potassium sorbate
- 2tsp. of Citric acid
- 1tsp. of Yeast nutrient
- Burgundy wine yeast
- Water for boiling
1) First, boil 2 quarts of water. Place the pulp inside your straining bag. Put the straining bag inside the primary fermenting bin, then add the sugar and grape concentrate to the bin.
2) Pour the boiling water over the primary bin and stir until the sugar and concentrate have fully dissolved. Reseal the bin.
3) Boil another quart, plus one pint of water. Leaving the skins on, chop the bananas into 1/2-inch thick slices, and add them to your boiled water.
4) Cover the pot and let it boil for another 25 minutes. Remove any scum that floats to the water’s surface, then strain the mixture. Add your banana juice to the primary bin, then reseal the primary. Let it cool to room temperature.
5) Once the juice has cooled, stir in the citric acid, yeast nutrients, and yeast. Reseal the container and set it aside. For the next 2 days, stir the juice twice a day. You may leave it for a third day if the color is not to your liking.
6) After 2-3 days, remove the bag of pulp, and squeeze it lightly to get any lingering juice out. Move the mixture to a secondary container, then add one well-crushed Campden tablet. If needed, top up the juice, then seal the secondary with an airlock.
7) Wait for another 60 days, then rack the juice. If the wine is still cloudy or any sediment remains after racking, leave it for 60 more days before repeating. Once the juice is clear, add potassium sorbate and the second crushed Campden tablet, then bottle the wine. Let it age for one year before enjoying it.
Remember that this wine is best enjoyed two years after it’s fully fermented.
While grapes might be more famous as the “most balanced” fruit available for making wine, elder berries will still make a beautifully rich drink!
Your wine is sure to impress your wine snob friends and showcase the full range of tastes possible with elderberries!
Enjoy your wine!