I grew up listening to my dad talking about his Grandpa's annual tradition of making elderberry wine. My dad was too young to drink at the time, but he remembers how all of his Uncles and Aunts used to brag about how delicious it was.
The way my dad tells it, the ceremonial opening of the first bottle each year on Thanksgiving, was like popping open a bottle of expensive champagne on New Year's Eve. As the adults lined up to fill their cups, before they'd even had their first sip, the atmosphere magically transformed from the chaos of food preparations to a beautiful family celebration.
My great grandparents were the 1940's equivalent of urban homesteaders. They lived in a row house in Cincinnati, Ohio and grew a small garden in their postage stamp yard. They didn't have a lot of space for a garden, but they made good use of it.
Now that I homestead too, I can understand why they would grow elderberries on their limited lot. There's a lot to love about these tasty, beneficial juice-makers!
About the Elderberry Shrub
Elderberries are incredibly easy to grow. Other than needing sufficient moisture, good drainage, and a bit of organic matter, they aren't very picky about soil type. That's why you often find them growing in ditches along country roads.
They self-seed and propagate by side-sprouts. So they can become invasive if unwanted plants aren't uprooted early. They are also capable of self-fertilization but will produce a lot more berries when they have a compatible pollenizer.
The most common edible varieties are the American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) and the European elderberry (Sambucus nigra). These both have rich, dark purple berries and can grow from 8-20 feet tall, respectively. Note, there is also an elderberry variety with red berries (Sambucus racemosa), but those berries are poisonous.
These shrubs are almost tropical in appearance. However, they are hardy down to USDA Zones 3 or 4, depending on variety.
In spring, they produce 8-10 inch umbel-like flower heads that look like white to pink-tinted lace. The flowers are also edible and are often used to make champagne or to make elderflower liquor. Some people even fry them up as fritters or make them into jam.
The fruits, which ripen in summer, can be anywhere from the size of coriander seed to a plump blueberry depending on the variety grown. On a healthy shrub, pruned for production, you can expect about 12-15 pounds of fruit per plant. Personally, I have even harvested up to 20 pounds on some of my elderberries.
Nutritional Content of Elderberries
Elderberries have almost no sugar, but somehow still manage to taste sweet when picked ripe. They have more vitamin C than orange juice, and other good stuff like vitamins A, B, and Iron. Plus, they have lots of cancer-fighting antioxidants.
The berries also about 330 calories per pound of berries or 4000-5000 calories per plant. By comparison, a dwarf apple tree that requires about the same amount of planting space and significantly more care will produce roughly the same amount of calories of fruit.
In a small space, with marginal growing conditions, elderberry shrubs are a smart choice for good nutrition, calorie-content, and beauty. Plus, they can be used to make wine!
Now that you know a bit about the Elderberry shrub let's get to the point of this post and see how easy it is to make elderberry wine.
You don't need fancy supplies to make elderberry wine. Elderberry juice, distilled or unchlorinated water, lemons or citric acid, yeast (optional) and a little elbow grease are all you need to get started.
Equipment needs are equally simple. Bowls or buckets for harvesting, a fine sieve or flour sack for straining, a spoon for mixing, and some type of fermentation vessel (bucket or glass bottle) and well-fitting airlock will get the job done.
When it comes time for bottling, you'll also need some of your recycled wine bottles and maybe a siphon or measuring cup.
10 Steps to Making Elderberry Wine
Step 1: Pick Fully Ripe Berry Clusters
I am just a homesteader, not a food scientist or safety expert. But, I have always heard that you should not eat unripe elderberries. A little research revealed that immature berries might contain something called “cyanidin glycoside” which is not a good thing in large quantities.
For safety, pick clusters that are fully ripened in appearance and are easy to remove from the stems with just a little rub with your fingers.
Step 2: Remove Berries from Stems
By holding the stem of the cluster in one hand and rubbing the berry head with your other hand, ripe berries fall right off into your bowl or bucket. Berries that hold tight are probably not ripe, so leave them on the stem and move on to your next cluster.
You can remove the berries from your stems while you are picking. Or, you can do all your picking and then sit down on your front porch and de-stem your berries while enjoying a beautiful sunset. This process can be a bit messy because sometimes berries fly off the stems in unexpected directions.
Also, if you add the spent stems to your compost, you may end up with a few elderberry shrubs popping up in unexpected places. Alternatively, you can also leave the stems on the ground, under your shrub, as organic matter. Since you'll be policing that area to uproot unplanned growth anyhow, this is a safe way to dispose of any unripe berries.
Step 3: Crush Berries
Do not bother with a fruit press for these berries! Just use your hands to crush. Get a handful and squeeze hard until the skins pop-off and the juice runs. Repeat until most of your berries have burst.
I use my bare hands as my great grandpa did and it seemed to make them softer for a few days after. However, if you have sensitive skin, wear gloves to avoid potential reactions.
Step 4: Strain
Use a really fine sieve to strain the skins and seeds from the juice. I like to use my fruit press at this point. It won't crush the berries but it pre-strains a lot of the solids and leaves behind mostly juice.
Then, I run the juice through a fine sieve over my fermentation bucket to remove any small particles. Some people also use flour sacks for straining if they don't have a fine sieve.
Step 5: Dilute
This juice is super-concentrated at this point. You will need to add water to get something closer to the consistency of wine. Some recipes give you dilution rates based on the original fruit weight. For example, a typical ratio is to use 4 pounds of fruit to start and dilute with one gallon of water.
In my own experimentation, I find that a dilution rate of 2 parts water to 1 part elderberry juice works best for me. So, for example, from 7 pounds of fruit, I got a half gallon of juice. So, I dilute that with 2 gallons of water.
This brings my wine potential up to 2.5 gallons from just 1/2 the berries on one shrub!
Step 6: Add Sugar
Making alcohol is all about having enough brix. Brix is a unit of measure used in wine-making to determine how much alcohol a juice such as wine grapes or in this case, elderberry juice, are likely to produce. Your alcohol by volume (ABV) will be roughly half of your starting brix.
Elderberry has about 11 brix naturally. At best, elderberry wine would have about 5.5% alcohol by volume. You may get a bit more or less depending on your fermentation process and the kind of yeasts you use. However, this gives you a good baseline expectation.
Most people like more ABV in their wine, so shooting for a starting brix of at least 20 is typical. Also, most people prefer to make elderberries into a sweet wine, rather than a dry wine. Therefore, almost every elderberry wine recipe you find will include large quantities of ingredients that will increase the brix.
The most common way to raise the brix in juice is to add granulated sugar. You can also use honey, sorghum, or tree syrups (e.g., maple, birch, etc.). However, sugar is usually the cheapest and easiest way to up the brix and resulting alcohol content. It also doesn't overly influence the taste.
Adding 1.5 ounces of granulated sugar to a gallon of juice will raise the brix by 1. With a starting brix of 11, to increase to a brix of 25, you'd need to add 14 brix x 1.5 ounces of sugar = 21 ounces of sugar per gallon.
Assuming 2.5 gallons of diluted juice, that would mean I need to add 52.5 ounces or about 3.3 pounds of sugar.
Step 7: Choose Your Yeast
Here's the tricky part of figuring out how much sugar to add. The kind of yeast you use will determine how many of that brix actually gets converted into alcohol.
When the brix in your wine gets digested by yeast, it makes alcohol. At a certain point, though, that alcohol will kill the yeast. As the juice transforms into wine, the environment becomes more and more toxic to the yeast, and eventually, the yeast dies.
Distillers yeast can survive longer, in higher levels of alcohol, than other yeasts. They can tolerate as much as 20% ABV before they die off. Wine yeast can usually take up to about 14-15% ABV. Natural yeasts vary quite a bit in the tolerance levels, but they tend to be lower than commercial yeasts.
I like to make natural yeast wine the way my great-grandpa did. By aiming for a brix of 25, usually, about 18-20 of that brix get converted into about 9-10% alcohol before the yeast dies off. Then the rest of the brix, which are really sugar, will stick around to make the wine taste sweet. This is called residual sugar.
If you want to up your alcohol content, then you can use distillers or wine yeast instead of natural yeast. You can then also increase the amount of sugar to match your starting brix. As an example, using distillers yeast, you may want a starting brix of 43 – 40 brix to convert to alcohol and three brix to remain as residual sugar.
If you use commercial yeast, follow the application instructions from the manufacturer. For natural yeast, you don't need to add anything since it's already on your fruit and in your air.
Step 8: Acidify (Optional)
Beyond brix, for a balanced wine, you want a little acidity. Some fruits have this naturally (e.g., grapes). Unfortunately, elderberry is not one of them.
Most home winemakers will add something like citric acid, lemon, or other more sophisticated acids like malic or tartaric to the recipe to make a tastier, more complex, and light-feeling wine.
This step is not required for wine-making. In fact, mainly when using natural yeasts, it can make the wine more likely to turn to vinegar. However, despite the risks, most people do acidify.
You can add about a lemon and a half, squeezed or ½ a teaspoon of citric acid for each gallon of water you use to dilute your juice. Other acids impart different flavor complexes, so you'll want to do a little research to determine appropriate quantities if using alternatives to citric acid.
Step 9: Ferment
To ferment juice into wine, you need to create a pleasant environment for your yeast. An easy, inexpensive way to do this is to use a fermentation bucket or glass bottle with an airlock.
Put your mix in the bucket or bottle, close the lid, and add water to the airlock. Then, put your bucket in a warm location (70-80ºF) away from direct light. Within a short period (usually a few hours), you should start to see bubbles of air being released through your airlock.
Most recipes recommend fermenting for six months with natural yeast. When using using wine or distillers yeast and high brix, you may need to ferment for up to 1 year.
(Make sure to check the water in your airlock occasionally to make sure it hasn't dried out.)
Step 10: Bottle and Age
After fermentation, bottle your wine and age it. Sanitize your empty wine bottles, and any equipment you use, in a solution of 1-gallon water to 1 tablespoon bleach or use purchased sanitizing powder before filling. Use new or disinfected plastic corks.
If you have a siphon, use this to transfer the liquid from the fermentation bottle or bucket to the wine bottles. If not, you can dip a measuring cup into your bucket or pour directly from your fermentation bottles. Take care not to disturb, or transfer, any sediment that settles to the bottom of the fermentation vessel.
Store bottles on their sides in wine-racks (if you've got them). Turn the bottles occasionally.
For natural yeast wines, these are ready after about six months of bottle aging. For wine or distiller yeast versions, you can age for 1-2 years. I have never aged my elderberry wine this long, but others have said this makes the wine very port-like.
Notes on Sampling and Sharing
Personally, I sample some wine about halfway through fermentation and then again at bottling. I also tend to break into a bottle after just a few months of aging, just to make sure things are progressing well.
If you want to make this a family tradition, as my great-grandpa did, then make your wine this year and open your first bottle next year at one of your fall or winter holiday get-togethers!
Note on Cyanidin Glycoside
Just an FYI, some people boil their elderberry juice before making wine. It is believed to minimize the risk of toxicity from cyanidin glycoside. So, if you do accidentally harvest unripe berries (or aren't sure), you may want to think about boiling your juice.
I have never tried this. But most of the recipes I have seen suggest bringing juice to a boil, simmering for 10 minutes, then cooling. After the liquid is cool, you can dilute with water and proceed as laid out above.
You may kill some natural yeast by boiling, so using purchased yeast is a good idea for this method.
A World Of Wine Possibilities
I bet you already realized that I didn't just give you a recipe for Elderberry Wine. I also gave you enough background and a basic method that will work for all sorts of other fruit wines.
Dilatation rates may vary based on the flavor concentration in the juice you use. As a rule of thumb though, if the juice you start with tastes good and has a nice texture, then the wine will probably taste good too!
Once you get your dilution right, then find your starting brix, choose your yeast, and work the steps.
You may have to practice a few times to create wines that suit your taste. But that gives you an excuse to go wine-tasting on your own homestead!