A well-known supplier of household goods recently sent me their latest glossy catalogue. It contains all kinds of things from scrubbing brushes to garden furniture. I was amused to find it had a new selection of home winemaking equipment, reinvented and foolproofed for a new generation of DIY gluggers.
I remember when wine that came out of a bottle with a printed label was a the preserve of the wine aficionado, bought in a specialist shop, and not ranked alongside shampoo and orange squash in a supermarket. Alcohol was not a regular part of the family shopping basket. In the 70s, shampoo was cheaper than wine. Now a bottle of basic plonk is half the price (or less) per millilitre than some of the more pretentious makes of designer shampoo. However, the domestic winemaker of my youth had his or her own set of pretensions. My aunt made an abominable little ‘wheat wine’ with the murky texture of diluted Evo-Stik. My father-in-law made a metallic something with fruit juice concentrate, which he described as ‘nectar’.
The process was creative, wine could be made with anything – tree sap, pea pods, herbs, rosehip syrup, jam, Ribena, marrow, lettuce, blackberries, elderflowers, tinned fruit and packets of processed juice. There was, perhaps, an aspect of desperation. ‘Is it fermentable?’ was a question on many a winemaker’s lips when confronted with a glut or strawberries or runner beans. Some homemade wine was actually palatable – I convince myself with the vision of hindsight. I painstakingly made wines with the guidance of ‘The Home Winemaker’ published by Boots the Chemist, which also sold a profitable range of winemaking and brewing equipment.
Once the habit caught on, everybody was brewing it way back then. Buying the ‘proper’ stuff was almost like opting for convenience food instead of cooking it at home. Demijohns with fermentation air-locks stuck into corks could be found at the domestic fireside, panting, like faithful dogs, or in an airing cupboard, bubbling out carbon dioxide like secret junkies with little hookah pipes. You knew the fermentation was complete when the glugging stopped and the hydrometer took off into orbit. Some of the stuff I made developed quite a kick. The bottling was an exercise in restraint (you had to siphon it from the demijohn by mouth) and a test of your skill as an arm-wrestler – unless you were prepared to invest in an expensive corking machine.
Part of it – I think – was a genuine desire to experiment. Home winemaking is not such a leap from making preserves, and has long been a country craft. Most ordinary folk knew nothing about ‘proper’ wine and had limited expectations. – most of us bought the safe and cheap brands advertised on the telly. Before the advent of the TV wine gurus, we were intimidated by the wine merchant, who was always amused by our ignorance, and blithe assurances that we couldn’t go wrong with a bottle of Hirondelle. The price of a modest bottle then was high in comparison to income. Making it yourself was a way in to the new middle class dinner party aspiration – and also a good way of making cheap booze… A good party with homemade beer and wine ensured a serious hangover the next day.
The popularity of winemaking waned as the price of the ‘proper’ stuff dropped and the TV wine expert tempted our palates with even stranger tastes than the ones achieved domestically. ‘Old Bakelite radios at the bottom of a fish tank’ is a description I accredit to Jilly Goulden on the BBC. We were primed for wine. Expected it at table. Had grown to accustomed to its face. We demanded it.
The re-emergence of winemaking kit is interesting – perhaps part of a resurgence of interest in local, unprocessed food and taking control of what goes onto our plates and in our glasses. But tastes have become more sophisticated. Professional winemakers have upped the game in the last thirty years. We have become used to decent wine. Will we like our homemade brew? I have peas with purple pods. Perhaps I should experiment.
Making wine can be challenging technically. Grapes – generally not happy in the windswept and rainy terroir of Britain – are miniature fermentation vessels. They contain near perfect concentrations of sugars and particular acids that encourage the ‘good’ yeasts to flourish. British orchards and hedgerows have marvellous fruit, but usually too low in sugar and too high in acid and pectin to make an acceptable brew without help. One has to add extra sugar, acids and enzymes to achieve a proper fermentation and a taste that won’t give a purple pucker when drunk. There are kit wines, but that is defeating the object of a handcrafted product.
Perhaps a new wave of wine making will explore the possibilities of our orchards and hedgerows to develop recipes that work well without minimal support from the chemical industry. Of course, commercial wine is a specialist product and relies on ‘unnatural’ additions to prevent spoilage and inhibit fermentation. Yeasts are strains developed by the industry to produce wine of a particular taste and alcohol content. They are also available to the home brewer. Wines and beers can be made with the natural yeasts, to produce rustic, cloudy brews that cheer, but a little refinement – as in the case of other preserves – makes the product much more pleasant to consume, and less likely to give a hangover.