After the obligatory old lawnmowers and mouldering cardboard boxes had been disposed of, he came across a few old demijohns, mostly filled with spiders and the gunk of a long-abandoned experiment in sherry, which, clearly, he had decided against continuing. Did I want them, he wondered, and thus began my career in wine making.
Making your own wine lets you try out flavours you'd struggle to find, while making the most of what's on offer in your own back garden or hedgerow. There is something masochistically satisfying about staggering through a large bramble patch attempting to reach those elusive bloody berries which, if one's arm was only six inches longer, would constitute the philosopher's stone of alcohol. You become a finely-tuned hunter, eyes constantly on the look-out for overlooked plums, discarded medlars, unwanted crabapples. This can also work to your advantage if you're a cheeky blighter by nature - volunteer to take fruit off someone's hands, returning them a few bottles of wine in thanks, and it's a win-win situation, really.
So far, I have made wine from blackberries, apples, plums, crabapples, rosehips, ginger, elderflowers, elderberries, sloes, lemonbalm, honey and even coffee. It's easy. It's fun. It's bloody messy, but don't let that dissuade you: the thing is, once you get started, it's kind of addictive.
There's the glugging, for a start, once the fermentation gets going and the traps in the top of the demijohns bubble accordingly, and equally attractive is the promise of something which, fingers crossed, should be both drinkable and unusual (and not in a Withnail and I way) - these days, after all, grape wine has pretty much cornered the market, and most of what's on offer in the supermarket comes from foreign climes and pastures new... or something like that.
Probably my favourite batch was made from sloes - an enormous haul of ten pounds of them meant that sloe gin was simply not large-scale enough, so we thought we'd have a bash at wine, and man alive, it was worth it. All the taste of sloe gin, but without having to buy gin.
You don't even need very much kit to start out, and once you've got it, it will last for years. A large bucket, a length of tube to use as a syphon, some demijohns, some bungs, some traps; most of this stuff is easily found at community tips, particularly the demijohns - we have yet to buy a demijohn because nobody seems to want them, though we did shell out for new traps and bungs (about 50p for traps, and less than that for bungs). It's not an expensive hobby. You do need a bit of space, mind you - at one point last year we had fourteen demijohns going at once, and as they're normally a five-litre capacity, they filled most of the flat surfaces in our house, not least as it helps to put them somewhere a bit warm to start off with.
There are lots of recipes available for free on the internet, although we started out using the excellent ‘First Steps in Winemaking’ by C. J. J. Berry, which sets out recipes according to the month of the year. February, for example, might lead to seville orange wine, or perhaps parsnip sherry, or even the unlikely-sounding coffee wine mentioned above (which I can thoroughly recommend, incidentally - sort of like sherry, but with a coffee kick).
The basic recipe doesn't alter. You need some sort of fruit, vegetable or medium for the wine, some sugar, some yeast, a bit of acid (normally in the form of lemon juice), and some water. You stick the fruit in a large bucket, and pour on boiling water. Wait until that's cooled, then add more water, this time cold. Wait a while longer, usually overnight or for a couple of days, and then strain it before boiling it up with some sugar. When this syrupy version has cooled, you add yeast and a squeeze of lemon, and sling the lot into a demijohn with a trap to keep out bugs and air. Then it's all down to patience.
You can see the fermentation progressing as the bubbles coming through the trap gradually speed up as the yeast consumes the sugar, before slowing over time to a standstill, at which point you transfer the wine either into bottles or into another demijohn (known as 'racking') and wait for it to taste less like rocket fuel (many's the time I've come down in the morning to find one batch has got rather over-enthusiastic and bubbled right up through the trap and over the counter). This can be a short wait (say, plum wine) or a longer one (our apple wine still tastes like lighter fuel after two years, though that probably has more to do with my ineptitude than with its recipe), but either way it's worth waiting until the wine is absolutely clear, barring an inch or so's crud at the bottom, before attempting to drink it, or you'll be chugging your way through dead yeast cells, which doesn't make for a pleasant experience.
This year I'm hoping to do elderflower (there is a fantastic recipe for elderflower champagne here, and it doesn't need even the basic winemaking kit; if you're at all interested, do have a go, as the result is genuinely gorgeous), elderberry, blackberry, plum, rosehip, mead, sloe and coffee. For more information on winemaking, try the excellent , Winemakers' Forum which has useful info on suppliers and recipes as well as providing help for the uninitiated.