A toast

Fruit wines and family, with Claire Leavey


Raspberries. Blackcurrants. Red and white currants. Gooseberries, both red and green. And damsons. Thousands of them, all tied in huge bags - some just thrown into supermarket carrier bags, their plastic now shattering with age, and filling two thirds of my enormous chest freezer, beneath the baskets full of pies, and peas, and blocks of white fish and ready meals.

And now here they were, piled on the drive, homeless, and deliquescing around my feet. A seeping, sagging mountain of WTF. The literal fruits of my mother’s forty years’ gardening an acre or so of Worcestershire, where the only thing that ever really thrives in the heavy clay is fruit; where everyone always has too much of it, where there’s never anybody sufficiently fruitless to give it to. Composting them was more than my heart could take. My mother had just gone into the ground herself, and every berry and drupe had been in those dear hands. I could not just throw them away.

Every berry and drupe had been in those dear hands. I could not just throw them away

So I made wine. It was, after all, my mum’s 1970s Good Life adventures that meant I’d become the family vintner before I was old enough for big school, let alone old enough to drink. I’m not even sure now if I was aware, when sagely sampling my product, that I was enjoying the fruity deliciousness of tax-free alcohol. We can probably blame this most excellent early education for the kidney stones - and the time I walked into a glass wall at school after bringing in a ‘refreshing’ bottle of home-made ginger beer to go with my sandwich and Penguin bar. Luckily the glass was reinforced.

A straight damson recipe was the obvious starting point, but then adjustments had to be made to account for the gooseberries and currants, whose sharper flavours and less glutinous consistency meant we’d be heading towards a fresher, lighter product whose flavour hit some higher notes than you’d get from a straightforward, syrupy 100% damson. 

I’ve developed, over the years, a couple of basic principles which I apply to every wine I make. The first is to prepare the must, and then use my hydrometer to record the specific gravity of the unfermented juice before anything else happens. You can then adjust your gravity, or potential alcoholic content, whether by dilution or addition of sugar, to provide the yeast with the best conditions for a successful ferment. Once the process is complete, you can read the gravity again and do a simple calculation to work out how much of a kick in the head you’re going to get.

I got everything into a 25 litre fermenting bin, picked out the remains of the bags, and left it to finish the surprisingly long job of thawing. Second, I poured over the boiling water and added the yeast, a petit soupçon of pectolase, and the first few pounds of sugar. And this is the second principle I work by: adding the sugar bit by bit. For this, dear drinker, is the secret of creating a medium-dry country wine that will blow your bloody socks off. 

This was 2009, and with strict rationing, I’ve drunk just about half of it. Once fermentation had bubbled to a halt, it was like a classic near-purple, fruity - and sweet - young claret. Over the ten years since, this claret has matured into a tawny, drier character with the damsons’ expansive tannins coming to the fore - a serious doppelgänger for a fine old tawny port. And the good news is that rationing it is not difficult. One small glass of this and you’re done for the night - which is good, because I want to keep sipping this one lasting memory of my mother and a half-forgotten childhood under the trees for the rest of my life.

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