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May Wine

"I have a friend who wants to make a batch of what she's calling 'May wine'....
Do you have a recipe for it...?" Peter Tavernise

Written in faded pencil on yellowed newsprint in a kind of printer's shorthand with obscure abbreviations, this late nineteenth-century recipe illustrates how far we've come in the art of precision winemaking. The original notations have been transcribed to make the recipe readable.

Uncle Lucius' May Wine
Circa late 1800's

"Make this wine in May with whatever's at hand. For 1 gallon of wine use: 4 pounds of honey or sugar (raw sugar is preferred), scraped yellow from peelings and the juice of 2 lemons, 1 thin slice of ginger root, 1 teaspoon of used tea leaves, a half-teaspoon of malt extraction, and 3 and 1/half quarts of clean water (strained, boiled and cooled). Cut some red rhubarb stalks (2 quarts cut small with yeast bloom intact) and add 3 or 4 or 5 of the following: hawthorn flowers (1 quart), dandelion petals (half to 1 quart), young nettle tops (cup or 2), balm leaves (half to 1 quart), fragrant rose petals (2 handfulls), elderberry flowers (handfull), lavender leaves (handfull), Rosemary (finger-long sprig), sage leaves (1 cup or 2), rue (1 young spray), whatever else you have that's edible and smells good (sprig to quart, depending on strength).

"Add everything but the sugar (or honey) and malt extraction to a 2-gallon crock and cover it all with clean cold water. Cover with muslim and the crock lid and put in a cool place for 10-12 days. Strain through a muslim bag over half the sugar and all the malt extraction. Stir with a narrow wooden paddle (without splashing) until the sugar is rendered gone. Squeeze the bag to force all the juice from the rhubarb. Pour the juice into a gallon glass jug and stuff cotton tightly into the jug-neck to keep insects out. Move the jug to a warm place and wait two days. If juices are not foaming, add a teaspoon of brewers' yeast. When yeast-foam starts subsiding (in 4-5 days), add the rest of the sugar (or honey) and stir with a narrow wooden spoon, paddle or slat (without splashing) until sugar is renderd gone. Add enough water to bring level to within an inch of the jug's neck. Replace the cotton and tie a piece of muslim over the top of the jug. Hide away in a cool place until mid to late August. Siphon the wine off the precipitants into a clean jug. Add fresh cotton, tie fresh muslim, and hide away again until mid to late November. Siphon the wine off again as before. If the wine is clear and clean, put it in bottles or a jug and cork tight. It will be fit for ladies to drink after next Easter."

COMMENTS: This is not the most precise recipe, but it does make winemaking sense. Several things are evident. First, the rhubarb is not only used for body and flavor, but also to utilize the natural yeast that rhubarb seems to always attract. I would treat the initial mixture with a crushed Campden tablet and then add a general pupose wine yeast after straining. Second, I'm pretty certain the malt extract is an old attempt at providing a yeast nutrient, so I would dispense with it and use a good nutrient. Third, the tea leaves probably supply tannin, so I'd keep them in or substitute a pinch of grape tannin. I'd keep the lemon juice and peels for the acid required by the yeast. And, since rhubarb has a fairly strong acid taste on its own, the lemon probably helps to mask it (the ginger probably serves the same purpose). In other words, do NOT substitute acid blend for the lemons. As to which of the other ingredients to use, that depends on what you have at hand. Finally, it is no longer necessary to strain, boil and cool your water, but it was insightful of Uncle Lucius to specify it.

Since the measurements are rather imprecise and the ingredients list is a pick and choose list, I would make three batches of wine using different ingredients (if I had enough to do this with) and experiment. I might even substitute 1 pint of grain, 2 pounds of golden raisins and a couple of large potatoes for the rhubarb (soak the grain overnight, then peel and slice the potatoes and run the grain, raisins and potatoes through a mincer). As for the other ingredients, those with fragrances that blend together usually taste well together.

My thanks to Peter Tavernise of Pete's Vineyard for the request. And to his friend Ann, I wish you the best in making your version of this wine.

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This page was created on April 29th, 1998.