For those of us up here in the frozen northeast (as I like to say “It’s not the end of the world…but you can see it from here!”), making grape wine – from what are considered traditional wine grape cultivars – is not going to happen anytime soon (especially since global warming has been proven a hoax!). Sure, you can make “kit” wine, from fruit concentrates – but to make wines from “real” wine grapes, you have to take a different tack. So, we who still want to make “wine” have to approach it from a different angle. Thanks to a great book I found back in the mid-1990’s written by a couple of gentlemen from England – Peter Duncan and Bryan Acton (with much the same climate as we have here in Maine) titled “Progressive Winemaking” – I found the techniques I was looking for to make very good wines north of what are considered traditional wine zones.
What I like best about the book, is the direction they took when writing it. I’m an autodidact and when I’m learning a subject, would rather learn why to do something and how to understand a process, rather than exactly how to do it. I prefer learning how to picture the different ways of recreating the desired attributes of wines from a certain region, to just following a book of hard and fast recipes. The method they used was to explain how to break down the flavors of wines in all of the major world growing regions. Since they (and we) can’t get grapes (by this I mean high quality varietals that can stand up to our climate) – which are able by themselves to have all the qualities that we expect in a grape wine – acidity, bouquet, body, vinous character – they show how to build a recipe of a certain character of wine by adding different fruit, vegetables or flowers that can impart those qualities in a fruit wine. The book does have some general recipes – which are laid out showing certain fruit or vegetables that can be used to make wines like each wine in those famous regions – which you as a winemaker can then adjust to the availability of fruit in your area and season. What I have found great about this, is that starting with a basic recipe, if – like happened recently – a friend calls and says “hey, I can get a really good deal on organic blueberries”, and I was able to tell them that we should look into making a blueberry port. From that point, all I had to do was figure how big a batch we could make with so many pounds of blueberries per gallon.
Some of you may have noticed I mentioned vegetables and flowers for winemaking – examples of the vegetables that I’ve found make a great basis for dry wines are parsnips and rhubarb (of course I’m sure rhubarb could be termed a fruit), so much so that I’ve come to use rhubarb to boost acidity in wines that might be too sweet to be a dry wine – in particular, raspberry and blueberry port. The flowers would include dandelion – which makes a nice aperitif – and rose petals or elderberry flowers, which help impart a bouquet to non-grape wines which don’t have that naturally.
In 1978 we built our home on an old corn field in northern Maine, and immediately started planting trees – fruit and nuts. At the time, being a transplant from the much milder climate of northern California, I didn’t realize just how hardy trees would have to be to survive in this area – especially long term. I went with what loosely would be termed by some of the commercial nurseries as zone 4 trees, but found that due to the small choice of varieties in that hardiness range, I ended up trying a lot of zone 5 trees (the maps place us roughly near the border of these zones) which needless to say didn’t fair very well overall. Then, I found out about St. Lawrence Nurseries in upstate New York – south of us, but on the frigid St. Lawrence River. That was when things started to fall into place, Bill MacKentley the owner and an expert in northern fruit and nut culture sort of took me under his wing and thanks to his huge selection of heirloom and recent introductions that are extremely hardy (even much farther north than us, Canada and Alaska), I started replacing dead and dying trees with multiple hardy varieties. Also, when we first started our orchard, due to the small number of commercial varieties that grow up here, I planted everything in rows of 10 trees. Because of Bill’s huge selection, I started replacing trees with all different varieties. We now have over 35 varieties of apples, 23 pear varieties, a dozen plum and 4 different pie cherries.
With that as a background, you can understand that from the beginning we pressed cider – when the trees were young we foraged elsewhere – but as the years have gone on and the yields have grown, we press a half dozen or more batches throughout the season. We usually mix about 50% apples, 50% pears, starting with the earliest apple we have – Yellow Transparent which we mix with Stacey Pear that comes in about that time (end of July) – up until our last pressing which can be upwards of 10 or 15 different varieties of mixed apple and pear, varying based on what is ripe at the moment. The neat thing is every batch is different from the last, and from the batch the year before.
Early on, when I started making wine, there were only a few pears – and pear varieties – that we could use. The Stacey Pear was our earliest large producer, but quite sweet with a residual of unfermentable sugars – probably fructose – that really didn’t make a dry wine I was hoping for. As the years have gone on I had not tried again until a couple years ago, when I decided to do an experimental batch. I tend to do things like this more artistically than scientifically – I’m sure I could spend dollars on chemicals and hours on testing, to try to get a good acid balance, but just by taste, and a balance of the available fruit for the year, my 2010 “14 Pear Wine” came out very favorably to my, and my family’s pallets. Because everything comes in over a long season, I set aside, pressed and froze half gallons of each variety that came in the summer of 2010. Ironically, our cold climate I think is responsible for the good outcome. I mentioned earlier pear trees that will grow in Alaska. John, David and Pepi are crosses of Pyrus ussuriensis X Pyrus communis that are way to astringent for an “eating” pear, but the acidity and tannin makes a great addition to the wine. To me, I feel the flavor of the wine is similar to a Chardonnay, or maybe a Pinot Grigio. We have been sampling this “sample” wine, to the point where I’m feeling pressure for the start of the next batch – which at the moment is in the freezer. A gallon each of 18 varieties – “2011 18 Pear Wine” ! Can’t wait!
(Addendum – 5/17/2012 – Here’s the 2011 Pear Wine in the secondary fermenters) :