Wine: Fruits of invention

"Centuries ago, date wine was consumed in the Middle East by those who could not afford fermented grapes"
April 12, 2017

Can wine be made out of anything other than grapes? The surprising answer is that yes, it can. Think of elderflower or cherry wine; not very appealing, I grant you, but these are not the only options.

I first learned about fruit wines on a visit to Bergen, Norway, where I was taken to a restaurant that specialised in seasonal local produce. “Would you like some wine,” the waiter asked after we had ordered the food. I was about to say that I didn’t think Norway made wines when he told me, “We have fruit wines.” I suggested that wine could only be made from grapes, but I soon learned my mistake when the sommelier told me how the range of fruit wines were made. I had forgotten, of course, that centuries ago, date wine was consumed in the Middle East by those who could not afford fermented grapes, and the tradition of making wines out of other fruits has continued.

The restaurant recommended a bright red strawberry and rhubarb wine, which stained the teeth as well as the glass. But the strangest thing I tasted was leek wine. The odour almost prevented me trying it, and after a sip the foul stench clung on in the persistent after-taste. “Why do you make it?” I asked. The sommelier-cum-winemaker explained the chefs had wanted a white wine to make sauces with and so leek wine had been produced. Not much would have been made, but the chefs began to drink it and asked if it could be made sweeter. A few years later I returned to the Bergen restaurant and joked with them about it. “Well,” said the winemaker, “I did make the wine sweeter, preventing all the sugars from turning to alcohol and eventually it turned into a reasonable dessert wine.” He was right.

I hadn’t given fruit wines another thought until a recent visit to Denmark brought me to Cold Hand Winery. It was a revelation. Jens Skovgaard, an ex-school teacher started the business almost by accident. One day, the frozen juice from pressed apples leaked from its container and left a streak of sweet liquor. He had the idea of fermenting the intense sugars, turning out not cider but an apple wine that went on to become Denmark’s first apple Ice Wine, Malus Danica. Pleased with the results he contacted an orchard owner in a distant part of Denmark and asked how many apples he could supply. Soon the two were partners, making some of the best fruit wines from Danish apples.

Appetite for these wines has grown enormously and the business has had to expand to meet the demand. The success is due to a certain feature of Danish culture: a concern with local and sustainable produce coupled with a desire for something healthy. As demand grew, Skovgaard diversified, though sticking to Nordic fruits and berries.

Blackcurrant, raspberry and plum wines, and light pear spirits coming in at around 23 per cent alcohol have all found favour. And they are delicious. But the wine that most intrigued me was the pale pink and sparkling rhubarb wine. Immediately from its colour and fruit flavour, I knew this was going to be a thing of beauty. It poured like a champagne with a fine delicate mousse. The faint aroma of rhubarb lifted by the bubbles; and on the palate, a beautiful, crisp, dry wine with fine acidity. Light and delicate on the palate at 9 per cent ABV, yet with a precise fruit flavour. Even before tasting I could imagine how good it would be with smoked mackerel, a food notoriously unkind to wines. Skovgaard nodded, he would try that; and why not. He is a winemaker who has been willing to experiment, and he may have found the secret to the future of cold climate winemaking.