Elderberry wine is an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented juice of a particular kind of fruit known as an elderberry. Winemakers primarily use cooked berries to make this hearty red wine, although raw berries can also be used. The fermentation and straining process can take several weeks, after which the beverage typically must age for at least a year in order to reach its full flavor.
When people think of wine, most consider it to be an alcoholic brew made from grapes. While it's true that many popular wines are made from grapes, fermented juice from other fruits also makes interesting and palatable wines. Occasionally, juices from other fruits are added to grape wine to enhance the flavor, but in other instances, as in the case of elderberry wine, grape juice is not generally used.
Elderberries are little, blackish-blue berries that grow in clusters on leafy, bush-like plants. There are many varieties of elderberries, some of which are edible and some of which aren’t. Often, elderberry wine is made from the American elderberry, otherwise known as Sambucus canadensis. The berries, small globes usually less than 0.25 of an inch (0.6 cm) around, resemble blueberries but grow in tight, grapelike bunches. The bush grows best in moist, rich soil but can be found in many different places throughout the U.S., ranging as far south as Texas and as far north as North Dakota.
Generally, all varieties of elderberry have some level of toxicity and, if eaten raw, can give a person a nasty stomachache. When people make juice or jelly from the fruit, they typically cook it first to alleviate the toxicity and bring out its natural sweetness. The same is true for elderberry wine. While some winemakers use raw berries for their wine, the majority prefer to cook the berries first in order to make a superior-quality beverage.
The process for making elderberry wine is somewhat complex and takes time and patience. Winemakers prefer using freshly picked berries for the best taste, but they must be careful to remove all traces of the stem from each berry. Otherwise, the stems produce a sticky, waxlike residue that can ultimately ruin the wine. After winemakers cook and crush the berries, creating a juicy pulp, they put them through a time-consuming process of straining and fermentation that typically takes several weeks. Once the elderberry wine is bottled, it generally must sit and age in a cool, dark place for a year or more before its full flavor is realized.
It can take anywhere from 3 to 10 pounds (about 1.4 to 4.5 kg) of elderberries to produce a bottle or two of wine. The wine itself is a deep, rich burgundy color and has a hearty taste with a slightly sweet undertone reminiscent of sherry. Brewers occasionally add other flavors, such as honey, to give the wine a unique taste. Sometimes, winemakers use the white flowers of the elderberry to make a lighter, paler wine. Quite a few elderberry wine enthusiasts claim that it has remarkable health benefits and can relieve everything from the common cold to arthritis.