fruit wines

I opened the paper this morning and found an article about an amateur winemaking competition here in Maryland that focuses heavily on fruit wines. Fruit wines? As opposed to…root vegetable wines? Fungus wines? Legume wines?

As it turns out, in the European Union, the word “wine” applies solely to those comprised totally of grapes. In the UK and across all fifty of these United States, however, wines can be made of other things and are usually delineated by adding a qualifier to the title: cherry wine, or blackberry wine, for example. The standard definition, though, is fermented grape juice. So what’s so special about grapes?

First, let’s talk fruit. I’ll go ahead and say that the best wine (“best” implying quality of ingredients, longevity, attention to detail, and careful construction) always comes from grapes and we can argue that however you like, but there are plenty of other wines made from alternative fruits.

Fruit wines are about as old as beverages get and probably generated from where so many wonderful things come from: necessity and accident. Think about it: you plant crops or stumble across a patch of wild berries of one kind or another, you pick as many as you can, eat as many as you can, but maybe there’s excess. Left alone in a pot or bucket, the juice starts to ooze out as the berries crush each other. Maybe you forget about it for a little while, and come back and it’s a little foamy, a little less sweet, and when you taste it (because obviously you taste the mystery pot of foamy liquid…) makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. And voilà: accidental fruit wine.

I’m not terrifically well-versed in alternatively fruited wines, most of my experience hinging on the sippy cups of apple juice my sisters would leave in the back of a hot van for a few weeks, but I have sipped a few from blueberries or blackberries and I have a pretty basic understanding of what this is all about. They’re generally a little sweeter than your standard grape wine, they’re often a little simpler as far as production goes, and their shelf life isn’t all that long—that is, drink ‘em young.

In the shop, I’d get questions all the time from folks searching for fruit wines, usually those specific to places they’ve visited: cherry wine from Michigan, apple wine from up north, peach wine from Georgia, pineapple wine from Hawaii. We didn’t carry them often, much to these customers’ disappointment, and while there were many reasons, the most basic one is difficult to hear: wine from grapes is superior in quality to wine made from other fruits.

Let’s first get down to basics, wine from grapes is mean to accompany food. It’s a digestive aid and has the properties to communicate flavors and aromas well outside of the grapes’ genus and species, allowing for heightened senses of both eating and drinking. Fruit wines are simpler, and occasionally the fruits used (strawberries, blueberries, blackberries) can have acid contents far above the pleasant level, leading to the addition of water to the initial fermentation, then added sugar at the end to make up for the loss of flavor. Sometimes the alcohol contents are whopping, 16 and 17%, due to the undiluted initial sugar contents, and they often are better served as dessert wines or dessert themselves rather than an accessory to a meal (of course there are exceptions, we’re speaking purely in generalities!).

But it isn’t just that wine (from grapes) and food are such nice bedfellows that sets it a cut above other fruit wines. It comes down to structure. Wine probably was invented by accident, true, but it served as a way to stretch a harvest and keep the populous from poisoning itself with its own water. Thus, when it wasn’t harvest, people needed to be able to drink the wine without it turning to vinegar. In order for that to be true, there had to be a stabilizing factor in the raw material, one that grapes have the highest concentration of among its fruity cousins: tartaric acid.

If you’ve ever opened a bottle with a few years on it and found a collection of purple or white crystals accumulated at the top of the neck and on the bottom of the cork, never fear: it isn’t a) shards of glass, b) crystal meth, or c) poison. It’s tartaric acid that crystallized, a totally harmless (if crunchy) addition to your bottle. It adds to some of wine’s acidity on the palate, but its much more important duty is to provide a natural preservative to what’s in the bottle, including color, taste, and chemical stability. To be geeky, it lowers the pH balance to levels where certain hostile bacteria can’t live, thus stabilizing the wine and prolonging its life. Other fruit usually has some, but no other fruit is so naturally inclined to be made into a beverage with the kind of longevity grapes brings to the table.

Let the record clearly state that I’m not opposed to fruit wines at all, they just serve a very different purpose than wine wine, the kind of wine that’s built for your food and built to last. There is a lot of value in things that don’t need to wait ten years to be enjoyed. After all, I wouldn’t want one of those cookies I just baked to sit for months before I enjoyed it, just like I wouldn’t want an aged bottle of strawberry wine. Strawberry wine…remember that country song out about fifteen years ago, the one my neighbor would listen to and as I pieced together the words realized it was about losing your virginity? No? Oh. Me neither.  Pass that bottle over here, please.

Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of  Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.