Ah, April. To many, April is the real beginning of Spring, bringing with it green grass, cheerful flowers and unfortunately, weeds like the ubiquitous dandelion. But a weed is just a plant that’s not wanted, and there are plenty of good uses for dandelions – salads, herbal remedies, ravioli filling… The one that we like best is using them to make wine. Dandelion wine has been popular across Europe for centuries, and as Europeans settled the New World, they brought their recipes for the wine along with them. Our family’s recipe came to us from our Italian forbears, and goes back at least 80 years in the Quarella family here in the US. Great-aunt Ada, born in 1908, lived here on the farm from the age of 6, and for many decades, she made a batch every spring. The year we began cleaning out the farm building that was to become our winery, we found several old, old bottles of the delicious beverage in dusty gallon bottles in a dark room at the back of a shelf. They were still marked with a piece of masking tape stating the batch date in Aunt Ada’s handwriting. The wine from 1958 (the year of Jim’s birth), we saved to open in 2008 on Jim’s 50th birthday. And it was worth the wait! A beautiful amber color, the wine was sweet, slightly oxidized (like a sherry), and full of complex flavors of tropical fruit, herbs, citrus and honey. It was a delicious and memorable ending to a very special birthday meal.
Once Bellview Winery was up and running, our eldest son, Lee, suggested we bring this family tradition to our customers. Great idea! In the spring of 2004, Jim “interned” with Aunt Ada while she created her yearly batch of wine, following her through harvesting the flowers to bottling the finished product. Whenever he made a suggestion for changes that would make it more efficient to produce in large quantities, she would shake her finger at him and say, “No, you’re going to ruin it!”. So we’ve made very few changes to her original method.
Dandelion wine as we make it is a very sweet white wine, definitely best served with (or as) dessert. It is not something to drink a lot of, rather, just sip it slowly and savor the flavors. You’ll note a hint of lemon and something herbal, kind of piney or slightly minty – almost like eucalyptus. The wine begins as a clear light yellow color, which will darken over time to a gold and then a dark amber or caramel with many years in the bottle. Tasting best served well chilled, we like to pair it with a contrastingly tart dessert, like lemon meringue pie or a rhubarb tart.
Very few wineries make dandelion wine commercially. We could only find one other in the US when we researched it on the internet. Perhaps that’s because this is one of the few spots in the nation with a large Italian population who have fond recollections of the wine. Or maybe because it’s not convenient to produce. Harvesting the flowers is a labor intensive process. During the first few years of production, early spring days would find us in the field next to the winery, crawling on hands and knees to pick the flowers we left purposely unsprayed so they would grow more abundantly. (Hard to believe that we encouraged dandelions to grow?) We use only the flowers, no stems or leaves. It takes 50 flowers for one 375 ml bottle of wine. (We make about 1000 bottles of the wine per year, so that’s a lot of flowers!) It’s best to pick them mid-morning, right after they’ve opened. We look for fresh, bright yellow flowers, with none of the fluffy seeds yet developed. (These days we go to Petrongolo Farms to pick our dandelions, where they’re grown commercially). The flowers won’t keep, so the winemaking process must begin the same day. The flowers go into large stainless steel tanks and boiling water is poured over them. They’re allowed to steep overnight to make a sort of tea, which is then strained. We add sugar and yeast, along with some secret ingredients, and the “tea” is allowed to ferment. We then age, rack and filter as we do with other wines.
Some people would not consider dandelion wine to be a wine at all. “In the European Union“wine” is legally defined only as the fermented juice of grapes. However, “the term wine can sometimes include alcoholic beverages that are not grape-based. This can include wines produced from fruits like apples and elderberries , starches like rice , as well as flowers andweeds like dandelion ”. (Wikipedia) Whatever you call it, our Dandelion Wine is a well-balanced, quality beverage that we’re proud to offer for your enjoyment.
This month we’ll be celebrating our Spring Wine Release, when our new 2012 Dandelion Wine will become available. We also still have some bottles of the 2007, so you can taste them both and see the difference aging has made so far. We think you’ll like it. You may never look at dandelions in quite the same way again.