Making fruit wine

Like most agricultural/gastronomic endeavours done on a small scale, making fruit wine is hard but rewarding work. A conversation with Rick and Amy Barr and Xina Chrapko illustrates their philosophies and outlines the steps involved to get their fruit wines to happy customers.

Birds & Bees Organic Winery and Meadery, formerly En Sante, Brousseau Alberta

Bottles of Birds and Bees wine. Photo by Greg Beneteau.
Bottles of Birds and Bees wine. Photo by Greg Beneteau.

The farm has cattle, orchards, bees, cereal crops, and chickens. “Making wine from the orchards is part of adding value to our farm,” says Xina, winemaker for Birds and Bees.“We call our sister Tonia the licenced bootlegger, as she sells our wine at the farmer’s markets. Our mother Elizabeth is the queen bee, providing her wisdom about the farm and the winery, and life in general.

“I came back to the farm after my Dad’s death to continue on with the winery. This land as been in the family since 1927. Making wine here helps provide seasonal work for people in the neighbourhood.”

Tonia and Xina’s father Victor Chrapko is legendary in northern Alberta agriculture. He was one of the first to farm organically, and was rewarded with several honours: AgChoices Best Practices Renewal Award; Alberta Farm Family Award; and nominated for the Alberta Agriculture Hall of Fame. He was also president of the Alberta Organic Producers Association. In 2009 Elizabeth, Victor’s wife, and Xina Chrapko went to Nebraska to accept an award for Outstanding Organic Farmers of the Year by the Organic Crop Improvement Association certifying body. Victor worked passionately on behalf of cottage wineries to allow them to be able to sell at farmers’ markets.

“We’ve been a cottage winery since 2005, but we’ve made wine for decades. We changed the name for practical reasons: people couldn’t say it, it was always being misordered at the stores. Birds and Bees is about health as well, we’re having fun with it.

“All the fruit and honey we harvest goes into fruit wine. We make several wines: apple, raspberry, rhubarb, Saskatoon, cherry and two specialty holiday wines, also alfalfa and a mead.”

The alfalfa is especially interesting as there are few wines made from a grass.

“We don’t have to press the alfalfa, it goes right into fermentation. It does ferment at a fairly high temperature, up to 29/30.C. The total ferment takes 8-12 days, then it ages in stainless steel for 11 months or so. This creates flavour and smoothness and makes it easier to filter.

“Now, we don’t have to go to BC or Ontario or the States to learn about orchards and winemaking — we can learn how to successfully diversify right here.”

Rick and Amy Barr, Barr Estate Winery Sherwood Park

Rick Barr of Barr Estate winery harvesting rhubarb to make The Barb. Photo by Curtis Comeau.
Rick Barr of Barr Estate winery harvesting rhubarb to make The Barb. Photo by Curtis Comeau.

“Our rhubarb field is three acres with about 500 rhubarb plants. We planted it three years ago. We have five or six different varieties, some have wrist-sized stalks and some are like strings but are super red and juicy,” says Rick. “Last year with all the rain, we had rhubarb that was five feet high.”

“We freeze the rhubarb first to assist with cell breakdown otherwise we don’t get any juice,” says Amy. “We thaw, then juice the stalks, press, and freeze the juice. We accumulate juice until the end of the summer. After all the picking is finished and it’s cooler (12.C) we do a cool fermentation. It takes a month to a month and a half for the raspberry to ferment.

“I start a small batch inoculate, then add it to the rest of the juice. The cool fermentation helps us keep the volatiles, we don’t want to boil off aroma.

“The raspberry starts fermentation really quickly, but with the rhubarb wine we have to nurture the fermentation because of the acidity and perhaps because rhubarb is low in potassium. The yeast may struggle a bit but we’ve never had a stuck fermentation.

“This is where Amy’s lab experience come in handy,” says Rick.

“We ferment all the sugar in the fruit to completion. We may add some honey for the mouth feel and body, and to add more complexity and balance the flavours. Then we leave on the lees (spent yeast and proteins) for four to five months, filter, and then we bottle.“

Their lab experience also pays off in what they don’t have to do. Pristine fruit and careful handling means they don’t add any sulphites or sorbates.

“There is a miniscule amount of sulphur that’s produced as a byproduct, it’s not detectable and is generally taken out by filtration, says Amy.

rhubarb“We keep hoping we’ll have time to fix up our old dairy barn — it doesn’t look very wineish. Though we don’t really promote people coming out, as we’re either at our day jobs or out picking fruit,” says Rick.

“Between the sheep, the winery, and the research work, it’s all different and requires different things of you. It’s not the same as doing the same things all the time. You plug through,” says Amy.

“We just don’t know any other way,” says Rick.

Mary Bailey is an ISG certified sommelier and WSET instructor.


By Mary Bailey.