Aaliyah Nitoto, winemaker at Free Range Flower Winery, is tired of hearing that the category of wine is exclusive to grapes. For centuries, wine has been made from many kinds of plant products, she says, like grapes, apples, pears, rice and flowers.
Nitoto is one of several forward-thinking wine professionals eager to celebrate the bounty of wines made from lavender, dandelions, chrysanthemums and other flowers.
The History of Flower Wine Around the World
Flower wine has a deep global history throughout the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the United States.
In China, chrysanthemum wine became popular at least as far back as 247–195 B.C.E. (Han Dynasty), when it would be imbibed every ninth day of the ninth lunar month for protection. Today, people continue to drink the historic beverage during The Double Ninth Festival, which originated in 475–221 B.C.E.
Historically the festival was originally meant to give respect to elders; today it largely focuses on health and is celebrated by spending time in nature before the start of winter, and utilizing chrysanthemums, which are believed to have beneficial health qualities.
Korea’s historic and contemporary alcoholic beverage culture includes fermented beverages with chrysanthemum, azalea, hydrangea and other flowers. Sool, or alcohol in Korean, often includes rice, local flowers, herbs and fruits.
“The use of flowers is a very deep part of the Korean sool tradition,” says Alice Jun, winemaker at Hana Makgeolli in Brooklyn, New York. “It’s the same reason why any kind of botanical or medicinal herbs were used in any kind of alcohol making all over the world. It’s for medicinal purposes, it’s also more pleasant to drink sometimes. The use of flowers such as chrysanthemums, hydrangeas, azaleas, native flowers to Korea, are an old practice.”
Dandelion wine has been made in the United States since at least the 1800s with the first mentions of the practice dating back to the settlers of the Great Plains in 1892.
How Flower Wine is Made
Making flower wine is not necessarily the same as making grape wine. You start with either dried or fresh flowers.
“I sometimes take boiling water and pour it into the flowers or take fresh flowers that are really delicate and macerate or crush them pretty well, pour them into cool water, and let them sit,” says Nitoto. Add your sugar source and yeast, and you have a fermentation starting. Thanks to the grassroots nature of flower-based wines, recipes for homemade concoctions are easy to find.
Depending on how long you choose to macerate the flowers and how much you use, you can end up with flavors ranging from delicate to deep. “In a single brew, we’re putting in about 500 to 600 grams [of flowers]. It’s tiny,” says Jun. “The reason for that is because we want it to keep the infusion very subtle.”
Floral aromas and flavors vary depending on the flowers you choose. Free Range Flower Winery’s sparkling lavender wine, for example, has an unmistakable lavender punch, and a slight herbal quality.
Flower Wine Today
Despite flower wine’s long history, it doesn’t get the respect many winemakers believe it deserves.
“I have had people say that wine made this way isn’t wine,” says Nitoto. “The opinion of people in this country over the last 100-odd years to try to get rid of this category doesn’t stand up to the history of winemaking, which is thousands of years old, which does call this wine.”
Winemakers like Jun, Nitoto and others like Nana Meriwether of Navina are bringing back the tradition of fermentation with flowers and turning it into a commercial enterprise. Interest from new winemakers has spiked. “We have had people reach out as far as China, Rwanda, India, Central America, England and in a few places in the United States,” says Nitoto. “A lot of folks are makers that had grandparents or great-grandparents who made non grape wine from flowers and other fruits.”
“These wines were primarily made by people who were middle to lower-income, and they’re primarily made by women,” says Nitoto. “That can tell you right there why they were relegated to obscurity. The people who owned tracts of lands that had money and influence and got to name things like ‘noble grapes,’ they got to say what was wine and what wasn’t.”
“You have to really think about what you’re drinking, and try to pick up on those notes,” says Jun. “There’s also something very familiar, right? We pass by flowers all the time… I think that that’s why people are drawn to floral wines.”