Herbal Wines

by Kate Payne • Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo

Wine is associated with festivity, bacchanalian excess and verdant bounty in art and literature. The earliest recorded winemaking activities appear on the archaeological record in various places around the globe as far back as 6,000 years ago. And as long as there’s been wine readily available in homes, it’s been used as a populist medicine that stimulates the nervous and circulatory systems and offers a warming boost to digestion. Herbs of all sorts are used to achieve these results, as well as offering other benefits such as raising the spirits, promoting internal movement, cleansing the organs and supporting various system functions. 

Famous herbal wines include all types of vermouth (infused with wormwood and other herbs) and quinquina (which includes quinine along with fruit and herbs—one of the most famous of these is called “Lillet”). It’s probably unsurprising to discover the medicinal foundations of these popular barkeep libations; after all, many of our other beloved bar helpers started out the same way—tonic water and bitters, for example. Other familiar herbal wines are mulled wine and sangria.

Wine serves as an excellent vehicle for extracting some of the beneficial components of plants because of the solvent properties of its alcohol paired with the acidity that typically characterizes wines of a particular terroir. Wine’s usual alcohol percentage of 12 to 14 not only causes less of an impact on the body’s systems than distilled spirits, but wine also comes with other nutritive benefits and elements that help the body break it down and process it. 

In 1906, the official U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) VIII recognized red and white wine and eight medicated wines, and by 1916, a leading herbal formulary guide offered 15 medicated wine formulas that haven’t since enjoyed the same official status. Herbal wine fell out of favor in Western herbal tradition during Prohibition as the practice of tincturing herbs in higher-proof distilled spirits gained prominence. Though relatively stable because of the alcohol content, herbal wines are more volatile, and formulaically, less precise than their championed relative, the tincture. While they may not last indefinitely on a shelf in the health food store or provide the same heroic, heavy-hitting dosage, herbal wines are more than sufficient for the purposes of common household ailments or flagging attitudes.

This spirited dosage of herbal medicine is, in essence, a tincture that uses wine as its menstruum—the substance that dissolves herbal components and holds them in suspension—instead of grain alcohol or other high-proof distilled spirits. Though decent wine is usually pretty affordable, it’s best to experiment with small batches that can then be replicated on a larger scale once flavors are adjusted to your preferences. 

Traditionally, wines used for herbal wine infusions were fortified with the addition of brandy or a neutral distilled spirit after the wine was finished fermenting. You can use fortified wines, such as port, sherry and Madeira, to achieve a higher-proof solvent (typically between 15 to 20 percent alcohol by volume), which extracts certain plant materials better. 

It’s fine to use a standard sauvignon blanc, or reds such as cabernet sauvignon or malbec—depending on the herbs and aromatics you want to infuse and the flavors you want to highlight. And because the addition of herbs and spices does not mask unpleasant-tasting wine, select one that you’d want to sip on its own. Hard cider and mead (wine made from honey) are also great choices. Herbal wines made from regular wine will keep longer if fortified with a spirit such as brandy, vodka or bourbon. For every pint of pure wine, add 2 tablespoons of the distilled spirit. 

The ingredients in herbal wines are up to the imagination of the maker, though there are two general paths to follow in terms of the process of making it: You can make either a dry-herb infusion or a fresh-herb infusion. The former infuses at room temperature and for a longer period of time, while the latter infuses in the refrigerator for 24 hours. A fresh infusion is kin to sangria—relying on fruit and aromatics to brighten and emphasize the herbal additions. Use both of the recipes below as a general guide for quantities, but be adventurous and creative while exploring the wealth of local Austin plants and available herbs throughout the seasons. Cheers to creating unique and uplifting concoctions for mind, body and spirit. Salud!