Elderflower Champagne

elderflower champagne

Back in June 1979 I hitched a ride with a theatre company to the Hood Faire on the banks of the River Dart (just outside of Totnes). This was a small faire with a Mediaeval theme, comprised of local craftsmen, artisanal food and drink makers, theatre companies and even a sweat lodge made out of mud and stones straight from the river. I distinctly remember sitting in the branches of a tree at dusk, dangling over the Dart, watching Forkbeard Fantasy perform a play, knee deep in water (by candlelight) while I drank a delicious sparkling alcoholic drink, made from elderflowers.


Elderflowers come from the Elder tree (known as the Common Elder, Black Elder or Sambucus nigra in Latin) and they are the precursor to Elderberries. They can be found all across Europe and North America and are quite common in Britain. Elderflowers have been used in medicine for thousands of years and are thought to have antibacterial, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. Wood pigeons gorge themselves on the leaves and berries, while domestic racing pigeons are fed an elderberry tincture for their health.

The elder tree can be found in hedgerows, parks, back gardens and cemeteries – it is said to ward off the devil! The tree can live for 60 years and grow to about 50 ft (15m), though they are commonly around 33ft (10m) tall. Elderflowers appear from late May to early June. Both the flowers and berries of the elder can be turned into wine, but the berries should not be eaten raw as they are mildly toxic and can cause stomach upsets. Once cooked, the berries are harmless and can be made into a delicious elderberry jam. The berries grow from the stems of the flowers and can be harvested in the late summer and autumn.

Elderflower Wine recipe:

22 Elderflowers
8 pints water
1 1/2 lb Demerara sugar
2 lemons
2 dessertspoons cider vinegar

picked elderflowers

In order to make Elderflower Champagne, one must first make the wine, which is decanted and fed more sugar to start a second fermentation – this increases the alcohol content and makes carbon dioxide bubbles.

Pick the flowers in the early morning, ideally when they have just opened. When fresh, elderflowers smell delightful, but as they age, they produce an odour like cat pee (which will taint the wine). If you smell the flower before you pick it, you’ll know whether it’s good or bad. Try to pick the flowers from different trees, leave some to produce berries and some for the birds. This year there was a bumper crop of flowers, which is what prompted me to go foraging.

ready to ferment

Don’t be tempted to wash the flowers, it will remove the natural yeast, which is needed for fermentation. Check to exclude any insects that may be living on the blossoms.

Dissolve the sugar in 2 pints of boiling water (1lb of honey would be a perfect substitute for the sugar). Allow the sugar water to cool before mixing with the other ingredients.

flowers, lemon, sugar and water

Combine all the ingredients in a clean bucket, squeeze and slice the lemons. I sterilised the bucket beforehand. Cover with a damp towel and allow to sit for 2 – 5 days at room temperature, stirring once a day.


You will know that you have anaerobic respiration going on, when you get cloudy bubbles in your mixture. When this happens, the potion is ready to proceed to the next stage.


The cloudy bubbles show that there’s alcohol being produced, so it’s time to strain solids from the liquid and begin the fermentation in earnest. Put the filtered liquid into a demijohn and cap with an airlock, to allow the carbon dioxide to escape and keep foreign bodies out – particularly the fruit fly. Store the fermenting wine in a cool dark place.

pond life

When I looked at the elderflower wine before going to bed on the first night, the airlock was popping every 5 seconds or so and an alien life form was growing on the surface. When I checked the next morning the airlock was still busy, but the aliens had returned to Mars.


When the fermentation has finished – between 2 to 3 months, the airlock will stop expelling gas and sediment will drop down to the bottom of the demijohn. Decant, using a syphon (a clear plastic tube), being careful to leave the sediment behind.

sugar solution

Elderflower Champagne:

The elderflower wine will probably be a little sharp and therefore, it’s necessary to add sugar, especially if you wish to make elderflower champagne – this requires sugar for a second fermentation. It’s best to add sugar to taste. In spite of the sharpness, if you run the wine around your mouth a couple of times to acclimatise your palate, it is quite refreshing. It smells distinctly of elderflowers. Half an hour after decanting, some oxidation will have taken place and the wine tastes mellower and fruitier with a hint of lemon (used in the original fermentation).

Mix 4 level dessertspoons of demerara sugar with 80ml warm water – let the sugar dissolve. Add the sugar water to a gallon of elderflower wine. Pour the wine into 500 ml bottles – use Grolsch type or PET for elderflower champagne. Normal wine bottles can explode or the cork will blow out (I’ve seen both happen!). Refrigerate or keep in a cool dark room. A second fermentation will take a couple of weeks – you will know it’s happened when sediment drops down to the bottom of the bottle.

The wine and champagne will keep for several months in a cool dark place.

Elderflowers can also be turned into a delicious non alcoholic cordial (great with gin!) or dipped in batter to make fritters. Elderberries can be used to infuse gin, in the same manner as sloes. Elderberries and sloes should be ready to pick right now.

About Mad Dog

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13 Responses to Elderflower Champagne

  1. jmcheney says:

    I’m forwarding this one to friends who enjoy making spirits. And one friend who loves anything elderberry for health. I asked my son for a bottle of St.-Germain 2 Christmases back. I’ve added it to glasses of cava or prosecco now & then & that is delicious. My neighbor across the street has read so many Scandinavian Noirs lately, she checked out the akvavit at the ABC. There was one bottle in Asheville for $35, so she bought potato vodka & made a bottle for herself. It was finally ready & she brought it over last Sunday aft. We pretended we were swathed in furs in a Swedish or Norwegian igloo ice bar sipping her very good concoction over crushed ice on a hot August aft. under the ceiling fan on my back porch. You always tempt & fascinate us with such interesting recipes, Mad. Maybe my neighbor can find some elderflowers next year. They have come & gone in late summer here. Thank you & Salut!

    • Mad Dog says:

      Thanks Judith – I bet you had fun last Sunday! I’m sure you’ll enjoy elderflower wine or champagne if you like St.Germain. I kept a bottle of Linie Aquavit in the fridge, when I was chefing in a Spanish kitchen last summer 😉

  2. Eha says:

    Thank you for the fun ‘homework’ on this Saturday morning. Have heard of elderflowers naturally but never seen one nor had the opportunity for a sip of anything made of it, be it alcoholic or boringly plain 🙂 ! Lovely for you to have such memories of the ‘faire’ !! I guess I am a little bit of a stick-in-the-mud as far as champagne is concerned . . . the French travelling half across the world has become almost prohibitive cost wise but, as you know, we do make some mean brews here Down Under . . . actually would be lovely to indulge in a glass or two on this fine Saturday morning supposedly reaching 24 C whilst it is still winter . . . best . . .

  3. Ooh, I made litres of cordial this year but next year I’m definitely making this! Hope you’re doing ok x

  4. Ron says:

    Mad Dog, I have this marvelous image in my mind of you hanging from a branch with a champagne bottle loosely dangling in your hand. What fun that festival must have been.
    Elderberry or fläder as we call is here is deeply embedded in the Scandinavian culture as well. Eva forages for it in early June and makes fläder saft (like a syrup). The saft is made similarly to the first steps of making wine, but you add more sugar and no lemons. Once the sugar and elderberry meld, she strains it and stores the saft in the freezer. The syrup never freezes hard, so when one wishes, one can pop open a bottle of Prosecco and drizzle in a spoon of the saft, stir and drink.

    • Mad Dog says:

      Thanks Ron – it was an incredibly surreal experience, watching a strange play, performed in a river at night. Eva’s fläder saft sounds good and especially that it can be used straight from the freezer!

  5. Karen says:

    You are a true Renaissance man Mad Dog, I loved this post. We used to make apple wine which some years was a little frizz ante when we had our orchard. My husband and a neighbor were “mad scientists” tasting to get the right formula each year. I think there were more than a 100 bottles in our wine cellar when we sold our home.

  6. Pingback: Cumberland Barbecue | Mad Dog TV Dinners

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