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Wine for Christmas

Published: 
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
Carlton Campbell, from Parlatuvier, Tobago, with some of his Taste of Tobago wine.

“One Christmas Eve day, when I was just ten years old, I came home from flying my kite outside, and I saw the wine my mother had just finished bottling, and I poured a quarter glass into a tumbler, and drank it straight down—soon after that, the house was spinning! I got drunk. I went straight to bed at 10 am and didn’t get back up until 2 pm that afternoon,” recalled Carlton Campbell of Parlatuvier, Tobago, with a chuckle. 

Campbell has grown up some since those days, and knows how to savour wine in more measured ways. But he still has fond memories of his mother making Christmas wine in their home on Tobago’s north coast. As a teenager, he’d often help her by collecting fruits like pomme cythere for the wine. 

“She made wine for Christmas and the Parlatuvier Harvest festival in January. She would start making from August, enough for the two festivals,” he remembers. 

Wine-making from our own tropical fruits has long been practiced in T&T among rural communities of all ethnicities. We talked to two small scale commercial winemakers, Carlton Campbell and Veronica Romany, to see what they are offering this Christmas, and how they got into the craft. 

Campbell’s Taste of Tobago 
Carlton Campbell said he’s proud to continue his mother’s tradition of wine making. Although his signature product is dasheen root wine under the label A Taste of Tobago, this enterprising Tobagonian also makes hot and pimento pepper sauces, and bakes up quite a storm to boot—he makes pumpkin bread, and many other flavours, including dasheen, cassava, corn, and spinach bread. He’d often bake in the traditional, community clay oven in Parlatuvier on weekends, until the oven was dismantled earlier this year. He now plans to set up his own clay oven. 

But his wine is what he’s most proud of. “My dasheen wine has a medium dry, smooth, romantic flavour,” he said in a recent interview with the Guardian. His other flavours this Christmas include aniseed wine, hibiscus white wine, and a special fruit blend he calls Mom’s, as well as bay leaf wine, of which he said: “My bay leaf wine is golden-brown, coloured like Napolean brandy; it tastes succulent—it’s not sweet, but more like a mix of aromatic spices. Nigerians in Tobago really love it!” 

He credited his neighbour Bridget Horsford with getting him started—five years ago, she suggested he regularly make dasheen wine for Tobago’s annual Blue Food Festival. 

“At that time I was making a little bucket of wine here and there, but nothing commercial. I was making cassava, bay leaf, jamoon, and plantain wine. And Mrs Horsford encouraged me. She showed me how to do it. And now, for the Blue Food Festival, I make mainly dasheen wine, but also sweet potato, aniseed, bay leaf, garlic wine, and Mom’s fruit wine in honour of my mother, from yellow cherries.”

To upgrade his skills, Campbell took a weekend winemaking course in Parlatuvier organised by the village council in 2010. He is also grateful for a grant from the THA to help him improve his product. 

“You have to experiment with dasheen wine to get a good taste,” he commented. “Some dasheen roots have a different flavour from others, depending on if they grew in swampy ground or on drier land—that affects taste.” 

Campbell initially ferments his wines for up to 21 days. After that, he “racks” the “must” (“must” is the pressed juice, with skins, seeds, stems and other solids still in it). Racking means to siphon the wine from one container to another, to leave the sediment behind, and is a vital part of wine-making. Wines may be racked several times, to clarify them. 

Campbell then adjusts the taste. He said if you leave it be, you’ll make a dry wine, but if you add sugar or your own home-made sugary syrup, the wine will be sweet. Finally, he ages the wine, to improve its taste. “You must select the best products to begin with. You must have the judgement to know how long to age your wines. All my wines are bottled after being aged for a year and six months,” said Campbell. 

Paramin Wine by Romany 
Meanwhile, across the sea in Trinidad, in the high Paramin hills, Veronica Romany also enjoys making her own wines, and years ago, graduated from recreational home brews to her own small scale commercial label—Paramin Wine. 

This Christmas, she has grapefruit, sorrel, jamoon, five fingers, and a cane and guava blend of wines for sale. She makes wine from any local fruit she can get her hands on, she said. She also makes mango wines for the annual Mango Festival in July. 

Romany, a member of the Paramin Women’s Group, first learned to make wine from Community Development classes she took in the 1980s. Then she’d make a little wine for home and family use, or to share with friends. And eventually, it “just grew on me,” she said. By the 90s she was selling small amounts. Today, she makes many flavours. Although her preference is for the business to remain small and fun, she half-complains (with a smile) that the business is now becoming a bit too demanding. 

“My mom was my official taster, when she was alive,” remembered Romany nostalgically (her mother died in 2005). 

“She would advise me if the wine was too sweet—and you know, you couldn’t just give her a little bit! She needed a decent amount to taste each flavour. By the end of a tasting afternoon, she’d joke that the wine was reaching down to her knees.” 

Romany may look like someone’s retiring auntie (she is 60), but behind her earthy laughter is a lady of resolve, who does not like to do anything half-way. An independent, energetic woman with grown daughters, she juggles several jobs at an age when many other people are retired. She does geriatric nursing for two to three days a week.

Along with other members of the Paramin Women’s Group, she also works in a cooperatively owned small factory to make Paramin Green Seasoning, sold in many groceries. She also tends to her hillside flower garden and runs her trim and tidy household on her own. And she also makes ponche a crème and pastelles for Christmas. She is a member of the Network of Rural Women Producers. 

How long does it take Romany to make her wines? 
“It depends on the fruit,” she said. “Some fruit takes just six months; others take longer. Some say they can make wine in just 21 days—but that is not wine, that is wine’s cousin’s cousin’s cousin’s cousin, somewhere down the road! Because it’s not cured. When you put your fruit in your bucket, you also put sugar (I like to put raisins in just the dark-coloured wines), and yeast...Different fruits have slightly different procedures. 

“If I’m making grapefruit wine, for instance, I first remove all the skin and white rind, because that has a lot of acid. But for mango, I use the skin and everything. One year I did breadfruit wine, because a breadfruit I had was already ripe and I couldn’t cook it to eat, so I made wine with it—and it tasted very nice.” 

“This is a love—making wine is my love,” Romany said.

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