Care for a glass of rosella wine? Or perhaps you'd prefer mangosteen or water cherry?

Whereas Dionysus, according to legend the first wine-maker, used the venerable grape, members of the Cairns Amateur Winemakers' Guild have expanded the boundaries of the ancient art of wine making. They metamorphose fruits from bananas to soursop into their own delicious elixirs.

To find out more about these intriguing brews, I visited two members of the Guild, Lindsay and Sheila Roberson, at their home outside Cairns. When I arrived, Sheila was delicately picking the ripe berries from clusters of elderberries. "A long process" she explained ruefully, "as it takes about four pound of fruit to make a gallon of wine".

Bubbling merrily in two buckets in the kitchen were Sheila's current brews - a beautiful froth of strawberry pink foam produced by a windfall gift of rare jaboticabas, and a quieter pot of lime-yellow five-corners.

Sheila picks the fruit as it ripens, scalds and cuts it up, then stores it in the freezer until she has the required amount. It is then mixed with sugar, yeast additives to aid fermentation and clearing, and water and left to ferment, with daily stirring, for three or four days.

The liquid is strained into glass flagons and racked two or three times to remove sediment while fermentation continues for a further three to twelve months.

How do you know when it's ready, I asked?

The secret lies in testing for specific gravity until the required degree of dryness is reached: 990 to 1000 makes a dry wine, 1000 to 1006, a medium and 1015 to 1030, a sweet wine. Usually the sweeter the wine the higher the alcohol content, but this is obligingly consistent at around seven to ten per cent.

Almost any fruit can be made into wine, I found, but Lindsay and Sheila's favourite is rosella - not the bird, as some horrified New Zealand visitors supposed, but the small red fruit - which makes a rose. Mulberry, elderberry and guava are also especially good, they say.

For myself, I found the mangosteen wine we sipped as we talked absolutely delicious - light, dry, with just a hint of 'otherness' to indicate it wasn't from the grape.

The Winemakers' Guild holds monthly tasting sessions, at which members' skills are tested in defining this 'otherness' - is it pawpaw? Elderberry flower? Brazilian cherry? Perhaps a delicate blend of mango and passion fruit?

The Robersons' garden is dotted with exotic fruit trees, mostly those bearing tart fruit like the various tropical cherries, which, says Sheila, makes the best wine.

This year she is slowly collecting fruit for a new and rare wine - cashew - made from the apple of the cashew nut tree. She showed me the fruit - surely one of the oddest nature produces, dangling from the tree with the cashew nut snuggled into its base like a curved cocoon.

Cellaring is a problem in the tropics. As Sheila says: "Once you get all this wine, you've got to put it somewhere!" Solutions range from under the bed to cool dark cupboards but, as with any home brew, there is always the danger that an over-enthusiastic bottle will blow its top.

Sheila's cellar is an old wooden wardrobe in the garage. She opened it to reveal a collage of certificates for local show prizes modestly papering the inside of the door, and a treasure trove of demijohns and bottles, the former quietly fermenting and settling, the latter patiently waiting to delight the palate and the nose with their tantalisingly subtle undertones of the exotic fruit of the tropics.

Louise Kennedy

DATE: May 1987

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