Medieval Wines Meet Modern Wineries

Good Taste Magazine, November/December 2009

For many, the word mead brings to mind medieval feasts or Viking plunder. It implies a rough and pagan drink that seems out of place in this modern world. The image, however, is far different from reality. Now considered a specialty drink with a growing audience, Mead is a surprisingly delicate and smooth wine that can be matched with anything from curry to sushi to chocolate.
At its most simple, Mead is wine made from honey. It has a long tradition and is believed to be the oldest fermented drink in the world. Still found in Europe, its availability in North America is mostly limited to local producers and some specialty wine shops.
For the owners of one of Nova Scotia’s newest wineries mead was an experiment gone right. “Some friends up the road knew we made wine and they offered us honey to try,” says Les Wade of Lawrencetown’s Beavercreek winery. He adds it’s hard to say no “hen someone drops 60 pounds of honey off and says ‘here would you like to try to make mead?’ “It’s quite an expensive experiment for us if we had to buy it, so we tried it.”
The result was a dry, smooth wine that offers the palette only mild shades of its main ingredient, honey. The Beavercreek Mead is considered a naked mead, composed of just honey, water and yeast. Now into her third year producing the mead, winemaker Paulette Wade say the interest from the public has been surprisingly good considering most people have never heard of the wine. “I was amazed. There are a lot of people wanting it.”

Les Wade describes the Beavercreek Mead as a nice after dinner drink. “I find it very refreshing just to drink it. I don’t find it overly sweet. I just find it a nice relaxing sipping wine.”

The Honeymoon Wine offered by the Lunnenburg County winery, another naked mead, is also recommended as a sipping wine but also claims to go well with curries and Asian foods. The Lunnenburg mead has a sharper finish owner Heather Sanft calls quite floral.
“I always talk about the floralness first,” says Sanft. “I sometimes I’ll say do you like Earl Grey tea, do you like Jasmine rice, and if they say yes, I’ll say try this and think of all the flowers the bees went to visit.” The Lunnenburg County Winery has been making the mead the called Honeymoon Wine for nearly 15 years. The name of the wine is a tribute to the Northern European tradition of giving a bride and groom a month’s supply of mead in the hopes of producing a male child. The practice is the root of the modern word ‘honeymoon.’ It also makes the wine a popular one for weddings.
Now enjoying a resurgence in North America, Mead has a rich and varied history. It was called ambrosia in Roman times and believed it was sent by the Gods, Norse warriors expected to find women with mead in the afterlife of Valhalla. There is even some suggestion it goes back as far as Neanderthal man, some 30,000 years ago.
For centuries it was the one of the most popular drink in most European countries, with the exception of perhaps France and Italy who have a long tradition of grape wines, but fell out of favour in the 1500s when processed sugar from the New World became widely available.

“When people could get sugar suddenly honey was considered déclassé,” says Vicky Rowe, owner of Gotmead.com, the world’s largest website devoted to Mead. Rowe says over the last 15 years the number of meaderies in North America has almost tripled.
“Mead is like wine in that you can have something that’s as dry as a bone, all the way up to mind numbingly sweet,” says Rowe. The result depends on how it is made. “Mead is all about how it’s crafted.”

Mead is also a highly versatile wine. It can be made with straight honey like those produced at the Beavercreek and Lunnenburg County wineries or it can be matched with almost anything.

“You can add things like spices, you can add fruit, you can have strawberry meads, you can have Christmas spice meads,” says Rowe. She says she’s even tasted one made with Beets. It’s “not my favourite food, but it was a very well done mead, it was nicely balanced and for people who like beets it would probably be pretty good.”

Rossignol Winery on Prince Edward Island makes a Blackberry Mead that has been very well received by Island Chefs. Winemaker John Rossignol says the award winning mead is a sweet dessert wine that goes beautifully with chocolate. Rossignol describes his mead, available through the Island Liquor Commission, as fruity but earthy.

“The blackberry mead has become, locally anyway, one of the favourite dessert wines to work with it. You’ll find on some of the wine menus on the island now,” says Rossignol.

It’s also been winning awards. The Rossignol Blackberry Mead took gold in the 2009 Atlantic Canadian Wine Competition and in the 2008 All-Canadian Wine Championships in the fruit category. Citing a growing interest in meads, the competition has since added a category just for the honey wines. “There are a lot of people that really don’t like grape wine so they’re looking for an alternate,” says Beverly Carnahan who runs the competition. “The mead wines are really improving and have a growing audience.” Many of the meads made in Canada are taking medals at international competitions as well.
Even so, mead is still an unknown quantity for many wine tasters. Vicky Rowe does marketing for meaderies and says education is still the biggest hurdle. “Introducing them to mead is always an adventure because you get people
that are willing to step outside the box and you get other people that just think merlot is the end all be all of wine.”
Atlantic Canadian producers say their biggest success still comes from visitors willing to try a taste and leave with a few bottles. This year the Beavercreek Winery has doubled its production of mead and plans to do so again next year. Les Wade thinks the simplicity of the drink is what attracts people. He sees it as an every man’s drink. “I put a fire on the back deck a lot of times, sit out with a glass of mead, and just relax, nothing
too pretentious.”