Making Dry Wine and Mead

I had a question from someone who stumbled across my plum hibiscus wine post and they asked me if it was sweet or dry? I can tell you it would be highly unlikely that I ever post a sweet recipe.

There is a general misconception out there that in the past that wines and meads were all sickening sweet, but it’s just not the case. Medieval texts mention red, white and “swete” wines. White wine was far more common than people think. In fact most vinegar was made from batches of white wine that had gone off. I only use white wine vinegar when making oxymel. Apple cider vinegar just doesn’t seem to have quite the same properties.

When we first starting going to SCA events people were making some pretty sweet meads and wines. They were mostly along the lines of a dessert wine or those Amana wines, which I honestly kind of hate.  I’d rather not drink at all than choke down sugar. I rarely drink soda and I don’t add sugar to tea or coffee, either.

Anyway, the question led me to believe the sender thought how much sugar you put in determines how sweet the wine is. That’s not the whole story. The amount of sugar you put in determines how strong your wine becomes. Sweetness pretty much depends on how attenuative your yeast is.

Attenuation refers to the amount of sugar a particular strain of yeast is able to consume  and also takes into consideration how much alcohol the organisms can tolerate. Yeasts consume the sugar in a solution, and through the process of digestion turn that it into CO2, ethanol, and flavor compounds. The process is self-limiting in an enclosed system because the yeasts die off when the concentration of alcohol in the wine reaches a certain percentage.

So if you put the same amount of sugar in a solution with a yeast that can tolerate up 20% alcohol, there will be less sugar left in the solution than if you you use a yeast that can only tolerate 14%. Most modern wine makers end up back sweetening their wine.

Making Mead

You see a lot of people recommending champagne yeast for making mead. I like doing it because it adds a bit of sparkly, but honey plus champagne yeast can be too much of a good combination as honey is fully fermentable and champagne yeast can tolerate high alcohol levels. So your final product will be strong and dry, but stripped of any flavors.

You can add sugar, which is less fermentable, to the primary ferment to try to address this, but I think the best plan is to to just go for broke in the primary ferment and make a strong, dry mead. The Lalvin EC 1118 or the Red Star Premier Blanc are both good for that. Then you can add a little more honey, juice, or spices to the secondary ferment, so you don’t lose your flavours or aromatics.

Wine Yeasts

My historian friends think that  during the Middle Ages it was unlikely that most brewing yeasts were able to consume as much sugar before die-off as they can today.   They believe that even though modern brewers and winemakers are using strains of yeast that have been around since the Middle Ages, the strains are probably producing more alcohol due to hundreds of years of people selectively choosing yeasts for saving based on their attenuation.

I don’t know what I think about that. If you look through medieval wine recipes, it seems like they mostly made really dry wines and sweetened them according to taste.

While it is true that medieval brewers and vintners would not have had the luxury of going out and purchasing different types of yeast, they they would have known the qualities of the yeasts they used. So I will end this by telling you about some of the yeasts I have worked with.

Lalvin Yeasts

EC-1118  – I’ve seen this recommended as the stock winemakers yeast and I couldn’t disagree more. I read somewhere that it has the finesse of a battering ram and it’s true. It is a highly attenuative yeast and it can strip away all of your flavors, if you aren’t careful . It is rated at 18% tolerance but will readily go to 20% or higher if you are using a staggered nutrient (SNA) plan.

It tolerates a temperature range anywhere from 50-95 so it’s nice if you don’t’ have AC or good climate control in your brewing area.  This is the yeast to use if you are going all in on your primary ferment or if you have a stuck fermentation. Chances are it is going to eat up all of your sugar and you are going to have to backsweeten. Alcohol Tolerance 18-20%

71B-1122 –  This yeast can is can metabolize malic acid turning it into ethanol. This is nice because it mellows the acidic bite of wines or melomels made with acidic fruits. This is what I use for fruit wines. Alcohol Tolerance 14%

D47  – I don’t love this yeast for mead. While it is nice for dry white wines, it is nitrogen needy and you stay on top of adding nutrient and energizer. Alcohol Tolerance 14%

KIV-1116 – This is good for ciders and light fruits, because it is a competitive yeast which means it will fight off any wild yeasts. It holds the fruit flavor longer than most, and produces a nice floral ester flavor. It’s a good yeast to use for fermenting at lower temperatures and can unstick a fermentation stalled due to cold.  Alcohol Tolerance 18%

Red Star Yeasts

Premier Blanc (Champagne Yeast) – This a strain of Saccharomyces bayanus that has high alcohol tolerance and handles free sulfur dioxide. It can be used for melomels, whites, reds, and fruit juices that don’t have a high acidity. If you are making a melomel from a highly acidic fruit, I would use the Lalvin 71B-1122.

Cuvee Yeast This is Red Star’s answer to EC-1118, so I don’t bother with it, but it works a lot the same way.

Making a Tonic Water

I am working on making homemade tonic water for the holidays, which isn’t exactly earth-shattering. Every novice herbalist and foodie out there is talking about homemade cocktails and liqueurs this season.

I have shared simple recipes for quick gift making in the past, that’s not the point of this post. Right now I want to take a minute to talk about the fact that as beverages have been incorporated into cookbooks throughout history, sometimes cooks take shortcuts. They cook the ingredients in a way that might still be tasty but aren’t the best way to extract health promoting constituents. There are a lot of great recipes out there, but not a lot of great formulas.

Using cinchona as a malarial cure is generally attributed first to the 17th century physician Robert Talbor who was making a decoction with cinchona, lemon, and rose. The original tonic water was simply quinine and water, but the citrus and spice were added back to the mix to make the drink more palatable.

Earlier in the spring I shared a picture of my tonic water recipe in a couple of places. It’s something I will mix into some sparkling water for people experiencing high fever as a cooling beverage. It is a nice combination of bitter and cooling organic acids. I mostly suggest it for hectic fevers or clients who have systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) that presents with frequent fevers. It is also easier to get in people who don’t like teas.

People weren’t used to making homemade tonic water and asked a lot of questions, so I shared David Lebowitz’s recipe on my Facebook page because I didn’t have time to type this all out. It’s close-ish to mine.

Lebowitz is an amazing foodie but his preparation method doesn’t make the best of the ingredients from a therapeutic standpoint. He also adds a lot of spices that I think detract from creating something that tastes like real tonic water, and some of them are mildly warming which I think muddles the energetics of the drink.

I think people just skipped to the recipe, based on the feedback I got. So before we even start talking about the preparation, I want to point out, like he does, that this is a concentrate. It’s not meant to be drank full-strength. If you want the bubbly type tonic water you get at the store, you mix this with sparkling water.

If I were mixing this for a cocktail party, I might only add a couple of tablespoons to a 12-ounce bottle sparkling water to make a tonic water. If I were mixing it for therapeutic reasons, I would mix it about 50-50, with the caveat that it’s only to be mixed this strong for short-term use because quinine which is the active ingredient in cinchona has some rather nasty side-effects if you over do it.

Homemade Tonic Water

Ingredients

  • 6 cups water
  • 1 grapefruit
  • 1 orange
  • 2 lemons
  • 1 lime
  • 2 tbsp citric acid
  • 4 tbsp dry cut & sifted chinchona bark
  • 4 tbsp dried lemon grass
  • 10 allspice berries
  • 1 cup of simple syrup or honey

Directions

  1. Before you start boil some water and dip the fruit in for a couple of minutes to dissolve any impurities on the surface. ( Do this even if the fruit is organic. There are organic waxes that they use for marketing.)
  2. Place the cinchona bark, lemongrass, and allspice in a saucepan with the water and bring to a boil.
  3. Turn the heat down enough to keep it at a low simmer for twenty minutes. (Here we are making a decoction of the tough ingredients, but you don’t want to put your fresh aromatics in the decoction because you will lose them to cooking. )
  4. While this is simmering you can zest your fruit into a bowl that has a tight fitting lid and put the lid on when you are done. If you don’t have a zester like the one in the picture, you can just using a paring knife and peel them thinly.
  5. When your timer goes off, strain the hot liquid into the bowl over the zest.
  6. Add the citric acid and simple syrup and put the lid on the bowl. (Not cooking the zest cuts back a great deal on losing those aromatic terpenes like limonene and flavonoids like hesparadin. )
  7. When the mixture is completely cool, strain it well. You can juice your fruit while it is cooling.
  8. Stir in the juice and bottle it. We wait to add the juice until the solution is cool, because there’s no sense in cooking away all of the vitamin C complex. I sometimes use the grapefruit juice and orange juice for something else and just juice the lemons and the limes. Feel free to experiment