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 started going to SCA events people were making some really 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 correlates with 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.
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 use a yeast that can only tolerate 14%. Most modern wine makers end up back sweetening their wine. Which means they add sugar to it right before bottling.
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. 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 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 flavors or aromatics.
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 would have known the qualities of the yeasts they used. I will end this by telling you about some of the yeasts I have worked with.
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 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 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 have to 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 is 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.