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.

Plum Hibiscus Wine


We’ve been making alcohol for a long time now, but I’ve been avoiding making  wine. People kept telling me I had to use the Campden tablets and all of that chemical additive nonsense to do it.  Why would I want to do that, when I can brew perfectly good beer and mead without added chemicals?  It especially bugs me to see recipes full of chemical additives on herbal websites and sites dedicated to historical recreation.  I mean what is that even about?

Then, I had a really, really tasty wine at a re-enactment event vinted with no chemicals that sent me digging around in my medieval cookbooks and other SCA resources.

Turns out, it is entirely possible to avoid modern chemicals and still make good wine,  if you know a little bit about plant chemistry and a bit about food history, but first you will need some equipment.

Equipment

Stainless Steel or Enamel Pot for making the simple syrup. You don’t need a huge one. You can always make a couple of batches.

Brewing Bucket – Food Grade plastic bucket that is at least twice the size of the batch of wine you are making. When you start out you can just get yourself a five gallon bottling bucket and use it for the primary ferment, too.

Racking Cane – This is how you transfer your wine from container to container without oxidizing it. It should come with rubber tubing.

2 1-gallon demijohns with lids. You can buy rubber stopper bungs, but our brewing store sells screw top lids with holes for the airlock, which I prefer.

2 -Airlocks

Bottles –  I use flip top bottles that we buy for the sparkling lemonade. You can save wine bottles and buy a corker if that interests you.  Some people just save screwtop wine bottles and re-use them.  My  point here is that one of the reasons we brew is to reduce our waste.

Hydrometer – I suppose you can get by without one, but why don’t you want to learn how to do this right?

Sanitation

I see things online that make me cringe.  It’s not because I think someone is going to make themselves sick –not much likes to live in alcohol.  No, I cringe because I see all the shortcuts that I know are going to lead to some nasty, skunky homemade beverages.   And while its true that your grandmother didn’t do all of these things, medieval ale and wine were sometimes not amazing.  I am aiming for amazing.

The first step of good vinting or brewing is using sterile equipment.  Kitchen clean is not good enough. I have a sanitizing program on my dishwasher and I wash my equipment  and cleaning brushes on that cycle.  Then, I soak everything that touches my wine in sanitizing solution.  B-Brite is an oxygen based product that doesn’t leave a film like bleach does.

We also keep our bigger brewing/vinting equipment in my classroom and away from the kitchen.  When its time to use it we carefully wash the glass jars or buckets and then fill them with sanitizing solution.

It’s not even about  safety, although that’s important. It’s about  keeping organisms that might produce off-flavors out of your final product.  If you want to brew grossness, skip these steps.

Natural Additives 

Hibiscus flower infusions contain somewhere between 15-30% organic acids including malic acid, citric acid, and tartaric acid.  Those will sound familiar to a winemaker, because they are common wine acidifiers. I added them to this wine because plums are a rather low acid fruit.

Oak bark or oak chips. Tannins leached from oak barrels improve the quality of wines and whiskey, however making oak barrels is not a very sustainable practice these days. Eco-conscious Europeans have countered this problem by adding oak bark chips or other tannins to wine and I am happy to follow suit.

Buy Your Yeast

I know that it is hipster to catch the wild yeasts, and most people consider that more “natural.” I can’t quite bring myself to take that crapshoot with my expensive ingredients. Besides, the process of freezing and then sterilizing the fruit with the boiling syrup that I mention below is going to kill anything that might be hanging about on the fruit.

I know enough about yeast strains to know how to manipulate the flavors and alcohol content of my final product with my little beastie friends. It’s a good thing to learn. You can also learn how to grow and dry yeast cultures to store for future use.

The Recipe

8 lbs. frozen plums
1/3 cup hibiscus flowers
1 tsp. white oak bark
2 gallons filtered water (chlorine may kill your yeast beasties)
4 lbs. organic, fair-trade sugar
1 package Lalvin 71B-1122 wine yeast

Wash your fruit. Pit it if necessary and freeze it solid. I like to let it hang out in the freezer for at least 48 hours. Bring your water and sugar to a boil and simmer  it until the sugar dissolves. After this, put your frozen fruit, hibiscus leaves and oak bark in a food grade brewing bucket that’s at least 4 gallons.

Pour the boiling syrup over top the fruit. I pour just enough over the fruit cover it and mash it with a potato masher. Then I add the rest of the syrup, cover the container, and let it sit overnight.

The next morning you add your wine yeast. For fruit wines, I use Norbonne yeast[i] (Lalvin 71B-11-22, Saccharomyces cerevisiae) which is a strain able to metabolize malic acid which will mellow any acidity. It’s not as attenuative as the yeasts we use for mead.  It will only tolerate up to 14% alcohol which is enough for a table wine.

This particular yeast needs to be rehydrated. Directions for that are on the package.  It’s generally used for white wines or rosés, which means I end up with a semi-dry product with a nice fruit flavor because it is known for enhancing them.

If I were only using juice to make this wine, this is the point at which I would use my hydrometer to measure the specific gravity so I would know when to switch from primary to secondary fermentation (usually when it drops just below 1.030) and I do admit that I checked this just to stay in the habit.

Once you learn a little more about specific gravity, you will figure out that you can use the hydrometer to fiddle with the final alcohol content of your wine, a bit.  But  this is Winemaking 101.  (Yes, I could make this more difficult).

Primary Ferment

Within the first 24 hours or so, the wine will start to bubble and the fruit will form sort of seal on the top.  You want to carefully push fruit down into the must once daily.  Don’t stir or agitate too much, I use a potato masher to lightly push the fruit just below the surface and then let it float back up on its own.

Because you are using fruit, you really don’t want the must sitting in fruit for much more than about five – seven days. The fruit will eventually start to decay and you risk getting some nasty flavors. I could just tell by a change in smell that it was time to move this wine today, even though it was only six days in the primary.

You will want to carefully skim the fruit from your must and squeeze the excess liquid back in to the bucket. I do this by slowly ladling the fruit into cheesecloth and squeezing it tightly into the bucket.  Then you rack your wine into your glass demijohns and put an airlock on them. The purpose of using the racking cane is that it reduces your chances of oxidizing your wine.  If you have some leftover, I hear its good for cooking, but I usually just drink it.

 Secondary Ferment

The wine is now in its secondary, clarifying, ferment. It is not going to be as clear and beautiful as some pictures on the internet show.  As the yeast left in the must complete their life cycle, it will settle to the bottom along with any sediment. If its really gunky, you can wait a week and rack it into sanitized demijohns.

In my history books, I found all sorts of tricks for improving the quality of wine before there were chemical additives. For example, winemakers would add egg whites to their wine because the albumen would bind with free proteins suspended in the wine and precipitate out of solution, and strained out during the final racking.  This can cut back on bitterness or astringency and is most often done with reds made with grapes that make you pucker just a bit too much.

The usual treatment is 1.0 mL of egg white per gallon of wine. To work this treatment, you want to measure the right amount of egg white into small bowl, add a tiny pinch of salt to inhibit bacterial growth and whisk in just enough water to make it liquid. Then add it to your secondary ferment for the last week before racking.

Winemakers would also historically added a copper penny to freshly fermented wine to remove free sulfur.  Sulfur can cause funky odors and flavors and is the source of naturally occurring sulfites in wine. Modern winemakers have simplified this process by adding copper sulfate.  I am not going to do that. While I don’t propose using a dirty old penny, I do have a strip of copper that I bought from a science supply lab that I put in the bottling bucket which I am able to clean well and sterilize in between uses.

Bottling

Your wine is ready to bottle when it stops fermenting.  You will know this because the specific gravity of your wine will stop dropping.  If you take a hydrometer reading on the first day of the second week and the 1st day of the third week and they are the same, you can bottle it.

Some beginner recipes don’t talk about hydrometers, will tell you just to wait a month, and then bottle. We’ve gone through the scare of having a bottle blow up.  Thanks be to all that is green, no one was in that room. I no longer trust that method and I am quite happy to take the hydrometer readings.

Another way to make sure the wine is clear is to rack your wine back into your brewing/bottling bucket and bottle it using a bottle filler attachment.  Again doing this reduces your chances of oxidizing your wine, but at the same time I think it helps with degassing the wine before you bottle it also.

How long you let it sit in the bottle is up to you.  We aren’t patient people, so we tend to cheat.

[i] (You can also use Vintner’s Harvest VR21 or for low-acid fruits or making cider, you can use Lalvin KIV-1116 which is a competitive yeast that fights off wild yeast colonies that can some funky flavors to your wine.)