Should Wine Lovers Open Their Arms to Mead?

hidden legendFall is just around the corner—it already feels like fall here in Northeastern Wisconsin where I’m decamped for a few weeks. If you’re looking for a darker, heartier beverage to warm you up on chilly nights you might try mead, aka honey wine.

I always thought of mead as that thick, sickening-sweet sludge you used to wash down a turkey leg at the Renaissance Faire. But a recent visit to Hidden Legend Winery and Meadery in Missoula Montana has disabused me of that idea. Some meads are indeed thick and sweet but some very sophisticated mead makers have entered the market all across the country and are ramping up the quality level making meads that run the gamut from sweet to dry, from light and refreshing to rich and massive.

After all mead is made like wine. Add yeast to honey and water, let the yeast convert the sugar to alcohol via fermentation and you’ve got mead. Like wine, you can stop the fermentation leaving some sugar in the beverage which is the traditional way of making it. Or you can make a modern style by fermenting it all the way to dry, producing a beverage that is surprisingly light and refreshing. And just as wine is profoundly influenced by local characteristics of soil and weather, the taste of mead is influenced by the plants the bees are pollinating.

So what does mead taste like? Traditional, sweet meads taste like honey with the added heat of alcohol. Contemporary, pure honey meads taste like honey without the sugar again boosted by alcohol and with a background yeast aroma similar to beer. That relative absence of sugar also seems to bring out more floral aromas. But there is a long tradition of mixing mead with spices (called metheglin) and fruit (called melomel). Hidden Legend is now making a sparkling mead that was quite good. Some mead makers are aging it in oak or stainless steel, although mead is less reactive to oxygen than is wine. So the range of flavors, weights, and textures is extensive.

One of the more interesting meads is made with dark honey which has been caramelized prior to fermentation. Called bochet, it is what I happen to be sipping tonight.

I’m drinking Hidden Legend’s version which is semi-dry, with just enough sweetness to balance the bitter flavors that emerge from the caramelization. In the glass it’s dark brown and opaque with malt, caramel, burnt orange and smoke aromas. Round and viscous in the mouth, the heavy taste of malt and honey evolves into fresh, pure honey flavor supported by lifted, racy sensations, before the finish unfolds gradually revealing layers of bitter coffee beneath the racy acidity.

I tried serving this both at room temperature and chilled to around 60 degrees. I vastly preferred it chilled to mask some of the bitterness.

Am I ready to declare mead to be as interesting, complex, and diverse as wine? No way,  although I haven’t tasted enough to make an informed judgment. But while I’m traveling the world in search of the perfect Pinot Noir I’ll occasionally be taking a detour to check out what’s happening in the world of mead.

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