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.
I was slow to jump into winemaking because I worried that if I made my own, that all our meads and wines were going to have to be something like a dessert wine or those Amana wines, which I just don’t like. I really despise sweet wines. I’d rather not drink at all than choke down sugar. I don’t drink soda and I don’t add sugar to tea or coffee. I grew up in a family where we drink beer and whiskey. Wine was something I saw fancy people on television drink, so I didn’t have much experience with it.
I was quite glad to read different medieval texts mentioning red, white and swete wines. While it is true that medieval brewers and vintners would not have had the luxury of going out and purchasing distinct types of yeast, they would have known the qualities of the yeast they worked with and how to produce dry wines with them.
A Note About Commercial Yeasts
Some of you might be interested in a conversation I had with colleague of mine who is also a brewmaster. According to him brewers and winemakers have been breeding some of these strains of yeast since the Middle Ages and selectively choosing yeasts for saving based on their attenuation. He claims he has seen the upper limits on various strains rise during his lifetime.
Attenuation refers to the amount of sugar a particular strain of yeast can consume and takes into consideration how much alcohol it can tolerate. Yeast beasties consume the sugar in a solution and through the process of digestion turn it into ethanol, the CO2 that bubbles away, and flavor compounds. It is a self-limiting process in an enclosed system because it dies off when the concentration of alcohol reaches a certain percentage – not because it runs out of sugar to eat as some people seem to believe.
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%.
My friend the brewmaster believes 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. This might mean that to recreate a truly medieval taste, we must backsweeten our brews which means to add more sugar to taste after our secondary ferment.
Yeasts to Produce Dry Meads & Wines
A note on mead making…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. It will result in a very dry final product and strip flavors. You can add a less fermentable sugar to the mix to keep it from becoming too dry.
I think the best way to handle it just go for broke in the primary ferment and add some honey, juice, spices, &c to the secondary ferment, so you don’t lose your flavors or aromatics. Lalvin EC 1118 is the best yeast for that.
EC-1118 – I read somewhere that this yeast 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 working the staggered nutrient (SNA) action. EC-1118 is drier than champagne yeast. Think driest of dry, here.
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 yeast can help restart stuck fermentations. If you don’t run a secondary ferment, you are going to want to stabilize and 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 stay on top of adding nutrient and energizer especially to meads. 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, too. It’s good for stuck fermentation, too. 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 whites, reds and fruit juices that don’t have 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 with reds, whites and champagnes.