Grand Champion: Dry Finish

During the day, I am a drywaller and I own my own business, but in my own time I have been making homemade wines for 20 years. I started out making Concord and Niagara wines, then later I started making fruit wines like strawberry/watermelon, cherry and plum. In 2004, a friend of mine, Brad Petrunak from Altoona, Pennsylvania, suggested that I try making honey wines. My first meads turned out really well and I was hooked. These days I make anywhere from 100 to 130 gallons (379 to 492 L) of wine a year.
Since then I have won more than thirty medals in five years and Best of Show three out of those five years. Based on that success, I started entering them in national and international competitions. In 2009, my Wildflower Mead won a silver medal in WineMaker’s International Amateur Wine Competition. That same year I won Best of Show at the Indy International Wine Competition. This year, however, my Honey Orange Mead won the Grand Champion prize in the WineMaker competition. I was extremely excited to have the highest scoring wine in the entire competition!
My recipes are based on the “Winemaker’s Recipe Handbook” by Raymond Massaccesi. I just use them as a basic starting point then I add my own additions. For fruit meads, I make up a fruit wine to the recipe in the handbook, but I substitute honey for the sugar. I like to make unusual wines — and mead was unusual to me six years ago. For instance I have made wine with carrots, birch sap, elderflower mead, etc. However, I would rather make traditional meads, but it all depends on the quality of the honey.
With the winning orange mead, the honey I had was a little darker than I like for a straight mead, and its aroma seemed a little lacking, so I was afraid it would not turn out as my other meads have. I took a trip to the grocery store to browse to see what I could mix with the honey to add some character and oranges seemed to stand out. It was November, and I thought the oranges with the citric acid would work well. I wasn’t looking for an overwhelming orange flavor or smell, just something to enhance the honey. I actually almost didn’t enter the finished mead in the competition, and when I did, I was hoping for maybe a bronze medal or something.
To make the best meads, when I purchase honey I seek out a local beekeeper, because the honey will not be filtered. Commercial honey will have all the floral smells filtered out and will make bland mead. I also try to get a lighter honey, about the color of the sun, or a very dark honey, like buckwheat honey (for a straight mead only). Make sure you taste and smell the honey, because those tastes and aromas will come through in the finished mead. If you don’t like it in the beginning, you won’t like it at the end.
I don’t boil my meads as some meadmakers do, I just combine the ingredients and ferment. I keep hearing that I’m going to end up with a cloudy mead and I haven’t yet. I think that clearing and boiling of the honey takes away from the character of the wine. A lot of mead makers — even the one that told me how to do it —boil their meads, and I feel that those don’t have what I am looking for.
I do not filter or clarify my meads as I feel that this will steal the flavor and aroma. If you don’t have patience, don’t make mead. It takes about eighteen months for the mead to clear and six months after that to mature enough to enter competitions with it. I rack mead a month into fermentation, then every three to six months until it is clear. When it dries out, I sweeten it back up with sugar, because I don’t want to impart other honey tastes with the original honey.  If it doesn’t clear, then think about filtering it. Warning: it will be good enough to drink in three months — DON’T — it will only get better and continue to improve with age. My first batch was only 2 gallons (7.6 L) and I drank it before the two years were up. I only had two bottles when it reached maturity — what a waste.
Otherwise, there’s no need to get technical as far as I’m concerned. The point is to do it your way and the end product will be unique. That is the fun part about making different meads.