Maine: Maine’s Unique Mead and Wine

Wineries have been slowly cropping up in Maine in recent years. The harsh Maine winters make it difficult to grow wine grapes, so that means some of the wine here requires more out of the box thinking – many of the 16 wineries in Maine blend locally grown fruits such as blueberries, apples, and elderberries with grapes sourced from other parts of the country.

One interesting winery is a meadery, the Maine Mead Works in downtown Portland. In 2007, owner Ben Alexander left a tech job at a software start up, to follow his passion of bringing mead back as a popular beverage. Its brand of HoneyMaker Mead is made of 100 percent Maine wildflower honey.

Alexander says there is a demand for more wine in this state and the response of wineries is to create interesting blends of wine with Maine fruit and honey, since grapes are harder to grow in these climes. “There are some hardy varieties that some places have had success growing, but it’s not a good place to grow your traditional Napa-Sonoma grape varieties,” Alexander says. “A lot of Maine wine is Maine fruit. That seems to be a trend, why we’re seeing more wineries and people trying to make wine with different products such as us, we make it with honey. As consumers are more open to different styles of wine, we’re seeing some success here and there’s some good wine makers in Maine.”

Mead, or honey wine, is actually an ancient wine. “Mead died out around the Middle Ages, it’s considered mankind’s oldest fermented beverage and my partner in South Africa developed his process that was based on an ancient method for making mead that early hunter gatherers in Southern Africa used,” Alexander says.

The idea that it was the earliest fermented beverage is that it happened in nature without human intervention. “In cultures all over the world, honey was a primary sugar source and you find that honey was used in making fermented beverages all over the world,” Alexander says. “I know Babylon, the Egyptians, and they dug up some clay pots in China that was beer made with honey. Before there was a written history, there was evidence of mead being consumed in Africa and China, but people started writing about it as mead during the Middle Ages, which is where you read about it in Chaucer and Beowulf.”

The national beverage of Ethiopia today is called Tej, a style of mead. It’s a honey wine made with gesho, a hop-like plant that’s grown in the highland of Ethiopia. “It’s very much part of their culture today as it was years ago,” he says.

“There’s probably 100 or so meaderies and a meadery is one that exclusively make mead, a lot of wineries do make mead,” he says. “We’re certainly one of the newer companies that’s growing.” Maine Mead Works is one of only two wineries in downtown Portland and it has a tasting room, retail area and offers tours.

Since moving to its current location on a busy artery, Maine Mead Works has expanded to distributors in four states including Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont and Rhode Island. There are now 6 staff members as well.

The burgeoning wine industry in Maine is still relatively new and the Maine Winery Guild, of which Alexander is vice president, has only been organized for a few years, he says.

Alexander says since this is a tough place to grow traditional grapes, people should think outside the box a bit and they will be pleasantly surprised with what wineries are doing in Maine. “We have great agricultural products in Maine that are good for making wine,” he says. “We’ve got apples, blueberries, peaches, pears, strawberries. As consumers start to get a little more interested in more diverse types of fruit wines and with mead, I think people are getting more open to trying different types of wine.”

Alexander initially didn’t know what mead was. “I was introduced to it by a hobby mead maker and I had never heard of it before and I was interested in doing something else that was food related in Maine at the time,” Alexander says. “That whole process led me to Garth Cambray at the Makana Meadery in South Africa, which we consider our sister meadery.” Cambray flew to Maine to demonstrate making mead and Alexander also took a trip to the Makana Meadery as well.

When he tried mead for the first time, Alexander described it as “versatile” and he tried several meads noting that it wasn’t sweet, which is something you might expect a honey wine to be. “It was actually quite dry,” he says. “That’s what inspired me to go and make a wine that was food friendly. We saw an opportunity to make a dry mead, so our meads are very much on the dry side. We use honey as a base and we showcase other agricultural things grown in Maine, like apple – we have an apple honey wine using Maine apples, called Cyser.”

They also make Cranberry Mead, with Maine grown cranberries, that is released in early November. “The flavor comes from the cranberry, the fruit itself,” he says. “We also have a Lavender Mead using Maine grown lavender from mid-coast Maine.”

Although mead can be made sweeter like dessert wines, or heartier like a beer, the feedback from customers in the Maine Mead Works tasting room is that it’s a lot drier than they thought. “A lot of people have the perception that it’s sweet,” Alexander says. “Our dry mead has been likened to a chardonnay.”

If you’re looking to support a made in America/made in Maine product, the HoneMaker Mead is proudly made from Maine products, except for the hops, which are grown in the Pacific Northwest, where most of the hops are grown, says Alexander. “Our whole theme is to highlight Maine grown products and Maine honey,” says Alexander, a Maine native.

HoneyMaker Elderberry is perhaps the most grape-like wine that is sold here. “It’s like a pinot noir,” Alexander describes. “We press them in-house, they’re organic from Heath Hill Farms in Sumner Maine. This is the second year we’ve had it available.” The dry and medium-bodied Honeymaker Elderberry made of organic Maine elderberries, is one of the brand’s most popular seasonal varieties. It’s available in the beginning of December, just in time for the holidays.

There are five year-round HoneyMaker wines and others are made depending on the season. HoneyMaker Strawberry Mead is available in July, HoneyMaker Apple Cyser and Cranberry Mead are sold in the fall.

Maine Mead Works is open year-round and they offer complimentary tastings. Bottles of mead range from $15 to $20. Their mead was even featured on Martha Stewart, who tried some of it on one of her shows. They offers tours during high season twice a day, which is summer through Dec 31. Daily tours are 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. They are open seven days a week. Check the schedule from January to April, when there are shorter hours.

Here are some other Maine wineries to check out while on the Maine Wine Trail:

Urban Farm Fermentory on Anderson Street also in Portland is another interesting place. Here, they make mead, Kombucha and hard cider (from Maine apples, of course). Eli, the owner grows hops, herbs, as well as raises bees here. They also raise tilapia here as part of their process, which is then sold and the waste water is used to water the plants. You don’t just buy their products here, Eli believes people want to learn how make these products themselves and sees the fermentory as a more well-rounded concept, which he hopes will expand to New York, Boston and one day the West Coast. They offer classes on how to make your own Kombucha, hard cider and recently offered their first class on natural healing with medicinal teas, something that was done hundreds of years ago when pharmaceuticals weren’t available. “It’s about local production and consumption and because of that, it also makes sense to have educational work too,” Eli says. “And also how to produce these things themselves. You’re going o have a better appreciation if you know how it’s made.”

photo credit: Cara Slifka

Bar Harbor Cellars Winery in Bar Harbor, is open seven days a week, with free tastings in a tasting room that is a restored Civil War era barn. They make Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, fruit and dessert wines.

Cellardoor Winery in Lincolnville, is a 68-acre century-old farm that sources from grapes around the country as well as locally-grown Maine blueberries. They make Zinfandels, Syrah and other wines. It’s open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. May through December, with complimentary tastings.

Prospect Hill Winery make rare Maine wines from Maine-grown grapes, for wine lovers who are seeking pure wine made just from Maine grapes. They began planting grapes in 2002. They grow five varieties of white grapes and eight varieties of red grapes and they are dedicated to making wines solely from their own Maine-grown grapes. While much of the 2011 wines are sold out, there are still some limited quantities of red wines left, such as the full-bodied Chancellor, the medium-bodied St. Croix and Prospect Hill Red, a blend of Frontenac and Foch grapes which offers hints of blackberry. They are open Sundays 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., and closed for tastings in mid-December, but are open for sales year-round. Call before visiting.

For more Maine wineries, please check out the Maine Winery Guild’s Wine Trail website.