Fermented beverages have existed for centuries, and people have long debated the merits of their different types - mead vs. wine. The shortest way to differentiate the two is that the former is made from honey and the latter from grapes.
Despite being both fermented, both beverages differ significantly due to their main components, resulting in an entirely different drinking experience.
In this blog post, we'll discuss mead vs. wine through different categories and select the drink with the upper hand so we can ultimately declare the king of fermented beverages. Let's get started!
A Quick Glance
What is Mead?
Mead is an alcoholic beverage derived from fermenting honey and water with yeast. It can be produced with different types of honey and sometimes infused with fruits, flowers, or spices for added flavor.
It is neither wine nor beer, as it is its own category.
Several types of mead include traditional, fruit, and sparkling. Each class boasts unique flavors, with many meaderies producing a variety to suit different tastes.
Furthermore, mead is considered one of the oldest alcoholic drinks and is commonly consumed in Europe and Asia. Today, mead production still exists in many parts of the world, although it is not as widely consumed as it once was.
What is Wine?
The type of grape and the fermentation duration play a role in the final wine taste. The skins of the grapes are sometimes left in during fermentation to add color and flavor.
Wine is frequently described in terms of its "body," referring to the wine’s feel in the mouth, and "bouquet," which describes its aromas. Tastewise also varies greatly, from fruity and sweet to dry and complex.
Other categories of wines are based on where it's produced or the grapes used during production. Common wine varieties include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay.
Mead vs. Wine: Showdown
Ingredients - Winner: Wine
The basic elements required to make mead include honey, water, and yeast.
The type of honey used has a significant impact on the flavor of the final product. While you can technically use any honey to make mead, certain types are more commonly employed due to their flavor and aroma profiles.
For example, clover honey is often used to make lighter-bodied meads, while dark buckwheat honey is utilized for fuller-bodied meads with a richer flavor. Wildflower, acacia, alfalfa, Arizona, and orange blossom are other kinds of honey used for mead-making.
In addition, mead must also contain yeast. Different types of yeast work distinctly in accentuating various flavors and reaching certain alcohol levels and temperatures. The most commonly used is wine yeast, specifically white, but ale yeast, brewer's yeast, and bread yeast also work.
To offer more variety of flavors, brewers infuse their mead with fruits, syrups, spices, flowers, tea, and more. If you want to make your own batch at home using a mead-making kit, feel free to experiment with different types of honey or create mead blends and mulled mead.
For starters, try these awesome maple mead recipes.
The main ingredient in making wine is grapes. Sugar and yeast are optional components that help speed up the fermentation process and adjust the drink’s sweetness.
Grapes from different wine regions have certain climates and soil compositions that impact a wine's flavor, while the sugar and acid levels in grape juice determine how sweet or dry the wine will be.
For red wine, popular grape varieties include Shiraz, Merlot, and Pinot Noir.
On the other hand, white wine is often made with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, or Riesling grapes. A variety of hybrid grapes are also used for red and white wines, like Pinot Grigio, Moscato, and Zinfandel.
The main ingredient alone suggests that grapes are more versatile than honey. It's an all-around component because of its skins, juice, seeds, and inherent yeasts and sugars that contribute to the final product's acid, tannins, color, and flavor.
While honey has sugar and a bit of water and yeast, it still needs more of them and other additives for fermentation.
Production - It's a Tie!
Sourcing quality honey is the first and most important step in making mead. Its floral source dictates the flavor of the honey and, ultimately, the type of mead created.
Once the honey is acquired, it is combined with water or juice and sometimes a nutrient mixture to make the must. The must is sterilized to prevent unwanted bacteria from contaminating the batch. Next is adding yeast to kickstart the fermentation process, with the primary fermentation typically taking about a month.
Then, the mead is racked or transferred to a new container for secondary fermentation, taking two months or more. During this process, additional flavors and aromas are extracted from the ingredients, and the mead continues to mature for a few weeks to several months and is then bottled.
Wine production starts in vineyards for harvesting wine grapes, then removing the stems and crushing them to extract the fruit juices and break down the skins and flesh.
The skins, stems, and seeds are not separated from the juice for red wine, whereas the solid particles are removed by pressing the must for white wine.
Then, primary fermentation starts, which takes about three to seven days. It is followed by a secondary fermentation wherein sharp malic acid is smoothed out to become lactic acid, acidity is reduced, and more flavor and aroma compounds are produced. This takes an additional one to two weeks or, in some cases, three months to a year.
During aging, the wine undergoes several chemical and physical changes dictated by the type of wine, the aging conditions, and the microorganisms present. This stage takes about one to two years but could vary depending on the type of wine. After this, it is ready to be bottled.
At a glance, the production of both alcohols is very similar. However, the fermentation process for wine is quicker than in mead. On the flip side, winemaking involves a more complicated process from start to finish. With this, they can be offset, resulting in a tie.
Variety - It’s a Tie!
Meads are categorized into many groups such as the level of sweetness, alcohol content, aging duration, honey expression, adjuncts, etc.
Short mead matures quickly, while great mead ages for many years. Meanwhile, sack mead has a high honey content and ABV, whereas session mead has a low ABV.
Mead can be still or sparkling. Moreover, the bulk of mead types is based on the ingredients added to the main components. Here are the most popular variants:
- Melomel is made with different fruits and has three subcategories, namely cyser (apple), pyment (grape), and black (black currant) mead.
- Metheglin is flavored with cloves, cinnamon, coriander, and nutmeg and is traditionally used as a medicinal drink.
- Bochet is made by caramelizing honey before adding it to water, resulting in a darker color and a richer flavor.
- Braggot is a cross between beer and mead, with origins tracing back to medieval England.
There are also many categories for wine, including red, white, rosé, sparkling, dessert, fortified, and blends. These broad groups are further broken down into the level of sweetness, ABV, and taste.
- Red wines are made with red grapes, giving the liquid a dark color, ranging from intensely dark purple to brick red.
- White wines, in contrast, are made with white grapes, resulting in colors ranging from pale yellow to greenish-yellow.
- Rosé wines are also made with red grapes but with a shorter fermentation time of the skins, resulting in different shades of pink rather than purple or red. It can also be sparkling, like in the case of Rosé Champagne.
- Sparkling wines are made using the same process as traditional wine but with a secondary fermentation that creates and traps carbon dioxide, giving the drink its signature effervescent quality.
- Dessert wines are usually sweeter than other wines, have a high alcohol content, and are traditionally served with dessert.
- Fortified wines have a distilled spirit added to them. The most common type of fortified wine is port, a red wine fortified with brandy.
- Wine blends mix two different wine varieties to create a unique and more complex product.
Since wine and mead have diverse and unique offerings, people can choose which fermented drink they want to indulge in. Each classification branches out to numerous specific beverages with distinct flavors that please any palate.
Flavor / Taste - It's a Tie!
Mead is most commonly described as sweet honey wine. However, its taste and flavor can vary depending on the honey used and adding fruits, spices, or other ingredients. These can make the final product sweet, bitter, astringent, or citrusy.
Orange blossom honey will give mead a light, consistent and citrusy flavor. Meanwhile, fruits like apples, cherries, and strawberries can add an extra flavor that reflects their character. For instance, apples can give the mead a faint apple cider taste, while spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg can give the mead a warming flavor.
In the same way, the taste of wine is affected by its grape variety, alcohol content, acidity, body, and sweetness. Wines can also be dry or sweet, light or full-bodied, and young or old. The most common wine flavors are fruity, floral, herbal, oaky, and spicy.
Wines can also have secondary flavors that are caused by the presence of other chemicals. These flavors can be earthy, nutty, smoky, or leathery. Meanwhile, tertiary wine flavors are caused by aging in barrels or bottles, including spicy, dried fruits, or even chocolatey.
Both drinks have a wide range of flavors due to their many styles. And since taste is generally subjective, this factor ultimately comes down to personal preference. There are also many ways to enjoy both drinks, either on their own or in cocktails.
Color - It's a Tie!
In most cases, the type of honey is the primary determinant of the color palette of mead. Generally, meads made with lighter honey will have light colors such as yellow or green, while those made with darker honey will be red and brown.
Other factors like the type of yeast used or whether the mead has been aged in barrels can also contribute to the mead's tint. Clear meads also exist, which are stripped off of their color through filtration.
On the other hand, the shades of red wines are the product of their chemical composition and interactions with oxygen. The most commonly absorbed pigments, anthocyanins, are found on the grapes' skin. When the skin gets into contact with the juice, this pigment is released and stains the wine, ranging from light purple to near-black.
Meanwhile, white wine is fermented without skin contact, resulting in straw yellow to light green colors. There are also many shades of rosé wines, from pale salmon to deep ruby red, resulting from the brief contact of crushed grapes with their skins before fermentation.
In terms of color, mead and wine are strikingly similar. As much as there are many types of both drinks, there are also numerous hues. With this, it is safe to say that both fermented drinks offer various colors that indicate their type, flavor, and strength.
Shelf Life - Winner: Mead
The shelf life of fermented beverages such as mead and wine depends on the type and storage conditions. Classic meads with high alcohol content tend to be more stable than light meads with low alcohol content.
An unopened bottle of classic mead can last for five years or more, with some reaching decades. If it is opened, it can last for three to eight months. For light meads, it's good for about six months beyond its Best By date.
If opened, it is recommended to consume all the mead immediately, though some can still hold up for up to a week.
On the flip side, unopened red wines can last for two to three years beyond their expiration dates, while white wine has a shelf life of one to two years past its Best By date.
Opened red wine bottles must be consumed within two to six days. If refrigerated, some reds may hold up for one to two weeks. Furthermore, an opened white wine lasts for three to five days.
Whether unopened or opened, mead has an advantage over wine in terms of shelf life. Since it lasts longer, it gives the drinker more time to finish or keep a bottle without feeling rushed or wasting money.
Alcohol Content - It's a Tie!
The alcohol content in mead can vary depending on the style.
Session meads tend to have lower alcohol content, ranging from 3% to 7%. In contrast, standard strength or traditional mead will have a slightly higher alcohol content, often falling between 7% and 14%. Sack mead usually has the highest alcohol content, ranging from 14% to 20%.
Red wines usually range from 12% to 15% ABV, and the standard is 13.5% ABV. White wine contains between 5% and 14% ABV, most falling in the 10% range. The majority of rosé wines fall between 5% and 23% ABV, averaging around 12%.
Mead and wine have similar ABV ranges, with only slight differences. This gives drinkers various options on what strength they like their drink to be on different occasions.
History - It's a Tie!
There are many claims regarding how mead came to be, but one thing's for sure: its history is long. It's believed to be one of the world's oldest alcoholic beverages.
Some say that mead was discovered in Africa 20,000 to 40,000 years ago and happened completely by chance! According to theories, rainwater mixed with honey from hollowed-out trees and natural wild yeast triggered a fermentation process. Hunters discovered the mixture and were surprised by its potent qualities.
There is also several recorded evidence showing that archeologists discovered pottery vessels that contained residual chemical traces of fermented honey, suggesting that mead originated in China in 7000 BC.
Mead is also linked with ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Indians, Romans, Mayans, and Vikings.
A popular Greek myth surrounding mead is that it was the nectar of the Gods, possessing mystic properties. Through centuries, it has been associated with Celtic mythology and Norse legend and was even mentioned in the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare.
How does wine's history compare to mead? Archaeological evidence suggests that it was produced worldwide, particularly in China, as early as 7000 BC. However, the predominant belief is that wine existed between 6000 BC and 4000 BC.
The earliest known winery was discovered in Armenia, dating back to 4100 BC. Chemical analysis of its remnants on the pottery indicated that it was made from a grape variety. And around 1600 BC, the leftovers of tartaric acid and tartrate were discovered in pottery shards from Jiahu.
Wine production then spread to many parts of the world, including Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Middle East, and South America.
It is said that mead existed way before wine. Be that as it may, both have similar beginnings, progressions, and cultural significance. Numerous recordings may not be filled with absolute accuracy, but both fermented drinks contributed their fair share of relevance to the alcohol industry.
Popularity - Winner: Wine
Drinking mead was a very popular custom in ancient civilizations around the world. In fact, it is mentioned in many works of literature, including the epic poem Beowulf. Its fame continued into the Middle Ages when it was often given as a wedding gift or used as a currency.
However, the popularity of mead began to decline in the 18th century when distilled spirits became more widely available. Today, mead is relatively expensive to produce since honey is a costly ingredient, and fermenting it is a lengthy process. As a result, mead is often priced higher than other alcoholic beverages.
The popularity of wine has ebbed and flowed throughout history. It was often used in religious ceremonies and was thought to have medicinal properties. As such, it was an essential part of many cultures.
In modern times, wine remains a popular beverage. Thanks to advances in viticulture, there is now a wide variety of wines available, from fruity whites to rich reds. In addition, wine is no longer just for the wealthy as there are now affordable options for people from all walks of life.
Today, wine is more popular than mead because it is produced and consumed in greater quantities. Also, most alcohol drinkers seem to shy away from the sweet taste of mead and prefer the complex qualities of wine.
However, mead is starting to make its mark again and may become on par with other alcoholic drinks someday.
Food Pairing Ability - It's a Tie!
When pairing food with mead, it is important to consider the weight and character of the drink and the ingredients in the dish. When in doubt, pair mead with foods that have similar flavor profiles.
A light, fruit-forward mead can be a good complement to grilled chicken or fish, while a heavier mead with more pronounced honey and spice notes can stand up to heartier fare such as red meat. You could also try mead with some desserts, such as fruity tarts or pies, as the fruit's acidity helps balance out the sweetness of the drink.
For wine, you also want to match the vino's weight to the food's weight. Lighter wines like Pinot Grigio pair well with seafood, while heavier wines like Cabernet Sauvignon go well with red or game meat. And you can't go wrong with a classic wine and cheese pairing.
Another factor to consider is the acidity of the wine. Acidic wines can help balance out rich foods, while more mellow wines can be a good choice for dishes with subtle flavors. Sweet wines also pair well with desserts, but you can also use them to offset the spiciness of certain dishes.
When it comes to food pairing, both mead and wine can hold their own. Mead is a versatile beverage that can complement many dishes, from hearty stews to light salads. Wine, on the other hand, tends to pair best with similarly full-flavored foods. So, it's fair to say that mead and wine are evenly matched.
Price - Winner: Wine
Mead tends to be more expensive than other alcohols because its main ingredient is pricey. The amount of honey a bee colony can produce in a year is determined by how many bees are in the colony, the availability of nectar sources, and the weather.
It takes thousands of bees to gather nectar from millions of flowers to produce one pound of honey, which results in an average price of around $40 a gallon in the United States. A good quality mead can cost between $20 and $30. However, the price of honey can fluctuate significantly depending on the market conditions.
The main factor affecting the price of wine is the type of grape used to make it. Certain grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, are more expensive costly others, making these wines more expensive.
The region of grapevines can also play a role in the price. Wines from well-known regions, such as Napa Valley or Bordeaux, are often pricier.
Furthermore, wines that have been aged for many years in oak barrels will cost more than younger wines. The cheapest wines you can get are about $10, while expensive wines can reach hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Given that wine has a broader range of prices, it can cater to different budgets, allowing many people to enjoy and invest in it. Wine is also more widely available than mead since it has been in demand for longer and is mass-produced in many countries.
Taking everything into account, most categories resulted in a tie, partly because mead and wine are similar or equal in some way. However, wine still gained the upper hand because of its relevance and consistency throughout the years. Nevertheless, you are free to have your bias on either of these fermented drinks.
Choose Mead if you:
- Prefer the sweet taste of honey
- Want to try an array of different fruit and spice flavors
- Like experimenting with different types of ingredients
Choose Wine if you:
- Like tannic and acidic flavors
- Enjoy investing in different bottles
- Are interested in different wine varieties