Our Maine Man: Rob Nicoll, Maine Mead Vitner

Posted Wednesday, July 20, 2011 in Features

Our Maine Man: Rob Nicoll, Maine Mead Vitner

Rob Nicoll labels a bottle of mead.

by Avery Hunt

Who would guess that Bath, Maine is home to a special winery, and a master wine maker?  Don’t bother guessing.  It’s true.

Rob Nicoll, a Boothbay native, master carpenter and boat builder, student of chemistry, and all-round Renaissance man, runs a thriving wine making operation, called Fiddler’s Reach LLC, out of his immaculate cellar in the South End.  Rather than using traditional grapes, however, the base of his wines is honey.  Sound too sweet for you?  Well, not really.   They are actually quite subtle, although my personal favorite is Merry Meeting Dry Mead, which could be a kissing cousin to the frightfully expensive French sauterne, Chateau d’Yquem (average price per bottle: $654 for a 2010, or for more serious sticker shock, if you happen upon a vintage 1975, you could fork over $1,154, and that’s without tax!).

Since mead wines are so new to our modern palates, the important thing, says Rob is to actually get out there and taste them!  “We find that our best marketing tool is wine tasting.  Sample a few different ones and see what suits your taste.”   Two such opportunities to check out Rob Nicoll’s wines are coming up soon.  One is at the Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, this Thursday, June 21 from 5 to 7 pm.  It is a foodie event called  “Midsummer Food in the Gardens” with tastings of food and beverages presented by the finest restaurateurs, caterers, and artisanal producers in the state.  (www.mainegardens.org/events)    The other tasting will be during “Harvest on the Harbor”, October 20th  through 22nd in Portland.  (www.harvestontheharbor.com)

Honey wines, called meads, are man’s first adult beverages.  The alcohol content can range from about 8% up to a hefty 18%.  They can be still, carbonated or sparkling, and can vary in taste from dry, to semi-sweet or full bore sweet.   References to mead are found in ancient history throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, and its actual origins are lost in prehistory.  It is thought to be the ancestor of all fermented drinks, and probably pre-dates the cultivation of soil.  Bees and their honey were harvested way before man began growing grapes.

The earliest archaeological evidence for the production of mead dates to around 7000 BC. Pottery vessels containing a mixture of mead, rice and other fruits along with organic compounds of fermentation were found in Northern China.  Curding the Golden Age of ancient Greece, mead was the preferred drink.  Aristotle discussed it, as did Pliny the Elder.   In about Ad 60, a Spanish-Roman naturalist with the odd name of Columella, offered a recipe for mead in De re rustica.  Here it is:   “Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius of this water with a pound of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rain water, then boil spring water.”

Mead production over time improved dramatically from that simple, rather off-putting concoction, but in the intervening twenty-thousand or so years, the fermented beverage had its ups and downs.  Once the drink of choice for royalty, mead fell out of favor for a number of reasons about 500 years ago or so. When grape cultivation became widespread, wines made from grapes took off.  They were much easier and cheaper to produce, and in greater quantities.  So mead almost disappeared (although a few monasteries in Europe who had apiaries kept the process going, mostly for the monks’ own drinking pleasure).

OK, fast forward to 2011. Now a number of intrepid entrepreneurs are re-inventing the ancient art of mead making.  While their numbers are few, there is today a fledgling International Mead Association. Still, mead production is more widespread in Europe than here in the US.  And in Maine, Fiddler’s Reach has only two other mead competitors.  

Rob Nicoll came to be a winemaker the hard way -- through trial and error, lots of study, intellectual curiosity and even an early passion for chemistry, which is the secret key to making palatable meads. 

He grew up in a boat-building community.  Both his father and grandfather worked as furniture and boat builders, so Rob gravitated toward wood crafting as well.  He began making carved and gilded picture frames and then moved on to fine furniture and ultimately the interior joinery of special yachts built at Hodgdon Yachts in East Boothbay.  As modern boat buildings moved more toward synthetic materials, there was a dramatic reduction in the need for wood craftsmanship, so Rob began seeking a new work challenge.

He has been a beekeeper since 1971, and also an avid gardener.  He even planted grapes in the early 70’s but was not happy with the results.  He started toying with the idea of a winery, but knowing that grapes are a marginal and labor intensive crop in Maine, he turned to honey as the base for his wines.   After reading as much old literature about honey wine as he could get his hands on – which was not much – he started in 2001 to make trial batches of mead at home.  He kept meticulous records, and moved from trial and error to batches of mead that had consistent and distinctive flavor profiles.  Rob tested his new wines with friends and family, holding tastings to compare flavors, wine quality and to suggest food pairings. 

He incorporated the business in 2004, and jumped through the various federal and state permit and licensing hoops, all the time refining and improving his wines.  In that same year, he received a seed grant from the Maine Technology Institute – to study “Yeast Flavor Profiles in Honey Wine”.  That grant enabled Rob to do small scale testing of the flavor contribution that various yeasts make during the fermentation of honey.  His wines today are based on the results of that first grant.  “The yeasts we use are not the usual suspects,” he says.  His Fiddler’s Reach wines, of which there are now four, all use unique blends of three different batches of fermented honey.   “The yeast you chose plays an important part in how the honey wines turn out.  We are not cutting corners.  The three-batch blends make for more interesting and complex wines.”

 He says the difference between his mead making and others is that “we’re process oriented, meaning we’ve explored a lot of variations on mead making and have evolved our own specific way to create a premium mead.”  In October 2007, the first commercial batch of Merrrymeeting Dry Mead – 30 cases - was rolled out through a distributor, South Portland Wine Co.  Everything sold out  by Christmas.   Today, Rob has four Fiddler’s Reach meads in production, and two under the R. Nicoll label.  The former sell for $14-$18 and the latter – which are made with a single but still uniquely fermented batch of honey – sell for just under $10.  The newest, which just went on sale this month, is a blueberry mead called Fiddler’s Reach Wild Blue, which is made from a combination of wild Maine blueberries and blueberry blossom honey. 

While Rob declines for propriety reasons, and rightly so, to identify his yeast secrets, he is upfront about the actual winemaking process.  He has property in Wiscasset and Edgecomb where he keeps bees, but he buys the bulk of his honey from Swan’s in Albion.  Each batch is fermented in 55-gallon stainless steel barrels made in Germany.  He has special filtering equipment for the distilled water that he uses in the fermentation process.  It takes 350 pounds, or roughly 30 gallons of honey to make 50 gallons of wine, and about 16 months of careful fermentation to create even a young wine.  Every step of the process is carefully monitored by Rob himself, and literally everything is hand done.  Once a wine has finished fermenting and has been blended, it is bottled, corked with special breathable corks, labeled and packed in cases.  Even with the help of special corking and labeling machines, everything is done by Rob, one bottle at a time.  He even does the grunt work of hand trucking the cases from his cellar to a special warehouse.  No helper for this guy!   He can bottle about 20 cases a day when he’s on a roll, using a single spout to feed the wine into the bottles.  He usually does one or two batches a month, or as demand dictates.  “We are a budget operation,” he likes to stress, “but with a premium product.”  

The first local wine shop to carry Fiddler’s Reach was Tess’s Market in Brunswick.  Both his premium wines and the R. Nicoll-labeled meads can now be found in either Now You’re Cooking or Brackett’s Market in Bath, and are also distributed in Maine and Vermont.

For more on Rob Nicoll and his wines, visit www.fiddlersreach.com

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