Make mine mead, honey

There's more to McLaren Vale than wine

By Sam Russell
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Maxwell Wines, McLaren Vale, South Australia, is a premium boutique producer of wine and mead

Maxwell Wines, McLaren Vale, South Australia, is a premium boutique producer of wine and mead [©Maxwell Wines]

Maxwell Wines, McLaren Vale, South Australia, has produced mead honey wine for almost 50 years
Maxwell Wines, McLaren Vale, South Australia, is famous for its Honey, Spiced and Liqueur Mead


Late in 2006 world newspapers began reporting fears of a crisis in apiculture – the world of bees and honey. The busy life of the Western honeybee was under threat from colony collapse disorder (CCD).

Whole colonies of worker bees began to disappear instead of returning to their hives. This communal AWOL became prevalent in the USA and to a lesser degree in Europe. So far, CCD hasn’t arrived in Australia, but there’s no guarantee that it won’t.

What has this to do with wine? McLaren Vale vineyard Maxwell Wines, known for it's premium reds, is also a world-leading mead maker. Mead comes from honey, not grapes. No honey, no mead.

Located on a chalk hillside two clicks north of McLaren Vale town, Maxwell occupies a striking limestone winery with serene cellar door views of its own vineyards and its cypress maze.

Second generation winemaker Mark Maxwell says the winery was making and marketing mead before it started producing wine.

"My late father Ken had an eclectic curiosity. He was intrigued by many things. Not only did he make fine wine; he made his own soda water, his own elevator and his own aeroplane. Making mead was just one of those interesting things he’d explored.

“He’d be flabbergasted to know that our three varieties of meads today win international trophies and bring us lots of cosmopolitan mead-loving friends. We are among the world’s leading makers of top class meads.”

Twice, the ambrosial Maxwell Liqueur Mead has taken out the gold for the best Dessert mead at the International Mead Festival in Boulder, Colorado. This is the world’s largest mead competition. Unlike most Australian wine shows only one gold, silver and bronze medal is awarded in each category.

Although grapes are one of the few crops not reliant on pollination by bees, there is plenty of bee-friendly blossom in the woodlands, orchards, vineyards and paddocks of the Fleurieu Peninsula surrounding McLaren Vale.

The local eucalypt character, however, is too forward for the delicacy of the Maxwell meads. Their honey comes from the lucerne areas in distant south-eastern South Australia near Tintinara and Meningie where the flavour characteristics are more appropriate for these medal-winning meads.

“Mead is good for our business,” says Maxwell. “Perhaps one in five of our cellar door visitors is attracted to the winery first and foremost because of the chance to taste mead.

“Many – if not most – have never tasted it. Once they do, they enjoy it – and often leave with a few bottles of mead among the Maxwell wines they’ve bought," he says.

Mead is a product that relies on specific terroir in the same way as a Clare riesling or a McLaren Vale shiraz. It simply cannot be made from honey imported from other parts of the nation – let alone from overseas.

There is an immeasurable chance the unwelcome CCD might invade Australia’s bee colonies sooner or later. The recent Equine Influenza outbreak reminded us that biosecurity threats are not easily quarantined.

And the CCD threat is greater. At least we knew the causes and cures of EI. That’s more than can be said for CCD.


  • McLaren Vale (SA)

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July 23rd, 2008
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