As I sat through eight weeks of “Bee School,” I was taught about honeybee biology, hive inspections and managing diseases. However, nowhere did the syllabus address the influence of environment on the flavor of honey.
When I extracted honey for the first time, I discovered two hives—one in an urban backyard and another in a rural mountain landscape—produced honey with different consistencies, colors and flavors. The reason: Honey has terroir.
“Honey does reflect the terroir of where the bee harvests the pollen,” says Anthony Hamilton Russell, owner of Hamilton Russell Vineyards in South Africa. “It is an expression of place, just like wine.”
Bees bring nectar and pollen from flowers to the hive and turn it into honey. The diversity of that forage determines the honey’s flavor.
California bees that harvest nectar from avocado blossoms produce honey with a rich, buttery flavor, while bees that forage from orange groves in Florida make light, sweet orange blossom honey. Rainfall, temperature and other environmental conditions can also affect flavor from year to year.
“[Honey] is an expression of place, just like wine.” —Hamilton Russell, Hamilton Russell Vineyards
There are 300 varieties of honey in the United States alone. And, just like certain wine grapes are indigenous to certain regions, some varieties of honey can only be produced in certain areas of the world.
Tupelo honey is made when bees consume nectar of the tupelo gum tree, which only grows in the swamps along the Chipola and Apalachicola rivers of northwest Florida. Bees that ingest pollen from sourwood trees in the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains of northern Georgia and western North Carolina produce sourwood honey.
Even honey labeled “wildflower” or “clover” tastes different, depending on where the wildflowers and clover grow, says C. Marina Marchese, beekeeper and co-author of The Honey Connoisseur (Hachette/Black Dog & Leventhal, 2013).
“Wildflower honey from California is different from wildflower honey from Texas and wildflower honey from Connecticut,” says Marchese.
“The diversity in honey flavor is huge,” says Amina Harris, beekeeper and director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute at UC-Davis.
The college worked with a panel of expert tasters to develop the Honey Flavor Wheel, a sweeter version of the Wine Aroma Wheel. It uses 99 words to describe the flavor of honey from grape and cedar to ginger and butterscotch. Mead makers, according to Harris, made the best tasters.
“They know the vocabulary of wine and can apply it to honey,” she says.
Several winemakers, fascinated by the connections between honey and wine, maintain hives in their vineyards. Tantalus in British Columbia, Middle Fork Farm and Vineyard in Virginia, and Frey Vineyards in California all have hives.
Bees aren’t needed to pollinate grapes (the vines are wind-pollinated), but Carolyn Brown, beekeeper at Frey Vineyards, says that many of the cover crops like mustard and clover that are planted between the vines require bee pollination. These cover crops make excellent forage for the bees and yield tasty honey.
There are 20 beehives spread across 123 acres of vineyards at Jean-Luc Colombo in the Rhône Valley. Co-owner and beekeeper Laure Colombo calls the honey, sold in their wine shop, “a mix of all of the nature that is around us.”
Colombo says that the honey harvested from hives at the vineyard in Saint-Péray has a lighter color and more floral flavor than the honey harvested from Cornas, which is darker in color and has a more intense flavor, thanks to the chestnut trees in the area.
Meanwhile, Hamilton Russell Vineyards has been partnering with a local beekeeper to produce its private-label honey. Up to 30 hives, which the beekeeper rotates between fruit orchards to pollinate trees, are brought to a 91-acre nature reserve adjacent to the vineyard every March.
The region, known as the Cape Floral Kingdom, is home to 9,000 species of plants, which makes it one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Russell describes its “fynbos” honey—an Old Dutch term that means “fine bush”—as a dark-colored honey with intense flavor.
“It is a particular expression of this very special piece of ground,” he says.
As with wine, when it comes to using honey, pairing matters.
Brown prefers lighter, floral flavors like orange blossom honey or clover honey for tea, while she saves darker, bolder flavors like wildflower honey for meat marinades.
“One is not better than the other, it’s just different,” says Colombo.
To understand the diversity and complexity of honey, many wineries (and several meaderies) offer samples in their tasting rooms.
Marchese, who’s also the founder of the American Honey Tasting Society, hosts tasting events around the country. The protocol, she says, is similar to wine tasting: Honey is poured into wine glasses, and its aroma, color, texture and flavor are explored.
“To truly understand the diversity, you have to taste honey side by side,” she says.
The experience can convince self-proclaimed honey haters to change their minds. Some even become fans of certain varietal honeys, much in the same manner as wines.
For many of us though, like wine, it can often be hard to choose a favorite honey. But when you take care of bees year-round, the various flavors they produce taste equally sweet.