Cider: It's just Apple Wine (and you'll get a pear, if you're good)

Last year's piece on Hard Cider was prompted in large part by my hearing cider makers (starting with Diane Flynt, the first with whom I had contact) talk like winemakers, about the right terroir, the right apples matched to it and so on. This time, we have added an actual winemaker acting as cider maker - Roman Roth of Wölffer Estate on Long Island's South Fork - plus Foggy Ridge and Eve's Cidery returning, and two other newbies appearing: Shacksbury and Good Life Cider. These are presented in alphabetical order.

Remember that legal labeling does not allow identification of vintages as such--so when I do use a vintage date, that is informative rather than formal. Most put a "lot" number or harvest date somewhere, which identifies the release.

Eve's Cidery

evescidery.com

First up is Autumn Stoscheck's Eve's Cidery, at the intersection of the Southern Finger Lakes and the Northern Appalachian Plateau, which I loved last year. In the business for roughly 15 years - she received her license initially at the tender age of 21 - she has spoken in various articles about the challenges of starting a business when very young. It seems to have worked out on many fronts, hindsight aside. I asked Autumn some direct questions about that and the rather inspiring answer is well worth a little space before we get to the tasting notes. She said to me:

"The thing about orchards is that they take a long time to establish. You are working with trees! So just that aspect alone means orchard-based cider is a long term project. But then throw in this: to make a great cider, to make a cider that shows terroir, you have to be growing varieties that do well on your site and (and perhaps this is a controversial thing to say) make a cider that you love. A cider that inspires you, that you feel is an expression of you and your trees, and what cider can be. And this is what makes orchard-based cider a generational project. Because if it takes a decade to grow up and begin harvesting some nice cider apples, some Ellis Bitter, some Golden Russet, some Yarlington Mill, then it takes another decade of making ciders with those apples, seeing how their cider changes with the weather and as the trees age or with alterations in your horticulture, to start to understand what those varieties bring to the cider. And also to get the opportunity to be a cider maker who is working with great apples and really honing your cider making skills and your blending skills, and really developing a palette (like the colors you paint with) based on the potential in your apples. One variety is not necessarily a stand in for another. So then, what if you realize that you have too much Ellis Bitter and not enough Yarlington Mill?...."

"I collected cider scion wood from Steve Wood up in New Hampshire when I was 19. I grafted those trees and planted them when I was 21. They had cool names. Now, 16 years later, I know what their cider is like. So we take some trees out, we plant some more and in another decade or two, we will have a more ideal mix of varieties to raise and grow up and mature. Eric Bordelet in Normandy makes Perry from 300-year-old pear trees. Three Hundred Years. Can you imagine? It's humbling and awe inspiring. The trees and the microbe will outlast us! We'd do best to remember. And that's what I love about orcharding."

Well, something has worked out, the foibles of reckless youth notwithstanding. Autumn's ciders are very fine and very refined. There are some entirely new offerings this year, including a pear-based product. This will truly test how big a wine snob I can be.

The Eve's Cidery lineup this issue

A. 2014 Northern Spy
($19, sparkling, dry, 630 cases bottled, monovarietal, residual sugar three grams per liter, alcohol 8.1%)

This is a monovarietal from an apple known to be tart. It finishes very dry. Autumn calls her sparkling ciders (as do most) her "champagne ciders." That seems so apt here, although this is lightly sparkling. In contrast to the Kingston Black (below), this has far more subdued apple nuances. To be sure, that may be partially a function of the extra age, too; I did not see this when it was as young as the Kingston Black. At the moment, though, we get better integrated aromas and flavors here. They are all folded into the whole. It then splashes into the glass as a beautifully balanced presentation, elegant, refreshing and crisp. It seems like an understated sparkling wine, sometimes delicate, yet always persistent. It finishes with that touch of green apple. If it lacks anything, it is a little oomph, but that's ok. I was surprised to hear Autumn candidly concede that she did not love this bottling, saying it lacked the minerality that she loves in this apple type and was too overtly fruity. I personally liked it a lot, the fruit having blended nicely into an integrated whole. True, I would not use minerality as a descriptor and didn't really care, but then I came to it with no preconceptions. I predict it won't disappoint.

B. 2015 Kingston Black
($16, still and dry, to be released in June)

Extremely dark in color compared to most here (except perhaps the cider deliberately made as a Rosé), this monovarietal is very pungent and then tastes full of apple juice, overly fruity. That was an illusion of its youth. I'm not sure I've had a cider that improved more with some aging. I kept this youthful cider in the fridge for about a week.

Owner Autumn Stoscheck told me that Kingston Black is "famed to be one of the few that ferment to make a balanced cider without blending. The apple is classified as a bittersharp, which means it has both tannins and acid, a rarity among cider apples." Smell it from a foot away - and you probably can - and put a blindfold on, and you might at first think you are literally getting apple juice from a supermarket shelf. That's not all there is, of course, because the supermarket juice has sugar and sweetness and nothing else. This is rather dry and far more complex, so don't misunderstand the point of my analogy. Underlying the juicy opening is fairly big acidity that cuts the apple juice nuance and begins to make this a lot more interesting. The palate even tightens up a bit in response to the acidity. It finishes very clean and fresh. This seemed a bit too much to me on first pour, at least in its exuberant youth, not because of its power but because of its overt fruit. Some time changed that. Suddenly, I was liking it a lot. The next day, it was much better, the big acidity making it seem clean and fresh, in better balance with its fruit. It held beautifully for as long as there was any left. It kept becoming a more complete cider.

Autumn said to me, "While it's still a bit tense, it's not nearly as tightly wound as the previous bottling (2013) and really benefits from the oxidized apple aromas." Well, I'm glad then that I didn't see the 2013, because this most certainly was rather tightly-wound on opening. However, for my money, that's a good thing and I also loved the tension it showed on the finish. So, maybe that 2013 would've gone down just fine. (Bring it on!) That's what I like to see in fresh, summer white wines, too. This went from being my least favorite of the group on the first day to my favorite, as a result of it pulling in the fruitiness and emphasizing the freshness and structure. Yes, it did take a little more palate adjustment. It was worth it. If the Northern Spy is easy and graceful, this the powerhouse that might not be as universally popular. Call it a statement cider for those who are a bit more fanatical and on the hunt for something different. There is room for both. If this doesn't win the overall popularity contest at a party, those who do love it (like me), will really adore it. Different strokes, different moods, different foods. This is pretty fine, one of my favorites in this report.

There were just 30 cases produced of this. It will be released to mailing list customers only in June. Sign up now if you're interested.

C. 2013 Perry Pear
($19, sparkling, 15 grams per liter of residual sugar, 7.7% alcohol)

This is a blend of pears, the Perry Pears "thought to be the descendants of wildings," says the label. They tend to be high acid and tannic - i.e., not for eating, but great for drinking. It is recommended by Autumn as a good match for milk cheese and seafood. Regarding cheese, I'd like to try it with less pungent cheeses, such as mozzarella, muenster and provolone (none of those aged).

Autumn said, "Perry is cider from pears. Both are pomme fruits whose juice is chemically almost indistinguishable. Pears are often used interchangeably with apples in cider (as in the Calvados AOC in Normandy) or are a required component (as in the Domfrontais AOC). A Perry is a cider made solely from pears. In this country, due to archaic labeling laws, most don't mix the two fruits."

Sadly, things are going to change here. Autumn said, "This is the last year our Perry will be made from a large blend of English Perry Pears. We had to rip out a large portion of this block which was devastated by fire blight last year. Which is really heartbreaking because after we made this Perry, I thought "boy, why are we growing so many apples? Perry is amazing!" We are keeping the Brandy (variety name), which is a lovely tannic pear and seems to be fairly fire blight tolerant. We scoured the countryside this year for wild seedlings, which had tannic cider pears that seemed to be free of fire blight, and crafted the 2015 Perry from these and the Brandy. It's very promising (now in its in-bottle secondary fermentation), so we've collected scion wood from the four best of these trees and will graft them out onto root stocks this spring."

Perry and I eventually got along fine, once I got over the shock of it being a pear (and neither apple nor grapes). I could easily see getting into this. The pear nuance tends to be quite restrained and the acidity cuts everything nicely. It shows dry. There is nothing rich or even a little sweet here. It seems like a charming summer wine, just made from pears. It is subtle enough so that if it were served blind and you were not having a great day, you might struggle for a while before settling on what amounts to "pear wine." Expressive and tasty, with an austere kick to the fruit, this is delicate in the mid-palate, but it lingers nicely on the finish. I wound up liking this, needless to say. I guess my snobbery days are ending. The right food match might make this sing even prettier songs. Take Autumn's advice.

Foggy Ridge

foggyridgecider.com

Also returning this year is Diane Flynt's Foggy Ridge in Virginia. She is the cidery owner that first spoke to me like a winemaker - and got me interested last year. Once again, these showed beautifully.

A. 2014 Foggy Ridge Serious Cider
($17, dry, distributed in 12 states, including T. Edwards in N.Y.)

As explained last year, the vintage date is not formal here - that's what the harvest was, but it cannot by law be listed on the label. There is a lot number on the back, however. ("Lot 2014.")

This is a blend of 56% bittersweet apples (Dabinett/Tremlett's Bitter), 18% Grimes Golden and 26% field blend including Newtown Pippin and Gold Rush. It has just four grams per liter of residual sugar and comes in at 7.5% alcohol. To Flynt, this level of sugar and acidity compares to Brut Champagne. The blend includes astringent English apples, "as well as Ashmeand's Kernel, a high acid apple 'not for sissies.'" She suggested pairing it with creamy or fatty foods. There's a hint of spritz on swirling fast, but nothing more.

Sourced from high altitude orchards (3,000 feet, which Flynt says creates higher acidity), this is a notably sterner and crisper cider than the "First Fruit," also reviewed, with a bit more of an acidic core. Despite Diane's scary warning, do not fear too much: this is very well balanced. The acidity is high, but intimidating only if you are used to sweet ones. It will do great as a food match, as she says, the acid cutting through fat and cheese. This is a bit more intense as well in pure apple flavor, projecting a bit more green apple, fresh cut. The First Fruit is not quite as austere. This is, well, the more serious one, drier and more pointed. They are both wonderful. Of course, the Stayman is the richest - so, pick your apples for your mood. As a group, these were certainly among near the top of my list, but this Serious Cider in particular has become a perennial favorite. If I had to buy just one, this would be it.

B. 2013 Foggy Ridge First Fruit
($17, distributed in 12 states, including T. Edwards in N.Y. There is a lot number on the back: "lot 2013.")

This is a blend of 60% field blend (mostly Hewe's Crab and Harrison) and 40% field blend of Roxbury Russett, Newtown Pippin and Arkansas Black. It has ten grams per liter of residual sugar and comes in at 7.8% alcohol. There is just a touch of spritz on swirling fast, a bit more than the Serious Cider, far less than the Stayman. Like the serious cider, it was sourced from an orchard at 3,000 feet. Despite the sugar, Flynt says, the acidity in Hewe's Crabapples makes this tart, not sweet.

It's definitely not sweet. I'm not quite sure I agree with the tartness, however - let's say I have had far tarter ciders and wines. Unless you're just used to sweet ones, this is actually restrained for my money, fruity and balanced. In fact, this was simply wonderful for its plump fruit as it aired and warmed a bit. It had a rich feel in texture and strong, exuberant apple notes up front. It seems to project a touch of sweetness on the end, but nicely cut by acidity and beautifully balanced. Gloriously fresh and utterly delicious, this has the fine body to go with that delectable fruit and enough flavor on the finish to make you gather 'round and try to get that last glass. I kept it for a couple of days and it got notably drier - not tart, perhaps, but (admittedly) not as exuberantly fruity. I loved the balance on this overall, in its first taste and last.

This is perhaps even better than last year's bottle, granting that I do not have them side-by-side. It is so nuanced and lush, that it was easy to forget it was cider. I find the best ones make me do that. Stereotypes linger. These are simply on another level. Of course, there is that exuberant apple intensity on the finish. You can't forget that.

As much as I liked this, I can't say unequivocally that this was my favorite of the three - it would depend on my mood or purpose. This would be my favorite for sipping on its own. The "Serious Cider" would have other uses and be my overall favorite. It works on its own, but it is a perfect food pairing, too. If you're forced to buy just one - why would you do that to yourself? - this might be the best compromise, though. It has a little of everything and walks nicely down the middle of the road.

C. 2014 Foggy Ridge Stayman Winesap
($17, medium sweet, distributed in 12 states including T. Edwards in N.Y. There is a lot number on the back: "lot 2014.")

This is a blend of 46% each of Stayman Winesap and Old Virginia Winesap, plus 8% Newtown Pippin. It comes in at 18 grams per liter of residual sugar and 7.6% alcohol. Like its brethren, it was sourced from an orchard at 3,000 feet.

The Foggy Ridge lineup

This is the fizzy sweet one. It is not what I would call marked by the tartness as much as the sugar. It is also cut by fizz. It is the cider, of Diane's three, that caresses the mouth the most, the fizz-supported fruit seeming very velvety in texture. If the first taste is sweet with a touch of applesauce, as it airs and warms it does indeed become perceptibly drier. This is still the sexiest of the three, the one you sit and sip on the porch in an uncomplicated fashion as you might a nice craft beer. Yet, as you keep drinking it, you also realize how elegant and carefully crafted it is. Nothing is out of place and the sugar is balanced by good acidity. It was, to be sure, probably my least favorite of the three. I like the balance better on the other two. That is pure personal preference. Tasting in isolation, the answer might change on a hot day on a porch.

Good Life Cider

fingerlakesciderhouse.com

An exciting and relatively new project in the Finger Lakes is the Finger Lakes Cider House at Good Life Farm (near Sheldrake at Cayuga Lake). There is a broad array of fine ciders, including their own brand. As co-owner Melissa Madden outlined it for me:

     •   Me (co-owner, farmer, staff manager, accountant, etc): Melissa Madden
     •   My husband (co-owner, co-cider maker, orchardist, builder of all buildings): Garrett Miller
     •   My brother-in-law (co-cider-maker, soda-maker, cellar rat for himself): James (Jimmy) Miller

2015 Cazenovia
($18, dry, sparkling, 8.1% alcohol)

Set to be disgorged on June 15, 2016, and tasted before disgorgement, this will likely release on July 1. It was bottled on Feb. 24, 2016.

Cazenovia is the name of one of the two key soil types on Good Life Farm. This bone-dry sparkler (unlike last year's off-dry version) is a roughly even mix of European Bittersweets and Heirloom Sharps. The primary apples are Somerset Red Streak (22%), Ellis Bitter (19%), Dabinette (12%), Northern Spy (18%) and Newtown Pippin (8%), with 21% mixed Heirloom Sharps. There were just 100 cases produced. Co-owner Melissa Madden recommends serving it at 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

This was pretty terrific. Clean, fresh and very dry, it has fine purity of fruit, an elegant demeanor and some controlled tension on the flavorful finish. Although flavorful, the fruit is controlled and folds into the whole. There's a slightly tart edge, but only slightly. It is nicely balanced. Melissa advised that her cider maker family thought this was the best yet. It is very impressive. I saved some for a few days and went back to it. (Use those "champagne stoppers" to preserve it. I drink it with flutes, too, if you're interested.) It was fine and fresh, hardly having budged, but showing a bit better integration of everything. This is very pretty - clean, restrained and serious.

For fun, I tasted this next to its sweeter 2014 counterpart. I personally preferred the style of the 2015 - dry, but hardly austere, with a fresher feel. The 2014 was not quite as precise, but it wasn't overly sweet, either. It tasted great, especially when nicely chilled around 48 degrees Fahrenheit, but it is more overtly fruity, stronger in apple nuances, while the 2015 pulls everything into a more subtle balance. I could certainly see some preferring the 2014, though, and as it aired out it did an increasingly good job of integrating the fruit and coming into very good balance. In fact, after holding it over the course of a week, I was impressed at how well-integrated its sugar and fruit became. There was a bit of pear in the background (an analogy, not meant to be literal) and the cider seemed very serious and sturdy, a lot closer to the 2015 than I thought on first tastes. The 2014 is not my first choice between the two, and I rather liked the slightly tart edge on the 2015, but I found nothing to complain about on the 2014. It has nothing to apologize for.

This was the label from the 2014; the 2015 is not yet released.

Shacksbury

shacksbury.com

Shacksbury comes from Vermont and is distributed by Skurnik, as well as through their own site. The English cider maker is Englishman Simon Day and the Basque one is Ainara Otaño. The co-founders are David Dolginow and Colin Davis.

There are many other ciders offered by Shacksbury, but this is a good start.

A. 2015 Pét Nat ($23)

This Pétillant Naturel is a small batch cider, sold direct online, through the winery's subscription club. Cidery representative Katie Flagg said, "We forage each fall in Vermont, both from wild trees and overgrown orchards, for apples that have the tannins and flavors - rare in most commercially grown fruit - to ferment into the kind of cider we want to make. Many of the trees from which we forage are decades, sometimes centuries old, and the fruit is incredibly diverse. Last fall was a bumper year for us in terms of foraging - a great year in general for wild apples..." This is bone dry.

Wild forage is a different concept than with some of the others here, but this is easy to love. The Pet Nat is a very different beast than the winery's "Classic," reviewed below. This is heavy on the spritz, with a big head of foam, as if you just shook up a beer and poured. However, the aromatics are far different, a bit yeasty mingling with fresh cut apple. As I poured out a generous portion (I enjoy my work!), I could smell it from a couple of feet away. It finishes very dry, but not austere, giving it a fresher and cleaner feel. It doesn't have the sex appeal of the Classic, but it is perhaps more interesting. Its dry, elegant demeanor made it very impressive. I liked both a lot - but they are different ciders. Choose according to taste or mood.

B. 2014 Classic
(30 for a two-pack online, including shipping, or $7-$10 retail, 6% alcohol)

The Classic is a take on a dry English cider, a blend of Browns, Ellis Bitter, Dabinett, Michelin, Jonagold, McIntosh, Empire, Spartan and Somerset Redstreak, grown by Sunrise Orchards in Cornwall, Vermont, and Dragon Orchards in Herefordshire, England - then bottled in Vermont. The Vermont apples are dessert fruit; the English ones are bittersweet. It is a bit fizzy and comes in a bit off dry.

This shows beautiful purity of fruit with a clean, but slightly sweet edge. Elegant and easy, it is completely delicious and hard to resist. For pure flavor that goes down easy, this is likely to be a big winner for most. It doesn't, to be sure, have the complexity and piercing notes of some of the more powerful ciders here (including Shacksbury's Pét Nat), but it's hard to stop drinking this. It seems like pure essence of apple, like you just cut into the fruit. It tastes great, but has distinction and finesse, too.

Wölffer Estate

wolffer.com

The dry ciders from Wölffer Estate

The offerings here are both called "No. 139," but one is "Dry White" and the other is "Dry Rosé." (The "139" references 139 Sagg Road, the winery's address.) These are all from the 2015 harvest (by law ciders cannot be vintage-dated), sourced from Halsey Orchard in Bridgehampton, N.Y. This is the winery's fourth Cider release.

These are packaged as 355-milliliter bottles (a bit less than a half bottle size of wine) and they come in a four-pack with their own little carrying case. They are all bottled with screwcaps. The winery indicated that 2015 was "one of the driest in recorded history, yielding beautiful fruit...."

These were rather tight and focused, overall, showing less richness and concentration than some ciders, like say "First Fruit" from Foggy Ridge. We got heavy apple notes, in particular, more so on the white than the red. Particularly given the modest price point, these show nicely. Drink them on your porch this summer. You'll think it's a deal. Read on.

A. Wölffer Dry White No. 139
(2015 vintage, $16 per four-pack of 355-milliliter bottles)

This is a blend of 17 different apples, the largest chunks being Gala (18%), Jonagold (15%) and Idared (8.4%). There's a little of many, though, and this year marks the debut of Asian Pear (2.1%) as well. It comes in at 6.9% alcohol and 19.5 grams per liter of residual sugar. There is a bit of CO2 - it fizzes nicely.

Dry and rather stern on opening, despite the high sounding level of residual sugar, this looks like something that is going to be sweet, but it isn't even close. With a notable green apple tinge, this has a nuanced and understated finish that, while dry, is not at all austere. This could easily go well as a food pairing, but it is fun to drink on its own, too. It is nicely balanced, laid back and precise, with strong apple nuances on the finish. Considering that this is a Long Island cider maker, it is fair to say you might want to drink it on the harbor this summer.

B. Wölffer Dry Rosé No. 139
(2015 vintage, $16 per four-pack of 355-milliliter bottles)

The fizzy Dry Rosé (unlike the Dry White) was mostly (95%) sourced from DeFisher Fruit Farms in New York, with the remaining 5% from Halsey Orchard, as with the white. Also, unlike the white, Roman Roth also selected "dessert apples" to include instead of just cider apples. This still is dry-ish, whether medium dry or medium sweet, but it is sweeter than the white. It is a blend of 20% each of Jonagold, Mutsu (Crispin), Golden Delicious and Idared, with 10% each of Gold Rush and Northern Spy. It comes in at 6.9% alcohol and 22 grams per liter of residual sugar.

This feels fuller in the mouth than the Dry White, above, with just a hint of red fruits on the finish, some raspberry and strawberry (hopefully not my imagination!) instead of the green apple nuance. The extra dimension of sweetness and fruitiness just changes the flavor profile. This is a bit more exuberant in bright flavors, while the White has that more focused apple core. For cider newbies, I suspect the Dry Rosé will be the more immediately appealing, a bit fruitier and more forward with a bit less apple intensity. It's easier. I personally liked the drier White more. They are different sides of the same coin, though. As this pink aired out, it showed more apple typicity and seemed a bit drier, too.

Conclusion

That's the roundup for now. I've already got some thoughts for the next wave and some ciders stored up, but I wanted this out before warm weather settles in for a large part of the country.


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