Cider Roundup: Fall 2016

Here's the latest roundup in my recent series of cider articles, with both newcomers and some returning cidermakers as well.

Remember that when I use a vintage date, that is informal based on some note or lot number on the label. By law, these are technically considered non-vintage--even when they are not. Most will have some indication of when the apples were harvested somewhere, though, so you can match the release that I'm reviewing with what you are buying. That's the important part.

As time goes on, one general observation that is worth passing on is that people are drinking fine ciders too cold. As with fine wine, the fruit is rendered dumb if it is ice cold. That's fine for Coca Cola. Not so much for an artisanal product. When we pull these from the fridge--often in the mid to upper 40s--and dive in, that's a serious error. All you get is the acidity and the power. They need to at least get to around 50. Many showed much better in the mid-50s, needing to warm up by about ten degrees or so from my fridge temperature. So, experiment and play. The fine wine analogy seems to hold on this issue--if not quite as rigidly, nonetheless.

Another theme here is exploring how these age. That's a key wine issue, of course. It was gratifying here to see the older ciders holding up rather brilliantly. That is going to be something we will explore more in the future--but don't be afraid of well-stored ciders with a few years of age on them. Autumn Stoscheck (Eve's Cidery) and Diane Flynt (Foggy Ridge) provide both examples and observations on this issue below.

EVE'S CIDERY | | Finger Lakes
A. 2014 Beckhorn Hollow ($19, sparkling, dry, alcohol 8.5%)

This is mostly made from heirloom apples, heavy on Russets (Golden Russet and Ashmead's Kernal). The label says this is "[k]eenly fruity," but my first impression is not fruit but power. The last impression was more along the lines of the label, as this turns intensely flavorful as it warms. But that should never imply here that it is rich, sappy and sweet. The lifted fruit was driven into the palate by the nice acidity. It finishes with flavor, but in a controlled and serious fashion.

Why is this the 2014 when so many cidermakers rush the new harvest into the market? Owner Autumn Stoscheck said to me that the "Beckhorn Hollow gets its tannic structure from the American cider apples Wickson and Virginia (Hewes) Crab. We didn't make any in 2015 because we just didn't have the right mix of apples. I think the 2014 is standing up to the test of time nicely though, all that juicy acidity might be keeping it fresh." It finishes with almost a touch of lemon at times to mingle with the apple. The tension holds onto the palate for quite some time. It keeps the fruit interesting. This was just terrific, more and more exciting as time went on. Given its concentration, intensity of structure and fruit, this goes near the top of my favorite ciders from Eve's Cidery, which is a high compliment. It was better a couple of days later, by the way.

B. 2014 Autumn's Gold ($19, sparkling, dry, alcohol 8.5%, 424 cases produced)
This is a bone-dry blend of "Tannic English bittersweets; Dabinett,  Bulmer’s Norman, Major, Ellis Bitter and Somerset Redstreak, balanced a bit by Golden Russet, Akane, Goldrush and Idared," said owner Autumn Stoscheck.

The name is "fanciful," said Autumn: "I never realized...that forever more people would then think that I named a cider after myself! It's the funny coincidence (or is it?!?) that my parents named me Autumn and then I got into growing apples and making cider." Dry, serious and a bit brooding on opening, this very precise and very focused cider has subtle concentration, but it seems to be on the airier and lighter side on opening, making an impression without being even a little bit rich or jammy. It is a dry Riesling-lover's vision of cider. Intensely flavored, but tasting pure and clean, as if all the sugar were leeched out of the apples, this is most notable for its crisp demeanor and the lingering, long finish. As it airs and gets to about 52F, the acidity makes this initially brooding cider livelier, more transparent and sunny, not merely brooding. Suddenly, it seemed fresh and refreshing, but it also had pure power, some tannic pop on the finish and plenty of tension. I liked it better as it warmed, actually, around the mid-50sF. (I suspect you're going to be hearing that a lot in my cider reviews in the future.) Too many like to drink cider ice cold. This improved notably as it sat in the glass and warmed. It's another beauty from this fine cidery.

C. NV Scatterseed ($19, sparkling, dry, alcohol 8.5%)
This cidery has a plan--dry and focused always works. Nothing here is sloppy. As so often happens, it opens reticent, but warmth and air allows this cider to show its stuff. This is a cider with an elegant demeanor, yet there is pop and punch on the finish, acidity and power, and it leaves a lovely tingle on the finish. It keeps getting more powerful with air. That is the cidery's way of pointing out that you're in the big leagues now. There's going to be some distinction and some difference. It is lovely, clean and refreshing, easy to drink on its own or with food. If it were a wine, I'd talk a lot about its mid-palate finesse. Maybe I should anyway.

This is not a young cider, so it is also worth noting that it is aging very well. Its structure is supporting it beautifully as it ages. Autumn Stoscheck said: " In 2012 we had a batch of bittersweet cider that had very intense, concentrated tannins that was too aggressive to make it into our regular blends. We set it aside and let it go through a wild Malo Lactic fermentation and age on the lees. By 2013 the tannins had changed from aggressive to chewy, making a cider with an incredible structure and some decided wild earthy flavors. Last winter we blended it with a lovely batch of 2014 bittersweets that had lots of ripe fruit aromas and put it into a secondary fermentation. While the blend is complex, some of the main varietal components are Ellis bitter, Akane, Yarlington Mill and Bulmer's Norman. NV because it's a blend of 2012 and 2013. Now 4 years old."

FOGGY RIDGE | | Virginia
2014 First Fruit ($16, 7.9% alcohol; sparkling; 10 grams per liter of residual sugar; 1,600 cases)
The 2014 First Fruit is one of the ciders I've seen before from owner Diane Flynt (although not from this harvest). While I do think her best is usually the Serious Cider, this one is superb as well and it often is a pretty close second in my eyes (reasonable minds may differ as to the hierarchy, of course). It is a blend of 30% Jonathan; 30% combined of Winesap and Idared; and 40% a field blend of Hewe's Crab, Harrison and Parmar.

Diane said to me: "One of the differences with Foggy Ridge is that we believe in letting the flavors of our fermented cider come together in the (stainless, in our case) tank before blending. Post blending, we think it takes at least a little time for the blends to “come together.” Then, since we have very low tech bottling, it takes us several months to bottle. So all this means our cider is well integrated before we begin selling it. A far cry from the “two weeks from tree to bottle” boast of some cideries! I keep saying “beer is about freshness; cider is like wine…there needs to be some time involved.”

This is exciting in its sour apple finish, tight and tart, but as it warms, things change, as tends to be the case. (I think people drink these just too cold. The good ones, like fine wine, need moderate temperatures, not 47F right out of the fridge. With air and warmth, the texture becomes smooth and creamy, coating the tongue. The fruit emerges strongly and this shows intensity of flavor to go with its sensual texture and fine structure. This is a beauty. I'm not sure I've seen better in the brand.

2013 Celeste Sur Lie Sparkling Dry Cider
($30, blend, alcohol 11.3%)
This Finger Lakes cider (available at the Finger Lakes Cider House) is pretty pricey, but it is certainly distinctive in other ways as well. The alcohol is on the high side and the acidity is far more notable. It was aged on the lees for about one year. Cidermaker and co-owner Eric Shatt said to me: "Our Celeste Sur Lie is a cider we make in a unique style.  Most of our ciders focus their differences in style with the chosen blend of apples...the Celeste focuses more on production technique. First the blend is typically made and tank aged on primary fermentation lees for 6-7 months....The bottles are disgorged after one year of aging on bottle lees to add further lees influence. The secondary fermentation in the bottle produces about 1.5% alcohol and the other 10% is from the natural level of sugar we get from the fermentation of the English, French and American cider apples we grow and ferment. We typically get 15-17  brix on these varieties which yields this alcohol naturally. Production quantity for the 2013 Celeste (the only vintage of this cider released to date) was a mere 20 cases. We have another batch from the 2014 vintage (30 cases) due to be disgorged later this month. We are a small husband and wife team growing apples and producing cider."

The cidery's own description of this cider includes lemon and sour cherry, both of which I would endorse. The very tart edge on opening makes this a bit hard to deal with on its own, but things changed quickly when I had the opportunity to use it as a food match. The acidity cut right through the fatty (but not pungent or strongly flavored) cheese. Its refreshing qualities came to the fore at that point. Overall, the acidity level and the accompanying mouth pucker on opening will make this very different and very tiny-production cider a bit hard to handle for many. That was not the end of the story, however. It showed dramatically better the next day--could I say, 50% better? A sharp edge rarely annoys me, but this was suddenly in far nicer balance. I will repeat as well a continuing theme this article: The more fine cider I drink, the more I am convinced that we err if we drink them ice cold, pulling them out of the fridge at 46F or whatever. As I said elsewhere, like fine wine, these need moderate temperatures--mid to upper 50sF. The 2014 will be available by the time this article comes out.

SOUTH HILL CIDER | | Finger Lakes
NV Old Time Cider (7% alcohol, sparkling, medium dry, i.e, 18 grams per liter of residual sugar; $15)
This small Finger Lakes boutique--600 cases in 2014 and about 1,500 in 2015--is family-owned with Steve Selin as an owner-cidermaker.