This latest in our series of Cider articles has diverse offerings, including some with an extra year of age from Eve's Cidery and a fortified sweet cider. A couple of the offerings are re-evaluations (South Hill's Pomme, Eve's Beckhorn), but the rest are new.
As always, remember that when I reference vintages, most ciders are not vintage-dated by law. There will be typically be some informal notation as to the year somewhere on the labels, sometimes buried in text, usually on the back.
This Finger Lakes producer has been a mainstay here. If you're looking for exceptional American cider, this is a great place to start, and it’s certainly a place you have to know if you care about cider. The ciders are benchmarks in the region and beyond. I've found that they can age, too, although there are still ins-and-outs to that we need to explore further. There are few owners as informative and active as Autumn Stoscheck, who has been following her passion since (literally) before she became old enough to get a license.
Let's have one quick diversion. Although we don't have 2017s yet, Autumn did provide some interesting harvest data on this tricky year, which I'll pass along for future reference. (It isn't just tricky here, by the way—in many of my wine regions I kept hearing reports of very early harvests.) She said:
"I said the word 'unseasonable' so many times during the 2017 growing season, that the word lost its meaning. As I write this at the end of October, clouds in balmy grey skies move comfortably on a 78˚ breeze, and I wonder: was there ever any such thing as a season?....Just when September rolled around the corner and the harvest was about to start, the unseasonable fall-like summer ended and the summer-like fall began. In early September it dried right up and got hot. The first week of 85˚-plus weather was welcome. We went swimming (unlike the rest of summer!). The next week we started to get annoyed. By the third week of this unseasonably warm, dry weather, we started to get worried. The harvest season was suddenly compressed from a 6 week season to a 3 week one as all the apples started falling off the trees at once. Some of it was early ripening, but not all. Ripeness was all over the place. Which apples fell and dropped seemed to have no rhyme or reason. Starches were high in some fruit. Acids started dropping. Brix stayed surprisingly low.... As all this fruit was dropping we scrambled to keep up. The hot temperatures meant the apples couldn't sit around. No picking a little of this and a little of that. No thinking about blends. No sweating this year. Just pick and press. Fill bins and empty bins. All hands on deck."
The upshot? "Two years of unseasonable weather induced stress and a heavy crop left the trees vulnerable to a bizarre heat wave in the fall causing early drop and unusual juice chemistry. Some folks are...declaring 2017 to be a vintage ‘not worth writing home about’ but to my mind it's too early to say. There are mysteries and intricacies in nature that we clearly do not fully understand. Cider is more than its main chemical components. Every year has a story to tell and every vintage of cider has an opportunity to tell that story. So for now we are focused on the mundane aspects of cidermaking: washing tanks, washing the press, pressing apples, picking apples, sorting apples, washing tanks, watching the ferments. Watching and waiting..."
There are three new submissions this issue, all 2015s, plus a re-evaluation of a 2014. (The 2016 releases were in progress as this was written, but not quite ready or here.) Note that even those listed as semi-dry tend to have enough acidity to be perfectly balanced. They always lean more to freshness than sugar.
2015 Northern Spy ($18)
Sparkling, very dry, 12 grams per liter of residual sugar, 7.7% total acidity, 7.1% alcohol, 272 cases produced.
This monovarietal comes from trees planted in the 1980s. Autumn said that this cider apple expresses its terroir. By that, she means that "Northern Spy apples grown on different sites can make radically different ciders. Many Spy ciders can be indifferent at best. Northern Spy is never an overtly fruity variety, but we find our spies make a consistently minerally cider with a wet-shale characteristic. It’s this minerality combined with subtle and complex aromas that are both sweet, sour and herbaceous that makes it such an excellent companion to food, especially seafood."
When you see that 12 grams per liter of residual sugar, you may assume this will have some noticeable sugar. This, however, is the Finger Lakes. It also has a lot of acidity to counter the sugar and make this still seem surprisingly dry. (Conversely, the Autumn's Gold, also reviewed, has a somewhat different balance. The sugar is only a little higher, but the acidity is not quite as pronounced, so it seems a bit easier and fruitier.) The cidery's description of minerals and shale is good. I'd add some slate to the mix. Nicely concentrated, this always seems a bit brooding, the acidity largely in control. There's a little mouth-pucker as it airs and warms. It finishes tight and a bit tart. It makes the mouth water and it lingers. I recently retasted the 2014, incidentally, and this seems much more powerful, not quite as friendly. (Granted, the 2014 has had another year to develop.) This 2015 won't be your easy-drinker cider (which is just fine for me). I can certainly drink it on its own, acid freak that I am, but most will find that it works better with food. It really would do better with mild cheeses as a pairing, or perhaps that seafood the cidery recommends.
2015 Autumn's Gold ($18)
Sparkling, dry, 14 grams per liter of residual sugar, 6.2 of total acidity and 7.5% alcohol, 458 cases produced.
This is a kitchen-sink blend of 17% Ellis Bitter, 17% Yarlington Mill, 14% Dabinett (the dominant trio, with the last two sourced from Poverty Lane Orchards in New Hampshire), 12% Akane, 12% Idared and 10% Wild seedling, plus smaller proportions of several others. About half the fermentation was wild ferment, the rest inoculated. This, says Ezra Sherman, orchardist and co-cidermaker, "requires a lot of tannic structure from bittersweet fruit." The cidery recommends serving it at cellar temperature, around 55F. That is good advice—the good ciders shouldn't be drunk ice cold. It just numbs the fruit.
Showing a much friendlier face than the intense Northern Spy, this is fruitier and rounder. It is effectively dry, though, probably even a bit more middle-of-the-road than Darling Creek, which adds extra oomph everywhere. While it remains fresh and moderately crisp, the acidity is perfectly balanced by the fruit and sugar here. This has very fine concentration, too. It coats the palate, rolls around and doesn't let go. The apple flavors are dry and serious, but it has beautiful fruit. It always begins to seem drier, by the way, as it airs and warms—by the time you're done here, you won't think this has much obvious sugar, just nice fruit.
2015 Darling Creek ($18)
Sparkling, semi-dry, 20 grams per liter of residual sugar, 9.4 of total acidity and 8% alcohol, 380 cases produced.
This is a blend of Wild-harvested seedling 25%, Krys 15%, Bramley’s Seedling 11%, Sommerset Redstreak 11%, Gold Rush 8%, Ellis Bitter 7%, Wickson 7% and several others. About 24% was wild ferment and 65% estate grown. The theme here, says the cidery, is acidity, with some two-thirds of the apples noted for acidity. Regarding the wild-harvest component, the cidery says: "In the Spring of 2015, wild apple trees visible from the hilly roads in and near our Town produced a huge bloom, a biennial reaction to a freeze event in the Spring of 2012. That bloom forecast a vast wild apple crop. We talked to our friend Ben Kahn about gathering them. We paid him the going amount for cider varieties, but that included negotiating with the land owners and searching for the best trees out there. Also, we said, “you are an independent contractor. If you fall out of a tree, you are on your own.” They think of everything, right? All of the wild apples had uninoculated fermentations.
Shockingly fruity on opening—remember, many are releasing 2016s now and this is a year older—this starts light but crisp, then turns a little sterner. The sugar seems high on paper, but it mingles with the big acidity brilliantly here—this reminds me in some ways of a slightly off-dry Mosel Kabinett. Every time you think the sugar or fruit will win, there is more than enough acidity to keep this fresh, rather than cloying. The finish, in particular, has a burst of tartness, easily countering the sugar. Those 20 grams sometimes are in full retreat. As this airs and warms, it seems less and less fruity and considerably more intense, but the fruit is always lovely. Give this a little air and watch this focused Kabinett demonstrate how fine it is. It is a close call, but this was my favorite of the three 2015s.
2014 Beckhorn's Hollow ($19)
Sparkling, dry, 8.5% alcohol.
This is mostly made from heirloom apples, heavy on Russets (Golden Russet and Ashmead's Kernal). It was interesting tasting this originally (in the Fall of 2016). Even then, it had a little extra age. With even more now, how was it holding? That's been a question I have had about ciders, these in particular. They seemed designed to age—but I like proof. I have found that the good ones can be held for a few years. I'm not yet sure what rewards we get by doing so, but they certainly show no decay at that point. Autumn Stoscheck said to me that the "Beckhorn Hollow gets its tannic structure from the American cider apples Wickson and Virginia (Hewes) Crab." It originally showed a touch of lemon at times to mingle with the apple, while showing plenty of concentration, structure and fruit as well.
With an extra year in the cellar, it seemed even more focused, sterner, a little less fruity, but wonderfully crisp and refreshing. It seemed to have plenty of life left, maturing but not decayed. I would not be concerned about holding it longer. This showed extremely well.
If I can add to my 2014 cache of re-evaluations, briefly, I also retried a Northern Spy 2014. It was also completely fresh, although it had thinned a bit. It was not as compelling as the Beckhorn Hollow 2014. I had the 2014 Kingston Black as well. Following the Northern Spy pattern, while it seemed completely fresh—not a trace of decay or of a problem—it was far blander than it was on release. If you didn't taste it earlier, you would notice nothing out of place. For me, though, its exuberant character was gone. I missed that. I originally said that I could smell it “from a foot away...put a blindfold on, and you might at first think you are literally getting apple juice from a supermarket shelf." That aspect was gone. While these are holding well, the question remains: what do we get by extended aging? Further explorations will eventually follow.
There is no cider here, alas. (Sorry!) This is just a placeholder. The reason? This elite producer, owned by Diane Flynt, sadly announced her intention to shut down cider operations "after some 20 years with an orchard and 12 years making cider, we have this aptly named new release, the 'Final Call.'" She's not leaving the industry completely—she'll continue as a grower, a lecturer and there are musings about writing "that book" eventually. The Final Call was, alas, sold out and was not tasted. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Do not shoot the messenger.
This producer, whose principals run the Finger Lakes Cider House, formerly operated under the name of "Good Life Cider," and one of these (the Royal) is still listed that way. Everything from 2016 on will have the new name. The name was changed to avoid confusion and possible trademark issues in the national marketplace. The "Kite" is meant to convey "light, playful, balanced and fun." The "String" is meant to signify "grounded to a place," their Good Life farm, which also produces farm products like produce and beef.
There are four submissions this issue:
2016 Cazenovia ($17)
Sparkling, no listed residual sugar, 4.8 grams of total acidity, 8.4% alcohol.
This is a blend of Dabinett (20%), Pioneer Crab (15%), Northern Spy (15%), Chisel Jersey (14%), Libery (10%), 7% each of Yarlington Mill and Florina, 4% Binet Rouge and 8% a mix of sharp apples from the Good Life Farm.
Bottled in March and disgorged in July, 2017, this is fresh and studious, with controlled flavors and a dry, clean finish. It isn't quite as fruity as some, but the clean, transparent feel gives it a sense of slate and concrete. Dry but easy—the acidity is not particularly intense here—this is a well balanced cider that walks firmly down the middle of the road. It might be too understated for its own good, but it drinks very well.
2016 Royal Cider ($28)
Still Ice Cider, 150 grams per liter of residual sugar, 18% alcohol (fortified), oak-aged.
This is a roughly equal blend of Newtown Pippin, Northern Spy, Honeycrisp, Baldwin, Asian Pear and Gold Rush, aged for six months in used, charred, American whiskey barrels. It was fortified with 122 proof apple brandy, custom distilled from the cidery's own cider. This, in essences, is a fortified Ice Cider. It is, said co-owner Melissa Madden, cryo-extracted "for both our Traditional Ice Cider and for the ice cider blended with brandy for Royal. This means we press late harvest apples (mostly unfrozen) and freeze juice immediately at pressing, in a style similar to most ice ciders as opposed to ice wine."
Rich and concentrated, this unctuous cider rolls around the palate. Lingering nicely, it gives off smoked-and-baked apple nuances on its slightly tight finish. This is quite a mouthful, completely delicious, but cut by acidity, brandy and wood, all of which gives it an unusually complex demeanor. It's expensive for cider, but it's not your typical cider. It seems like quite a bargain to me. Granted that it is in a very different category, it may have been my favorite cider this issue.
2016 Geneva Russet ($18)
Sparkling, no listed residual sugar, 5.8 grams of total acidity and 8.4% alcohol.
This is mostly Margil, with 20% combined of Dabinett and Yarlington Mill, bottled in March, 2017 and disgorged October, 2017. Fresh and clean, this is not overtly fruity. However, everything is beautifully integrated, including the acidity. Despite the talk of high acidity, this cider is perfectly balanced, with not a hair out of place. Its dry-but-fruity finish will make both geeks and casual drinkers happy. Enjoy the fruitiness up front, then admire the acidity as it provides some lift to the fruit and admirable tension on the finish. Of the non-dessert ciders from Kite & String, this was my favorite.
2016 Baldwin ($16)
Sparkling, semi-dry, 6 grams of residual sugar, 11 grams of total acidity and 12% alcohol, oak-aged.
This is 100% Baldwin, aged for two months in neutral French oak formerly used for red wine. It was bottled in September, 2017 and carbonated in a Brite tank. This is a rather different cider here—forced carbonation and wood.
Cidermaker Garrett Miller explained to me that "this was an experimental foray last year and now that the harvest is in it looks like we can attempt a second vintage. Our intent last year was to have a high acid/high abv Baldwin cider balanced by natural residual apple sugars, which is what led us to use the brite tank/forced carbonation (preserving the natural sugars). This coming vintage we are leaning toward our more typical carbonation through Traditional Method and using a dosage, as we think this will yield better bubbles, aromas, and complex flavors. The oak barrels last year were more or less just holding vessels, as the aging was short and they are flavor neutral. There was the hope that it would help mellow the intense acidity a touch, which it seemed to do, though we didn't measure the change. After two months in oak it was decidedly ready for bottling. We were happy with the results of the first attempt and are excited to make improvements this winter, which looks to include a small amount of crab apples to the blend."
Overall, this was my least favorite of this issue's group. The cider is beautifully balanced and crisp, but the flavor profile is definitely a bit different. Here, there is a touch of smoke and wood that gives this both a different aromatic and somewhat eccentric flavors on the finish. It's a little hard to find the apple, in other words. Whether this is all the result of wood or other vinification methods, it doesn't seem terribly typical.
Steve Selin is the guiding force here, "the cidermaker, apple picker, and community orchardist," using his own description. He has been bottling his own cider since 2003.
2016 Brut Nature ($28)
Sparkling, no listed residual sugar, 7.1 grams of total acidity, 8.5% alcohol.
This is a blend of 35% Wild Pippins, 14% Dabinett, 46% unknown heirloom apples and a dollop of Chisel Jersey.
"This cider," said owner Steve Selin, "differs from most other Methode C ciders in that it is largely made from wild seedling apples (35%), and bittersweet apples (29%), with the remainder being 100 year old unfertilized homestead trees. It is from 2016 which was both a drought year and a low apple crop year." This is a bit pricier than most such ciders. Selin noted as aqt least one cause that "we pay the ‘champagne tax’ on this cider because the CO2 level puts it in that tax bracket which is 15 times more expensive than the cider tax."
This cider is bone dry. The Finger Lakes justifiably has a reputation for wines and ciders with fine acidity. Selin's ciders revel in that reputation this issue. Precise, focused and crisp, this has a wonderfully fresh feel. The flavors are not as obvious. This is subdued in fruitiness, with the apples in the background, relatively neutral in flavor. The bubbles are fairly intense. It has fine texture, reminiscent of a sparkling wine. At times, when drinking it, I was wondering how many casual sippers would have some and think "Hmm. A little different, but a very nice sparkler," without focusing on the fact that it has an apple base. It finishes with a touch of steel, but it is nowhere near as tart as the Pomme Sur Lie, Selin's other cider this issue. Overall, this is refreshing, clean and sophisticated, with a sunny feel and a long finish.
2016 Pomme Sur Lie ($20)
Still, no listed residual sugar, 7.9 grams of total acidity and 8.2% alcohol, oak-aged.
This Pomme Sur Lie was aged for nine months in French oak (four to six years old). It was seen last year, but only about one month after bottling. I saw this so early that I wondered how it would come together. It is pretty brilliant now.
The complicated blend is principally a mixture of wild and cultivated crab apples and bittersweets, an interesting story. Repeating it here is worthwhile. Cidermaker Steve Selin told me that there are "wild bittersweets found in a hedgerow. Very bitter apples" and "one variety of crab that was planted as a rootstock trial, and an employee working on the project recognized it as a potential cider apple and transplanted the tree to his home and sold them to a couple cidermakers. Very tannic and medium acid..." Plus, he said, "Malus baccata AKA Manchurian crab. Very tannic and acidic. The fruit by itself was 14 grams per liter of acid." Then, "other foraged and cultivated fruit such as unidentified farm trees and northern spy. Most of the apples that give this cider its character have no names...."
This has integrated its components beautifully with a year of age. It is far more interesting now--and it was pretty fine then. The wood makes this far less apple-infused than most ciders, but it does not obliterate the fruit. On opening, it adds some sour apple as a nuance. The acidity always counters the oak—it is the Finger Lakes, of course, a famous cool-climate region. It finishes with beautiful tension and grips the palate.
With the oak and the power, this is one cider not to drink ice cold. I've been saying that for awhile now as to many quality ciders, but it is especially true here. It showed far better in the upper 50sF. As it warmed, it expanded in the mouth, developing some velvet for texture and integrated its parts perfectly. There is always a crisp edge and it is always tart, but with some air and warmth, it is not unpleasantly shrill, at least not to me. You will have to like acidity, though. You can drink it alone, but it will be better with a food pairing, like cheeses that require high acidity. This is simply exceptional, an intense, full-bodied cider with a long, mouthwatering finish.