I have been on a quest lately for all drinks unrefined, mildly tannic, and a touch bitter. It must be fall. I was inspired by an unfiltered Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley that had been fermented on the skins for 3 months and left to age on its tannic shells, resulting in an almost cider-like finished wine. It was cloudy, orange, and had so much crisp apple characteristic I would have guessed it was apple based rather than grape.
This wine inspired me to seek out ciders with home cooked meals as an experiment in food pairing, as well as a new urge to try something between beer and wine with dinner. Lucky for me, I happen to live in the midst of an upheaval of cideries. Some brand new and others with a bit more experience under their belts.
Last Saturday marked the annual Apple Harvest Festival held at Albemarle Ciderworks which showcased a plethera of heirloom apple varieties, ciders, and skilled artisans of all things old-timey. Albemarle Ciderworks is a family owned orchard in North Garden that grows a dozen or so heirloom varieties of apples and uses them not only to make deliciously crisp prosecco-like hard ciders but also teaches about grafting apple trees and educates about preserving heirloom varieties.
New to the hard cider scene is Potter’s Craft Cider in Free Union, making farmhouse-style cider using local Virginia apples and traditional production methods. Their goal is "to create a new category of American craft cider, one that draws upon the rich history of hard cider making in early America, and distinguishes itself from the sugary, mass-produced hard cider that is commonly available today.” Currently, their cider is only available on tap in Charlottesville and can be found at The Local, Blue Mountain Brewery, and Beer Run (if they haven’t already run out), who hosted the Potter's Craft launch party November 3 with wild success. The cider is crisp, tart and refreshing, with mild fruit aromas and a definitive heritage mark. They are planning on bottling more sometime this fall but a release date has not been set.
Also opening this year is Castle Hill Cider in Keswick, which makes hard cider using two methods. One is the traditional style using American-made apple presses, apples from Virginia and fermenting the cider in stainless steel tanks. The second method is influenced by the old world and dates back 7,000 years to the first style of winemaking found in the country of Georgia, using kvevri (terracotta vessels “planted” deep beneath the earth’s surface). The kvevri need to be dug deep enough under the surface to create and insulate the conduit to the vessel below the frost line to keep it at a constant temperature, which helps fermentation proceed slowly.
The Levity ($23) is made in the above style and is aged on lees for four months. Castle Hill Cidery claim it to be their flagship sparkling cider. The Terrestrial ($17) tastes of fresh apple with a hint of peach and is made using Winesap and Albemarle Pippin apples. It is extremely crisp. The Celestial ($17) has firm tannins and a refined earthiness with some spice and a touch of citrus. It is made from Ellis Bitter and Pippin’s and would pair nicely with dishes cooked with strong herbs. The Gravity ( $17) is a still cider that is amber in color with notes of melon, peach, subtle citrus, and a touch of sweetness from being made with Grimes Golden, Pink Lady, Ellis Bitter, and Dabinette apples. Castle Hill also pride themselves on being an event center for weddings and cocktail parties.
Further southwest is Foggy Ridge Cider near Floyd, owned and run by husband-and-wife team Chuck and Diane Flynt. She is the cider-maker and proud to say their apples are carefully selected for flavor and taste rather than appearance, and she performs minimal manipulation in the cider-making process. Diane crafts three ciders and one cider/apple brandy blend. The First Fruit cider uses the early season American heirloom apples to create a rich, fruity cider with lively acidity. The Serious cider uses Tremlett’s Bitter, Dabinett, Ashmead’s Kernell, and Roxbury Russet apples.
The apple names themselves deserve some serious attention as some are so quirky and unique. This cider is light and food friendly. The Sweet Stayman blends Stayman apples with Grimes Golden and Cox’s Orange Pippin to create a light, sweet cider that would be a good match for spicy food. The Pippin Gold is made with 100% Newtown Pippin apples and blended with apple brandy from Laird & Co., the county’s oldest distiller (stay tuned for more detailed information about them). It is truly unique (as it is the only one of its kind) and perfect as an aperitif or dessert cider.
So, with cold weather fast approaching, these ciders are a good start to fighting off those winter doldrums and experiment with what’s being grown and fermented all around us. Hard cider is also a great suggestion for drinking before, during, and after the big Thanksgiving meal and is sure to show guests something native they may not have tasted before. Lucky for us, now there is more to choose from than ever.