Cider is a relatively new product in Canada but orchards across the country are hoping apples will do for cider what grapes have done for wine.
Like wine, we have some clear apple-producing regions — Prince Edward County in Ontario, the Eastern Townships in Quebec and the Cowichan Valley in British Columbia — that are turning out some absolutely fantastic artisanal ciders.
Using very specific varieties of apple, three Canadian cideries are changing the way cider is produced. They’re planting European varieties such as Dabinett, Tremlett’s Bitter, Frequin Rouge, Hauxapfel, Chisel Jersey, Kingston Black, Michelin and Bulmer Norman and their harvests are making waves; it’s a huge investment, though, considering it takes eight to ten years for a new apple tree to reach full production.
Blending these varieties is a delicate art. Grant Howes, the owner of County Cider Company in Prince Edward County, describes blending as “the real ying yang of cider production.” He not only blends European varieties but also late-harvest domestic varieties such as Northern Spy, Russet and Ida Red to increase the sugars: “You’re trying to offset the dryness with tannin and the acids with sweetness.” Besides his thirty-five acres of apples, Howes also owns an apple-tree nursery and is at the helm of the largest planting of European apple varieties in Canada.
County Cider produces a Premium Sparkling Cider ($6.95/1 l) that is bright and crisp, with an easy-drinking apple flavour that is fantastic for summer drinking — like enjoying a cold drink in an orchard on a breezy summer’s day. Waupoo’s Premium Cider ($12.95/6 x 341 ml) has a brilliant sparkle and a fresher, sweeter appley flavour. It’s rich and lush on the palate in an elegant style.
This summer, County Cider will release its first bottle-fermented Champenoise Cider. Thousands of bubbles fight for room in the glass as the thick foaming mousse takes over. It has a yeasty, appley, bread-dough aroma and flavour, with grassiness playing up fruit on an elegant medium body and a crisp texture. “I prefer my cider to be filled with bubbles because they’re bitter and balance the sweetness of the fresh-apple notes. I think it gives more complexity to the overall drink,” Howes explains.
Howes was inspired to start his own cidery while on a drive through the Cowachin Valley: after a tour around Merridale Ciderworks, he was back on the road with the beginning of a business plan for his own place.
Merridale Ciderworks is owned and operated by Janet Docherty and Rick Pipes. The Cowichan Valley mirrors growing conditions in the renowned cider regions of Europe. Like Howes, Docherty and Pipes also grow trees proven over the centuries to produce the best apples.
Merridale apples are not grown for appearance so the use of pesticides can be minimized, in keeping with the owners’ organic sensibilities. “Most ciders in North America are made from eating apples,” explains Docherty. “In our opinion, that is similar to trying to make red wine from Concord grapes. The cider apples we use have been used in cider production for hundreds of years in Northern France and Southwest England. They possess the needed bouquet, tannins and acids to give cider body without adding anything.”
Although the apple varieties may be the same, the styles between the two cideries are quite different. While County Ciders’ selections are sparkling, bright, fresh and flavourful, Merridale ciders are still, rich, full-bodied and palate-filling.
Merridale Cider Normandie ($13.94/750 ml) is a beautiful specimen, fermented dry and aged in oak. Scrumpy ($5.25/341 ml) is a strong, sharp and rich cider that pairs very well with food and can stand up to strong-flavoured meats and cheeses. (The name Scrumpy comes from cider made by farm workers who had stolen or “scrumped” apples from the orchard.)
One of the prized Merridale products, however, is its Winter Apple Cider. The apples are picked at normal harvest time, pressed and fortified with distilled apple juice in port-like fashion (19% alc/vol). The result is a rich, thick drink with incredible intensity of flavours that pairs well with chocolate or cheddar cheese — a perfect wintertime drink.
Real Canadian artisanal ciders are now starting to enjoy worldwide success. Notorious for protecting their wine industry, Europeans tend to import more apple cider than they do wine, and it seems they are particularly fond of our oh-so-Canadian ice cider.
Ice cider’s impact on the taste buds is much like that of Icewine — tangy, zesty flavours with a buttery caramel note layered between pastry-rich flavours of apple pie. You can hardly taste the alcohol, but it’s there at around 12 percent. The brainchild of Christian Barthomeuf, cidermaker at Domaine Pinnacle, this iced treat was born on the slopes of Pinnacle Mountain near the historic village of Frelighsburg in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, not far from the Vermont border.
Producing ice cider is possible only in regions with a short growing season for late-harvested varieties. The key is that the first frost needs to hit when the apples are not fully ripe. This creates the requisite “hardening off” that occurs when the tree goes from reproduction mode (ripening fruit) to survival mode (shutting down).
Once the tree has hardened off, the apples simply hang there, developing unique concentrated flavours the way that Icewine-bound grapes do. After a chilly harvest, the apples are pressed and the resulting juice is frozen naturally — outdoors — to further concentrate the flavour by separating out excess water.
Pinnacle blends over 80 different varieties of apples from their 430-acre apple orchard, plus those from surrounding orchards. Like Icewine, no sweeteners or additives are used. “We can trace every apple to different orchards,” says Barthomeuf who is now working on developing an appellation contrôlée status for ice cider: Cidre de Glace du Québec.
This new evolution in ciders has been inspiring maverick chefs across the country, including Chef Daniel Mailhot of the Lakeview Inn in Lac-Brome. He uses apple cider in many dishes but also likes to pair the drink with food for a true Eastern Township–experience: sipping on a glass of cider while enjoying a butternut squash soup with a dollop of crème fraîche is a great way to start a meal; follow that with a fig compote, sweetened with cider and served with cider-marinated leg of Quebec lamb; then, for a finale, a Quebec cheese platter with sugared pecans is best enjoyed with a chilled glass of ice cider. There isn’t a more Canadian way to end a meal.
This article was orginally published in the July/August 2007 issue of Tidings, Canada’s Food & Wine Magazine. Food, wine and travel writer, author of Niagara Cooks and TV personality, Lynn Ogryzlo has been a lifelong culinary tourist, defender of regional cuisine and of the Slow Food movement. A second-generation Canadian-born Italian, her natural passion for all things that come on a plate or in a glass has inspired her to travel and explore cuisines around the world. www.lynnogryzlo.com