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Cider’s Natural Wine Moment

February 25, 2021

Story: Dan Pucci

art: Carmela Caldart


Cider’s Natural Wine Moment

February 25, 2021

Story: Dan Pucci

art: Carmela Caldart

The crossover between the two categories has delivered cider’s long-awaited moment. Here are the producers and bottles that prove it.

My first cider experiences came in 2010 by way of a since-closed Polish beer store in Park Slope, Brooklyn, that stocked every bottle it could bear. I’d go there on Fridays after breakfast at the nearby diner and grab a bottle or two of anything that looked interesting. Most often that was cider.

Back then, I’d been spending a lot of time reading about wine, but was disheartened; it felt too hypothetical, impossible to learn about without a well-worn passport or a lot of disposable income. Cider felt different. Its barrier to entry was not out of reach on a wine retail salary, nor was its access guarded at elite temples of hospitality. The only limit, it seemed, was my ability to ask questions and seek it out.

Because American cider is an infant category, drinking it requires an open mind. There are no orthodoxies—only experimentation. In that sense, natural wine has provided many with the perfect access point: its ethos, visual identity and openness to remixing history aligns with the modern American cider movement. In fact, cider’s long-awaited moment has finally come, at least in part as a result of its intersection with natural wine, both figuratively and literally.

In the past decade, the number of cidermakers in the United States has increased sevenfold, with some of the most exciting cider being made through the lens of natural wine. Consider Wild Arc Farm, a five-year-old operation in the small town of Pine Bush, New York. What began as winemaker Todd Cavallo’s deep dive into hybrids grew into experimenting with apples and grapes from across the state in nontraditional ways, like aging dry Northern Spy cider on teroldego grape skins. “The same [drinkers] who welcome hybrid grapes to the conversation are equally as enthusiastic about exploring wines made from fruits other than grapes altogether, which includes ciders,” says Cavallo.

Fifty miles northeast is Rose Hill Farm, one of the oldest continuously operating fruit farms in New York’s Hudson Valley. Its 114 acres were first cultivated in 1791, and then planted with fruit in 1812. Over time, the trees were replanted with dessert apple varieties like Fuji before cider varieties became part of the farm. In bountiful years, Rose Hill grows more blueberries, cherries, plums and peaches than its U-pick customers can handle. While in the past that excess fruit would have been harvested at meager margins or left to decay, today cidermaker Matt Sanford uses it to make naturally fermented, genre-bending ciders and fruit wines. His Pearly Dewdrops, for example, is sourced from several varieties of plums and nectarines, and has a flavor profile that unites the floral notes of muscat with yuzu and violets.

This kind of experimentation with the resources of the past is happening all across the country. North of Raleigh-Durham in Cedar Grove, North Carolina, Botanist and Barrel has adopted the oft-maligned indigenous muscadine grape, which they co-ferment with apples, creating a fruity and floral cider that is reminiscent of gewürztraminer. In Colorado’s Montezuma County, producers like Teal Cider, Fenceline and EsoTerra Cider are reclaiming the thousands of naturally irrigated apple trees that were planted in this remote part of the country during a turn-of-the-century mining blitz.

California has become particularly fertile ground for cider’s big moment. At Emme Wines in Sebastopol, Rosalind Reynolds focuses on lesser-known appellations and the overlooked French grape colombard. In 2019, she made four examples of it: skin-contact, direct press, co-fermented with the rare red grape abouriou and co-fermented with Jonathan apples. The following year, a small pinot noir vineyard she manages bore almost no fruit thanks to guests at the adjoining Airbnb, who refused to shut the gate to keep deer out. She combined the small harvest with heirloom apples (pressed by her friend Ellen Cavalli at Tilted Shed Ciderworks) and a bumper crop of feral plums from Cavalli’s yard that they’d picked and frozen earlier in the season. This fruity, juicy cider-wine-jerkum (plum wine) hybrid only could have come together in a year like 2020. “Co-fermenting something I know well (grapes) with something new (apples) makes something that makes sense to me, palatewise,” says Reynolds.

Cider, it turns out, makes practical sense for winemakers too. California is the fifth-largest grower of apples in the country, and many of its famous winegrowing regions—Russian River Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, Anderson Valley—were once home to prolific orchards before grapes took center stage. The past few vintages have been filled with challenges for the state as droughts trade off with floods, and fires seem to grow bolder and more frequent. Apples can be a hedge against uncertainty. Sonoma County’s famed Gravenstein apples, for example, are harvested in early August, usually long before fires become an issue. And smoke taint, the bane of winegrowers, does not occur in apples. While apples will not be replacing grapes in St. Helena anytime soon, they are a compelling and complex alternative for curious winemakers who are willing to give them the care they deserve.

 There is perhaps no greater example of this than Chenoa Ashton-Lewis and Will Basanta’s Ashanta Wines. In 2017, a nearly 50-year-old vineyard owned by Ashton-Lewis’ family was devastated by the Nuns Fire that swept north of the city of Sonoma and engulfed 56,000 acres in flames. Two years later, the already-small harvest was nearly wiped out by birds. And in 2020, after the LNU Lightning Complex Fire came dangerously close to the colombard they had planned to harvest for a skin-contact white wine, they pivoted for fear that smoke taint would render the wine unsuitable to market. Bolstered by drinkers who’d proven to be open to experimentation, they instead co-fermented the colombard with elderberries they foraged from the San Gabriel Mountains outside of Los Angeles. The “wine” will be released later this year.

“We found [natural wine] drinkers were more likely to give new things a shot,” says Ashton-Lewis. “People were just as willing to try skin-contact whites or effervescent fruit co-ferments as they were traditional reds, which was vastly different from my upbringing, where I was surrounded by drinkers and winemakers who preferred conventional two- to three-year-old reds aged in oak barrels.

Natural wine and cider’s relationship is not just relegated to the cellar, either. Regenerative agriculture is taking hold in vineyards around the country as a way to rebuild total ecology, and a lot of the research around best practices comes from the orchard community, in particular Michael Phillips of Vermont’s Lost Nation Orchard. Much of this knowledge has since filtered down to winegrowers like Darek Trowbridge of Old World Winery in California’s Russian River Valley, as well as Mimi Casteel of Hope Well Wines and Dan Rinke and Kim Hamblin of Art + Science, Cider + Wine, both based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. “Inter-beverage-industry communications have gotten so much more active,” says Cavallo of Wild Arc Farm. “I'm constantly talking to brewers and cidermakers more and more about fermentation and sharing knowledge.”

If you ask me, the future of American fermented beverages lies in exploring the connectivity among them and looking for inspiration in the overlap—especially as the boundaries for each expand, whether that means experimenting in the cellar with process, fermentation and blending, or in the field where farmers are finding beauty and complexity in fruit once snubbed or passed over. Early winemakers in North America sought to recreate European wines at the expense of homegrown excellence. That approach is being reconsidered with a wider lens, as homegrown natural wine and cider build a new culture and future for vines and trees both new and old.

A Taste of the New American Cider

Art & Science Symbiosis

Made by: Dan Rinke and Kim Hamblin
Region: Willamette Valley, Oregon
What: 50 percent gruner veltliner, 50 percent feral apples, co-fermented
What it tastes like: This is a full-bodied cider loaded with peach blossoms and white pepper that has the rich, dense texture of a smaragd gruner veltliner.
Why it matters: Both the grapes and the apples were grown biodynamically at Johan vineyards and then naturally co-fermented in neutral acacia barrels.

  • Price: $22
  • Vintage: 2018

Ashanta Sidra

Made by: Chenoa Ashton-Lewis and Will Basanta
Region: Sonoma Valley, California
What: 92 percent organic Gravenstein, Jonathan, Rhode Island Greening and Golden Delicious apples co-fermented with freshly pressed viognier grapes and carignan grape skins
What it tastes like: The grape skins transform these apples into a honeyed, floral, oily and purply cider that is bracingly fresh with lots of texture to sink into.
Why it matters: Though they make up only 8 percent of the total cider, the grapes have a profound impact on the apples, bringing weight and a fruity profile. All of its parts are still identifiable, but brought together in a complete package.

  • Price: $30
  • Vintage: 2020

Emme Wine Jonathan x Nero D’Avola Co-Ferment Pét Nat

Made by: Rosalind Reylonds
Region: Sebastopol, CA
What: Jonathan apple juice, pressed by Tilted Shed, co-fermented with nero d’avola skins from winemaker Martha Stoumen
What it tastes like: Juicy apples and blackberries with strong sweeping tannins from the nero d’avola. Reynolds says it is reminiscent of “an East Coast autumn, bright sun, crystal blue sky, but with a bracing, chilly breeze underneath. Wear a scarf.”
Why it matters: This is a true product of collaboration between the cider and wine communities.

  • Price: $25
  • Vintage: 2020

Rose Hill Pomme Cerise

Made by: Matt Sanford
Region: Hudson Valley, New York
What: 45 percent Northern Spy apples, 45 percent Golden Russet apples, 10 percent sweet and tart cherries
What it tastes like: Blood orange, pears in golden syrup, Sicilian rosato.
Why it matters: It showcases the true power of co-fermentation to create something entirely different.

  • Price: $24
  • Vintage: 2019

Wild Arc Farm Dabinett Greening Cider

Made by: Todd Cavallo and Crystal Cornish
Region: Hudson Valley, New York
What: 30 percent Dabinett and 70 percent Rhode Island Greening apples
What it tastes like: Like the limey brightness of sauvignon blanc meets the rich, ripe pineapple notes of chenin blanc.
Why it matters: It’s naturally fermented and aged in oak for 10 months, but packaged in 12-ounce cans, a reminder that domestic natural wine and cider does not need to cost a lot or be saved for special occasions; it’s meant to be consumed—spread the love.

  • Price: $8
  • Vintage: NV

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Tagged: cider, natural wine

Dan Pucci is the co-author of the forthcoming book American Cider: a Modern Guide to a Historic Beverage (March 2021). He was the founding beverage director at Wassail, New York City’s first cider bar and restaurant, and has since traveled the country in a continued pursuit of cider education, awareness and research. He is a partner in Wallabout Hospitality, a New York City-based consulting and hospitality company.