An Apple By Any Other Name
Apples used to make cider are not the ones you see on grocery store shelves. They have odd names like Brown Snout, Roxbury Russett and Muscadet de Dieppe. And while the English and French both have different ways of categorizing cider apples, the defining factors are relatively consistent - acidity, tannins and sugar. Tannins bring bitterness and astringency. Acidity is just that - acid, tartness, tang. Sugar provides not only sweetness, but alcohol content. It’s the combination of these three factors that really separate wine-like ciders from other ciders.
There are few apples by themselves that have the right levels of acid, tannins and sugar to make a cider that doesn’t fall short (or overshoot) one of these balancing factors. Fewer still are the number of orchards (especially in the US) that grow these apples in enough quantities to make a cider batch of more than 5 gallons. Still, there are a handful of cider makers that have created a single varietal cider - a cider made from 100% fermented juice of only a particular apple variety. Farnum Hill has been producing their Kingston Black cider for a number of years now, but this is just one of several examples.
Over in wine however, most “single varietal” wines are only 75% composed of that variety. Winemakers know that they need a certain amount of other balancing juice to make the wine they want. They may also use certain grapes to keep production costs down. So why isn’t cider held to the same standard?
To be fair, this question is inappropriate. Part of the challenge is that making cider from a single apple type doesn’t always make a cider worth drinking. It’s the main reason there are so few commercial examples. It’s also not as financially rewarding compared to the wine equivalent. A single-vineyard 100% single grape varietal wine could cost a lot of money - easily 5-10x what you would be able get for the cider equivalent.
When you hear the words Super Tuscan, Chateauneuf du Pape or Bordeaux, you automatically think of quality wine. Some of the finest wines benefit from being the right blend of specific grapes varieties from a particular region. And since climate location plays such an important role in determining which apple varieties will grow in a region, could this concept be embraced in the cider world? Can existing AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) - already established in the late 70s by the ATF and in use by the US Wine industry - be used to further promote the terroir of cider apples? Maybe cider isn’t quite ready for this yet, but if we start to think along these lines, it won’t be long now. Don't get me wrong; I'm not anxious for a bottle of Adirondack Coast Cider to cost me $300. I want to continue enjoying it for $20-30.
Information from ciderschool.com was used in writing this post.