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Artisan Cidermakers Highlight VA’s Heritage Crop


I wasn’t sure what to expect when I was invited to attend a hard cider tasting organized by Chuck and Charlotte Shelton of Albemarle CiderWorks and Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Cider. But boy was it fun. With advance materials quoting Benjamin Franklin – “It is indeed bad to eat apples. It is better to make them all into cider.” – I knew I was in for a different kind of afternoon. They put on a bang up tasting of their wonderful ciders, eye-opening, flavorsome and informative.

In anticipation, I pondered whether we’d be sampling a beer-like beverage, or something like apple brandy, or maybe that unfiltered, cloudy/sour organic juice that you just know is very good-for-you. The selections from Foggy Ridge and Albemarle were completely unlike any of these. If I were pressed to make a comparison, I’d have to say champagne.

Surprisingly, hard cider, at 7-8 percent alcohol, is regulated as a wine. As the cidermakers spoke more about production, it became very clear why. And, as it turns out, “hard cider” is an American term, and refers specifically to apple juice that has been fermented. To the rest of the world, “cider” all by itself means fermented, and “juice” means juice.

Chuck gave us a little background and history, calling on the ubiquitous Thomas Jefferson: “Jefferson was famous for the champagne-like cider he created from the Virginia Hewe’s Crabapple. He had several successful apple orchards at Monticello and experimented with different blends in his cider. We protect several of the heirloom varieties that Jefferson grew.”

Albemarle CiderWorks, VA“Local hero”

Of the 18 varieties Jefferson was known to have cultivated, Albemarle CiderWorks (and its sister company, Vintage Virginia Apples) keeps a dozen of these among their 200 varieties. The cider mill itself, just south of Charlottesville, opened in 2009, and almost immediately was awarded Edible Blue Ridge magazine’s “Local Hero Award” for beverage making.

According to Gary Nabham in Forgotten Fruits Manifesto & Manual, 11 apple varieties produce 90 percent of apples sold in grocery stores and Red Delicious comprises 41 percent of the American apple crop. Of the 16,000 apple varieties grown and eaten in the U.S., only 3,000 are available today through nurseries.

Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Cider

Apple-cheeked apple lady Diane Flynt

Diane worked as a banker in her past life, before donning rubber boots and picking up a chainsaw just off the Blue Ridge Parkway near Floyd in southwest VA. After apprenticing with a fine cidermaker in England, she returned to her farm in Carroll County to concentrate on her 20 acres of more than 30 apple varieties encompassing 1,000 trees.

Foggy Ridge opened in 2006 as the first farm winery in VA to focus solely on growing cider fruit and crafting hard cider. At an elevation of 3,000 feet, the Foggy Ridge orchards include Ashmead’s Kernel, Newtown Pippin and Roxbury Russett, among others.

I wasn’t so far off base expecting a gluey, sweet beer, as that is the most common type of hard cider found in the U.S. The difference is that these two artisan producers handcraft blends of fresh apple juices rather than sugary, manufactured apple juice concentrate.

As at a winetasting, we were presented with ciders from driest to sweetest. The cider-making process is surprisingly the same: Apples are pressed to extract juice, the juice is inoculated with selected strains of yeast to start an alcoholic fermentation which takes place in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks.

The taste test

Apple varieties are chosen, like champagne grapes, not for lush, ripe sweetness, but for acidity, structure and tannin. Depending on the amount of effervescence desired, the ciders are naturally “frizzante” (on the Italian sparkling scale) or are further carbonated in tank. Yield is approximately five bushels (42lbs.) per tree, with each bushel producing about three gallons of juice. Additionally, each of the ciders in this tasting was vintage-dated.

Albemarle CiderWorks Old Virginia Winesap Cider had a medium bead (that is, medium-fine bubbles) and was delicate and floral with a beguiling finish. At 0.2 percent residual sugar, it was bone dry and vibrant. Food-wise, you can think lobster, butter, scallops. It’s incredibly refined and graceful.

Foggy Ridge Serious Cider has residual sugar of 0.4 percent, which Diane equated to a brut champagne. The blend marries Yarlington Mill, a tannic apple, with tart American favorites like Roxbury Russet and Ashmead’s Kernel, known to be particularly lively in mouthfeel, to create an airy, almost ethereal quaff. Again, delicate seafood and white fish preparations are appropriate, anything light and lemon-y.

Albemarle CiderWorks Royal PippinNext up was Albemarle Royal Pippin Cider. This aromatic cider is clear straw in color with a fine bead and is crafted entirely from Albemarle Pippins. It is Albemarle CiderWorks top seller, and it’s easy to see why. It’s rich enough to pair with good, authentic fish and chips and other lightly fried dishes. That’s a classic pairing for fine champagne as well, unless you are a complete wine snob. As well, a pork roast with this luxurious cuvee would just sing.

www.foggyridgecider.comFirst Fruit Cider is the best seller from Foggy Ridge. It combines Hewe’s Crabapples with early season American heirloom apples such as Parmar, Harrison and Graniwinkle to create a generous, tangy cider with a lively texture. A foamy mousse gives great mouthfeel and leads to a brilliant finish.

Albemarle Ragged Mountain is a bit sweet on the nose yet shows firm tannin and bracing acidity on the palate. Historian Charlotte tells us: “The Ragged Mountains are a small chain of hills southwest of Charlottesville and are legendary locally as home to rugged mountain people whose self-sufficient lifestyle was a throwback to an earlier America. The region inspired Edgar Alan Poe, once a student at the University of Virginia, to use it as the atmospheric setting for his short story, A Tale of the Ragged Mountains.”

The most “apple juicy” of the ciders was Foggy Ridge Sweet Stayman. This is the one you wished your family would have at Thanksgiving instead of that overly sweet, mass-produced supermarket brand. Really, Grandma and Mom will love it. Lush and loaded with scrumptious fruit, it’s perfect for that annual fall harvest riot of flavors.

Prices on these handcrafted masterworks are quite reasonably in the $16-20 range.

Foggy Ridge Cider has been featured in national magazines including Bon Appetit, Gourmet and Saveur, and has received medals in the International Eastern Wine Competition and Virginia’s Governors Cup among others. Food & Wine named Foggy Ridge a “Small Batch Superstar” in September 2010.

Albemarle CiderWorks is to be congratulated in really living the green dream: fresh produce, sustainably farmed, and handcrafted in the truest artisanal tradition. And Charlotte, the historian, will be happy to tell you any- and everything you ever need to know about Virginia apples!

Albemarle CiderWorks 2545 Rural Ridge Lane, North Garden, VA 22959. 434.297.2326 Open year round, Wednesday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Albemarle CiderWorks Cider is sold throughout central Virginia.

Foggy Ridge Cider 1328 Pineview Road Dugspur, VA 24325. 276.398.2337 Open Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 12 to 5 p.m., May through early December, as well as by appointment. Call ahead to schedule a special tour with the cidermaker. Foggy Ridge Cider is sold throughout VA and NC at fine wine and gourmet shops.

Photos courtesy of Albemarle CiderWorks and Diane Flynt.