There’s nothing quite like a bit of bubbly for a celebration. That bottle sitting quietly in a corner of my wine rack will do nicely, I think to myself one Sunday afternoon. It’s been softened by malolactic fermentation, then a second fermentation in the bottle where 18 months on the lees has rounded off the edges.
It’s been riddled by the skilled cellarmasters at a Constantia estate, then disgorged, corked and wirecapped, before ending up on my wine rack. A long, slow process for a fine bottle of bubbly; bottle #107 out of just 6 000 made in the 2009 vintage.
Crystal glasses are laid out, the wire cap is undone and a satisfying pop sounds across a room of friends. A fine mousse rises in each glass as the pale liquid fizzes its way heavenwards. On the nose, there’s an attractive toastiness; aromas of brioche, yeastiness and… apples?
With a name like Terra Madre Pommes Classique, I suppose the bottle should have given it away. Made in the traditional Champagne style, Terra Madre is one of a host of new ciders tickling the palates of South African drinkers. Massproduced ciders full of sugar and witty ad campaigns are out; in with handcrafted ciders carefully pressed, fermented and bottled to show just how good the fruits of the apple orchard can be.
“Producing our cider in a Champagne style is a lot more costly and time-consuming, but it was a nonnegotiable for us. We wanted the fine bubble and the mousse,” explains Nicole Precoudis as we drive through the apple orchards on her Elgin farm, an hour from Cape Town.
A successful Johannesburg restaurateur, Precoudis packed up her knife-roll and moved to the orchard-filled valley in 2005 where, together with business partner Ian Downie, she set about creating a cider that could lure wine-lovers away from their favourite tipple.
“This is a Normandy-style cider, which means it’s 100% apple and it’s bottle-fermented. I live in a valley with tens of thousands of tonnes of apples, and it always struck me as strange that so few people have thought about making cider here,” says Precoudis. “The market is saturated with wine, and there’s a definite niche in the market for a product like this. The South African public is embracing artisanal products; it’s a shift in mindset, and that’s terrific.”
But Terra Madre is far from alone when it comes to creating a fizz and – as micro-breweries pave the way with handcrafted ales – local palates are starting to wake up to the crisp taste of real cider.
And it’s perhaps no surprise that the Elgin Valley – for decades a centre of the Cape’s apple industry – is where all the action is.
Local garagiste winemaker William Everson began dabbling in cider in 2009, “with some tutoring from an old cidermaker here in the valley”, and his dry cider is enjoyed at some of the top restaurants and bars across Cape Town. The Drift Farm
near Napier is best known for its heirloom vegetables, but when owner Dave Jack (and son Bruce, of Flagstone Winery fame) decided to dabble in cider, they took Dave’s grandfather’s recipe to well-known Elgin farmer and cidermaker Mark Stanford.
“Mark presses the apples, and handles the fermentation for us, and we then blend it ourselves,” says Jason Snell from The Drift Farm of their James Mitchell’s Gone Fishing cider. “We use a family recipe of apples, and age it in a combination of oak barrels and steel tanks. It’s a traditional Englishstyle cider; very dry, very clean on the palate.”
Steel tanks, oak barrels, bottle fermentation? It all sounds remarkably similar to wine, and – up to a point – cider apples do follow a similar journey to grapes. And if winemakers suggest great wine is made in the vineyard, then great cider most certainly starts in the orchard too.
“The first step is always your apples,” explains Everson in the cool of his home cellar. “In South Africa there are no dedicated cider apples, so to produce the base apple wine we have to use different eating apples: Golden Delicious, Granny Smiths for some acid, Pink Lady for a bit of sweetness, and for a little extra tannin perhaps something like Braeburn.”
Although most of South Africa’s 21 000 hectares of apple orchard are in the Western Cape, a small pocket of orchards known as the ‘Highveld Triangle’ is home to the artisanal Red Stone Cider, crafted by Natalie Meyer on her farm near Clarens.
“When we started farming we debated what to do with our windfall apples, and cider was a logical conclusion,” says Meyer. “It’s not as much about the type of apple you use, as the balance between acidity and sweetness in the apples. That’s what we try to work with.”
“It’s like using different grapes,” agrees Nicole Precoudis. “Each apple has a different sweetness and a different depth of flavour, and the mix of fruit is something we’ll tweak and improve each year. For this latest vintage we also sourced some York Imperials from Oak Valley farm. They’re a very old cultivar of apples and, along with Rokewoods, have higher tannin content, which is what you want for cider. It’s definitely added more elegance and structure to this vintage.”
But apart from the balance of acid and sugar, is there a notion of terroir at play too?
“Year on year you’re going to get different vintages. Even if you’re using the same types of apples, there will definitely be variations. But I don’t think it’s as fi nely tuned in apples as it would be with grapes,” suggests Precoudis, after some thought. “If you tasted cider within different regions of the UK and France, there would be variations, but that would more likely come down to different cider-making techniques, and the regional varieties of apples that are used.”
“Deciding on the mix of apples is where.a lot of the skill comes in,” explains.William Everson. “Every year the profi le of the cider changes. Perhaps you don’t get the same mix of apples this year, or the apples are slightly different. It.evolves from year to year.”
While the flavour profile may evolve, the.process is resolutely traditional.
Apples are washed and then pressed for.their juice. While some boutique producers still use a traditional press, it’s rarely sustainable on a large scale, says Everson: “I used to use the French basket press that I press my wine grapes in, but that’s a real labour of love. I’ve done it for small volumes but, when you’re pressing 10 000 kilograms of apples at a time, it doesn’t really work!”
As the apples are pressed they release a.cloudy apple juice. The juice has its own natural yeasts and, left to its own devices, will begin fermenting on its own. To speed up the process and enhance the fl avour of.the resulting apple wine, most cidermakers clarify the juice and add French wine yeasts to kickstart fermentation.
It’s here that the path of cider diverges.
William Everson chooses to ferment and mature in large tanks with oak staves, before carbonating and bottling. “Once it’s finished fermenting, I let the juice lie on the lees with the staves in it. I age it like that to give it some softness,” says Everson. Natalie Meyer follows a similar process, but without the oak. James Mitchell’s Gone Fishing uses both tanks and oak barrels before carbonation.
Champagne-style ciders will undergo a second fermentation in the bottle, a longer process that produces a more complex flavour, smaller bubbles… and a higher price. Unsurprisingly, that hasn’t stopped acclaimed Swartland winemaker Eben Sadie from trying his hand at cider, sourcing apples from old orchards in Elgin.
“The juice was pressed in Elgin and then I fermented it in old French oak casks.on its own natural yeasts, which is.something nobody does,” explains Sadie. “The bottles… have been on the lees for four years now. I am doing another.year and then we will disgorge it… it.tastes fantastic already, but I have no idea what we’ll do with it. I might just drink it all with friends!”
And that is, after all, the whole point. All of the cider-makers I spoke to were passionate about their product, but adamant that it’s to be enjoyed, not analysed and argued over.
“Cider goes well with so many different foods,” says Everson. “At the Biscuit Mill market it’s often enjoyed with a Flammkuchen; it’s perfect with the bacon and cream cheese. It also works well with curry, to clear the palate.”
“I don’t think it’ll ever replace wine as an accompaniment to an evening meal, but our Red Stone Cider is a lovely cider to enjoy with brunch,” suggests Natalie Meyer. “It has a nice fresh balance to it, so I’d pair it with something light; a fresh salad, or a quiche perhaps. Some cheeses also pick up the apple notes in the cider.”
And with cider, unlike wine, there’s nothing to stop you being a little impatient.
“It’s not going to go off in the bottle, but I don’t think it will mature as well as a Champagne,” says Precoudis. “It’s made to be drunk sooner rather than later, to be shared among friends over good times.”
From the garagiste cellar of William Everson to the orderly orchards on Nicole Precoudis’ farm, the ciders of the Elgin Valley are made with such passion it’s hard not to hope that cider becomes the drink of choice in a hot South African summer.
“Cider is such a nice alternative to a glass of wine, which is fairly high in alcohol,” says Meyer. “Initially we brewed about 5 000 litres a year of our Red Stone Cider, but we’re now on 30.000 litres! We only sell out of the village of Clarens, and we’ve seen a huge growth in demand.”
“I think there is a real interest in handcrafted products like cider,” says Everson, as he pours me a last draught of amber liquid. “Look at the microbreweries in South Africa now; they are really taking off and it’s so exciting. I look forward to the day when we see the same with cider.”
WHERE TO GET IT
www.eversonscider.co.za; 083 452 2916 (R15/340ml)
Terra Madre Pommes Classique
082 328 1346 or 082 906 7600 (R68/750ml)
Red Stone Cider
(R134.12/case of 12x340ml bottles)
James Mitchell’s Gone Fishing
www.thedrift.co.za; 072 532 3388 (R20/340ml)
Published in Wine Magazine, South Africa