March 16, 2018
We are incredibly happy, surprised and thankful for this wonderfully written review by Tamlyn Currin of JancisRobinson.com and who kindly gave us permission to use.
Coincidentally we had a speaking slot at the Ballymaloe Cookery School a few days after the review was published, where Jancis herself was speaking only a few days before!
They come from cork but not from bark.
They come from trees, but not from marc.
It’s wine of ice; not ice, nor wine.
It’s port in spirit; not place nor vine.
And thus they arrived on my doorstep, these curious riddles: an apple ice wine, and an apple port, from County Cork in Ireland.
Sending an apple ice wine and an apple port into wine territory is pretty ballsy, especially as I’ve been trained by Julia Harding and the first thing I’m going to do is baulk at the terms port and ice wine and go down some technical, legalistic rabbit hole worrying about methods of production and protected regions of origin. But the Irish don’t give a feck and the British are leaving the EU, so I decided that might be a dilemma best left for some agricultural trade department to get into a panic about. But I couldn’t help checking a few things.
To my surprise, the US federal government defines cider (known as ‘hard cider’ in the US, cider being a fresh apple juice) as a still wine. Pennsylvania, awkwardly, disagrees, but most other states fall into line with this description because it is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting the natural sugars of fruit. In the UK and Europe, cider is cider, in name and category. Unless it’s perry, in which case it’s also cider. It’s neither wine nor beer. As long as it is less than 8.5%… As soon as you’re over that 8.5% mark, the tax man has decided that you’re wine. So yes, according to the UK tax man, this apple ice wine is, at 10.5% ABV, a wine. And even the ‘port’, at 17%, is below the 22% minimum requirement to be a spirit, which makes it a fortified wine.
Sending an apple ice wine and an apple port into wine territory is still pretty ballsy, because we have some intimidating benchmarks for the likes of ice wine and port. Which leads me to the question: can you possibly compare anything made from apples, even if it technically called wine, to something made from that noblest and most complex of fruit, the grape?
Back in 2010 a big old rundown house with a battered barn and eight acres of land went under the auction hammer. Cousins Barry Walsh and Dave Watson, pictured above and both scientists and foodies (real ones: they forage for pepper dilisk, a type of dulse seaweed that tastes like truffles and lobster and garlic, on the rocky seashores of East Cork in the middle of freezing cold February) put their respective knowledge of making booze and growing trees together, and revived Killahora’s 180 year-old orchard. They researched varieties, apple characteristics, commercial ciders, and came up with a planting plan that would yield the fruit for their perfect cider.
Seven years later, and thanks to an enormous amount of hard labour, love and dedication from Tim Watson, Dave’s father, the south-facing, sunny slopes of Killahora Orchards are lined with 108 varieties of cider apple and 36 of perry pear trees. They have French, Swiss, Austrian, and Welsh varieties. They have apples from Wales, the West Country, Kazakhstan and the US. They have apples like the one shown here, blood red all the way to the core, plus golden apples, green apples, speckled apples and ancient 100-year-old wild apple trees. They have heritage varieties and modern varieties, apples lushly sweet, apples so sharp it takes the breath away, and apples that are inedible, grown only for their tannins. Their names sound like a roll call for the village dance: Maggie, Betty, Amanda, Fiona, Lizzie, Judeline, Sweet Alford and Jane. The apple pictured top right is called, enchantingly, Sops in Wine.
And as this little tale of Killahora Orchards unfolded I began to see another reason why these liquids might be deserving of the classification ‘wine’. A bit like champagne and Châteauneuf, it’s in the blending that you reach depth and balance. Barry’s answer to my question could almost have come from a winemaker: ‘Yes, we do select specific varietals that we want to have in the Ice Wine (our 2016 had a core of rarer late bittersweets that were amongst the last pick), but we need to balance those deeper, richer flavours with some earlier, lighter varieties and a percentage of eaters that provide nice aromatics, bright acid and natural sugars to create a better balance. We used some of our wild apples in the 2016 because it felt right to have that heritage in our first batch… but the levels of acid and tannin in wild apples are fairly voracious so, needless to say, we were conservative in our blending. We also do separate ferments on the extremes of each end to allow us to blend an optimum balance later, ie the very late bittersweets on their own and the aromatic eating apples on their own.
At the moment they ferment in stainless steel but are playing around a little with barrels. I asked about yeasts, fully expecting to be given the brand of an industry-standard cider yeast. Instead: ‘We’ve dabbled with a range of yeasts in our ciders, from the simple basic champagne style at the beginning, up to what we currently do now, which is exclusively wild fermentations. This essentially means we use a method of allowing successive waves of yeast colonies to take hold and ferment the cider. As a result the complexity of flavour and opportunities for interesting malolactic fermentations increase. That said, sometimes strange things happen… like ciders fermenting at almost freezing temperatures, adding some complex flavours that we’d prefer didn’t exist and very slow fermentations that seem to take forever!
‘So, with the Ice Wine, while we’re allowing a little bit of space at the start for wild fermentation, the importance of being able to stop fermentation in order to retain natural sugars is of key importance, and hence having very hardy wild yeasts is a risk since some can be difficult to stop. We are currently just using fining and minimal filtering (we want to retain as much colour and flavour as possible so we don’t use cross-flow filtration currently), so to avoid issues we are therefore using a number of cultured yeasts. These have been selected to work in waves like with our cider, ie one will thrive for the first few per cent of alcohol, and then tails off, when a specific Saccharomyces strain takes over until we start slowing it down.’
He said something else which sounded familiar. They don’t even try to make it taste the same every year. Like grapes, vintage variation of apples is a perennial reality. One year the bittersweets will crop well, another year it will be the sharp varieties, or the desserts. In another year tannins might be stronger, or the sugars much higher, or the acids lower. Each year the apple wine reflects its vintage and its varieties.
To make the apple ice wine they blend a selection of fresh-pressed juices, freeze it, and then very slowly thaw it, carefully extracting the concentrated juice from the ice. The now very rich must is slowly fermented for a year and stopped before completion, leaving half of the apple sugars intact.
The apple port (called Pom’O, doffing its cap to Normandy pommeau, to which it bears more resemblance than port) is a blend of two-thirds pressed apple juice and one-third apple brandy, aged for 12 months in whisky barrels. It’s a simple culmination of a complicated journey of experiments with various juice blends, eaux de vie (including an intriguing-sounding hedgerow poitín made from wild crab apples in the hedgerow, elderflower and gorse flowers) and types of wood for ageing. The big challenge was ‘to understand how the freshness of the juice tempers over time as it enmeshes with the distillate, and into a more subtle flavour’.
While they might ultimately run into a battle with the authorities about the words ‘port’ and ‘ice wine’ on their labels, it’s very clear that there is a huge amount of hard work, vision and determination behind these drinks. Barry cites Domaine Neige of Québec and Eric Bordelet of Normandy (see Right weirdness from Les Caves) as their inspiration for believing that cider and apple wines can achieve the same level of complexity and nuance as wine. ‘It’s taken a lot of work to understand the process and we’re still learning, but given the feedback we are getting on this batch, we think it has been a worthwhile, (and wild!), journey so far.’
Talking about feedback, I tasted these two beautiful-looking bottles, still wondering, despite the talk of wild yeasts and acid-tannin balance, whether apples can be truly complex.
Killahora Orchards, Rare Apple Ice Wine 2016 County Cork, Ireland 10.8%
Deep, dark honey colour. Smells intensely of apple and orange peel. Very, very sweet but gloriously burnished acidity sweeps across the palate. Deep, long apricot tang draws through baked apples and honey. Silky viscosity. Long and with a crisp lift on the finish. (TC) €24 per 37.5 cl
Killahora Orchards Killahora Orchards, Pom’O Apple Port 2016 County Cork, Ireland 17%
Medium foxy-gold. Hint of brandy on the nose, and apple jam. Marzipan flavours over delicious ripe-apple and kumquat fruit. Elegant, polished and spicy with a hint of creamy tobacco and honey. Alcohol feels restrained and beautifully balanced, as is the dry finish. (TC) €24 per 50 cl Killahora Orchards
They were both beautiful drinks. They had complexity, layers, spine-tingling acidity and length. And cheese. Either of them, definitely with cheese. With the Ice Wine, I would have a triplecream Brillat Savarin or a goat’s cheese and onion tart (although it would be terribly easy to pair this with dessert). The Pom’O needs something tangy and hard and nutty and sweet – an aged organic cheddar, perhaps. It was also rather lovely lightly chilled with bresaola.
The Killahora pair also make cider, called Johnny Fall Down (a bittersweet version and a demi sec version) and are working on a perry. I’ll report on one of the ciders next time…
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