The 21st October is a date that is indelibly inked into my diary, for 3 reasons. Firstly it is one day before my birthday; secondly it marks the date when Marty McFly and Doc Brown are due to appear (from Back to the Future II); but most importantly it marks World Apple Day. Established 25 years ago, this day marks the height of activity in the English cider making calendar, and provides a timely opportunity to celebrate this humble fruit.
Over the years, World Apple Day has traditionally involved me either making cider or talking about cider. Or both. This year, I’ll be doing neither. The closest I’ll get will be drinking a cider (or two). That’s not a bad fallback, but I do find myself lamenting the English cider harvest.
In the heart of what Keats described as the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, the cider harvest is not quite an assault on the senses, but rather more of enveloping hug. The air is heady with the sweet perfume of ripe fruit, chaotically moved around the countryside by trucks, tractors and Transit vans like a frantic ant colony.
I have had the privilege of picking fruit from trees that I know my forebears used to pick – giant old perry pears planted more than 200 years ago. I love the connection to my heritage provided by grubbing about in these old orchards on crisp, autumnal days – the sense of place is palpable
But here in NZ, of course, there is none of this; well at least not right now. Spring has definitely sprung with flowers abounding; but even after being here for 2 years it still seems incongruous that I am not celebrating World Apple Day in the company of autumnal drizzle and tannin-stained hands.
However, all is not lost. At the weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to judge at the New Zealand Cider Awards. This annual showcase of the country’s finest cider, perry and cider with fruit enables me to do my two favourite things: namely drinking cider and talking about cider.
A record number of ciders were entered, and I was genuinely impressed with the overall standard. The New Zealand Fruit Wine and Cider Makers Association (FWCMA), who runs these awards, has made strong efforts improve the categorisation to enablethe manifold distinct styles to be judged separately, and on entirely merit.
Traditional Cider and New World are two distinct categories, now with specific guidelines. Conventional wisdom states that the most complex ciders (and therefore the ‘best’) will be those made from classic English and French cider apple varieties.
These tannic rich apples can create ciders with real depth, funk and astringency, and it was great to taste some NZ offerings very true to this type. At one point if I were to have closed my eyes tight enough I could have just about made out ancient orchards with gnarled trees, decrepid Massey Ferguson tractors hauling fruit-laden trailers and the sound of panking poles going to work.
I was particularly impressed, however, by the New World Cider category. Cider makers have gone to great pains, and used no small amount of guile and skill, to produce to ciders of intensity, focus and fruit. The inclfuence of the winemaker’s hand was present in many of the offerings. I particularly enjoyed the gunflint character present in one or two, which very much in vogue for cult Chardonnays at the moment.
It’s going to be fascinating to see how the craft end of the cider category develops here in New Zealand. What does a classic New Zealand craft cider look and taste like? Does the highest quality cider necessitate the use of these high tannin apple varieties? On the basis of the weekend’s judging, maybe not; but it’s going to take a little more time for trends to develop.
So, cider makers of New Zealand: I challenge you to go forth and multiply….the range of trials and blends you are undertaking. The time is ripe for experimentation and searching for cider’s path.