Saturday, January 29, 2011

gorgeous disgorgement

We have only a case of bottles left of our first cider from two seasons ago.  They have been patiently waiting, or rather they have been doing what they need to do, and I have been not-so-patiently waiting for the time when we can disgorge them.   The number of bottles has dwindled over the last year and a quarter as they have been victims of my trials and errors.  First, I had hoped to create a sparkling cider in what is known as the ancient method where the second fermentation does not get disgorged before going to market.  This seemed rather easier and had a traditional beauty and insouciance to it.  This can be very tricky though for the unsuspecting  taster who might find an ancient method wine in a wine shop.  Either the bottles will be stored right side up or on their sides and the yeast deposits from the second fermentation will be incorporated into the fluid bubbles of the wine for a more natural beer-like experience (not necessarily a bad thing if the deposits are in minimal proportion), or the bottles must be carefully stored upside down and the unsuspecting taster will perform the final disgorgement.  

There is one producer I know who does this.  He is from Slovenia—Ales Kristancic of Movia--and makes a remarkable sparkling wine from pinot noir--Puro--that arrives here in the United States in a special cardboard box that keeps it upside down.  It is expensive and not for the faint of heart.  In winemaking books, you are often instructed to wear goggles and a heavy jacket at the time of disgorgement, for protection.  This can give you pause.
Our friend Eric who owns Vintages: Adventures in Wine in Concord, Massachusetts showed us the bottle of the Movia on a visit there a couple of years ago when we went down into his cellar to pick a case of interesting and unusual wines.  When I saw the Movia box, and heard Eric’s words of caution, I had to have it.  This would be a wine experience that would truly connect me to the winegrower.  I would be a participant, essentially, in the finishing of the wine.  It is a rather terrific notion if you believe wine connects you to the people with whom you are sharing it, to the dishes with which you drink it, to the landscape that raised it, to the person who tended both the growth of the fruit, and the fermentation and elevage of the wine itself.  It’s a kind of beautiful QED.

We had the wine at Thanksgiving, disgorging the bottle outside the house into a field already covered in snow.  We lost about the a third of the wine, but so relished the minerality of the perlage with just a kiss of blackberry fruit, and of course a faintly yeasty persistence that makes you think of freshly baking bread in a tiny warm bakery on a quiet street corner in early morning mid-winter.  Wine can lead to such kinds of places.

I loved the idea of making our ciders in a similar fashion and engaging its drinkers in the same ritual.  

We began by picking an assortment of our Liberty apples here on the farm along with our wild pippins.  We added heaps of Empires from Caleb’s parents’ grand and old apple tree that offers up bushels of fruit each year.  Before we had a proper cantina, the cider of that year fermented with its own wild yeasts rather zealously in a cool corner of the living room, popping its airlock off and foaming at the mouth as it were.  It continued to ferment on its lees for a couple of months, and finally it settled down by the holidays and went into that quiet period of deep winter.  I kept it on its fine lees.  In early March, we went to go visit a friend’s family farm where they make old-style cider just for themselves, a tradition handed down from father to son to father to son.  We tasted incredible three year old ciders that had been aged in whiskey or ginger barrels.  Kermit, the grandfather, had told us that the longer cider stays in the barrel the better.  And that it doesn’t start to show its true self until after three years, and gets really good at six years.  He also told us that the cider works twice a year in the barrel, fermenting again in the spring and in the fall.

Sure enough, on the spring equinox our cider started to ferment again.   Tides, shifts in season and sky, do actually have an effect on the living organism that is wine.   Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  

Mid-summer, I decided to start the second fermentation in bottle.  I too wanted to go old-school, so just added a simple syrup of natural sugar.  We stirred, bottled, and corked with mushroom caps and the traditional cages.  About a month later, our friends from Burgundy were visiting and we were tasting each other’s wine, and  I brought out a bottle of the cider to try.  The flavors were well coalesced, but the sparkle was somewhat disappointing.  It still tasted like a base wine.  In consultation with another friend who has a vineyard about fifteen minutes from us and who’s experimented a lot with sparkling wines, I decided to add another dosage to my bottles.  This time with a little neutral yeast.  The sparkle had increased a little more from the sugar by the day I opened all the bottles and recombined them in a large demijohn in order to add the yeast, but because this was my first time making sparkling cider, I really wanted it to sparkle, and I wanted to explore all the possibilities of production.  All along, I left some of the lees from the initial fermentation in the cider.  Depth of flavor and all that.  I would be making this for real in another year.

We riddled the bottles three times a week, and I left them on their sides.  We began to open bottles every few months, to see how the cider would develop.  It developed.  It definitely had sparkle now.  Perhaps too much.  I should have been more patient with my initial dosage of sugar.  But now I had bottles with a thick carpet of lees at the bottom that would churn up with the mousse whenever we opened one.  This wasn’t quite the experience I was looking for, so that’s when we decided to disgorge.  

We thought a winter disgorgement would be elegant and easy.  All that snow and cold weather seemed to beckon for something so festive, and a good use of the season.  I had inverted all the bottles at the holidays to get the lees into the necks.  The date for disgorging in January kept getting pushed back due to other necessities, until this past week.  After a brutal cold snap, we had some milder weather.  Out went what was left of the bottles, necks down into snow.  Two to three hours, they say, for partial freezing of the necks at 21-25 degrees Farenheit.  We waited.  We waited some more.

So here’s the thing.  Snow is an insulator.  That’s why we’re so happy we have it burying our vines during all this cold weather.  The snow stayed at a consistent 31 degrees.  No freezing of the necks.  And no disgorgement.  We went to work at the restaurant, knowing that it was going to get colder out that night.  We thought we’d return to disgorge at around one in the morning.  Again, elegant and easy.  A good story.

Arriving home, it was indeed colder.  About 15 degrees.  Perfect! we thought.  And even more perfect when our handy little digital thermometer read 23 degrees in the snow.  However, the bottoms, so gallantly sticking up in the air, were partially frozen, and the necks were not.   Caleb had the brilliant idea of shoveling snow on top of all the bottles to keep them protected from the further freezing until we could look at this situation square in the eye the next morning.  

The next day, the snow was still just the right temperature.  There was still ice in the base of the bottles, so we uncovered them to let the sun warm them a bit.  We decided to disgorge.
We dressed in heavy coats and thick glasses.  Caleb valiantly managed the popping of the corks and trying to hold as much of the cider in the bottles after the yeast had shot out of the bottles.  I took over with settling the bottles and setting them up inside to warm a little before topping up and corking.  Again, I think my overzealousness with the yeast has resulted in a less successful integration of the co2 in the bottle.  The nose of the cider was apply, yeasty, spicy, and the taste on the palate the same.  We let the bottles come to a warmer temperature in the house, all lined up on the dining table, and topped the bottles up with itself rather than a sugar liqueur that many Champagne houses employ.  We like the dry element of the cider.  But I worry a bit about the absence of fruit.  Is it there or not there?  The taste an aroma of apples is fleeting.

Re-corked, and re-caged, the bottles will age for at least another two months.  My hope is that the yeastiness will meld into the cider in a pleasing way, rather than a “look-at-me” kind of way.  One of the wines I made from the same year also had that yeasty, nuttiness at the finish for the longest time.  Until Christmas this year, and it has clearly been the best wine I have made to date.  It just needed time.

So this initial foray into the world of sparkling ciders also needs time.  There are only 8 bottles left, so I will have to choose carefully the tasting occasions.  We will go back to the drawing board.  Read and talk to other growers producing sparkling wines.  What will I do with the ciders that are gently still fermenting in the cantina as we speak?  I await the arrival of several ciders and poires(pear ciders) to taste from the imitable Eric Bordelet.  One of my mentors  had recently told me about Eric’s ciders, and that his poire Granit was one of the greatest fermented beverages on earth.  I await their arrival, and practice patience. 


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