Monthly Archives: March 2014

Charlie and the Cider Factory

There’s a place in this world that I love more than any other. In fact I might even say I’m in love with it. It’s magical. Remote, but not too much. Quiet, but not deserted. Beautiful beyond words, but in a rugged, real kind of way.

Worth Matravers is a tiny village off the Purbeck coast in Dorset. And in this very special village there’s a very special pub, the Square and Compass, well over 200 years old. It sits on a hill top, looking down over the village and the sea. And the Square and Compass has an owner who makes his own cider, Charlie Newman. IMG00056-20100905-1504

I visit Worth about once a year (would love to go more often), always a different time of year. Most recently I went in March – and was disappointed to hear that last year’s ciders had run out and the new lot wasn’t quite ready yet. It had never occurred to me until then that the pub’s supply of home-made cider wasn’t endless. While this meant I had to make do with something from another local producer, it also gave me a great pretext to visit Charlie’s cellar and find out how he makes his cider.

Charlie’s family has run the pub for over a century now, his grandfather having acquired the licence in 1907. But the cider-making is a recent thing which Charlie started only eight years ago. ‘Beforehand I used to make country wines from all sorts of things. Then at the pub we started having a cider day once a year at harvest time, but it wasn’t going anywhere. In the end I decided to make my own cider.’

The apples come from various places in the area and Charlie now also grows his own fruit. He likes to work with a mix of varieties: he ferments the juice of nine different apples, including Bramley, Redstreak, American Mother, and Dabinett.

When the apples start coming in in September, they are carefully hand-selected and cleaned. Clean is crucial, he says, in order to avoid impurities and infections. The apples are crushed in a mill, put into thick plastic bags and pressed in Charlie’s hand-made press.

Charlie's hand-built cider press

Charlie’s hand-built cider press

The juice is then moved to poly barrels and wooden casks and starts to ferment naturally, on the lees, with indigenous yeast (that is, yeast floating around in the cellar and not artificially cultivated). Since it’s all a natural process and there’s no temperature control, the fermentation slows down and stops over the cold winter months, then recommences (malolactic fermentation) in March, ‘when the trees come into flower’, for a few more weeks. Around Easter-time the cider is normally ready. ‘Cider production suits a lazy guy, because it only keeps you busy once a year for a few weeks,’ Charlie remarks, smiling. But I don’t believe him. My impression is that he spends quite a bit of time pruning and planting and generally looking after the orchard where his apples grow. And then of course there’s the regular tasting and, whenever more cider is needed in the pub, blending.

Three blended ciders are made: sweet, medium, and dry. Charlie has given them pretty unusual names: Kiss Me Kate, Eve’s Idea, and Sat Down Be Cider. Then there are the ‘varietal’ ciders, from American Mother and Red Streak, for example. The oak casks come from France and were mainly used in Calvados production. The alcohol level of the final products is typically 7–7.5% ABV. Eight years ago Charlie started production with 4.5 thousand litres and has been increasing quantities every year. Now he’s reached his maximum capacity at 24.5 thousand litres (the cellar is rather small). How did he settle on the style of cider he makes? ‘The West Country has hard, dry, tannic ciders. The ones in the east are made mainly from eating apples and are lighter. I’m geographically in between the two, so I wanted my ciders also to reflect this in-between position.’

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measuring alcohol levels

We tasted four or five different ciders. Kiss Me Kate, which will ultimately be sweet, is at this point still very dry but Charlie sweetens it back by adding sugar. ‘People like the sweetness’, he tells me. Well I’m a dry cider person… This Kiss Me Kate, by the way, contains 12 different varieties! To me it had a taste of pears actually, and it is still yeasty and has a very interesting perfume. The varietal Dabinette was something else I found interesting, with a slight barnyard aroma, very perceptible smokiness from the oak, a tannic mouthfeel and a slightly sweeter palate than in the others.

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Charlie Newman and the Calvados casks

The ciders should be ready for drinking within a few weeks – may I be able to return soon to taste!

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Red – White – Red: Wines of Austria

Even to look around properly was going to take me two days, the Austrian Wine Marketing Board tasting last month was so huge. It wasn’t the best choice for a venue – the size of the rooms unfortunately did not match the number of visitors and there were some very crowded moments. But apart from that, a splendid event and a fantastic showcase of what’s going on in Austrian wine-making. There were over eighty producers, presenting hundreds and hundreds of wines.

Austria is known mainly for its white wine, although it also produces a significant amount of reds. The wine regions lie in the east of the country, along the Austrian-Hungarian border going north–south. There are four main regions: Niederosterreich (Lower Austria), Vienna, Burgenland, and Steiermark (Styria). Within these there are a number of appellations, marked DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus, in Latin – but why?). Instead of discussing climate and soil in great detail, I’ll just briefly say that Austria has favourable conditions for growing wine grapes and there are many interesting varieties as well as achievements of the highest standard.

Two examples that quickly spring to mind are Riesling and Gruner Veltliner. Riesling shows fantastically under the responsible care of Austrian wine-makers, and its specimen at the tasting came from all over the country, from Vienna to Kamptal to Sudsteiermark in the south, bordering Italy. They were all well made and offer a very reliable alternative to German Rieslings.

Gruner Veltliner is an Austrian speciality and I enjoyed finding out more about it. It is a medium-bodied, acidic wine with a vertical, nervy structure. Its flavours vary from citrus to pears and apricots to honeyed notes, but it tends to have a unique underlying grassiness or prickliness that I find particularly attractive. The older wines may show some vegetable, herbal character, but typically this is not a wine to be aged. It should be appreciated for its youthful, fruitful zestiness.

The precision-winemaking which seems to characterize Austrian producers really suits these varieties, where, to my mind, transparency and clear definition in aromas and flavours, body and acidity, are essential. So the resulting wines, though differing in style, all rang clear, like a well-articulated sentence. But everything else I tasted, whites and reds, were good, honest wines, made for drinking and not for showing off. Commendable!

To find out more about the wines of Austria, visit http://www.austrianwine.com

Griselda the Kirschmaker

the Keiser property

the Keiser property

It was a bit like walking into a picture book. I was staying with a friend in Zug, a small town just outside Zurich. Knowing how crazy I am about fruit brandies, he treated me to a visit to a family-owned distillery. As we walked up the hill path, the clouds had just begun to lift over the hills surrounding the lake of Zug. Covered in dark wooden planks, the house was your stereotypical Swiss alpine home, and how pretty, how rustic! Especially when you know that something really extraordinary is produced behind those walls…

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a wide range of eaux de vie

We were greeted by a buoyant and very friendly lady with ginger hair. Her name is Griselda Keiser, she told us, and, continuing a family tradition, she produces a range of fruit brandies in her home distillery, on equipment inherited from her ancestors. The most famous brandy around Zug is, of course, Kirschwasser, an eau de vie made of cherries. But you shouldn’t think of normal eating cherries, she tells me. These are smaller, and specially developed for Kirsch-making. But the range of her fruit brandies was much greater: distillates of plums (Pflümli), Mirabelle (a small yellow plum producing the most delicious eau de vie), pear William, quince, and even Kräuter, a traditional liqueur which contains a secret blend of dozens of different herbs. Upon tasting it, the most obvious ingredient was aniseed.

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vintage Kirsch from Zug

Griselda showed us around the property with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately she doesn’t speak much English and my German is not great, either, but I did get the gist of what she was saying. Alas, when she offered us a taste of her different eaux de vie, I didn’t understand what she was saying, and so only ended up tasting the herb liqueur. What a shame. But I had at least become closely acquainted with her 2009 Kirsch, since I have a bottle at home, and it’s the smoothest, gentlest, most delightful drink with a very intense and pure cherry aroma. And yes, Griselda produces vintage distillates. She claims there are perceptible differences between the harvest of each year – and she particularly warmly recommended the 2009.

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the fruit is fermented in wooden casks

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Griselda shows us her traditional pot still

Showing us around the distillery, she explained that the still she uses is over 100 years old and is fuelled with wood. The fruit is hand picked and carefully selected so that only the best goes into the ferment, as blemished fruit will give off-flavours. It is then fermented in wooden casks in her cellar over several months (imagine the smell!), and then in January, when her other business, the sale of flowers, goes quiet, she gets down to the distillation work. Not only the fruit but also the stones go into the pot. These give the spirit an added twist of bitter almonds. Griselda distils twice to ensure purity of the alcohol. It’s a difficult balancing act, distillation. If you distil to a lesser purity, you’re left with richer flavours and texture (this is how traditional fruit distillates, including brandies, are produced). But in some products, for example vodka or gin, you want to achieve the purest alcohol possible, with an almost ethereal texture. It is the distiller’s decision where on this scale of purity and flavour richness they want their product to stand. What can I tell you – the end product at the Keiser distillery is very convincing!

The spirit is then moved to large demijohns (glass carboys), where it matures before being bottled. And if you want to order a gift for someone, Griselda will choose a bottle of your preference and even produce a beautiful, personalized, hand-written label.DSCF2418

If you’re ever in Switzerland, do visit the Keiser distillery. The place is charming, the surroundings stunningly beautiful, the welcome friendly and warm, and the Kirsch amazing!

http://www.zuger-keiser-kirsch.ch