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The fact that cider or sidra, cider or cider are not just scratchy kidney flushers was first brought to my attention by Eric Bordelet, ex-sommelier of the three-star Paris Arpège. His fine bubbly sydres and poirés, made from apples and pears on the border between Normandy and Brittany, are aimed at wine connoisseurs. Connoisseurs are also attracted by the Canadian Cidre de Glace, high-class ice wines made from apples that can rival many a grape cousin and know no sales problems. But there is also a lot going on in Germany. Jörg Geiger's sparkling wine from the Champagne Bratbirne was immediately served to me by two friends in Düsseldorf and Karlsruhe as a discovery. And rightly so. My curiosity was aroused, and when I received an invitation to the Sicèr, the 1st International Cider Fair in Asturias, I spontaneously accepted.

A religion called Sidra

On the eve of the fair, which took place in Gijon from 3 to 6 May, I wandered with my French colleague Michel Smith through the city on the Atlantic, which stretches along a beautiful bay with a fine sandy beach and consists mainly of unspeakable apartment blocks. We quickly forgot about them when we stopped in the first bars. Each offered a selection of a dozen or more wines, poured open in tall beautiful glasses at people-friendly prices. Godello from Valdeorras, Verdejo from Rueda, the very popular Albariño from Rias-Baixas, Mencia from El Bierco and rows of other reds, mainly from Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Each glass is accompanied by a small bite, such as tortilla or chorixo, jamón or tuna. A little land of milk and honey with a family atmosphere.

Fermentation vats for Sidra (near Trabanco)

It is no less lively in the sidrerias, where the waiters are constantly uncorking bottles, then stretching them high above their heads with an outstretched arm and letting them bounce from there in a stream into the special, thin-walled, cup-shaped sidra glasses, which really brings out the aromas of the Asturian cider. About a fifth full, called culin, the expert downs the naturally cloudy, white foaming Sidra in one gulp, turns the glass upside down and lets the last drops fall to the bottom. Humidity in a double sense is ensured in Sidrerias, which unfolds unhindered at a price of no more than 2.50 per litre. Here, Sidra is a religion. Could there be a more suitable place for a cider fair?

An appellation with 300 varieties

Driven by journalistic curiosity, we set out ourselves the next morning to learn more about Asturias' national drink and took a taxi to the Trabanco winery in the village of Lavandera, just a few kilometres from Gijon. The number two cider producer in Asturias itself has over 65,000 apple trees located within a 40 kilometre radius. Some of them are often over 100 years old, others are plantations used to rehabilitate abandoned coal mines exploited by open-cast mining. The few orchards we noticed near Gijon looked unkempt. As in Normandy, Asturians and their Basque neighbours work with a mixture of varieties - there are 300 in Asturias - divided into sweet, bittersweet and acid. If the apples come from Asturias, the Sidra is entitled to a Denominación de Origen, but since the trees bear every two years, fruit is bought in Normandy or the Czech Republic as needed.

Production takes place between September and December. The apples, picked from the ground by machines or by hand on slopes, are washed, ground and pressed in traditional hydraulic presses, each pressing of 10,000 kilos taking three days. After 24 hours of settling the lees, the must is put into large chestnut barrels or stainless steel tanks and fermented completely at low temperature - controlled at Trabanco - with the natural yeasts for two to three months. According to the regulations, it must be bottled within a year of the harvest, otherwise it is mixed with the fresh must. The art is to blend the lots fermented from different but mixed varieties to obtain a balanced Sidra with typical house style.

The table presses, each holding 10,000kg (at Trabanco).

The naturally cloudy Sidra Natural has a more or less intense, coarser or finer apple aroma, tastes acidic, refreshing, tart and shows more or less volume and length on the palate, depending on the quality. It must always be poured in the traditional way in a high stream. A distinction is made between the usual qualities, for which apples of all origins and varieties are used, and special selections, for which specific varieties are chosen. For the gastronomy there is also clear Sidra Filtrada, for which the pouring ceremony is omitted, as well as Sidra from bottle fermentation and special cuvées with residual sweetness. In total, the Asturians produce around 50 million litres of Sidra a year, four-fifths of which they enjoy themselves, while the rest is exported to countries to which Asturians have emigrated, especially Mexico.

At the fair, with 16 lagares, half of all Asturian cideries were represented and often surrounded by local resellers. As was customary, the naturally cloudy Sidra was also sprayed into the cups in Gijon's Palacio de Exposiciones. Here, one could get an idea of the quality scale of the Sidras, which ranged from undrinkable, heavily sulphured liquids or demolished by high acetic acid to pithy, intense, well-concentrated, long-lasting wines. Particularly convincing were Trabanco's Manzana Seleccionada and its sparkling wine Poma Àurea, as well as Sidra Sopeña Selección from El Gobernardor, which underlined that larger farms are among the best in terms of quality. Among the smaller producers, I liked Buznego's Sidra Zapica and Casería San Juan del Opisco's Tareco, refined for 18 months in the bottle, best. I had my troubles with the Sidras from the Basque Country because of the high acetic acid.

Ice wines from the apple orchard

A total of 60 producers from eleven countries and from Spain's provinces of Asturias, Galicia, the Basque Country and Navarre presented their ciders in Gijon. The Mexican Bodegas Copa de Oro, initially inspired by a Spanish emigrant, remained close to Spanish style despite the exotic variety Winter Banana, except for the amusing rosé cuvée with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. The Japanese Nikka Whisky Distilling Co. presented very perfumed ciders from the Fuji variety, including a rosé. The Californian Cider Company's products, which are fermented from purchased juices and spiced up with various natural flavours, seemed "exotic".

Fermentation cellar with temperature-controlled wooden barrels (at Trabanco)
Wine freaks, on the other hand, got their money's worth with the Canadians, where cider de glace is experiencing just as big a boom as ice wines. The climate in Québec makes it possible. The winegrowing pioneer Christian Barthomeuf worked out how to make them from 1989 onwards, arousing the interest of his friend, the filmmaker François Pouliot, who was the first - now supported by his partner, the artist Stéphanie Beaudoin - to popularise ice cider from 1994 onwards. Today, there are about 50 producers in Québec. To make it, you either freeze the cider outside, where temperatures can reach minus 25°C, and separate the must and water when it thaws - a natural kyro concentration - or you pick the apples while they are frozen, which is the equivalent of kyro extraction - or you combine the two methods. Fermentation lasts between six and eight months. Depending on the method, more or less fructose is retained, with alcohol levels between 9 and 12% and high acidity.

Pouliot's La Face Cachée de la Pomme offers three apple ice wines with increasing levels of residual sugar: the Neige, made from 80% McIntosh and 20% Spartan; the very concentrated and superbly balanced Frimas, kyroextracted from Golden Russett and old varieties; and the Neige éternelle, aged for several weeks and then kyroconcentrated, with pronounced spicy and floral notes and sensational length.

The largest producer is Domaine Pinnacle, founded in 2000, which hired Christian Barthomeuf as winemaker. It boasts the invention of sparkling ice wine. Much more interesting is the still version with its characteristic scent of baked apples, the interesting interplay between sweetness and acidity and the enormous length. (Already distributed by Cognac Camus in 28 countries, including us).

The Domaine Leduc-Piedimonte, founded in 2004 by Robert McKeown and Andrée St-Denis, convinced with its first wines. In addition to the elegant Cidre Mousseux, there is the Cidre de Glace with its intense ripe fruit and honey note and the extremely successful Reserve Privée, fermented in new barriques, in which high concentration and oak spiciness unite in great harmony.

Celtic classics

Asturias and the Basque Country are considered to be the cradle of cider, which spread mainly to other Celtic regions such as Brittany and Normandy and on the other side of the English Channel. Six British producers were involved, often declining their ciders in the categories dry, medium and sweet. Aspall from Suffolk and Thatcher from Somerset, for example, created drinkable ciders, easy drinking with clean fruit, refreshing drinks that are also sold in supermarkets. The really pithy, artisanal farmhouse ciders were missing in Gijon. In contrast, the aperitif and dessert ciders from the Somerset Brandy Company, composed of apple juice and home-distilled apple brandy, were delightful. Their 15-year old cider brandy puts some Calvados colleagues in the shade.

Vinification cellar of the Sidreria Trabanco

The five French apple estates shone with wines full of character that excellently represented their long tradition. They ranged from the Cidres Bouchés of the Vergers de la Chapelle and the Ferme de l'Hermitière, whose Demi-Sec with 20 g of residual sugar showed a lot of finesse and harmony, to the complex reserve of the Domaine Familial Louis Dupont, which finishes its fermentation over six months in an old Calvados barrel. Dupont's Cidre de Givre, obtained with crioextraction, convinced with a beautiful honey note and high concentration. While these examples from Normandy are always about the balance to which sweet, bittersweet and sour varieties are blended, the Cornouaille appellation from Finistère shows a completely different profile. In this appellation, balance is achieved primarily by blending sweet and bittersweet varieties. Christian Troullec's Cedrerie du Pays Melenig demonstrated what powerful, tannin-rich, long-lasting ciders this can lead to.

That one can really speak of terroir in Normandy and Brittany was made clear above all by Eric Bordelet, who cultivates his orchards biodynamically, with Sydre Argelette and Poiré Granit. The first comes from old high trunks rooted in shale, which gives the fruit a great intensity and the fine-foaming wine a mineral elegance. The pears for the second one come from trees that are up to 300 years old and stand on granite. It is characterised by racy acidity and an even more pronounced minerality. Incidentally, both age excellently, which can probably also be considered a quality criterion for high-quality ciders.

Fresh wind from German orchards

Sidra is delivered in crates to bars and restaurants
For Austria, Franz Reisinger, whose grandiose strawberry and apricot nectars are also causing a sensation in Germany, held up the flag with the very fruity Cidre Cuvée Superieur, half of which is made from table fruit. The three Italian companies were not convincing, but the Swiss were. The Möhl cidery, which fills its juice from the barrel (juice is the Swiss term for cider) in attractive returnable bottles with swing stoppers, proved its quality as a large company. It also offers a thoroughly convincing, dealcoholised "juice". The small company Cidre Le Vulcan in the mountainous Montbovon, district of Gruyère, produces high-quality and individually characterised sparkling apple wines in elaborate bottle fermentation.

After Asturias, the German wine presses made up the second largest delegation, and the twelve German participants obviously enjoyed the trip to Gijon
The spectrum on offer was wide and ranged from common, tart but clean products such as from the Hoppe wine press from Brechen, the Jörg Stier wine press from Maintal and the Elm wine press in Flieden, which processes organic fruit from the Rhön biosphere reserve recognised by UNESCO, to more sophisticated products. In the Rhön, Jürgen Krenzer also lets his 15.5% apple sherries, which take some getting used to, mature in the solera process or in whisky barrels.

Robert McKeown and Andrée St-Denis presented their ice cider from Domaine Leduc-Piedimonte.

The Odenwald was strongly represented with three producers. Apple wine sommelier and cider maker Michael Stöckl presented Dieter Walzer's excellent "Apfelwalzer", sparkling wines made from fruit in the meadow and fermented in bottles, as well as the dry straight Reinette and Goldrenette from Dornröschen host Peter Merkel. Restaurateur Armin Treusch, who offers a wide range of his own and some "foreign" ciders in his Pomothek, had four of his own varietal products bottled in clear Bordeaux bottles tasted in Gijon, which varied in volume, power and length with the always tart finish, right up to the Rhenish Bean Apple 2004, which was always picked last.

In Swabia, four friends and colleagues have joined forces and had their production organoleptically checked externally by Dr Günter Röhrig from the Weinsberg Research Institute, and all of them had sent their wines to Asturias. They work mainly with single-varietal pears and apples. Boller's single-varietal apple wine from the Börtlinger Weinapfel showed clear fruit and stimulating acidity. Karl-Heinz Auer's Oberösterreisch wine pear impressed with intense fruit and good length. Jürgen Kaiser likes to mix Boskoop with the pears like his Gelbmöstler, which gives the wine good intensity, more acidity and body. Primus inter pares is Jörg Geiger from Schlat, who caused a sensation with his Champagne Bratbirne from bottle fermentation, whereby the Extra Brut version was particularly pleasing with its pronounced fruit and impressive persistence.

The most convincing programme of the German apple pressmen was offered by the lively Andreas Schneider, who ferments sparkling and semi-sparkling wines from the table fruit varieties planted by his parents 40 years ago at his fruit farm on the Steinberg in Frankfurt. His light and elegant pineapple renette with pineapple and elderflower aroma or the fruity and spicy golden parmäne with a distinct note of cinnamon are captivating. From the fruit of 23 old wildlings that stand on loess soil, he conjures up a well-structured, powerfully tart rarity that also brings the theme of terroir into play in Germany.

Jörg Geiger also had his Champagne Bratbirne with him

The fair in Gijon was a feast of discoveries, with the entire spectrum of quality-oriented cider producers represented, from the almost industrial to the artisanal, from the traditional to the innovative, from the popular to the refined. It was a revelation for wine lovers, because it made clear that even apples and pears can produce multi-layered, exciting wines that can be very delightfully blended with various dishes and that often have a much lower alcohol content than their vine cousins.

A tip at the end: From 24-26 August, the Fiesta de la Sidra Natural takes place in Gijon. If you enjoy a rustic, cheerful and humid festival, you shouldn't miss it.

Further information: www.gijon.info - infogijon@gijon.info

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