Pressing, albeit a wet, pomace spraying, usually cold day of work, is an adrenaline rush. James always brightens, revs-up on press day. He moves around the cidery dumping the crates of apples in the hopper at the base of the grinder, and operates the controls for the apple elevator, grinder, pomace pump and press. Autumn or I stand on a platform next to the press, building the stack.
You could say that making sparkling wine begins when the trees are grafted or planted, when the varieties were selected years ago, but press day is also a natural place to start, with the ripe apples coming into the cidery, the stainless steel fermentation tanks empty, and the wine yeast in bags, static but there to come to life once introduced to the new juice.
Part of the excitement is not knowing what you are going to get. You can taste the apples but the juice, the liquid minus the solid parts is a whole different thing and a press is the combination of perhaps 2000 apples, coming from different parts of different trees, of different varieties. The blends which will become the Autumn’s Gold, Bittersweet and Rustica ciders are roughly concocted here. The Rustica is a pure desert apple mix, getting much of its fruity, sweet characteristics from the juice concentrate we make from a freezing process, added to the Rustica after the bottle fermentation. But for the Autumns Gold and Bittersweet ciders, we aim for a ratio of between 60% and 75% cider apple to desert apple varieties. We conceive of the Autumns Gold as a rich, dry, tannic cider. So two 260 gallon tanks after a long day of pressing in October might hold a 60:40 combination of bittersweet varieties such as Brown Snout, Medialle D’ Or and Chisel Jersey and desert varieties such as Jonagold and Ida red. The Bittersweet recipe is for a more acidic, softly tannic cider and semi dry. The tanks devoted to Bittersweet bottles would have a majority of bittersharp varieties such as Tremlett’s Bitter, Fox Whelp or a single mystery variety which we have found in James’ orchard that is very acidic and an excellent cider variety. James calls it Krys but we believe it is from the rootstock Antonovka.
Any un-pasteurized juice left at room temperature will ferment from the yeast on the fruit but we don’t rely on these environmental yeasts for our fermentations: they may quit at low alcohol levels and produce off flavors. So the day after pressing, when the juice has warmed-up a bit, we inoculate each tank with a particular yeast strain that is tolerant of alcohol and will develop excellent cider apple aromas and flavors. Our apples generally press out at about 13 to 18 brix which will result in a cider of 6 1/2 to 9 percent alcohol. We aim for an alcohol content of 9% in our primary fermentation, so we adjust accordingly.
It’s comforting to go into the cidery and hear intermittent bubbling sounds from one place and another because you know that the fermentations that you started are underway. From the small amount of live dry yeast cells that you have added (2 lbs per thousand gallons), the yeast have been reproducing and processing the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. (2 lbs. of yeast cells will produce about 100 lbs of yeast cells in the end) Stuck fermentations are scary, usually the result of a too cold cider barn. It means re-inoculating but now into an alcoholic brew that is toxic to yeast. Even yeast that ferment out to dryness under really cold conditions will show their stress with sulfur aromas in the wine. On the other hand, a too warm cidery will cause a fermentation frenzy, with all of the bubbles blowing off the characteristic aromas of the cider apples. Fermentation at around 60 degrees is about right.
Stainless steel cider tanks filled with fermenting cider. It would be more atmospheric to show a rack of oak barrels but we are not into oak. First, keeping an oak barrel free of spoilage organisms is daunting. Second, perhaps a trace of oak so minute as to be undetectable adds to complexity but oaking is almost always overdone.
After the fermentations are complete, cold is your friend, helping to protect the ciders from spoilage organisms. Our cidery, which we just renovated from a 60 cow cinder-block dairy barn, is like a refrigerator in the winter. Nevertheless, we add sulphur dioxide to the wine. SO2 inhibits wild yeasts and some spoilage organisms. But more importantly, it absorbs oxygen thereby protecting the wine from oxidation which can turn a wine brown and produce sherry like flavors.
Before we bottle our sparkling ciders we rack the cider off the lees (pump it off the dead yeast and other solids that have dropped down to the bottom of the tank) and filter the cider. Filtration must be a long and involved unit in wine school but none of us studied wine-making in college. For me, filtration has been a trial and error learning experience — mostly error. But now after many plugged filters and thousands of dollars in new filtration equipment I think we’ve got it. That’s key because when you bottle you need to know that no — that is zero — spoilage bacteria or stray live yeast cells are going into the cider bottle. Now, prior to bottling, we DE filter, plate and frame filter and finally, sterile filter.
This is a photo of the dosing tank in the DE filter, with pink DE. DE is diatomaceous earth, little fossilized animals, finer than sand, that are used as a filter medium. The tighter DE is pink and feels like sand that is as fine as flour. The DE filter forces the wine through a bed of DE: the spaces between the DE are what determines the size of the particles removed from the wine.
Before bottling, we also blend. At this point, we have tanks of finished bittersweet (tannic) ciders and bittersharp (acidic) ciders. When we do our blending trials we look to combine all of the cider into our vision for the Autumn’s Gold and Bittersweet styles. Depending on how we blend (since we want the Autumn’s Gold to have some acidity and the Bittersweet to have some amount of tannin) will also determine how much of each cider we make. The Northern Spy bubbly cider does not require any blending trials since it is made only from Northern Spy apples, nor does it require sugar trials, since we make it completely dry.
Bottling in the cidery is usually a chilly affair but prior to bottling we sterilize the hoses, membrane filter and bottler with a continuous feed of hot water. The steam from the hot water makes the cidery look surreal.
Like press day, there is something exciting about bottling day, especially when you know you are bottling a really good cider. Like press day, there is the sense of accomplishment – excellent juice resulting from excellent apples or excellent cider resulting from excellent apples and competent work in the cidery. And the expectation that comes from the question, “what will this juice be after fermentation or what will this cider be after the bottle fermentation?”. It’s also a day when we are not working individually in the orchard or in the cidery but we all come together since it takes a number of people to bottle. One person to wash the bottles (even though they are new), one person to dose each bottle with about a gram of encapsulated yeast, one person to fill the bottles with 750ml of wine and one person to put on a crown cap (like you find on bottled beer).
The bottle fermentation is the result of a dose of sugar and yeast added to each bottle. The more sugar that is added, the more carbon dioxide produced. We add about 9.8 grams of sugar per bottle. By comparison, champagne uses 14 grams per bottle. Still, when you remove the wire hood from one of our natural corks, it will just about come out on its own. Some bubbly wine is the result of forced carbonation, like soda, but we think the bottle fermentation produces very nice, small bubbles that persist longer than the forced carbonation way. Of course, there is no bubbling to announce the onset of fermentation this second time around; we usually give some bottles a shake after about a week and look through the dark glass hopefully to see the little bubbles rising to form a little froth in the neck. You can also see the yeast dropping down through the wine each time you invert the bottle because we use encapsulated yeast. That is, the yeast cells are enclosed in little beads or membranes that allow the wine to pass through but capture the yeast. The advantage is no riddling. Loose yeast tends to stick to the sides of the bottle. So getting the yeast to drop to the mouth of the bottle is an involved process of inverting the bottles in stages and knocking the yeast loose in each bottle.
The last step is disgorging or removing the yeast and adjusting the sweetness of the bubbly cider. Disgorging involves chilling the bottles so the carbon dioxide is absorbed into the liquid and the pressure is minimal, popping off the crown cap and spewing out the yeast with as little cider loss as possible, and topping off each bottle with a still cider. Disgorging takes a little bit of experience. I’ve found that after turning the bottles upside down to get the yeast beads to drop to the mouths of the bottles, you actually lose the least amount after tilting the bottles back up to about 60 degrees and popping off the crown cap, in one smooth motion. A good technique will leave only about a 15ml loss per bottle. Once in a while I will leave a bead or two in the bottle; you may see it when you pour the last glass.
Now the bottles are corked, just like champagne, with a mushroom cork and wire hood. They are washed, labeled, and put back in the box. After a year and a half, from blossom to bottle, a finished product.