Cider is having a moment. No longer a frumpy American Colonial beverage, it is becoming the surprise ingénue on the beverage scene.
Until recently, though, the only cider that ever caught my fancy was Eric Bordelet's profound and delicate cider made from heirloom varieties of apples or pears, especially his Poiré Granit from 300-year-old trees. The French ciders from this former sommelier are extraordinary — off-dry, wonderfully aromatic, slightly pétillant or bubbly with a complexity and finish that some Champagnes could envy.
It turns out Randall Grahm, the genie and muse behind Bonny Doon Vineyard, the Santa Cruz estate he founded back in 1983, had the same experience when he tasted Bordelet's pear and apple ciders, and French-style cidre became a newfound passion.
Grahm has been tremendously successful with Bonny Doon, but he's a restless, dynamically creative soul. And a few years ago, frustrated with the wine business, he was in search of a new project.
Why not try making it? How hard could it be? Its history and tradition appealed to him. But also the fact that it's low in alcohol, fits in with the locavore movement and could be seen as a gluten-free alternative to beer.
When I tasted his French-style cider called, with his typical word play, ¿Querry? (as opposed to perry, pear cider — or Winter Nélis Sparkling Perry in Grahm's version), I was impressed. The Q stands for quince.
¿Querry? is dry and fine-textured, with a warm sweet perfume and the slight bitterness that quince brings. And it is just 6.9% alcohol, about half that of a typical wine. Every bit as pleasurable to drink as Bordelet's French ciders, it turns out this is only Grahm's second production and the first year for quince. The first year (2010), he had to throw out the batch when the bottles exploded. "Definitely cider maker error involved," he recalls. "It was delicious, but the bottles were explosive!"
Grahm says he was so enamored of Bordelet's ciders but realized he wouldn't be able to get the same sort of intensity with the varieties of pears we have in California. "The solution is to blend in other fruits with more acidity and tannin to make a balanced cider. And I thought quince would give me the fragrance I was seeking and the astringency."
¿Querry?, in fact, is made with a whole rock band of fruit. Seckel and Bartlett pears. Pink Pearl, Macintosh, Pippin and crab apples (for astringency and acidity). Plus two kinds of quince. Because quince gives so little juice, he milled the fruit rather than pressing it and then filled giant tea bags with the pulp and suspended it in the fermenting pear and apple juice to infuse it with the fragrance of quince. The cider was fermented with indigenous yeast and then underwent a second fermentation in the bottle with cultured yeast.
As I'm writing this, he's pressing the fruit for this year's cider, which he's determined to make in a slightly less labor-intensive manner, the better to keep the price low. (A bottle sells for about $14, another cider advantage.) He's been able to get some heirloom pears for this batch too, including Forrelle and Beurre Hardy.
Right now, he says, sommeliers are looking for interesting products from America. "A lot of people would love to serve American wines if they could find ones closer to their sensibility — elegant, refined and restrained in alcohol — and cider is just that."
Randall Grahm's 2011 Bonny Doon Vineyard ciders, Winter Nélis Sparkling Perry and ¿Querry?, cost about $14 a bottle.
Available at Buzz Wine & Beer Shop in Los Angeles, (213) 622-2222, buzzwinebeershop.com; the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, (310) 278-2855 and (800) 547-1515, John and Pete's Fine Wines & Spirits in West Hollywood, (310) 657-3080, Lincoln Fine Wines in Venice, (310) 392-7816; and the Oaks Gourmet Market in Los Angeles, (323) 871-8894. Restaurants that pour his ciders include Papilles in Hollywood.
Randall Grahm is not the only artisan in California experimenting with cider. French chef Remi Lauvand is working on a cider too, based on his grandmother's recipe.
"It's a very unusual and complicated one," Lauvand says. "On her table, there was always water, wine — and her homemade cider. We all drank it as kids. And we always hoped she never ran out of it."
He doesn't have her exact recipe, so he's had to re-create the taste. Hers involved more ingredients than just fruit. He remembers she used a number of botanicals, herbs and spices. "It was much more of a brewing process than just crushing fruit and fermenting it, though no grain is involved."
His first batches were disasters. "We tasted, and I had to dump so much. But that just got me even more excited. I needed to figure it out." After switching to wild yeasts and cultiviating it like you would a sourdough, he's finally got the recipe down. Now he just has to find a commercial space where he can make it.
And the name? "Oh, boy. That's still the wild card!"