Today we make another stop on our month-long appley Euro-trip. Yes, I know we did Little Pomona last week, but even there we were talking about something they’d half-inched from Beaujolais. Today though we’re properly back on the continent and having already visited France and Central Europe, our attention turns to the other great cider nation, Spain.
Yes, Spain, home to thrilling, zingy, oh-so-fresh, high-toned, acid-led Sidra Natural. Summertime cider, perfect paired with seafood, packed with citrus and tropical fruits.
That’s not what this is.
We’ve ticked off most styles of cider and perry over the last year of coverage on Malt. In complete honesty I have certain issues with the term ‘styles’; I’m not sure it sits easily on a category whose flavours, properly speaking, derive from natural fruit. But that’s a conversation for another article. Today we’re approaching something we’ve not encountered since our first-ever cider article, way back in September 2018 when I visited Burrow Hill. I’m talking about fortified.
It seems particularly appropriate to be talking about fortified cider at this time of the year, because winter (and, particularly, Christmas) is the time when fortified wines come into the broader public consciousness. The time when port sales start shooting upwards and dusty bottles of sherry are brought, blinking in the light, from their overlooked cranny of the drinks cabinet. Small tots of warming grog to pick at alongside pudding or nurse on their own by a roaring fire. A generalisation of course – sherry and port both deserve to be drunk throughout the year. But there’s no question that their entrenched association is with winter. In which respect, they are effectively cider’s inverse.
We’ve talked before about how cider should be seen as more than just a summer drink and if any form of cider incapsulates that contention, it’s fortified. The heady collision of spirit with cider or juice; a rich, deep slow-sipper glinting with the coals of winter hearths.
The unquestionable heartland of fortified cider is France’s Normandy. When virtually every farm is loading half of its cider into a still for Calvados it’s natural that they’d also do a fair bit of blending of the two. Pommeau, France’s malic answer to sherry, port or madeira, deserves a long, long article or several of its own, and I hope one day to turn my attention to just that. But today I’m heading several hundred miles south and slipping across the border to the biggest natural cidery in the Basque country – Zapiain.
When I visited San Sebastian at the start of the year (remember visits?) I was struck that, although Zapiain made some of the best traditional cider we tasted, they were one of the few cideries who wanted to push at the boundaries of what they could do with their apples. Spanish cider doesn’t have to be limited to still, dry, sharp and blended; Zapiain were playing around with terroir, with organics, with single varieties and single orchards. They were making ice cider; luscious, sweet and complex. And they were distilling cider brandy and making their own fortified Basque cider.
Keen to learn a little more, I reached out to Ion Zapiain Alustiza, who amongst other things is Zapiain’s Export Manager, and he was kind enough to answer my questions. This wouldn’t have been possible without Haritz of Ciderzale, to whom I once again owe my sincerest thanks.
Malt: Tell us a bit about yourself, how you became involved with Zapiain and what your role is with the company
Ion: The cider house has been part of my life for as long as I can remember since I am the son of one of the partners of this family business. Together with my brother Mikel and my cousin Egoitz, we are the new generation that will face the challenges of the future of the cidery.
After studying Business Administration and Management in San Sebastián and completing a bachelor’s degree at the University of Göteborg, for some years I was gaining experience in other companies. In 2015 I decided to join the Zapiain cider house as Export Manager, and I am currently 100% involved in the family business. On the other hand, I am passionate about cider, and also about craft beer, so in the cidery I have rediscovered a world that I have lived in from a very young age.
Malt: Can you give us a short history of Zapiain cidery?
Ion: The surname Zapiain has been linked to the production of cider since at least the 16th century. Thanks to a complaint from the San Sebastián city council dated 1595, we know that a certain Joanes de Zapiain, a distant relative, was sanctioned for trying to sell cider within the city walls without paying the corresponding taxes. We have recently found another document in which this same person appears linked to the sale of an apple orchard in Astigarraga in 1542, the town where the Zapiain cider house is located today.
However, the origins of the cider house as we know it today date back to the 1960s. At that time, my grandfather Nicolás Rosario Zapiain decided to put aside other tasks on the farm and dedicate himself exclusively to the production of sagardoa, which in Euskara it literally means apple wine. He installed a winery with 22 barrels of 15,000 liters each, which is the one we still use to make cider today, along with other more modern facilities such as temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. At Zapiain, past and present, tradition and innovation are mixed. In the 1980s my father Miguel Zapiain joined the team, becoming the first enologist in the Basque cider sector. From then on, the cider house underwent a revolution in terms of modernizing the facilities and improving the production process.
Malt: When did Zapiain start distilling? Was there any previous history of cider distillation in the Basque country?
Ion: We are not aware that cider distillation was carried out in the Basque Country before our Sagardoz. Zapiain began the practice of distillation in 1985. It was at the initiative of my father Miguel, who has always been concerned about distillates and who had traveled to Mexico, where he learned a lot about distillation.
Malt: Let’s talk about the apples. What are the important varieties that you distil, and why? Are they the same blend you use for your other ciders?
Ion: To make our distillates, we start from apple cider varieties, preferably sharp/acidic, to elaborate the cider that we dedicate to distillation. All our spirits come from our Sagardoz Txuria or “Le Blanc”, which captures the essence of the traditional cider of the Basque Country. We select the best cider from our cellar to be distilled and then set aside the purest and most aromatic parts of the process.
Malt: Talk me through your still setup. What sort of still is it? How long is your distillation? And what strength do you draw your spirit off at?
Ion: Originally we used a copper Charentais alembic, heated with gas burners, applying the fire directly to the boiler. But we were not satisfied with the quality obtained and we decided to modify the alembic. Currently, from the center of the boiler there is a column with inner plates that make it difficult for the alcoholic vapors to escape, raising the alcoholic degree. A part of the quality distillate comes out in the first pass, and as soon as we observe the minimum deviation, it is reviewed with the next load of cider.
Malt: Tell me about Sagardoz Goxoa? How is it made, what goes into it, how should we be drinking it?
Ion: All our distillates come from the pure distillate Sagardoz Txuria (white) or “Le Blanc”. It is the pure distillate, which we then use either to age in oak barrels (Sagardoz Haritza) or fortify with apple juice and obtain a liquor with less alcohol content. That is the case of Sagardoz Goxoa, which literally means sweet Sagardoz. This liquor is born from fortifying our “Le Blanc” distillate with the juice extracted from the native Errezila variety, one of the most aromatic. On the nose it has notes of caramel and honey. In the mouth, warmth, spices and a juicy sweetness that allows to enjoy it paired with blue cheeses or chocolate. It can be consumed fresh or cold, with or without ice, at the end of a meal or gathering.
Malt: It’s obviously a world away from classic Basque Sagardoa, but then so many Zapiain creations tread ground that’s unusual for the region. How important is this sort of innovation to the company?
Ion: In our cidery, for years we have been committed to diversification, bringing to the market not only the traditional product of the highest quality (natural cider) but also innovative products such as our Sagardoz distillates or our Bizi-Goxo ice cider. Although the vast majority of our production is by far natural cider or sagardoa, little by little our new products are becoming known and offer added value to the classic production. Today, in addition to the aforementioned products, we make organic natural cider, a cider called Joanes de Zapiain designed for the high-level restaurants, as well as some collaborations with the local Basqueland brewery in the production of wild sour beers.
Malt: Other than Zapiain, are cideries in the Basque country starting to experiment with different styles and production techniques? Who’s really exciting you at the moment?
Ion: The cider industry in the Basque Country is still very traditional, but little by little it is opening up to new markets and opportunities. In this sense, more and more cider houses are producing different products, and we can say that the sector is experiencing the moment of greatest experimentation and diversification in its history. This is something that makes us very happy, because in Zapiain we have been betting on this path for years. What excites us the most is seeing the younger generations taking an interest in the product, its preparation and its history.
Malt: How has this year affected the Basque cider industry? How have you coped with the enormous challenges, and what is the current plan as we head towards your most important commercial time of year – the txotx season?
Ion: The Basque cider industry has two realities. On the one hand, there are a few cideries that live focusing their work on the product and selling it in the bottle. And on the other hand, many cider houses depend on the txotx season and the aspect more related to offering a restaurant service either in the txotx season or throughout the year. We are focused on the product itself and its commercialization in stores and food chains, but also through bars and restaurants. Social life in the Basque Country, which has a lot to do with going to bars and meeting friends, has been greatly affected by the pandemic, and this has affected us a lot. But those who have suffered the most are those who are based on the txotx season. And there is still a lot to suffer because January is just around the corner and there is still a lot of uncertainty. In our case we have also suffered, but by not depending so much on the txotx season but on the consumption of cider throughout the year, we can say that we have endured as we have been able. We cannot complain.
Many thanks indeed to Ion and Haritz for providing all this information. Now – to the glass.
My bottle of Sagardoz Goxoa has been looking at me, waiting for the right moment, ever since I brought it back in March. I wasn’t consciously saving it for the depths of winter, but when we started this month of European cider exploration it seemed a fitting way to round off. Per Ion and Haritz’s suggestion I’ve chilled it in the fridge, as I would most sherries or dessert wines. As we’ve seen it’s a blend of new-make spirit with single variety Errezila apple juice, bottled at a cockle-warming 21.5%. I paid €22 for my 700ml bottle at the cidery.
Zapiain Sagardoz Goxoa – review
On the nose: Outrageous. Glorious. Hedonistic. The most intensely concentrated apple notes you can think of, raisins, fruitcake, grated nutmeg and clove. Despite never having been in oak there’s almost a polished wood aspect. Shades somehow of a heavily sherry-cask influenced whisky, but somehow in malic form. Superb.
In the mouth: Unctuous, defined, super-rich, pristine. All the gushing adjectives. It’s decadently sweet but has the body, alcohol and acidity to balance. Intense spiced apple, eau de vie. Caramelised brown sugar, tarte tatin, raisins soaked in dark apple syrup. Good Lord, this is fantastic. And lethal.
Think you know Spanish cider? Think again. One of the best things I’ve tasted this year. Or any year. Just so complex and indulgent and comforting and satisfying, whilst still being polished, pristine and beautifully structured in its delivery. Why on earth has it taken me so long to get round to drinking this? Why on earth aren’t we talking about fortified ciders more? I can hear my teeth hissing and I couldn’t care less. My dentist and I are on good terms.
I’m afraid there is bad news. This isn’t available anywhere in the UK. Readers in Spain and in the territories to which Zapiain exports, you know what to do. Fill your boots and make us all jealous. And to the intrepid distributors of cider in the UK, one final plea in this month-long wish-list: when you next visit Europe, whenever that is, please, please, please visit Zapiain.
Thanks again to Ion and Haritz for taking the time to talk and set up the conversation respectively. Haritz’s site, Ciderzale, is a font of Spanish cider knowledge – one that should be in every cider drinker’s list of bookmarks, right next to Malt (obviously).
All images kindly provided by Haritz Rodriguez, with the exception of the lead image which could only be taken by the author with his extreme passion and expertise for cider photography.