As the year begins to draw to a close, I find myself pulled in two opposite directions. On the one hand, this season is traditionally a time of celebration, when we embarrass ourselves in front of our colleagues at office Christmas parties and reunite with friends and family. It’s the one time of year when general merriment is not so much tolerated as expected of us. On the other hand, the passing of another year urges us to look back at the time that has gone by, take stock of our achievements and failures, and remind ourselves of the people and things that we care most deeply about.
There’s no doubt that the past two years have been difficult for many of us. We have endured a global pandemic, enforced isolation and a sharp economic downturn. Few of us are in any hurry to repeat these experiences. For the first time since 2019, most of us will have the freedom to spend Christmas with our loved ones and without the constraints of government restrictions. It would seem almost churlish not to seize that opportunity with both hands and wring every last drop of joy from the festive season. However, I believe that it’s also important to take some respite from the prevailing revelry to reflect on what we have been through in recent times. We have lost a lot in the past two years, and we should probably accept that our elation at finally being reunited with the family and friends that we haven’t seen for so long is almost certain to be tinged by a lingering sadness. I find that in these bittersweet moments, it can help to recall and be grateful for the people and preoccupations that have given us a sense of purpose and meaning through the challenges that we have faced. They are, after all, what makes life worth living even through the darkest of times.
Over the past couple of years, the cider scene has given me a lot to be grateful for. I am thankful for all of the delicious ciders that I’ve tasted, and for being fortunate enough to be able to share special bottles with the people who are important to me. I am grateful to cider for providing me with food for thought through the long days of lockdown, and for giving me something to look forward to when I am done with the day’s work. I appreciate the opportunity to write for Cider Review, and I am thankful to my readers and the many people who make the cider world such a friendly and fascinating place.
Having said all of that, my preoccupation with cider is pretty time and energy-consuming, and I do sometimes feel the need to justify it to myself. In the past few years, cider has gone from being a relatively minor interest of mine to something approaching a burning obsession. I sometimes wonder whether my time might be better spent on other things, such as drinking wine or (God forbid) actually getting some work done. When these kinds of crazy thoughts intrude upon my consciousness, I have to reflect on the reasons for my fascination with cider and my motivations for writing about it. In a world full of intriguing drinks, what is it about cider in particular that captures and maintains my interest?
When I cast my mind back to the first stirrings of my cider obsession, I remember being captivated by cider’s relative mystery. Compared to almost every other drink, cider still has a multitude of hidden depths to be explored. There are countless terroirs that have yet to be subjected to the meticulous mapping and microscopic attention that have been devoted to the world’s greatest vineyards. There is a profusion of apple varieties that have yet to undergo the detailed chemical and organoleptic analysis to which grape varieties are frequently subjected. Most importantly for someone with a penchant for writing, there are thousands of stories to be told about the pomological alchemists who transform the land and the apples into the cider in our glasses. For me, cider is not just a drink, nor even a drink that faithfully expresses time, place and tradition or that exudes flavours with purity and precision. It’s a reflection of the sacrifice, hard work and dedication of its makers. It is pruning and picking and pressing, and a lot more besides. It is the careful nurturing of fermentation, the tedium of bottling and the sleepless nights spent worrying about marketing, sales, accounts and deliveries. It is the weathered, tannin-stained hands and furrowed brows of countless small producers, and their agonising gasps for air as they fight with all their might to stay afloat in an unforgiving market. Anyone with romantic fantasies of opening a cidery as a means to lazily lounge around in some sort of arcadian paradise is due a rude awakening. Cider is the place where dreams of a rural idyll are shattered against a hard economic reality.
But cider is also where a thousand seeds of hope burst forth into the blossom of renewal. It breathes life into the landscape with an abundance of orchards, bearing the promise of habitat regeneration and the revival of an ancient craft. It is the brave, mad hope of those who stood fast against the inexorable course of industrialisation when artisanal cider was but an insignificant drop in the alcohol industry’s ocean, and who now stand at the forefront of a quality revolution in cider making. It is the promise of a culture that is less commercialised, cynical and cliquish than what came before it, and an immense potential for growth, both literal and figurative. In this era of climate crisis, pandemic and recession, craft cider is a butterfly, which clings with all its might to the branch of an apple tree through the most turbulent of storms, and spreads its wings with the rising of the dawn.
If my feelings about the cider industry are pretty bipolar, then my sentiments about cider writing are no less volatile. Writing about cider can sometimes feel like shouting into the void. There are days when I ask myself why I don’t just call it quits and devote my precious spare time to writing articles about beer, wine or spirits, which would probably receive many more readers than my cider pieces. There are also times when I struggle to find time for cider writing amidst a mountain of other commitments, and times when I simply feel unmotivated and uninspired. Worst of all are the days when I feel hopeless about the future of artisanal cider and worry whether the pandemic, Brexit or relentless industrialisation will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Sooner or later, however, something always comes along to lift my melancholy mood, reawaken my love for cider and rekindle my hope for its future. From time to time, I feel awestruck by the incredible aesthetic experiences provided by the very best ciders that I have the privilege to taste. More frequently, I feel energised by the tireless efforts of the many inspirational people who work in the cider industry. I remind myself that these people don’t always have the luxury of feeling despondent, because their livelihoods are so intimately intertwined with the future of cider. This awareness spurs me to keep thinking and writing. But if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to get me excited about writing a cider article, it’s discovering a story from the cider world that’s so undeniably compelling that I feel an urgent, burning need to share it with my readers. In those precious moments, my doubts and worries evaporate, leaving me with nothing but a single-minded resolve to attempt, with my words, to do justice to one of cider’s many minor miracles.
Today, I want to tell you the story of Wignac; a cider producer from the French Ardennes. This story is so gripping that it almost writes itself. It has the narrative structure of an epic poem, in which our hero (a prince, no less) struggles to vanquish the forces of darkness. It is pregnant with meaning and suffused with suffering, but it is ultimately the story of hope winning against all odds. It demands more than the imagery of a butterfly slowly spreading its wings and preparing to take flight. Wignac’s journey is the tale of a phoenix; of cider reborn from the ashes of war.
When British cider lovers think of French cider, two principal regions immediately come to mind: Normandy and Brittany. We might then recall the highly acidic, citric-tasting Sidra of the Basque country, which is no more French than it is Spanish. Other French cider regions barely amount to an afterthought. I consider myself reasonably well-informed about the world of cider, yet my awareness of the Ardennes as a cider region is hazy and ill-defined. I know that cider is produced there, but I have no clear memory of tasting it. Despite the region’s geographical proximity to us, cider from the Ardennes is likely to feel just as remote to British cider enthusiasts as cider from Outer Mongolia.
To be brutally honest, Ardennes cider is no longer even well-known in France itself. In the 18th and 19th centuries, cider from the Ardennes was renowned far beyond its regional borders. Parisian bistros displayed signs advertising it, and particular municipalities in the region, such as that of Lalobbe in the central Ardennes, were especially famed for their vintage ciders. According to the history books, the area known as Thiérache once produced as much cider as Normandy. The entire region was rich in fruit trees and forests, and served both as France’s orchard and as the centre of its charcoal industry.
Two world wars and a consequent rural exodus destroyed all of that. By 1945, the brutal fighting of the Battle of the Bulge had reduced much of the Ardennes to a desolate wasteland. The landscape was a giant graveyard littered with splintered trees, and most of the farmers had left to escape the ravages of war. It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely and hostile environment for cider production.
Fast-forward 70 years, and the Ardennes has never fully recovered from its wartime devastation. The forests have partially regrown, but the levels of fruit production are only a mere fraction of what they once were. More worryingly, the region has one of the fastest shrinking populations in Europe. Young people are leaving in their droves in search of better opportunities, leaving behind a rapidly aging populace. The Ardennes is, in a sense, a land of ghosts; a region that remains saturated with the blood of the fallen and haunted by historical conflicts. The modern, industrialised world has little use for impenetrable forests and time-worn battlefields, and the Ardennes has lost its strategic importance in a peaceful and united Europe. Ardennes cider has been largely left behind as a relic of a land that time forgot; just one more casualty of the region’s gradual but seemingly irreversible fade into obscurity.
This story could so easily have been one of loss and decline, were it not for the vision of a young Belgian nobleman. In 2016, Edouard de Mérode, scion of the princely House of Mérode, teamed up with his brother Thierry to start a cider company in their ancestral home of the Chateau de Guignicourt-sur-Vance, with the aim of reviving their family’s orchards and providing training and employment for young people in the area. From the beginning of their cider making endeavours, the brothers were devoted to combining their deep respect for the region’s history, an unwavering commitment to sustainability and a mastery of modern marketing to advance the cause of Ardennes cider.
The de Mérode brothers’ respect for the history of cider production in the Ardennes principally manifests itself in the conservation and replanting of their family’s orchards. In other hands, Wignac’s remarkable rise to success could have followed the well-trodden path of cynical branding, gradual cost-cutting and eventual industrialisation, but the brothers remain committed to promoting orchard biodiversity and making ‘natural’, full-juice ciders using traditional methods. All of their apples are hand picked, and they are working towards organic certification for all of their products. Moreover, the de Mérode family has partnered with a local college to offer training courses for apprentices. This educational programme focuses on the principles of regenerative agriculture and provides employment opportunities for young people in the region. The project has resulted in the replanting of more than 2,000 trees of various species (only 5% of which are fruit trees), with the aim of achieving significant reforestation.
The name Wignac is itself a piece of family history. It is derived from the name of the brothers’ ancestor, the Marquise de Wignacourt, who wandered the orchards as a little girl, enchanted by the beauty of the landscape and the wildlife. The stunning artwork on Wignac’s bottles seeks to capture this beauty and harks back to the Belle Époque; the heyday of cider production in the Ardennes. But in many ways, Wignac is a thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan cider company, with its eyes firmly fixed on the future. Before becoming a cider producer, Edouard was a brand manager for Taittinger, and he uses his knowledge of Champagne production and his commercial acumen to make and market his ciders. Thierry is a professional chemist who first fell in love with cider while studying in England for his doctorate, and who is presumably quite knowledgeable about the British cider market: Wignac is certainly the only cider producer from the Ardennes to have relatively wide distribution in the UK, and it has become an international standard bearer for the entire region. The two ciders that I’ll be tasting today therefore represent a lot more than what’s in the glass. They embody regeneration, rebirth and the slow but steady process of casting out the sombre spirits of the past. They are harbingers of hope in the midst of decline, and they thus epitomise the very best of what cider can be. Given my romantic proclivities, it’s going to take me quite an effort of will to maintain any sense of objectivity when I review them. In fact, if I am to have any hope of being even halfway impartial in my tasting notes, I’ll have to abruptly shake off my state of breathless wonder and start talking about technical specifications.
The first cider that I’ll be tasting today is called ‘Le Lièvre’ (the hare). It is made from 100% apple juice with no added sugar or artificial additives, and has achieved organic certification. This cider is a blend of 65% cider apples (including bittersweets and sharps) and 35% dessert apples (including Granny Smith, Gala and Ginger Gold), fermented with wild yeasts. The second cider that I’ll be tasting is ‘Le Goupil’ (the fox). This is a rosé cider made from 88% apple juice (including various cider and dessert apples) and 12% grape juice from various different grape varieties. The apple juice and the grape juice were fermented separately before being blended, so this is effectively a blend of cider and wine rather than a co-ferment. ‘Le Lièvre’ can be found for £4.05 per 330ml bottle (the 750ml bottle that I bought seems to currently be out of stock), and ‘Le Goupill’ cost me an unbelievably cheap £6.02 per 750ml bottle, both from The Fuss Club (prices and availability are accurate at the time of writing). All of Wignac’s ciders are also available from The Bottle Club.
Wignac Cidre Bio NV (‘Le Lièvre’), 4.5% – review
How I served: Lightly chilled.
Appearance: Burnished copper, with moderate to high carbonation and no sediment.
On the nose: This is much brighter and fresher than most keeved ciders. Red, juicy apples combine with mildly astringent, not fully ripe apple skins and fresh hay. A buttery malolactic character begins to express itself as the glass warms in my hand, but I also get a glimpse of a darker, more mineral background, with hints of petrichor and gunflint.
In the mouth: The rich, mouth-filling mousse and creamy texture are adeptly counterbalanced by sappy acidity. I get sweet baked apples, brown sugar and baking spices, but also some crisp Granny Smith, wet stones and a little freshly-squeezed lemon juice. There is definitely some residual sugar, but this cider lies at the drier end of the keeved spectrum. The tannins are soft and caressing rather than abrasive, and there is plenty of body despite the relatively low alcohol level. It walks a fine line between rounded autumnal flavours and something altogether brighter, higher-toned and more mineral. It strains in opposite directions in its oscillation from richness to freshness, but achieves a certain balance through this tension, somehow managing to be simultaneously opulent and thoroughly thirst-quenching. The history of the French Ardennes is one of repeated invasions by the major European powers, and the cultural identity of the region therefore has Belgian and Germanic influences that aren’t found in most other parts of France. It seems fitting that stylistically, this cider falls between the softness and sweetness of a typical French keeve and the drier, more mineral and more acid-led style of many a German Apfelwein.
In a nutshell: This cider perfectly straddles the line between unctuousness and refreshment, makes a strong case for the skilful blending of bittersweet and dessert fruit, and expresses a distinctive regional identity. What more can one ask for from an artisanal drink?
Wignac Cidre Rosé NV (‘Le Goupil’), 4.5% – review.
How I served: Lightly chilled.
Appearance: Deep amber, with a slight chill haze. Colour-wise, it’s closer to orange wine than to rosé. Almost completely still, with the merest, barely perceptible hint of a sparkle.
On the nose: Baked apples, fresh red grape juice and a veritable cornucopia of old-fashioned sweets, particularly Bassetts wine gums and Rowntree’s fruit pastilles (other brands are available). The juicy, carbonic character and fruit-forward exuberance remind me of Beaujolais Nouveau, but the hints of damson, cinnamon and marzipan hovering in the background suggest that this cider may have more complexity and interest to it than that notoriously insubstantial style of wine.
In the mouth: Quite sweet, but underpinned by a seam of clean, mouth-watering acidity that cuts through the almost viscous texture and revives the taste buds with every sip. The cider delivers on the palate what it promised on the nose: I taste oodles of apple and blackberry crumble, plump damsons, blackcurrant jelly and cinnamon. The tannins are entirely resolved and hardly noticeable, but I do get a touch of bitter almond essence on the finish. Overall, this is a richly-fruited winter warmer of a drink, not dissimilar to an imagined blend of keeved cider and ruby Port, but it never becomes overly saccharine or cloying. It is impeccably precise and well-balanced, with invigorating freshness and an impressive depth of flavour.
In a nutshell: A warm hug of a drink, which is best served on a cold day in front of an open fire, accompanied by mince pies or Christmas cake. Failing that, it is sure to enliven a quiet evening on the sofa with a hot water bottle and plenty of time to appreciate its fulsome pleasures.
When I started writing this article, I knew that I faced a risk: Wignac’s ciders might just not be very good, and all of my lofty sentiments about hope and renewal might therefore be in vain. There’s not much point in a cider representing a better future if it tastes bland, anonymous and forgettable. Thankfully, Wignac’s ciders are not only very good, but also exhibit a genuine sense of place, which expresses itself through the bright acidity, firm minerality and dessert apple freshness that distinguish them from most other French keeves. For historical reasons, I’ve chosen to interpret this unique character in terms of a fusion of Gallic charm and Teutonic rigour, but one might just as well describe it as distinctively Ardennais. I certainly find it unusual and exciting enough to want to try more creations from Wignac and seek out other cider producers from the Ardennes.
I’d be hard pressed to pick a favourite between the two ciders that I tasted today, but I definitely think that ‘Le Goupil’ is perfect for the present season, whereas ‘Le Lièvre’ might be better suited to springtime sipping. I would, however, urge you to support the producer by buying both of these ciders if you can. In the past few years, Wignac has had to face the dual threats of Brexit and Covid, the combination of which has curtailed its commercial activities and diminished its international reach, including the scope of its UK distribution. In the coming year, Wignac will undoubtedly have further challenges to overcome, but I remain confident that the spirit of hope that animates this company will continue to provide Edouard and Thierry de Mérode with the courage needed to weather the storm and confront an uncertain future. To my mind, Wignac’s story is like a microcosm of the entire artisanal cider industry, which teeters on a knife edge between success and ruin, held up only by the hope, belief and endurance of those who give it their blood, sweat and tears. In this season of goodwill, let’s be grateful to all of these people and hope that 2022 brings them the rewards that they so richly deserve. In the words of the great Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering ‘it will be happier’…”
I wish you all a very merry Christmas, and a happy and hopeful New Year