It is sometime in the early evening; that bewitching pre-penumbral moment when the last gasps of sunset stain the low clouds a special, burnished character of rose. I am somewhere on the western slope of a lake half-as-long-and-a-bit again as Loch Ness. On the far bank ancient, wooded hills freckled with almost-melted snow and Ivy League University buildings roll back into pristine wilderness. In my hand is a slightly-too-cold-glass of glittering golden magic. And for the second time in my life, quite unexpectedly, a drink has moved me to tears.
The Finger Lakes are four and a half hours drive from JFK airport, New York. They’re still in New York State, but to reach them we have driven through Manhattan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and what passes by our cosseted English standards for a blizzard. Today the sun has driven away the ice and from our airbnb cabin overlooking the town of Ithaca on the southern point of Lake Cayuga the scene has the air of a slightly more built-up Scottish highlands.
The lakes themselves are a series of long, thin, parallel, glacier-carved cuts a little south of Lake Ontario and the Canadian border. Their name derives from their shape, but to this writer’s eye their pointed ends have the feel of a deep slash in the landscape from some monstrous, celestial talon. Their size and depth have the effect of moderating temperature in the immediate area so that even though we are a long way inland and a long way north, hillsides remain relatively warm and well aired. These conditions have enabled an ever-growing wine scene to establish itself (the Riesling is especially worth paying attention to). It has also paved the way for one of the most exciting cider regions anywhere in the world.
That’s why I’m here. Informed by my wife that a cousin of hers was getting married in New York I wheedled and wangled and “what if-ed?” an agreement to a five-day detour. “The scenery will be glorious,” I insisted. “The lakes, the mountains; spectacular waterfalls. Ithaca looks like a really interesting town. Peace and quiet, r&r, all that good stuff.” And in a slightly lower register “oh and they’re meant to have a bit of cider around which I thought we could maybe try. Obviously only if you want, totally up to you, not bothered either way, cough cough mutter mutter.”
“When we first started selling cider in the early 2000s nobody knew what it was,” Autumn Stoscheck, founder of Eve’s Cidery, remarks. “We were selling cider at the Union Square Farmer’s Market in New York City and literally people didn’t know what it was. They bought it because they tasted it and they liked the way it tasted, really. Otherwise people were like ‘cider?’ And then you’d pour it and they’d say ‘wait, does this have alcohol in it?’ The category did not exist.”
That the cider – or, as it’s commonly known in the USA, ‘hard cider’ – category exists in the Finger Lakes today is in no small part down to Autumn’s influence. She founded Eve’s after being inspired by Steve Wood’s grafting of English cider varieties onto American rootstock, and a little over two decades later her stunning range of still, pét nat and champagne method ciders have made her probably the region’s most celebrated producer. When I mentioned that I was visiting Eve’s and put out a request for online opinions, my email inbox practically bounced. For the last few years Autumn’s wares have been available in the UK market, and the comments I was sent from this side of the pond were emphatic.
“My first sip of [Eve’s] Albee Hill 2017 was honestly life changing,” Grant Hutchison, founder of re:stalk cider and æble cider shop, tells me. “I decided that I should import it just so I could drink it really! Autumn and [Autumn’s husband] Ezra’s passion bleeds into every part of their approach to cider making. They are incredibly knowledgeable on orcharding, apple varieties, topography of their land and the wider area around them and the history connected to all those elements – and that is inspiring to hear.”
It is the land that Autumn and Ezra are quick to talk about as I sit with them outside their cidery in the crisp brightness of an early spring morning. Or rather, it is the interaction of the land with their trees and their apples.
“There’s a multitude of geological forces that have shaped what you see,” Autumn tells me. She points towards the steep sides of the valley in which we sit at 900 feet above sea level. The glaciers carved it after forming the Finger Lakes, and the valley basin is a layer of glacial till. Fertile, nutrient-rich but extremely deep and extremely quick-draining. It’s a challenge in hot, dry summers. Autumn has one orchard there and another higher up on the slopes, the latter’s roots permeating a thinner layer of silt before hitting ancient shale. The flavours those two sites produce, Autumn says, are entirely distinct.
There isn’t a simple English word for this three-dimensional interaction of soil, land and microclimate upon a growing plant, but the French have long since gifted one to the world of wine: terroir. Terroir is the idea that the total sum of a plant’s place – its soil structure, depth and character, the aspect and steepness of its slope, its annual rainfall and sunshine hours and myriad factors besides – directly influence the flavours of the drink that plant produces.
Not all cidermakers or cider writers are convinced, but as you would expect, Autumn and Ezra put terroir at the heart of what they do. Eve’s website attests to their cidermaking being an attempt to answer the question: “can you taste a place?”
“Their relentless pursuit of cider from a place has been a model for cider makers around the country and the world,” Dan Pucci, co-author of American Cider, writes to me in an email. “Their focus on estate and foraged fruit coupled with indigenous [wild yeast] fermentation put them on a level few can rival. A harbinger of American cider to come, expressing powerful and unique terroir.”
If Eve’s cider is an attempt to express a place, Autumn and Ezra’s focus is on making that place as eloquent as possible. Part of this comes down to organic – regenerative – farming; eschewing the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides in an attempt to restore vibrancy, nutrients and life to the soil and by doing so charge it with the capacity to instil more flavour.
“In some ways it’s like a counterpoint to the way that apples are grown conventionally,” Autumn says. “80% of spraying is cosmetic for apples. And that is a shame, because even when you’re eating an apple, is it more important to you that it looks like Snow White’s perfect apple, or that it actually tastes good?”
“Organic” is something that needs to be certified. There are inspections. Forms. Hoops to jump through. Not to mention yields can be significantly reduced without the chemical crutch. You’re all in, and it’s not easy. But Autumn is interested in what organic agriculture does for the character of her cider.
“Some of what’s in the cider is minerals,” she tells me. “There’s more than just sugar and water and acid and tannin and fruit. We put a big focus on our soil and what’s happening in the soil and how you’re going to balance having a thriving, microbiologically active soil with diverse plantlife growing in it.”
As we hike up the steep slope of Albee Hill, behind the cidery, Autumn continues to tell me about the environment. The weather in the Finger Lakes, she says, is more extreme than that faced by cidermakers in the UK. Hotter summers; colder winters. I think of the blizzard I drove through and can well believe it. Like all large bodies of water, the Finger Lakes have a moderating effect on the temperature of the land immediately around them, but Eve’s is a little too far south to benefit. As a result, they are subjected to the full effects of their inland, northern climate, and that lends their fruit a pronounced acid character; a purity of structure that testifies to slow ripening, long sun hours in the summer and cool, moderating nights.
Albee Hill’s orchard is a pomologist’s dream. A bewildering library of varieties whose range speaks of a fascination with apples and with flavour, and which, along with their high altitude and wild vista, instantly reminds me of Welsh Mountain’s Prospect Orchard. Like Welsh Mountain’s, these trees are relatively young – Autumn has planted them all herself – and their varieties range from American crabapples and dessert fruit to the bittersweet and bittersharp apples of Herefordshire and Somerset. Here Kingston Black and Dabinett and Browns nestle beside Wickson and Golden Russett and Northern Spy. Autumn knows every one by sight.
This plethora of English varieties is the Finger Lakes’ ace-in-the-hole. A result of painstakingly-built local tree nurseries dedicated to cider-specific fruit. But just as, in wine, Riesling from Germany and Australia, or Malbec from France and Argentina offer wholly individual characteristics, so the same apple variety grown in Herefordshire and New York State offer entirely separate flavours and textures. Those longer sunlight hours followed by cold nights don’t just retain the Finger Lakes apples’ acidity, they extend their ripening period and, with it, increase the alcohol levels the ciders are able to attain. ABVs in excess of 9% are not uncommon in full-juice ciders here, even in a less-ripe vintage.
Every year Autumn picks the best fruit from this orchard to go into her flagship cuvée, itself named Albee Hill. Like Grant, the 2017 vintage was my first experience of Eve’s, and I have religiously bought every vintage since. The blend changes year on year depending on which varieties are tasting best, but each vintage shares a theme of purity, acidity, golden fruit, huge aromatics, wine-like texture and sheer finesse. I have the 2018 in my glass as I write; a swathe of citrus oils, pie apple, petrichor, wild strawberry and slatey minerality. It is entirely its own creature, yet it reminds me of every other Albee Hill vintage.
Tasting through a fuller flight of Eve’s that elegance, minerality and pristine fruit continues to rear its head. Whether it’s in the zingy, almost candied 2021 Home Farm pét nat, the intense, vibrant bitter lemons, sourdough and tart cherries of the single variety Wickson 2020 or the still, waxy, melony, blossom-scented North Orchard Golden Russet 2021 there is a seam, a theme, an identity that runs through every expression despite their wild variation. Confirmation bias? Or the indelible thumbprint of place?
It’s a heavier, danker, grey-set, rain-freckled morning as I turn the car northwest and head for Redbyrd Orchard Cider, closer to Cayuga’s western shore. This is new territory for me in more than one sense. Not only a first visit, but a first encounter with ciders from this producer full stop. Significantly, it is also the first time I have knowingly visited a biodynamic orchard.
That term deserves some cautious context. Biodynamic agriculture is unquestionably an esoteric and, to many, controversial subject. Its principals derive from centuries of handed-down farming knowledge, but they were cobbled together as a collective and enshrined in writing by a man named Rudolph Steiner in 1923.
At this point it is important to acknowledge that Steiner held beliefs and expressed views that ranged from the spiritual to the pseudoscientific to the incontrovertibly racist. Biodynamics themselves, speaking very broadly, are a set of agricultural practices which, like organics, eschew chemical fertilisers and pesticides, but take things a significant step further via applying a set of distinct and unusual preparations (most famously manure matured underground in cow horns) to the soil in an attempt to turbo-charge that soil with more life, vitality and natural nutrients. The practices are also undertaken in accordance with the lunar calendar, so it is perhaps unsurprising that one common, if rather condescending, reaction to biodynamics is ‘hippy farming’.
However, it is striking, when considering biodynamics, to observe how many of the world’s most renowned wineries have turned to the practices and – critically – seen both their wines and their soil subsequently improve. On a personal note, partially in the name of declaring my own interest, in the course of my role with Waterford Whisky I have visited several biodynamic barley growers in Ireland’s County Kildare and witnessed first-hand the earnestness with which they undertake and espouse the practices. These are not people with mansions and marketing budgets; they’re not selling something beyond the reach of normal mortal purse. These are people trying to improve their land, to nourish their soil’s biology, chemistry and physical structure and to thereby increase the quality (at the expense of yield, I might add) of the crop they are trying to grow. Whatever your stance on the subject, that’s an attitude it’s hard to take umbrage with.
That curiosity, wonder and sincerity of care for land and crop oozes from Redbyrd’s Eric Shatt. He’s grown apples biodynamically for a decade now on his smallish family farm, and is even involved in making the fiendishly laborious preparations himself. Biodynamic growers, especially outside of the wine industry where the practice is more commonplace, can sometimes come across a little cautiously when the subject is broached, as though nervous of being considered eccentric. When I mention my interest (and that there’s a bottle of biodynamic whisky in the car) there’s a subtle unclenching of Eric’s shoulders, as if a slight tension has been lifted, and our conversation starts flowing in earnest.
As far as Eric is aware he’s the only fully biodynamic cidermaker in the Finger Lakes, though he’s part of a local group, including winemakers, who make the preparations. For his own orchard, Eric uses 500 (the horn manure), 501 (quartz crystals ground into silica which help photosynthesis) and 508 (a blend of fermented and rainwater-infused Field Horsetail), applying them to the soil three to four times a year.
Biodynamics notwithstanding, it’s his fruit which Eric is keenest to talk about; fruit which he attests has more flavour intensity as a result of the applications. His orchard is only ten years old – even younger than Autumn’s – and mainly planted on dwarf rootstock, but again what’s most striking as we walk through the lines of slender trees is how many are varieties which have their origins in Herefordshire and Somerset.
“I really love Stoke Red”, Eric tells me, as we wander through the orchard. “And Porter’s Perfection”. As with Autumn every tree seems known like a friend; when he talks about varieties his words are laced with a tangible feeling of joy – a sense of how fortunate he feels to be able to grow these rare apples from across an ocean. Being more used to visiting English cideries where bittersweet and bittersharp fruit is treated as the norm, Eric’s enthusiasm is instantly winning and infectious.
We spend a little while looking at a couple of young Butt Pear trees – perhaps the most unusual sight of all in this north-east corner of the American hills. For no particular reason I murmur the old west country saying: “harvest your Butts one year, press them the next, drink them the year after”. “I’ll have to remember that!” Eric says.
Every one of Eric’s ciders is utterly electric. Pristine, vibrant, coursing with purity and life. Perhaps unexpectedly, he doesn’t wild ferment, preferring to innoculate his juice with a particular strain of yeast. Is this for control? I wonder aloud. Apparently not – he just like the flavours that this strain provides.
His creations, officially certified by Demeter, the international biodynamic association, are a compelling case against the common generalisation that pitched-yeast ciders are inherently less complex. Workman Dry, his flagship blend, is packed with bright, vivid, citrusy fruit. A blend of Sweet Sixteen (a new apple to me) & Harry Masters’ Jersey is deeper, duskier, with a waxy, leathery quality and a hint of aniseed on the nose, a Tompkins King & Stoke Red offers voluptuous aromatics with ripe tropical fruit and bright acidity, whilst Eric’s Ellis Bitter, Browns & Kingston Black shows orange, vanilla, cedar and spice against a sinewy, wine-like body.
Best of all, to my taste, is Celeste Sur Lie, a 2017-vintage traditional method cider aged on its lees for years before disgorgement. Toasty brioche, almonds, orange blossom and riper plum are carried across my palate on a raft of beautiful creamy bubbles. The intensity of flavour, balance of acidity and length of finish are nothing short of breathtaking. This is a cider to make stars whirl.
Looking back at my reverie-scrawled tasting notes I see the same adjectives over and over again, underlined for emphasis more often than not. Clean. Pure. Intense. Vibrant. These are ciders made with an extremity of care. Every sip evinces unfakeable love of fruit and of land; determination to make the most of an apple’s flavour, from the ground it is grown in to the cider it is bottled as. A quiet desire to make something as good as it can possibly be. Redbyrd isn’t huge – I hadn’t even heard of it before I did my Finger Lakes research, but an American cidermaking friend told me that it had to be on my list; that this was a place that made ciders with soul. He was right.
Our last port of call is South Hill Cider, and if there is a friendlier cidermaker anywhere than Steve Selin, I have yet to meet them. His enthusiasm – for his ciders, but also for music and seemingly for anything else that captures his interest – is palpable; when I meet him he has just finished tasting for a new blend, and darts off after a quick, warm “hello”, only to re-emerge with a clanking box of ciders and perries. Reader, we tasted every single one.
Steve tells me that, earlier in the day, he was on zoom with James Forbes of Herefordshire’s Little Pomona. Which, looking around me, seems appropriate, since South Hill, uniquely among the cideries I have visited in the Finger Lakes so far, has a distinctly Little Pomona feel about it. The current buildings were erected in 2019 (the same year as Little Pomona’s, as it happens) and a gleaming shop and tasting room sits in front of a cidery stacked to the rafters with oak barrels and stainless steel. There’s an excitement here; a projected confidence that this is a place people will want to visit and drink cider at.
And they certainly should, judging by the bottles Steve shared with me. We opened seven; four ciders, two perries and a grape-apple co-fermentation, each packed with more fruit and flavour than the last. My picks are an outrageously perfumed Kingston Black, all passionfruit, spices and clove, as well as String Theory 2020, a blend of Dabinett, Chisel Jersey and Genever Bitter whose deep orange, spiced chutney and ripe, opulent tannins cleave closer to the bittersweet ciders of England and, especially, France, than any American cider I have tasted before. Genever Bitter, incidentally, is a bit of a mystery apple. Originally thought to be Tremlett’s Bitter until testing proved otherwise, it is currently a question mark. An American mutation? A different bittersweet entirely? Who knows? Another of Steve’s ciders, Genever Jersey, heroes the variety. It offers no further clues to the apple’s identity, but its deliciousness leaves me none too bothered by my ignorance.
Like many Finger Lakes cidermakers Steve began his journey with the drink by foraging wild apples in the local forests. Those wild apple trees have a tragic legacy; hundreds of years ago this was the land of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy until a genocidal campaign ordered by George Washington and carried out by General Sullivan forced the native people away. They left behind them a legacy of centuries of orcharding; thousands upon thousands of peach and apple trees. Most were destroyed by the American army; those the army missed became the parents and grandparents of today’s wildlings. A notable number of Finger Lakes cidermakers, including Autumn and Eric, are involved in supporting the Haudenosaunee’s current efforts for land and seed rematriation.
In 2012 Steve had a watershed moment. Frost had killed the fruit crop on the wild apple trees so for the first time he had to buy apples in. Some, like Golden Delicious and Northern Spy, he was familiar with. But he also bought a number of English bittersweets grown by nearby Cornell University. Blown away by the quality he planted his own orchards and hasn’t looked back.
Those orchards fringe today’s cidery and, in keeping with the producers I’ve already visited, are an organically farmed blend of English bittersweets and native American varieties. Like all Finger Lakes ciders I’ve tried, Steve’s show a theme of clean, fresh acidity, with a bright, sinewy mouthfeel. But as the orchard ages, as the roots deepen, as the fruit the trees produce becomes fuller, riper, more packed with flavoursome phenols, Steve hopes to replicate more of the burly tannic character those apples produce on the other side of the Atlantic. If String Theory is any gauge, he’s well on the way.
There’s a playfulness to Steve’s creations – a tangible sense of fun. It isn’t just the co-fermentations or the experimental barrel program; there are fortified pommeaux including four different single varieties (the first I’ve ever seen), there is summer-in-a-glass rosé, champagne method cider from wild-foraged apples, even cider brandy. It’s a one-man encapsulation of the “if we can do it, why not?” spirit which has driven America’s craft cider boom in the last ten years, and its coupling to a determination to plant the most interesting, flavoursome apples and grow them in the most involved and nurturing way makes Steve’s cider all the more impressive.
The road ahead isn’t entirely smooth. Bafflingly the words “Finger Lakes” aren’t legally permitted on a cider’s label unless it forms part of the cidery’s name – the government’s way of protecting the local wine scene; cider treated as a second citizen once again. Steve’s keen on the idea of a PGI for Finger Lakes cider, such as those held by certain places in Normandy. A legal definition might help the region embed and establish a style, and would protect it from further bureaucratic interference, but as has long been the case for cider the world over, getting makers to agree on how a region’s cider should be defined is likely to prove near-impossible. If anyone has the optimism and energy to drive one through though, my money would be on Steve.
After an hour and a half of tasting and talking and showing us around, Steve politely excuses himself. A local celebrity musician will imminently be playing a rehearsal set at the cidery with a new band; a crowd is gathering and Steve is on call in the kitchen. We help ourselves to pulled pork and corn bread, snag a seat next to the wide open doors and make inroads into the String Theory as we take in the happy groups of cider drinkers swaying and singing along to old-time country. Set ended, glasses emptied and souls aglow, we quietly slip out of the ongoing party and wend our way back home.
Which is how I come to be sitting by that lakeside an hour or so later, sun descending beyond the distant hills into the evening’s gloaming, cider cold in my glass. And there, suddenly, on the breath of its perfume, the apples, the trees and the land rise up and I am stopped, stunned, encompassed by the pristine essence of terroir.
I have long believed that great cider; cider made entirely from fresh-pressed juice; doesn’t stem solely from a maker’s technique, or even just from the varieties which compose it, but is directly influenced too by the place in which its apples grow. By the soil that nurtures them; by the aspect and topography of the orchard; by the seasons that shape the ripening of sugars and phenolics. By the myriad uniquenesses of land and climate that clasp hands with the fruit in a single irreplicable expression of place.
It is that belief that trembled through the conversations I shared with each of the three makers I met in the Finger Lakes; that conviction that if cider has a soul it is locked in the apples, the trees, the land and the slow cycle of vintage that brings all three together. The ciders of Eve’s, of Redbyrd and of South Hill speak of their fruit and of their wild, ancient, beautiful place as eloquently as any I am ever likely to taste. They transcend the banalities of “I don’t like this” or “I do like that”; their profundity goes so much deeper than any grocery-list tasting note within my capacity to string together.
These are ciders unlike any made anywhere else. Ciders that simply could not be made anywhere else; whose flavours belong uniquely to this remarkable, tucked-away wilderness of shale and lake, mountain and waterfall, blizzard and glacial till. And if that isn’t terroir, I don’t know what is. If that doesn’t make a cider region, I will never know what does.
Enormous thanks to Autumn, Ezra, Eric and Steve for their generosity of cider and time and to everyone who talked to me for this piece.
Thank you, Adam. What a fab article to accompany my weetabix this morning! As a beginner getting to grips with establishing a small orchard and cidery in a wonderful landscape, it was really inspiring to hear about the orchards – their geography, geology, climate – and the way these aspects influence the fruit; also the ethos, methods and passion the makers embrace in order to create their cider. Now, time to patrol my own trees to deal with those pesky tent caterpillars in a suitably organic way: squashing! We don’t get many, but it pays to get ’em early!
Thanks so much for reading, and I’m so pleased that what those cidermakers are doing has inspired you. They certainly inspired me!
I’d love to learn more about your cidery and what you’re making. If you ever fancy sharing a bit, do use the get in touch option up top. We’re usually fairly good at keeping an eye on the inbox and always so thrilled to hear about what makers are doing.
Thanks Adam! Excellent read!
Weirdly 5 years ago today I was actually in Ithaca!
We did a 6 month road-trip of the US and 5 years ago today we were sweating our wotsits off climbing down Buttermilk Falls. Utterly beautiful part of the world.
Cheers Gavin – so glad you enjoyed it.
What a coincidence! I couldn’t get over the waterfalls there. Absolutely breathtaking.
You’ll have to go back again for the cider now though…
You’ve captured the spirit really well – even though that apple still isn’t called Genever Bitter 🙂
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Geneva is home to Cornell’s Agritech institute, where CINA courses are taught. There is a lot of cider knowledge in the Finger Lakes.
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