At 7 to 8 percent alcohol by volume and typically with a bit of sweetness, artisan ciders are lighter-bodied than beer and not as heady as wine. Mixologists love them for cocktails. They pair especially well with spicy foods, and because most are at least slightly sparkling, they can substitute for the champagne of a wedding toast.
Flynt’s ciders are well distributed throughout Virginia and the East Coast, where artisan cider appeals to fans of local foods and beverages. Her production facility is sparse and yields 2,800 cases per year, but on the day I visited, a steady trickle of visitors flowed through the makeshift tasting room to taste Foggy Ridge’s Serious Cider, First Fruit and two fortified dessert ciders made in the style of port. The orchard is just a few miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway and about six hours from Washington, allowing for tourist traffic.
Almost exactly three hours after leaving Foggy Ridge, I turned into the gravel driveway of Albemarle CiderWorks in North Garden, Va., just south of Charlottesville. The tasting room there would be familiar to any winery visitor. Antique apple crates stenciled with the name H.F. Byrd reminded me that apples were as integral to Virginia’s political history as its culture.
“Harry Flood Byrd Sr. was a successful apple grower near Winchester before he became governor and U.S. senator,” says Charlotte Shelton, who runs the family-owned orchard with her brother Chuck. It’s a second or third career for each of them. Charlotte, 66, taught history at Virginia Tech before working for the past three decades as an investment adviser. Chuck, 62, worked in radiation protection in the nuclear power industry before taking over the orchard the family planted in 2000.
Their company, Vintage Virginia Apples, now grows more than 100 varieties, many of them heirloom, and serves as a nursery for other orchards. They opened the cidery in 2009. Their brother Bill, 58, who directs the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, helps out and Bill’s daughter, Anne, 28, handles marketing duties.
We tasted several ciders as Charlotte regaled me with the history of cider in Virginia, which goes back a lot further than Harry Byrd. Chuck, accustomed to spending more time with trees than people, left most of the talking to his sister.
“Cider is why apples were grown in this country in colonial times,” Charlotte says, adding that cider was a way of preserving the nutrients in apples. Industrialization, the growth of the railroads and refrigeration changed the way America ate, and fruit was no exception. “There were fewer farmers and people began eating their apples instead of drinking them,” she says. That led to the near-extinction of many cider varieties and the growth of sweeter apples for eating and cooking. Cider varieties began to disappear from orchards, especially during Prohibition.
“Hewe’s Crab and Harrison are, in my mind, the best cider apples grown anywhere,” Chuck says. “But we don’t have enough of them.” Harrison, a variety developed in New Jersey two centuries ago, was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in the 1970s and slowly reestablished. It is one of the varieties the Sheltons are keeping alive in their orchard.
Their Virginia Hewe’s Crab North Orchard Reserve cider is made primarily from apples grown at Monticello, where Mr. Jefferson, as he is still known around Charlottesville, grew several kinds of apples and bottled his own cider every March. Most plantation owners did in those days, and while Jefferson is known for his love of wine, he drank much more cider because it was more readily available. Albermarle’s Jupiter’s Legacy, a full-bodied dry cider, is a blend of 30 apple varieties named for Jefferson’s slave who was in charge of cider production on the estate.
These modern artisan ciders, made from apple varieties the Sheltons and the Flynts have saved from obscurity, if not extinction, echo the flavors of our nation’s early years. It’s a livelier history lesson than I could get from any book. Tastier, too.
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McIntyre’s Wine column will return next week. He blogs at dmwineline.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine.