French-style cider? Oui! - The Buffalo News
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French-style cider? Oui!

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 Poire Granit from 300-year-old trees.

The French ciders from this former sommelier are extraordinary – off-dry, wonderfully aromatic, slightly bubbly with a complexity and finish that some champagnes could envy.

It turns out that Randall Grahm, the genie and muse behind Bonny Doon Vineyard, the Santa Cruz, Calif., 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.

Enter cider.

Why not try making it? How hard could it be? Its history and tradition appealed to him, but so did 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 Nelis 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 percent alcohol, about half that of a typical wine. Every bit as pleasurable to drink as Bordelet’s French ciders, it turns out that 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!”

I tasted the 2011, his first ¿Querry?. Grahm says he was enamored of Bordelet’s ciders but realized he wouldn’t be able to get the same sort of intensity with the varieties of pears available 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 Nelis Sparkling Perry and ¿Querry? cost about $14 a bottle.

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