OPINION: The rise in popularity of craft beer in recent years has been matched only by that of cider. You've only got to look at the number of new brands on the supermarket and liquor store shelves to see that cider, for so long a forgotten and underrated drink, has bounced back big-time.
As an ale-loving ex-pat Englishman with a taste for my old county's traditional West Country ciders, I am delighted to see this reversal of fortunes.
Although the first-known apple trees have been traced to the delta of the river Nile in Egypt in 1300BC, cider seems to have first evolved in Europe and there were references to it as early as the 9th century. After the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066 cider production was well established in English monasteries, where the drink was sold to the public.
Traditional cider apples are small, hard, very fibrous, and so bitter as to make them virtually inedible. They're generally so sour even birds won't eat them. The different varieties are divided into groups according to specific characteristics: Sweetness for fermentation, sharpness (acidity), astringency (tannin) and aroma/good flavour (volatiles). By blending the fermented juice from different apples the characteristic depth of flavour and aroma of traditional West Country ciders is achieved.
Given New Zealand's international reputation as a fruit-growing nation, it is perhaps surprising that this country doesn't have a longstanding tradition of cider making. Sadly, there are hardly any cider apples grown here and perry pears (cider apples' pear equivalent) are virtually unknown. Instead, the vast majority of apples grown here are for eating and, with export in mind, the marketing organisation ENZA requires growers to produce perfect unblemished fruit of the right size and colour.
As a result, there's a huge surplus of perfectly good, export-overrun fruit from which most local cider makers produce a very pale, fresh, citric product, reminiscent of French ciders. Cool fermented, usually with wine yeasts, Kiwi ciders tend to be very clean, crisp and fizzy, but lack the character and complexity of the traditional West Country English ciders.
But there are exceptions. In 2007 ex-pat English couple Alex and Caroline Peckham bought a 16-hectare orchard in Upper Moutere, near Nelson. The couple had been searching for land that would grow fruit with intense flavours and the orchard, which had been growing apples, pears and boysenberries, met their criteria.
Located directly opposite the famous Neudorf vineyards and sharing the same Moutere clay and microclimate as its illustrious neighbour, the Peckhams' north-facing orchard produces exceptional fruit with concentrated flavours.
Having spent four years grafting the apple orchard to heritage cider varieties and replacing most of the boysenberries with a new cider apple orchard, the Peckhams have also moved away from conventional orchard husbandry to adopt a more organic approach. The couple are at pains to point out that their cider is a vintage product made only from tree-ripened heritage cider apples, the fruit pressed and the juice slow-fermented in the autumn and left to mature for six to nine months. The finished cider is then released in late spring and summer.
With fruit from the grafted trees now coming on stream, this year's cider vintage is estimated at around 30,000 litres, a fourfold increase on 2011. As well as 3000 cider apple trees, the Peckhams have a further 1000 pear trees - mostly of the Taylors Gold and Concorde varieties - from which they produce a complex and characterful perry.
Last week I sampled the latest release of the perry. Pouring a pale straw colour, Peckham's Moutere Perry 2012 (6.6 per cent) offers an aroma of sweet pear combined with an appetising savoury yeastiness. Smooth and pleasantly mellow, the palate is medium-dry, with sweet pear, a tart, spicy, sherbet-like yeasty note and hints of struck match and honey all giving way to ripe pear in the finish.
As in winemaking, each vintage of Peckham's cider varies according to the season's growing conditions. With quaint sounding names like broxwood foxwhelp, sweet alford, royal wilding and kingston black, the 25 or so cider apple varieties flower and ripen at different times and the picking period extends over several weeks, so cidermaker Alex Peckham ferments the juice in small batches using a range of yeasts. I tasted two different batches from this year's vintage.
Peckham's English Cider 2012 Batch 0412 pours a hazy yellow-gold and offers a sweetish, sherbety aroma with suggestions of tropical fruit (pineapple?) and spicy demerara sugar. Rounded and spritzy in the mouth with soft tannins, the palate is off-dry with notable flavour development; a delightful hint of funky yeast character (Plasticine?) and mineral leading into a crisp, lingering finish reminiscent of baked apple skin.
By contrast, Batch 0612 poured a much brighter, deeper golden hue that reminded me of barley sugar. Although the aroma and flavours were very similar, the Plasticine-like yeast note and honeyed sweetness were a little more defined and the overall effect was perhaps a shade less tart and more rounded.
The range also includes two sweeter fruit-flavoured ciders: Cider Kir (5.5 per cent) with blackcurrants from a neighbouring farm, while Boysenberry Cider (5.7 per cent) includes 120 grams per pint of Riwaka Choice boysenberries from the Peckhams' own orchard.
Packaged in attractive 500ml bottles, Peckham's ciders and perry represent some of the most characterful and traditional examples available in New Zealand.
- © Fairfax NZ News