A hard cider that is elegant rather than rustic

by Jordan Green

The hard cider from McRitchie’s is clear, crisp and dry. (photo by Jordan Green)

The leaves are taking on a rust color in this final, brilliant stand of fall, hues of red, burgundy, gold and pale yellow. They canopy Highway 21 as it rises into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the hamlet of Thurmond in Wilkes County, where Sean and Patricia McRitchie have transferred their winemaking expertise from Oregon.

Only wine is not the reason for my trek west from Greensboro today. Rather, it’s the hard cider that the McRitchie’s have chosen as one of their signature crafts, made from fresh apples grown in Perry Lowe’s orchard at Moravian Falls. (Incidentally, the Fuji apples I bought at the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market on my return trip were also grown in Moravian Falls.)

McRitchie Winery & Ciderworks sits atop a grassy hill covered in trellised rows of grapes at the end of steep drive. Inside the tasting room, employee Hannah Brown pours a splash the McRitchies’ dry hard cider from a batch bottled the day before into a standard wine glass for me. It’s a smooth and elegant beverage, not unlike a chardonnay, that is adequately subtle to present the delicate notes of the Stayman apples from which it was fermented.

“It’s a European style,” Brown says. “It’s a lighter, cleaner style. It’s between a wine and a beer. It’s carbonated like a beer. You get that crisp, apple bit in the finish. It’s less in your face than some of those beer-type ciders.”

The McRitchies don’t like to clutter their ciders with additional flavors. While some of the wines are fermented in oak barrels, they use stainless steel containers to make hard cider, so that neither the oak flavor nor oxygen distort the taste of the original fruit.

“I make fun of Sean because he says, ‘It’s ‘apple-y,’” Patricia says, “but that’s really the only way to describe it.”

Sean elaborates. “Cider has such a delicate flavor,” he says. “It’s actually quite elegant. I like it to be clean and expressive of the fruit it comes from.”

The process of making cider is deceptively simple. As Sean describes it, the fruit comes in half-ton bins. It gets turned into a fluffy mash the consistency of rice pilaf with a grinder. Then, like grapes for wine, it goes into a metal basket press that has changed little over the centuries. The juice squeezes out the sides and collects in a trough at the bottom.

The Staymans are an ideal variety for the late season.

“Good, tart apples produce good cider,” Sean says. “You need backbone.”

The leftover mash from apples and grapes alike are composted for about a year before being spread over the soil in the vineyard. The black bear and deer that roam the wooded ravines like to roll around in the fermenting mash, she says. Rather than make the animals more aggressive, the intoxicating effect is more pacifying.

“We’ve got a picture of a mama black bear just standing stoically in a pile of mash,” Patricia says.

Sean adds, “One time I found a deer that had been into the mash, and I was able to walk up and touch it.

The fermenting and bottling house has the look of a spacious garage, spotlessly clean with hoses running across the concrete floor to rows of stainless steel tanks.

Sean pulls the lid off one of the stainless steel tanks to reveal a frothy batch of fermenting cider, warning against the effect of carbon dioxide from it. He grabs a pair of wine glasses, and opens a spigot from a stainless steel tank containing what will be semi-sweet cider. In contrast to its dry counterpart, the fermentation process is arrested earlier in the semi-sweet beverage. This sample, which has not been filtered or carbonated, bears a sweet and somewhat musky taste. Sean swishes some around in his mouth and spits it out to avoid absorbing its alcohol content.

The hard cider is fermented to about 7 percent alcohol content. Apples have about half of the sweetness of grapes — measured in Brix — and the eventual alcohol content roughly corresponds.

Later, the cider will be put in a Grundy tank — Patricia says the tanks are typically buried under English pubs — and carbonated at a temperature of 32 degrees with 22 pounds of internal pressure. With the aid of a flashlight, one can see through the cider to the bottom of the tank. In the final step, the cider will be pumped into bottles and labeled.

“The cider you just drank was juiced about a month ago, maybe five weeks,” Sean says. “It couldn’t be fresher.”

wanna go? McRitchie Winery & Ciderworks 315 Thurmond PO Road Thurmond 336.874.3003