Go to your local bar, grocery store, or liquor shop, and ask for a bottle of cider. More likely than not, you’re gonna be offered something that tastes like apple-flavored beer. These sugary-sweet suds still work when consumed out of Red Solo cups on a college campus, but are hardly worth pairing with your dinner.
But there’s hope for fermented apples. Beyond the plonk plastered with humanized apple trees on the bottle, there’s a deeply traditional style of European cider. The old-world approach is catching on amongst beer nerds and hipster sommeliers alike.
Nestled in the Cantabrian Mountain Range along the Bay of Biscay is the fiercely autonomous Basque Region. Spanning across the Northeastern quadrant of Spain, and spilling into the French Pyrenees, is El País Vasco. The area is known for its vast heritage, extending back to the late Paleolithic period. Some of the oldest recorded cave paintings have come from this part of Europe.
Running parallel to these advances in cognition came the alcoholic revolution. This region of France and Spain is the origin for grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon. Grape geneticists have traced the heritage of some of today’s most well-known varieties to this region burrowed between the French and Spanish border.
Traditional cider pouring from a porron pitcher
The wines from the Basque region are extraordinary: look no further than the affable white wine called Txakoli from the coastal region of Getaria. But the most unique beverage from this region is the cider made from the apples grown planted along the rolling foothills of the region. The indigenous apple varieties rank in the hundreds, and often producers (called sagardotegis) will blend upwards of 20 different varieties together to make their cider.
Making the juice
The ancestral method of breaking down sugar means that yeast ferments the apple juice into alcoholic cider. Natural yeast fermentation exists at breweries like Belgian O.G., Cantillon, and naturally-driven wineries like LaPierre in Beaujolais. By not suffocating the juice and letting a slow, more natural fermentation take place, the resulting cider has a vivacity and sense of place. This kind of output is not typically found in sterile, modern facilities.
Also, Basque cider traditionally is unfiltered, so all those byproducts of fermentation are kept inside the cider, imparting even more flavor in your mouth. Comparing the aromatics and flavor of a naturally fermented, unfiltered cider to something saturated and completely strained is like comparing Tang to pulpy, fresh-squeezed Orange Juice.
Isastegi's apple orchards
The other major difference is the lack of carbonation. These ciders are fermented in large wooden casks called kupelas. This low and slow fermentation can take months to fully mature. The small amount of residual CO2 from fermentation is bottled in with the cider, resulting in a faint fizziness, about as much as you’d get in a bottle of kombucha.
Reaping the rewards
Since fermentation takes months to finish, sagardotegis will typically celebrate the start of cider season with a large party in late January. These producers will open their doors and turn their fermentation rooms into bars, where guests can drink directly from the barrel, a time-honored ritual called Txotx.
Txotx Season continues through the winter and spring. All throughout the French and Spanish Basque Country, you can find ciderhouses serving up a traditional Txotx menu of Bacalao (salt cod) and steak. Like any high acid beverage, these ciders can cut through marbled beef or frame the briny qualities of seafood.
When picking a Basque Cider, there’s a couple of things to look for. Hold the bottle to the light: if the cider is flecked with floating chunks, you’re on the right track! Is it under a screwcap or cork rather than a traditional crown cap? If all else fails, look for Isastegi, Txopinondo, or Shacksbury’s Basque Collaboration.
Basque Cider isn’t for everyone. It’s more tart than sweet, more funky that fruity. But when you’re looking for something complex that can offer an alternative pairing to your dinner, bust out a bottle of Isastegi.
Chris Poldoian is a certified sommelier and a member of the Houston Sommelier Association. In his position at Camerata, he brings experience in the Houston market and a vast understanding for the hospitality industry. After spending a harvest in Jerez and Rioja, wine experts and novices can expect small producers in Spain – from the traditional to the avant-garde – to grace Camerata's menu.