Whenever I mention ciders from the American South, the response is usually, "Can they grow apples down there?" And while we like to think of the pick-your-own orchards of New England or the massive apple-producing areas of Washington as the true home of the American apple, substantial orchards stretch all the way down to Florida. And where there are apples, there will always be cider.
The finest Southern ciders tend to come to us from in and around the apple-growing regions of Virginia; east of the Blue Ridge mountains stretching from the Shenandoah Valley through the Roanoke Valley. Apples have been grown in the region since colonial times. In fact, Thomas Jefferson planted over 18 varieties of apples in his South Orchard at Monticello, concentrating on varieties such as the Hewes Virginia Crab, Albemarle (or Newtown) Pippin, and Esopus Spitzenburg...the same varieties used today some of the South's finest ciders.
The Southern Cidermaking Style
With one foot in colonial heritage and the other in modern winemaking, Southern cider bridges the gap between traditional and modern cider making technique. Southern cider makers use traditional cider fruit and ferment it slowly, but they do so with modern tools such as neutral wine yeasts, stainless steel tanks, and precise temperature control. These long, slow fermentations help retain the fruit's subtle flavors and aromas. Here, apples take three months to a year from branch to bottle.
For Southern cider makers, cider is all about a true expression of the fruit. Many of these folks scoff (in a polite, Southern style) at the notion of mixing other fruits, hops, or spices in with their apples.
Apples to Glass
From Galas to Granniewinkles, Virginia's producers alone grow dozens of apple varieties and generate over 5 million bushels of apples a year. But the apples we are most interested in are the Southern heirlooms; historical American varieties such as the Winesap, Arkansas Black, Black Twig, and Summer Rambo as well as the aforementioned Hewes Virginia Crab and Albemarle Pippin. Many of these apples—often high in sugar and acid—are unique to this region and give Southern ciders their distinct character.
The best Southern producers select (or grow) their own fruit and many partner with local orchards to ensure that they plant the right varieties. For these cider makers, the quality—not just the variety—of fruit is so important that apples are often harvested multiple times a year for peak ripeness. This is a far cry from the pre-pressed fruit and apple juice concentrate found in many of the American ciders at your local bar.
What to Look for in a Southern Cider
In general, Southern ciders are dry, high in acidity, and low in tannins. The best Southern ciders are made with heirloom fruit and have less than 5g/L of residual sugar—that means this stuff is pretty damn dry.
When you are scanning the shelf, splurge for the bigger bottles. This region's finer cider makers have rallied around 750mL bottles as badge of quality... for now. By law, cider makers cannot print the vintage on their labels but many add a lot or batch number. Let's just say that "Lot 2012" was an outstanding year.
If dry cider is not your thing, the South also offers a variety of other other styles. But for my money, the best bet in this region is the straight, dry, apple cider.
The Best Ciders of the South
We blind tasted over two dozen ciders from Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina to bring you our recommendations, looking for ciders that best showcased the region's fruit. These picks stood out from the crowd, thanks to a distinct personality and excellent craftsmanship.
In alphabetical order, here are our favorites:
Black Twig Cider (Great Shoals Winery, Silver Spring, MD)
Most of the ciders on this list are pretty serious characters. But the Black Twig is more easygoing—a good one for starting off your evening, or sharing with a cider newbie. Black Twig is made entirely from its namesake apple, sourced from a single orchard in Bridgeville, Delaware. This cider balances the South's trademark acidity with firm minerality for a cider that's fun, bright, and just a little earthy. Let your bottle creep toward room temperature and you'll note a cool Concord grape flavor behind all the earthy apple tones.
Farmhouse Dry (Potter's Craft Cider, Free Union, VA)
Made with blend of Southern apples and three different yeast strains, Farmhouse Dry's vibrant citrusy flavors pair well with soft cheeses in the afternoon or roast meats at dinner. This cider is reserved enough to complement food but interesting enough (is that a touch of banana flavor?) to drink on its own. One of the best values we came across in our tasting, Farmhouse Dry is the one we recommend when you need to buy a few cases for your next party.
First Fruit (Foggy Ridge Cider, Dugspur, VA)
For my wedding, I hand-carried cases of First Fruit from Manhattan to Brooklyn to Pennsylvania. And blind tasting it years later confirms for me that First Fruit is the pinnacle of Southern cider. Its aroma jumps out of the glass, smelling like a farmers market on an early fall morning. It's packed with apple flavor without just tasting like apple juice, thanks to bittersweet tannins that will appeal to cider newbies and old curmudgeons alike. Fuller than most of the ciders on this list, First Fruit is luscious without being sweet and fruity without tasting candied.
Gravity, Lot #2012 (Castle Hill Cider, Keswick, VA)
Castle Hill's Gravity is one of the coolest Southern ciders that we've come across. It's off-dry and completely still, but the lack of bubbles is countered by a big wallop of acid and lingering tannins reminiscent of cup of strong black tea. If you like drinking Viognier, you'll recognize some flavors here: tropical fruit and citrus roll on in. Try this one with friends who usually prefer wine.
Old Virginia Winesap, Lot #2012 (Albemarle, North Garden, VA)
The earthiest cider on the list, Old Virginia Winesap hits just the right balance of rustic and refined. If you have happy memories of playing in the dirt—and maybe even licking rocks—as a kid, this is the cider for you. I can wax poetic about hints of wet slate, apple twig, and grapefruit pith, but what you really need to know is that works as well with roast pork as it does with Rappahannock River oysters.
Unique Southern Ciders Worth Mentioning
Sidra Americana, Batch 001 (Millstone Cellars, Monkton, MD)
Unlike most Southern cider makers, who to feature fruit in its essential, stripped-down form, Millstone Cellars focuses on funky fermentations and unique blends of fruit and honey. Sidra Americana takes its inspiration from Spanish Sidra: it's full of the barnyard and white vinegar flavors you find in those from across the Atlantic. At first taste, Sidra Americana tastes a bit more like kombucha than like any cider you've tried. If you are into earthy lambics or American wild ales, give this bottle a try.
Bosc & Bartlett Hard Pear (Great Shoals Winery, Silver Spring, MD)
Most ciders in the South are bright and citrusy. But Bosc & Bartlett Hard Pear—made from fermented pears instead of apples—is more delicate and floral, and just mildly sweet. Made entirely from the same sorts of pears you can buy in your local supermarket, Bosc & Bartlett Hard Pear intensely aromatic; like a bouquet in a glass. This is a great one for fans of rosé or sparking wines. Try it with anything in a cream sauce, grilled fish filets, or mildly spiced Indian dishes.
Note: All ciders except those from Great Shoals Winery provided as tasting samples for review consideration.