Cider – the great Christmas all-rounder

Snow on an apple

The Ciderologist Gabe Cook proposes apple-based, not grape-based, ferments for Christmas Day.

Ah, good old Christmas – the time of year when one gets to legitimately purchase all those drinks that sit on the fringes of our normal price range, or that are a little esoteric in nature. Purchasing becomes more playful and more prolific. And, Dionysus knows, we could do all do with a bit of extra cheer this year.

It’s probably fair to say, however, that treating yourself to a sensational bottle of cider is not likely to be high on your shopping list. As I’ve described in my previous articles, cider really can be just as varied, vibrant and versatile (and apparently verbose!) as any wine. I’d like to propose, therefore, that alongside wonderful treats such as Neudorf’s Rosie’s Block Chardonnay or Robert Sinskey’s Pinot Noir this Christmas (thanks Santa! Much love, Gabe x), why not let your experimentation extend to giving an exquisite cider a try? 

In the seventeenth century Britain was at war with Europe (again) and wine imports were in short supply. The aristocracy looked to their native fermentable fruit, the apple, for solace and what emerges within three decades is a burgeoning ‘fine cyder’ movement. The pinnacle of this movement was the development of extra-strong glassware by Sir Kenelm Digby at his furnaces on the banks of the River Severn in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, and the bottling of cider within them. On 10 December 1662, John Beale presented a paper to the Royal Society describing his experiments of adding a ‘walnut of sugar’ to cider prior to filling it into one of Sir Kenelm’s verre Anglais bottles – a full six years before Dom Pérignon moved to Hautvillers, and seven days before Christopher Merret presented to the Royal Society his paper on achieving similar results with sparkling wine!

So let’s start by finding some bubbles – something to give thanks with, to toast each other with (probably via Zoom) and with which to stick two fingers up to 2020. I can think of no cider that performs these multiple functions better than the wonderfully titled Nempnett Thrubwell from Wilding Cider. Described as a sparkling celebration cider, this drink gains its name from the village in which this single-orchard blend is sourced. Fresh, menthol and herbal characters then joyously pass on the baton to light bitterness and chewiness. Yum! If you’re in the US, you won’t go wrong with the Cidermaker’s Reserve from Snowdrift, WA. One of the outstanding US cider makers around today will have you regretting that you didn’t purchase more of this gem with its brisk acidity, grippy tannin and tingly mousse.

Eric Bordelet's Poire Granit

So, what to match with Christmas dinner? Cider, as a fruit fermentation, shares all of the sensory characters of wine, and you can employ your approach to matching food to wine in the exact same way with cider. If turkey is going to be gracing your table, then I would reach for the sublime Poiré Granit (pictured above) from the master of French cider, Eric Bordelet. It might not have the biggest alcoholic punch, but it doesn’t need to with such sensational intensity of nectarines, slate and electric citric tingles that will enliven what can sometimes be a slightly dull meat. 

If you’re vegetarian or vegan, then, once again, cider is the drink to reach for! Unlike wine, which might have been treated with an animal-derived fining agent, cider doesn’t contain the types of phenolics or proteins that necessitate the use of these agents. The result is an unlimited selection of ciders to choose from to pair with your meat-free meal. So, to match with a plateful of mushroom Wellington, Brussels sprouts, roast potatoes and stuffing, reach for TEN from Pilton Cider or Harrison from Albemarle Ciderworks,VA, to complement the earthiness and freshness.

And then we’re on to the cheese course. Move over port – it’s time for ice cider to muscle in here. Made like an Eiswein, there are multiple interpretations of this rich, unctuous dessert-style cider available across the globe but my very favourite might be from Brannland in Sweden. Ice cider works especially well with more acid-driven or tangy blue cheeses such as the world-beating Rogue River Blue.

Cider at Christmas by the fire

If, however, you currently find yourself in the southern hemisphere, your focus is going to be less on hearty and stodgy foods and more towards light, fresh flavours to accompany your midsummer feast (not that I’m jealous!). When I lived in New Zealand, Christmas Day would generally comprise a barbecue of white fish or sweetcorn on the beach accompanied by a fresh salad. Time to reach for something joyously crushable and refreshing like Tokyo Rose from New Zealand’s Capital Cider Co or Willie Smith’s Organic Cider from Tasmania, Australia.

So, cheers to you and cheers to cider this Christmas time. Most importantly, wherever you are, whatever you’re eating and whoever you’re with, be merry, get very merry and let’s all look forward to a considerably brighter 2021.