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Nobody understood the melancholy-tinged beauty of those transitional months between summer and winter quite like the great Romantic poet John Keats, whose “Ode to Autumn” famously celebrates that “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” Keats also enjoyed a good drink. So it seems fitting that “the last oozings” of the cider press make an appearance in his love song to the fall.
On a recent evening, I found his lines running through my mind while I tasted a range of utterly distinct apple ciders from Asturias – a remote rural region on Spain’s North Atlantic coast where one can still observe, as in Keats’ more pastoral time, how the season conspires to “bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees/ And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core.” For in Asturias, the apple is not just an article of produce; it’s a way of life.
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There’s something about the traditional style of Asturian cider — or sidra natural, as locals call it — that would have appealed to someone like Keats. Fermented with indigenous yeasts and bottled without any filtration, it’s the sort of frothy, pungent and unapologetically rustic concoction that has remained unchanged for centuries. Sidra natural represents the art of fermentation at its most elemental: The effect is not sparkling so much as gently effervescent, with low alcohol and a slight prick of fizz. Dry and earthy, with a pleasantly tart tang, this stuff is delicious. It also happens to be remarkably versatile at the table: think sheep or goat’s milk cheeses, shellfish or, at this time of year, even the traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
Asturias is home to more than 200 types of apples, which (because of the high moisture in this maritime region) tend to be less tannic than those grown in other cider-producing parts of the world. But in order to bear the proud label of Sidra de Asturias – the area’s officially protected Denomination of Origin (DOP) — the final blend must consist of a combination of as many as 22 preapproved varietals, of which the Regona and Raxao apples are the most common.
Almost as fun as drinking sidra natural is watching it be poured — in Asturias, this is a crucial part of the experience. The customary method, known as escanciar, involves pouring the cider from high above one’s head and allowing the free-flowing stream to plunge into the glass. According to John Belliveau-Flores, who imports a wide variety of Asturian cider through his company, Rowan Imports, this age-old technique accounts for more than just flashy showmanship.
“Pouring this way physically changes the character of the cider,” he says. “It breaks up the bonds which release the naturally occurring esters and unleash the aromas. Also, when you try to pour the cider normally, it ends up flat, but it effervesces when you pour from a height.” During my own attempt at mastering the art of escanciar, more cider wound up on my shoes than in my glass, but to watch an experienced professional undertake the act is mesmerizing.
‘New Expression’ Asturian cider cuts the funk
Despite the fact that sidra natural has remained a touchstone of Asturian culture over generations, in recent years producers have experimented with a more modern approach. Designed as a cleaner, more commercially viable interpretation for the export market, cider in this “New Expression” category undergoes filtration and stabilization to remove the sediment. Clear, crisp and lemony in both flavor and appearance, it shares more traits with white wine than beer. To be honest, the results often strike me as a bit too sanitized or refined, stripped of Asturias’ signature funky essence. But Belliveau-Flores is quick to point out the virtues of this style.
“In some cases, the New Expression ciders gain something,” he explains. “Although you’re taking away that funk, which removes a powerful layer, you can end up revealing more of the fruit expression, which would otherwise be covered up.”
I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste, but I’d still start by introducing yourself to the classic sidra natural first. One lovely rendition is the Val d’Ornon bottling from the family-run house of Sidra Menéndez. A refreshingly tart and milky blend of apples including Raxao, Regona, Perico and Carrio, it’s the perfect accompaniment to those bittersweet, “soft-dying” autumn evenings that Keats knew all too well. You might even be inspired to write an ode of your own.
Top photo: Escanciar, the art of pouring cider into a glass from above one’s head, releases the aromas. Credit: Greg Nesbit / Asturias Cider Commission
Whenever I hear people say that a bottle of wine “tells a story” or shares some sort of “message,” it sounds to me like a pretentious cliché. It’s not like you pop the cork and out pours some rhapsodic treatise on the rolling hillsides of Tuscany. And yet, after all that sipping and swirling, what I ultimately hope to find in wine is something more than just “a medium-bodied effort with subtle notes of blackberry and leather.” Of course, how a wine tastes is obviously a huge part of the equation. But what’s in the glass is also a question of context (geographical, cultural, historical), and I’m most engaged when a bottle speaks of the place from which it came.
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For that reason, I don’t drink a lot of South American wine. I tend to view most bottles from this part of the world as conforming to a certain oversaturated modern style, weighed down with alcohol, oak, and extraction. So I did a double take when I learned that Louis/Dressner Selections — the iconic importer of handcrafted wines from Europe — recently had made its first foray south of the equator, adding a Chilean winery to its portfolio. Even more curiously, the young winemaker in question, Louis-Antoine Luyt, is a native Burgundian trained in the “natural” style of winemaking.
But although he uses grapes from local Chilean farmers, Luyt’s wines are reminiscent of many French natural wines, raising interesting questions about the relationship between terroir and technique.
Having arrived in Chile at age 22, Luyt first found work washing dishes at a local restaurant, climbed his way up to beverage director, and eventually enrolled in sommelier school in Santiago. This exposed him to a wide selection of Chilean wine, most of which, he admits in an interview on the Louis/Dressner website, he found too homogenous and industrial. So he decided to do what any self-respecting Frenchman would do: Make his own.
Luyt returned to France to study enology in Beaune. He soon befriended Matthieu Lapierre, son of the late Beaujolais legend Marcel, whose family domaine in the town of Villié-Morgon invokes a religious reverence among natural wine acolytes. The five harvests Luyt worked Chez Lapierre amounted to an exhaustive apprenticeship in the art of natural viticulture: organic farming; no chemicals, sprays, commercial yeasts or additives of any kind; and a minimalist aproach in the cellar.
Luyt took this philosophy back to Chile, where he sources organic fruit from several parcels of extremely old vines rented from independent growers throughout the Maule Valley. Although he crafts fascinating examples using southern French grapes such as Carignan and Cinsault, to my mind his most compelling wines result from his efforts to reclaim the humble, light-skinned Pais variety, historically a ubiquitious ingredient in Chilean jug wine. Luyt currently produces three separate bottlings of Pais, each highlighting a specific parcel of vines. His “Huasa de Trequilemu” and “El Paìs de Quenehuao,” for example, are bright, slightly spicy, Beaujolais-inspired wines that taste unlike anything I’ve encountered from Chile.
In fact, as much as I enjoyed both efforts, they reminded me of some natural wines I’ve had from France. As critics have started to point out, many natural wines — even those from completely different regions — can taste quite similar to one another.
Natural wine’s signature style
The culprit is a technique called carbonic maceration, which involves fermenting whole bunches of grapes before crushing. Traditionally used in Beaujolais, it has since spread throughout France as a common feature of natural winemaking. If you’ve ever had a wine made this way, you’ll immediately recognize its signature, almost trademark style: Bright and effortlessly fresh, with low alcohol, glug-able berry-ish fruit and occasionally a light prick of spritz.
Writer Alice Feiring deftly sums up this paradox: “These wines are often just what I want. But terroir? No, it’s a style. It’s a beverage, but a great one.”
It’s worth clarifying that not all natural wines use carbonic maceration, and many that do utterly transcend the category. The practice is best understood as one of many options available to a winemaker, like the use of oak, which can either sharpen or dilute a wine’s message.
So do Luyt’s efforts meticulously articulate their respective Maule Valley terroirs? Or do they simply export a style originally developed in France? It’s hard to say. For one, it’s difficult to find Pais bottled as a single varietal, so a standard of comparison is elusive. That said, having recently tried one of Luyt’s zesty carbonic Carignans, I’m not entirely convinced I’d be able to distinguish it from an identically made example from the South of France, although I did find myself detecting a bit more bold Southern Hemisphere fruit, as well as some peppery herbs.
It’s far too easy to let these big, abstract questions distract from what’s in the glass. This is a shame, because the wines are truly tasty — after all, I happen to like that whole natural carbonic thing, certainly more than the oaky, overripe alternatives. So even if Luyt’s lineup might seem fashioned after many of the familiar natural-styled bottles you’d find in any hip Parisian (or Brooklyn) wine bar, his work represents a bold development for Chile. That should be enough for anyone, even curmudgeons like me.
Top photo composite:
Winemaker Louis-Antoine Luyt. Credit: Courtesy of Louis-Antoine Luyt
One of Louis-Antoine Luyt’s Carignan wines. Credit: Zachary Sussman