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Field Trip: Albemarle CiderWorks

Cider is having a moment — it’s poised to become the next darling of the drinks world, and Virginia has a front row seat.  To commemorate last month’s Virginia Cider Week, my girlfriend and I made a cider pilgrimage to Albemarle CiderWorks in North Garden, Virginia (just south of Charlottesville).

Charlottesville’s most famous resident, Thomas Jefferson, was a huge cider fan.  And while Jefferson may not have had much success growing wine grapes at Monticello, he did have thriving apple orchards.  Jefferson made his own cider at Monticello, which he served as his “table drink”.

Founded by the Shelton Family in 2000, Vintage Virginia Apples (VVA), is the orchard that provides apples for Albemarle CiderWorks.  VVA grows over 200 different varieties of both rare and popular apples, focusing on the preservation of heirloom apple varieties (including some that Jefferson grew at Monticello).  Albemarle CiderWorks opened in 2009 as an extension venture of the orchard.

In advance of Virginia Cider Week, I attended a month-long, online cider class with six of Virginia’s finest cider makers.  Be sure to check out the ten things I learned about cider.  And now, I can add an 11th to that list — apples do not reproduce from seed.  Well, technically, you can grow apples from seed, but they will likely not be the same as the parent apples (they aren’t true to variety).  Propagation requires grafting onto whatever variety you’re going after.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this was my first visit to a Virginia cidery, but it definitely won’t be my last.  At last check, there are 11 cideries in Virginia, so I’ve got plenty of cider to keep me busy.  Tastings at Albemarle CiderWorks are $5 for 5 ciders or $8 for 8 ciders.  And, of course we tasted all 8 ciders — it would have felt incomplete otherwise.

From colonial times up until Prohibition, cider was the most popular drink in America. Albemarle CiderWorks based their cider tasting glass design on this very old, very rare cyder glass from 1755.  It sold at auction for close to $3,000.  I’m not sure what you do with a $3,000 cider glass, but I’m guessing you don’t drink out of it.  There’s not a whole lot of information out there on the correct shape for a cider glass.  Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello stemware (purchased in England in the 18th century) is a very similar shape, though.

Here are the eight ciders we tasted.  I had no idea apples could express themselves in so many different ways.

Jupiter’s Legacy 2012
This is Albemarle CiderWorks’ flagship cider, and named after one of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, Jupiter Evans.  Jupiter was in charge of bottling all of the cider at Monticello.  A blend of 20 different apple varieties, that changes slightly from year to year.  Clean and crisp with a texture very similar to Champagne.  8.2% ABV.  $16.

Royal Pippin 2012
Off-dry.  Made from the Albemarle Pippin apple.  Called Royal Pippin because the Pippin was the favorite apple of Queen Victoria.  Thomas Jefferson grew a ton of Albemarle Pippin at Monticello, and once wrote, “They have no apples here (in France) to compare with our Pippin.” 9.3% ABV.  $16.

Goldrush 2013
Dry.  Made from a single variety, the Goldrush apple.  Tart and acidic, almost spicy on the back end.  Kind of gingery, too.  $16.

Red Hill 2013
Blend of bittersweet varieties (and the only Albemarle cider made with an apple grown outside the property — the Dabinett apple), Winesap and Albemarle Pippin.  Dry and pretty earthy. 7.7% ABV.  $16.

Arkansas Black 2013
Made from a single variety, the Arkansas Black apple.  Slightly tannic, with tart flavors of strawberry and rhubarb.  Also a cut hay thing going on.  Very crisp.  7.2% ABV.  $16.

Old Virginia Winesap 2012
Made from a single variety, the Winesap.  Dry, very tart, and earthy.  My girlfriend hit the nail on the head when she said it reminded her of Brie cheese rind.  7.5% ABV.  $16.

Ragged Mountain 2012
Made from a blend of Albemarle Pippin, Winesap, Black Twig, Grimes Golden and Stayman. Named for the small chain of mountains where Albemarle CiderWorks is located.  Edgar Allen Poe wrote a short story called “The Tale of the Ragged Mountains” while he was a student at the University of Virginia.  Pale and very fizzy.  Off-dry, and crisp.  9.4% ABV.  $16.

Pomme Mary 2013
Named after the matriarch of the Shelton Family, Mary Shelton, who preferred a sweeter style cider.  Made from a blend of Albmarle Pippin and Goldrush.  Definitely sweeter and more tropical than the other cider offerings.  Would be great with slightly spicy foods.  8.2% ABV.  $16.

I called ahead to be sure, and you are allowed to bring in outside food for a picnic in the Albemarle CiderWorks tasting room (good thing, since it was freezing the day we were there). They also have a small selection of local meats and cheeses available for sale.  After our cider tasting, my girlfriend and I unpacked our picnic, but we couldn’t resist buying a loaf of fresh, warm bread (does anyone ever resist fresh, warm bread?), and a package of Virginia country ham.  Both pair rather brilliantly with cider, btw.

While we were enjoying our little cider picnic, Bud Shelton, the nonagenarian patriarch of the Shelton Family, strolled into the tasting room, sat down at the table next to us, and enjoyed a mid-day glass of cider.  When I’m 90-something, I hope mid-day cider is something that happens a lot.

Oh!  And before I forget, Albemarle CiderWorks makes what might just be the the best non-alcoholic apple cider I’ve ever tasted.  But I was so distracted trying to decide which of their regular ciders would be coming home with me (Jupiter’s Legacy, Arkansas Black and Ragged Mountain), I forgot to buy some.  I guess I’ll just have to go back.

Disclaimer:  I visited Albemarle CiderWorks anonymously.

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