This article first appeared at the blog associated with “The Wine Country”, an outstanding source of wine and cider located near Long Beach, California. The Wine Country carries an excellent selection of ciders, as well as Eric Bordelet Ciders including his Sidre Tendre Doux, the Poire Authentique, and the Poire Granit.
We celebrated my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday one steamy summer day, the kind where the air is still and heavy and it is even hotter inside the house than outside. Both Dale and I had been running around preparing to host four generations of her family, doing the usual cleanup and cooking chores. My shirt was soaked before the party began.
I needed something to drink. Desperately. And I wanted something interesting and delicious I could drink all day without getting drunk. In this heat, drinking wine all day—even bottles of chilled rosé—would surely result in dehydration and sledgehammer headaches.
Then I had an idea. The hard ciders from Eric Bordelet were only 4% alcohol and very refreshing to drink. Some are dry, all are complex to the taste and satisfy the wine connoisseur in me completely.
I poured some cold sparkling cider for Lorraine, the birthday girl, who loved Bordelet’s Sydre Doux. Next she sampled his 2003 Sydre Argelette, a wondrously complex sparkling beverage that is dry to the taste, yet full of caramel, baked apple and spice flavors.
“I like this even better,” she said, her eyes lighting up.
I immediately told the staff at The Wine Country of my thrilling summer re-discovery. But with so many wonderful bottles of white and pink wines to choose from, it is easy to forget some of the most obvious summer pleasures of all, like these dry Bordelet ciders, refreshing, full of life, complex, enjoyable and supremely satisfying to drink.
A day later, Samantha Dugan was a bit discouraged. (Remember, this was quite a few years ago, before the current cider craze.) She had opened a bottle of the driest of Bordelet’s apple ciders, Brut Tendre, at our wine bar to offer free samples to anyone who wished. But nobody even wanted a taste! Their objection had something to do with the “cider thing.”
How much we all have to learn.
What Would Didier Drink?
One similarly hot and steamy summer afternoon in France years earlier, Berkeley wine importer Michael Sullivan, owner of Beaune Imports, was visiting his friend Didier Dagueneau at his home in Saint Andelain in Pouilly-sur-Loire. Dagueneau, the world’s most celebrated producer of Sauvignon Blanc, was kicking back on his veranda happily sipping a sparkling golden beverage.
“What have you got there?” Sullivan asked.
“The greatest cider in the world,” replied Dagueneau. “It’s made by a friend of mine.”
And that is how Sullivan’s Beaune Imports began its relationship with a great beverage which he would soon bring to the West Coast. Soon he would become Bordelet’s largest importer anywhere in the world.
The beverages they sipped that hot August day were artisanal ciders produced by a one-time sommelier at Paris’ three-star Arpegerestaurant. His name is Eric Bordelet and he is widely acknowledged as the greatest producer of cider in the world. His creations are not only supremely refreshing to drink in the summer, they pair surprisingly well with food all year round. Eric completely refurbished his family’s ancestral orchards and ciderworks in the Pays de Loire located just two kilometers south of Normandy, and in the process revolutionized the genre.
These are not ciders like the super-sweet fruit juices found in American grocery stores. They are mature, marginally alcoholic (4%) sparkling beverages that reflect their Northwestern French terroir as much as any wine in the country.
Eric Bordelet produces several apple and two pear ciders, one of which comes from 70 foot tall 300 year old pear trees. The same devastating storm that felled a forest in Versailles a decade ago also destroyed several old pear trees in the orchard that Bordelet harvests. The surviving trees produce very little fruit these days, but what they produce has so much intensity of flavor, the Granit bottling resembles a fine white wine more than just about any other beverage I’ve ever experienced.
It was the great Dagueneau himself who initiated a friendship with the cidermaker while Bordelet was still the resident wine expert at one of France’s top twenty restaurants. It was Didier who convinced Eric to create a new, artisan style of cider, the likes of which the world had never seen. Dagueneau persuaded his friend to create natural goodness above all.
As a wine expert who respected his friend Didier Dagueneau’s biologique approach to grape growing, the two of them had often enthused over the wines of other leading winemakers in France who also were returning to a more natural way of making wine. They developed a loose knit group of world-class winemakers called Les Gens Metiers who still meet monthly to taste each other’s wines and the great wines of other new and exciting estates in France.
When Dagueneau learned that Bordelet’s father lived on the edge of the Calvados appellation and grew fruit trees for making cider, he persuaded Eric to return to the family estate and create a totally new, natural approach to cider making. Fourteen years later Bordelet is now acknowledged as the greatest cider producer in France.
With his extensive wine background, Bordelet had a special perspective with which to transition to his new life. His ciders would be nearly as complex as the world’s finest wines, and they would possess a character and thirst-quenching ability that would not only make them unparalleled summer sippers, but wonderful dinner beverages for a large array of cuisines.
Two Kilometers from Normandy
I first met Eric Bordelet, a handsome, serious-minded fellow with an occasional puckish grin, at his family’s sprawling estate just south of Normandy in the Pays de la Loire over a decade ago. Driving up to his newly built home which is attached to his cider works, there are the imposing vine-covered ruins of a great old stone estate whose roof had caved in long before anyone living could remember.
It was a stormy, drizzly, cool and dark day when we arrived at Bordelet’s estate in the spring of 2002, the Château de Hauteville. Like a scene out of Wuthering Heights, the long driveway cuts through a grassy meadow and aims right for the stone ruins of a 17th century manor all covered in moss and other wild overgrowth.
The Château de Hauteville ruins as seen driving into the Eric Bordelet Cider Estate
Behind the ruins and down in a culvert lies Eric’s parents’ stone house, and to the right of the ghost mansion is another restored stone building with Bordelet’s residence and the cider works. To the left of the old mansion lies Bordelet’s apple orchard, with closed-space trellising, looking much like grape vines.
“Terroir is important,” says Bordelet. “Gravel and clay, and gravel and schist soils, all individually influence the flavors of 22 different varieties of apples. They all have different root systems for interesting flavors.”
All of Bordelet’s plantings are for future generations, a concept marketers in the U.S. can’t comprehend. The branches are pulled down and tied to restrict the sap which makes small fruit work harder, giving the cider more structure rather than more juice.
His farming and cider making is biodynamic—that is, not only organic, but utilizing the almost mystical traditions of winemaking, using the heavens to determine your bottling timetable, etc. These may sound a bit whacked out to us sophisticated, scientific-minded modernists, but they work.
Eric Bordelet, the world’s greatest cider artisan
As I said before, Bordelet makes several different styles of cider, some from apples and some from pears. They are low in alcohol, about 4%, are now vintage dated, and they are as refreshing as all get out. He makes apple cider in an off-dry Sydre Brut, a dry Sydre Argelette and sweet style, the Sydre Doux.
His two pear ciders are Poiré Authentique, a cider with more measured sugar than the apple ciders, but whose taste is merely off-dry due to the higher acid found in pears, and Poiré Granit a very special bottling from pears picked off 300 year old, 70 foot high trees planted in a granite soil at a friend’s farm 10 kilometers from the domaine. From a distance they look like big oak trees in winter, but upon closer examination, these massive trees were spouting buds all over their twiggy branches.
Air drying the apples for increased concentration at harvest time
There is a 2-3 month fermentation for the Doux, and a six month long fermentation for the dry ciders. Fermentation takes place in the bottle, and the classic ciders can age 5 to 7 years, with the Granit and Argelette able to go 10 years to develop complexity of flavor. Bordelet says that the impression of sweetness improves with age, the same as with older wines.
Bordelet’s apples are not the kind that are grown for eating, and they don’t look like it. When the apples are fully grown, they are more the size of crabapples, so they will have a higher skin to pulp ratio. At harvest time they become so ripe they fall off the trees, at which time they are collected for mashing and extraction of the juice. before fermentation. Trees last about 80 years before they become non-productive.
The pears, on the other hand come primarily from orchards to the rear of the cider works, in two orchards of magnificent pear trees. The old timers in the region swear that pear trees must be 100 years old before they start producing cider pears of real quality. Bordelet’s pears must be harvested by hand, and depending on the size of the tree, they may be reached by ladder or by hydraulic cherry-picker. The latter is certainly the case for the 70 foot high trees used for the Granit bottling.
One of the 300 year old, 70 foot tall pear trees bearing fruit for the Eric Bordelet Poiré Granit cider
After touring Bordelet’s cider works and tasting his amazing ciders we sat down at Eric’s dinner table where he served us the greatest tasting roast chicken of my life and I experienced many uses besides mere thirst quenching for his bubbly art.
Bordelet’s fruity Sydre Doux was served with a platter full of small nibbles in various pastry and bread-like coverings, straight from the oven.
Next he served the Poiré Granit, the impressive and subtle off-dry cider from the old orchard with his fish course, a fabulous sautée of whole scallops, including the flavorful, red crescent-shaped roe that you never see on this side of the Atlantic.
When it came time to eat the main course, Bordelet’s incredibly flavorful roast chicken, the former sommelier pulled out a series of intriguing and ground-breaking red wines from the cellar. Blind, of course.
We returned to the ciders for the cheese course, Bordelet’s magnificent 1999 Sydre Argelette, a subtle and refreshing dry sparkler from apples grown in clay soils known as Argille, which we drank with a great Normandy Camembert.
Finally, the dessert was a rich, carmelly baked apple tarte tatin. An older vintage of sweet and complex Sydre Doux was offered, and the rich flavors of the cider played off the tarte nicely and formed a nice bookend with the earlier Doux.
When I got back to Long Beach, I was still bubbling about the great Normandy chicken and cider dinner I had at Bordelet’s house. I gathered up all of the Bordelet ciders I had in our store and drove down to see André Angles at Frenchy’s Bistro. We sat at his wine bar and popped them all open. As he tasted the bright fruit in all of them, André eyes brightened.
“These would be perfect for a hot summer afternoon,” he said. “The Doux, especially would be good with an apple tart.”
When our French wine manager visited Bordelet during her French wine tour a few years later she relayed my enthusiasm for his chicken dinner.
“Yes, I remember Randy,” Eric said. “Tell him next time he comes I’ll roast a wild turkey.”