Vintage Variation and Aging Hard Cider—The Cider Journal’s EZ Orchard Interview

EZOKZKevin Zielinski is the proprietor of EZ Orchards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. His one and only cider, a French inspired bottling, is produced from primarily traditional French cider apple varieties growing on his family’s farmland. The 2011 vintage is the only domestic cider yet to earn 5 stars from The Cider Journal. 

Zielinski approaches and understands cider production very similarly to how a vintner would approach winemaking, giving deep thought and deference to vintage variation. Additionally, he also seems to understand that for American cider to break out as a coveted artisan beverage, it will need to be appreciated the way fine wine is appreciated: for the diversity that  can result from vintage variation, terroir, plant material and the producer’s cidermaking philosophy.

Mr. Zielinski was kind enough to respond to a few questions The Cider Journal had on the key issues of vintage variation, aging fine cider, as well as the results of his own efforts in the orchard and cidery.

What are the primary differences that are exhibited from one apple vintage to the next EZO-OrchardRowin the fruit that is harvested?
I have found the the greatest variation in Tannin structure, and sugar. Acid is a minor component in my cidre, I grow low acid bitter-sweet apples. Each season presents multiple variations. An early spring will usually result in an earlier harvest harvest. This may reduce the finer nuance in aromatics the fruit can achieve due to warmer daytime temperature, and fewer cooling degrees at night.

Can you explain what an optimal growing season for cider apples looks like in Oregon’s Willamette Valley?
Decent pollinating weather followed by normal spring conditions for the Willamette Valley. This means some rain some sun, and little risk of damaging frost. A delayed harvest due to warm fall
weather, and cool nights. The later a harvest the better. If we have a mid to late spring bloom we can develop more complex fruit. However if we bloom late, and have a wet cold fall the result is lower sugar content, and less developed tannin. You must remember each day grows
shorter, reducing the potential gain.

Is vintage variation masked by the fact that often a number of different apple varieties are used in a cider blend?
Of course! I am milling up to nine varieties for the cidre. Production will be up or down on each from year to year. This in tandem with the growing season will cause many variations in fruit
character. Yet the blend is fairly consistent because we have no dominant variety in the blend. This approach is not by design, it is a benefit using what a diverse orchard produces. Minimizing production swings, and balancing structure is an advantage.

EZO-CiderGlassWhat considerations would you take into account before deciding to lay down a particular cider for aging? In other words, what kind of “build” must a cider have in order for it to benefit from a few years (or more) in a dark cellar?
I used to hear cider will not age, drink it now. I disagree. If a cider is alive because it has not been pasteurized, or over treated with SO2, it will age. If the cider is constructed from fruit that is not heavy in nitrogen and carries both tannin, and acidity. Leanning towards one or the other or big on both, you may lay it down for several years. I recently opened a 2007 I had made, no preservatives were added. This cidre would be typed as a semi-sweet, and it was! The yeast lees were resting comfortably in the bottle. What did I get? Not unlike a wine (this is wine), less fruit, but more complex spice, and a very tight small bubble. These bubbles took years to develop, and they were tiny. I went back to the unfinished bottle a day latter, it had been poorly capped, to find a still noticeable effervescence.

What transformations in character do you expect an age-able cider to undergo as it ages?
Less fresh fruit for the nose. Ripe fruit like a withering apple on the counter top. The mouth will give more at mid and back. You will find that ripe dehydrating apple there. Not the fresh fruit of summer. If your cider is full of tannin you should find delicate notes of Christmas spice. Higher acid cider will come to offer fuller acidity not so bright, more depth. If the cider carries both tannin, and acid you may expect harmony of these elements, or a weakening of one to the
other.

Would it seem there is an outer limit to the amount of aging time a cider can handle, and still evolve in a positive manner?

Most likely yes. I attribute the age-able assets of a cider to many factors. This process of aging will hit a wall, and depending upon what is stabilizing the cider, carbonation, SO2, refrigeration. Lets leave the Pasteurized ciders out of this equation. Some thing will erode, and the life of the cider may be lost, or we may not understand it. Has it spoiled? If it is like so many well aged wines 30+ years, a primer on what to expect is advised. I have cidre dating to 2004, unfortunately during my trial vintage years I made to little for my thirst leaving me with few bottles for later life. I will sacrifice a bottle of the elder cidre soon and see what has happened.

EZlogoHow have the different vintages of EZ Orchard Cidre varied over the years?
Each vintage was effected by two important functions, fruit, and as important ferment rate. The 2009 was a very slow in ferment finishing with considerable residual sugar. The aging in bottle to develop carbonation naturally “Petulant Natural” was slow as well. This slow finish allowed brett to develop resulting in a truly Norman style cidre. I was delighted, the public was sometimes reluctant. 2010 hit the best of all markers for a fine product, nice fruit, moderate ferment velocity, and a not to scary slow bottle finishing. It is Semi-Dry, almost undetectable brett, and fruit forward. Neither of these first two commercial vintages were big in tannins. 2011 presented a lower brix fruit a much faster ferment, and some serious concerns regarding finish. This vintage was in fermented in larger volume, which presented greater difficulty in ferment relaxation. At bottling I was content, during bottle finishing I became concerned as the cidre became very dry. The 2011 cidre taught me many lessons, one is patience. It is a fine cidre that gives fruit, and spice. is very tightly carbonated, and loves to share the dinner table. 2012 is soon to be released. It will be labeled as a dry cidre, and yes it is. It has very present tannin, noticeable brett, and a surprising full nose. This cidre was produced from an lower acid blend than usual, 3.97 PH. I know the fears many cider makers have of this low acid must. It is not without legitimate concern. 2013 is still in the tank fermenting. The press was in early January. This cidre is full of spice, and will finish most likely as a Semi-Dry. I am very hopeful for this vintage.

Learn More About EZ Orchards Cidre at http://www.ezorchards.com

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