A tale of two ciders
I've been making cider for a long time, let's say 13 years or so. For a long time I was working solely with 'dessert' apples and some crabs for tannin kick. Now I have/had access to table fruit unlike the average Mac-Delicious-Cortland fruit widely available in New England and elsewhere, and discovered that Liberty, a scab-resistant apple from the Cornell breeding program, makes a decent cider on its own and contributes a lot to a blend as well. After a lot of trial and error I came upon a blend from an unsprayed block I used to manage. At the time the mill I used would not squeeze sprayed fruit, so this was a good block to have. For a number of years my main cider blend consisted of Liberty, Haralson, Nova-Easy-Grow, and some Redfield crab. This made a decent cider, but it tended to be rather sharp, although my tongue got used to it. In 2003 I even did an oak barrel ferment of this blend that turned out well, if not a bit overpowered with oak.
But in the meantime I was just getting it together to grow or source my own 'real' cider fruit, the bittersharps and bittersweets of European ancestry. After reading Proulx and Nichols' cider book, and talking with Steve Wood on the subject, I was convinced that I needed these fruit to make the best cider. In fact I think my infamous statement that I had not yet made a great cider came from that time. So I planted my orchard, and began buying in fruit from Steve. Yes, I was still blending with Liberty most of the time, and starting making good, even great ciders. But I still had not approached the holy grail of ciders, at least according to the books and experts. I'm talking about a varietal Kingston Black cider.
In 2007 I finally had enough KB for a single squeeze. Mind you I was throwing terroir out the window...these fruit came from South Burlington and Calais, Vt as well as Lebanon, NH. But squeeze it I did, and fermented in my usual minimalist style; 50 ppm sulfite at the squeeze, wild yeast, cold fermentation, one racking. In May it was still at a gravity of 1.005 or so, and fairly cloudy, so I hit it with some bentonite, 25 ppm sulfite, and racked. I bottled it two weeks ago.
The verdict? This is a damned good cider, I'd even say excellent (look for it as an entry in the 2008 GLOWS competition). Full bodied, slightly fruity, rich, with just the right acid-tannin balance. It's dry, but that tiniest bit of sweetness carries through with a nice apple character. I call this my Kingston Black Special Reserve, and even state on the label that the drinker should consider themselves lucky to be trying this potion.
So just the other night I was poking around the cider room and came across a bottle of 03 Bar (barrel blend, 2003 harvest). I didn't expect much from this five-year old cider; pulling the cork found a slight effervescent 'pop', maybe not a good thing. It poured into the glass with the most gorgeous trains of bubbles I've seen, the color a nice mild amber. There was still some nice sharp fruit in the aroma, and the flavor? Spectacular! Balanced sharpness, fully dry but fruity, very subdued oak. If I'd known that it would have aged this well I would have saved more than one bottle, and that was probably a mistake.
As for how it matches up to the Kingston Black, I'd put it on equal footing. Once you reach a certain level, particularly with the balance of acid, fruit, and sweetness, they become peers and do not deserve judgment against one another. Am I surprised that 'domestic' apples could make a cider on par with the supposed king of cider apples? Not really, and I have long advocated that the right domestic/crab blends can make decent and even great cider. I just thought it interesting that I got a chance to haphazardly try these two within a couple of days of each other.
Oh, and I no longer say that I haven't ever made a Great Cider.