When I received the invitation I assumed it had been sent accidentally to the incorrect address. ‘Cider blending’? No ‘beer’ in the title, for a start, and then ‘blending’? As in ‘mixing’ or ‘configuring’? Doesn’t even sound traditional or natural, does it? Confirmation subsequently arrived from the Brews News Editor that I was, indeed, invited to a one-on-one cider blending workshop at Rebello wines on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, with head wine and cider maker, Wayne Hewett.
Rebello, whose ciders are labelled under the Cheeky Rascal brand name, grows fruit – plenty of it – and turns much of it into wines and ciders, the likes of which I was fairly unfamiliar with. They had conducted a cider blending workshop at Beer Deluxe as part of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival and the 50 attendees all reported a cracking good time so I ventured down the highway for an early morning appointment at the farm. Let me begin by saying that, if you are going to get into some serious wine and cider tasting, first thing in the A.M. may not seem to be the ideal time structure. However, the palate is more receptive to subtle flavours and nuances of taste and, let’s be fair, you get the rest of the day to recover while chatting with a very top bloke while you sober up. You could do worse.
I declare that my palate is very much a slave to the amber nectar, an admission I made to Wayne at the outset. I don’t dislike cider but I equally have little knowledge of it. In fact, I did almost all my pre-visit research by reading this piece by Brews News’ own Cider Correspondent, Dr Tim Boyle. I felt I knew the basic differences between French cider and those favoured by the Brits and between proper apple cider and what Bridge Road Brewer Ben Kraus delightfully refers to as ‘fizzy goon’, or the sparkling apple-flavoured ethanol apparently popular with the teens. But I can’t honestly say that I knew enough about cider to fairly hold up one end of a cider-based conversation. I soon became aware that I didn’t know just how complex, flavoursome and, dare I say it, rewarding a good cider can be.
This is another segment of the cider family where true fruit wines are crafted from fresh fruit, simple liquid sugar and the wonders of fermentation and then carbonated and kegged or bottled. At first taste there is a definite wine-like character but the freshness and tartness of the fruit soon arrives to balance the whole creating a lovely mouthfeel and tight dry finish. Cheeky Rascal cider also offers blended fruit wine ciders which are as simple in their construction as taking some raspberry, blueberry, strawberry or passionfruit wine and mixing it with some apple wine. Of course, as my efforts were soon to confirm, it takes a deft touch, some rich experience and a trained palate like Wayne’s to create something drinkable, let alone spectacular.
It was here that I learned the basics. Granny Smith apple wine has the green crispness that you would expect while Fuji has a soft sugary note. Pink Lady gives a nice measure of sweet and tart and pear wine can be used to add depth and intensity or to lift the specific characteristics of the apples. It is only when some unsupervised blending begins that I learn just how difficult it can be to get it just right. It also taught me that cider – just like beer – can be a peculiarly personal and subjective thing as Wayne returned to appraise my initial offerings. I jokingly set out to recreate the cider of my youth by having a crack at making a sweet, dry and draught version of my very own Professor’s Choice Cider & Perry.
What I thought was seriously too sweet Wayne dismissed as not sweet nearly enough for the category and my dry was thought too sweet. Fortunately we both agreed that my draught was more miss than hit as we tipped it down the sink. Pleading for a re-sitting of my final exam I set out to make something that just tasted OK rather than trying to hammer something into a pre-ordained category. To our pleasant surprise I stumbled upon something we both enjoyed thoroughly and the rest was soon carbonated and bottled.
I can’t say that cider is challenging beer for premium chill-space in my fridge but, thanks to Wayne and very pleasant morning at Rebello Wines I can say that I have developed a healthy affection for good, proper cider and, at the same time, a heightened distrust for the syrupy sweet pap that some try to pass off as a nice change from the ordinary.