Could apples be wine's answer to climate change?
May 18, 2021 — The world spent about a year on pause. The forced stasis extracted an incalculable economic, emotional and psychological cost. All of that time living close to home, fearful, in close proximity to death and destruction, not only caused waves of deep contemplation and creativity to break on shores across the globe, but it made the seemingly impossible suddenly plausible.
Invent and distribute a vaccination within a year of a plague’s full-planet invasion? Yes. Thwart a violent insurrection at our nation’s capital that was arguably launched by a (now) failed but aspiring dictator? You better believe it.
So perhaps the cider and wine producers who are setting out to fight the effects of climate change by creating a new fermented beverage category isn’t as implausible as it may initially sound, I mused while inching my way toward one such renegade, Wild Arc Farm, in Pine Bush, N.Y. on a recent day.
Climate change is, like face masks, an indisputable fact of life at this point. In addition to the steady warming of our planet, which has been linked with 95%+ certitude to human, carbon-emitting activity by NASA, climate change has caused unpredictable weather patterns. The wildfires that burned through 4.2 million acres and did an estimated $20 billion worth of damage in California in 2020 alone are the tip of the (rapidly melting) iceberg, scientists warn.
The very future of wine as we know it is in peril: up to 85% of current wine-growing land in the world could become unsuitable for grapes, if this trend continues.
EXPLORING THE POSSIBILITIES
On one of my first solo sojourns away from home in more than a year, I got stuck in a traffic jam. This was not — I cannot state with more emphasis — expected. However, on this particularly sunny, early spring day in New Paltz (population 7,165), a cautious re-emergence seemed to be on a lot of people’s agendas.
Underneath a red, white and blue building-size mural of a hand giving a peace sign, a weathered man in a t-shirt and jeans with shoulder-length white hair strummed a guitar, smiling (judging from his eye crinkles). Masked up residents and tourists wandered in and out of head shops, pho restaurants, clothing boutiques, from-scratch bakeries and farm-to-tables.
Nudging past the initial crush of people and cars, I found a new pile-up headed toward the state parks, biking trails, nature preserves and the array of wineries, distillers and breweries that define the cultural and economic life of the region. Everyone seemed to be grinning, wild-eyed, swept up in the feral mania that erupts from all living beings during spring’s first bud burst in northerly climes.
With the Shawangunk Ridge raised like a victorious fist in my rearview mirror, I sped past ancient dairy farms, rolling fields and wetlands. Past clusters of micro McMansions and beat-up ranch houses. Finally, I arrived at Wild Arc —
the farm and homestead of Todd Cavallo and Crystal Cornish, married Brooklynites who spent a decade making kimchi, pickling organic vegetables and brewing beer in their tiny apartment before leaving their stable, but dull jobs in tech and children’s ware to embark on an audacious experiment in biodynamic permaculture and viticulture on 10 acres in the Hudson Valley in 2016.
“First, we thought we’d create a diversified farm, grow vegetables, have a small number of animals, sell eggs, and generally farm the way families did here for hundreds of years,” Cavallo explains, walking me around the back of the family house. “That first year, we made wine, but planned to make it mostly for ourselves. But we got a wine license so we could sell it on the farm too. We were shocked when that’s what took off.”
Their friends went crazy for their wild wines, made from locally grown hybrid and Vitis vinifera grapes. Word spread. Their 25 cases sold out, and suddenly their script, already a work in progress, had to be rewritten.
That freedom left a lot of room for exploration and experimentation. They’ve planted one acre of grapes, and a little less than an acre of fruit and nut trees, including apple, pear, peach, plum, cherry and hazelnut — plus bayberries and other plants that build nitrogen-rich soils, all organically farmed. While they wait for the grapes and trees to mature (some grapes will be ready this year), they work with local farmers who are already farming organically, or are willing to transition their vineyards away from chemical dependence.
The grapes they work with are primarily hybrid varieties like Marquette, Traminette and Cayuga — as well as vinifera varieties like Cabernet Franc, Riesling and Teroldego. They also produce serious artisanal cider, all with minimal intervention, produced with a wide-open mind.
“We were really excited when we saw the response to our wines and ciders, but we wanted to take the sustainability of our process even further,” Cavallo explains. “In 2017, we made our first piquette.”
Piquette is made from the leftover grape skins used in wine production. They are soaked in water, pressed, fermented, then blended with wine, bottled with local honey, which re-ferments the starter, adding sparkle and floral flavors. Light and lively, it’s a fun day-drinking wine (7% ABV). The sales of their piquette—and the exuberant reception it received from critics—vaulted Wild Arc into the (small-batch, artisanal) stratosphere. They went from 25, to 200, to 600, then to this year’s 1200 cases of wine, piquette and cider.
“After the success of the piquette, we thought, what next?” Cavallo says. “So we took the skins that we used first for the wines, then the piquette, and decided to use them to make a co-ferment with apples.”
“Our entire goal with Wild Arc is to be a biodiverse farm that gives more to the land than it takes away,” Cavallo says. “How that happened didn’t matter as much.”
The grape skins add tannic heft and complexity to the locally sourced Northern Spies. Furthermore, having co-ferments as a part of their product line, Cavallo says, makes the vagaries of extreme New York winters and unpredictable summers seem less risky.
Following my visit to Wild Arc, I cracked a bottle of Sweetheart with my husband, Stephen — made by aging a dry cider (Northern Spy) on Teroldego skins for two months. The results were thrilling: bright, acidic, racy cider flavors combined with the bramble, mountain berries and structure added by the grapes. I was eager to explore more.
Thankfully, Wild Arc is in good company. At Aaron Burr Cidery, a few towns over in Wurtsboro, Andy Brennan has been tending his five-acre orchard of wild apples with as much thought and care — and as few rules — as Wild Arc, since 2006.
“I am fascinated by wild apples,” Brennan says, noting that his particular patch of Sullivan County is so rife with wild apple trees, “you literally make applesauce as you drive around.”
Initially, he only made cider for home consumption, experimenting with the wild apples and keeping detailed notes as to which varieties produced the best results. Soon he was grafting wood from the best wild sources onto his cultivated trees in a bid to not only make better cider, but as Brennan puts it, “to preserve those wild strains.”
What started as a home cider project had become an ideological mission. Brennan found that introducing drinkers — accustomed to soda-sweet ciders made from conventional eating apples — to the dry, complex and elegant ciders he produced from hardscrabble Hudson Valley originals, was a way to share his passion for his region’s biodiversity and wilderness.
However, Brennan quickly learned that Mother Nature’s whims didn’t always align with his own, and so he relied on co-ferments as a way to consistently craft products that lived up to his lofty expectations.
“If a winter is really rough, wild apples suffer,” he explains, pointing to the 2008 vintage, in which he was forced to make cider using eating apples. “They were terrible. I decided to experiment.”
In order to produce a cider from eating apples that approached the complexity of one made from wild apples, Brennan began adding elderberries and the skins of Gewürtzraminer and Traminette grapes.
“Climate change is a problem of our own making,” Brennan says. “It is our job as farmers to adjust to the world, instead of telling it what to do. We need to continue to explore, invest in the land, and find ways to fight climate change, but also work with what we have right here, right now.”
Brennan’s obsession with sustainable agriculture, cider production and business eventually led him to write the widely lauded Uncultivated, released by Chelsea Green Publishing in 2019.
Meanwhile, West Coast winemakers are also embracing the delicious possibilities found in grape and apple co-ferments in an effort to tell the complete story of a region’s terroir and to help ameliorate the effects of unpredictable weather patterns and natural disasters. In recent years, winemakers in California have been fighting climate change like never before, as each season of wild fires grows longer, stronger and more devastating.
“When the fires hit in August last year, we thought maybe in Mendocino we’d be spared,” says Jason Charles, who sources Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and old-vine Carignan from the region for his Vinca Minor label. “But by September, it was clear that our red wine production just wouldn’t happen. We could have picked them immediately and used them to make rosé, which a lot of producers did — but in my mind, that would have produced a high-octane rosé that I wouldn’t want to put my name on. I started thinking about what we could do, and I thought about how hardy apples and pears are. They can spend months on cold storage. Grapes, by comparison, are incredibly delicate.”
He explains that in addition to having some of the oldest grape vines in the United States, Mendocino also has orchards dating back to the nineteenth century.
“I realized I had access to pears and apple trees planted in the 1860s,” he says. “I started experimenting and the results blew my mind.”
Under his new label, Moonland, Charles now co-ferments organic and biodynamic Carignan, Sauvignon Blanc, apples and pears, creating three blends at 50-70 cases each. They’re barrel-fermented and aged sans additions — just like his wines — and they finish fermentation in the bottle, which creates pét-nat style bubbles. Charles started selling them out of his Berkeley tasting room, and they were such a phenomenal success that he hopes to double production and continue experimenting in 2021.
Chenoa Ashton-Lewis and Will Basanta, the makers behind Sonoma’s recently launched Ashanta Wines, are also thrilled by the range of expressions and styles co-ferments can offer — and the manner in which they can not only transparently portray the land’s terroir, but offer protection.
Ashanta Wines’ first commercial vintage was in 2020, following the unexpected success and joy they found in 2019 when they had the opportunity to make wine from a vineyard planted by Ashton-Lewis’ grandparents in the 1970s. It was the first wine to be produced from the site since it was damaged in the Nuns Fire two years prior.
“We love working with what the land offers us,” Ashton-Lewis says.
“We have a number of relationships with organic grape and apple farmers, and we’re interested in exploring the ways we can express terroir in a complete way through co-ferments of grapes, grapes and apples, and grapes and wild elderberries, which we forage all over Sonoma,” Ashton-Lewis continues. “For our grape and apple co-ferment, we used Viognier skins from one of our neighbors, pressed just that day, and we used the Carignan skins for our rosé.”
The 2020 Sidra! aims to capture the best of Sonoma, which, the couple explains, historically had about as many acres devoted to apples as it did grapes. “You get this incredible crisp freshness from the apples, cherry notes from the Carignan, and the Viognier adds a floral touch,” says Basanta. “Plus there’s structure, earth and red fruit notes here that you wouldn’t get with just apples.”
No one would wish the horror and suffering of the pandemic and wildfires on the world. But perhaps lessons can be drawn. Maybe we can all think more creatively about how to deal with the reality at hand now, and plan for a better tomorrow.
If, as Brennan of Aaron Burr Cidery believes, it is a farmer’s duty to seek out and explore solutions to the problems we created, is it a drinker’s duty to seek out the fruits of their labor? Let’s grab a bottle of fruit wine and discuss.
Kathleen Willcox is a freelance wine writer based in Saratoga Spring, N.Y. who covers a range of topics from food and wine to sustainability and social justice.
Photo credits: (#1) Courtesy of Wild Arc Farm. (#2) Andy Brennan and Polly Giragosian of Aaron Burr Cidery; courtesy of the Aaron Burr (#3) Jason Charles of Vinca Minor/Moonland; by Elizabeth Cecil. (#3) Chenoa Ashton-Lewis and Will Basanta of Ashanta Wines; courtesy of Ashanta Wines.