Bomber of the Month: May
Isastegi Sargado Basque Cider
By: André DiMattia
Regular Price: $11.99
Sale Price: $9.99
Sale End: 5/23/2012
Rate Beer: 97
Hard Cider production is long with history and extremely varied in style. Many different countries from across the globe all have their distinct contributions to the category of fermented apple juice, some being bright and enticing, while others taste with the rustic charm that goes back centuries with tradition. With these varied styles finally showing up on our shelves, we have decided to dedicate May as Cider month. Each week we will focus on a single style that represents the approach of a different country. These bottles will be on sale for that week only and hopefully many will gain an appreciation for one of the world’s more versatile, engaging and refreshing of beverages.
The history of cider production within the Basque county is long and somewhat mysterious as it stretches as far back as 2000 years. While it is not confirmed as to how apples were first introduced to this area of northern Spain, many purists believe that there could have been wild varietals naturally growing on their own. Cider greatly infused its placement in the traditions of the Basque people and the style has now become somewhat of a phenomenon that expresses a distinction from other beverages. By law, no sugars can be added and the bottles cannot be filled with any sort of gas to give carbonation. The few families still producing ciders of this style are upholding methods that go back hundreds of years and fully embrace what it is to undertake the Basque heritage. These ciders are truly a taste of history.
Production begins around the beginning of October when apples are plentiful and ripe as they fall from the trees. Hand sorted and then crushed into a pulp but not so that the seeds are broken as they could lead to unwanted bitterness. The crushed apples are pressed and the free run juice is racked into large cedar barrels or steel tanks where fermentation begins simply from the ambient yeasts in the area. Fermentation usually lasts until around January when the desired lactic flavors begin to arise. This time also begins the long tradition called Txotx when the Sagardotegi (cider house) will open its doors for the public to taste the new batches of cider straight from the barrel before being bottled. Isastegi is one of the first examples to be imported to America and is a classic estate to represent the traditional ciders of the Basque country.
Located in the town of Tolosa, the Mari family has been dedicated to the production of Sagardo Naturala or natural cider since 1983. They try to use apples grown locally in the area and only out source when certain vintages are lacking in proper quality. Their cider is created from a blend of over 12 different varietals that are aged in very old, large cider barrels called Kupelas and is bottled unfiltered. As with all other Basque Sagardos, the cider is bottled nearly flat and it is suggested that the liquid be poured from a height of about 3 feet into an awaiting glass thus creating a natural amount of carbonation. If poured as the traditionalists demand, an even level of bubbles combine and foam upon the liquid with a tight structure. This method gives of amazing aromatics and begins an experience that many will not soon forget.
On to the Tasting Notes:
Sea air, sun baked rocks, dried apple skins, wild herbs and pollen coated flowers are all tightly bound together to create one distinct aroma. Sharp lemon like acidity fills the nose as images of hot days and desert heat come to mind suggesting refreshment all without the first sip. Fully expressive from the place in which it came, this cider has a dynamic aroma that translates as being a touch aggressive but through multiple sips, unravels into taste that is honest and enticing.
The first sip slaps the taste buds into shape almost the same way as splashing cold water upon one’s face. The acidity is striking, ringing with a tartness that can almost be felt like a sharp bite of pepper. Lemons and limes; freshly cut and squeezed upon the tongue, is a close comparison for how the first sip feels. The shocking acidity is met with a cheek gripping strength of tannic intensity equaled on a level close to straight cranberry juice or a young Barolo. The flavor is simply described as “wild” as it has traits of other styles of cider but is utterly unique with its distinct representation of basic terrior.
If there was every a beverage to decant, this is certainly one to embrace. The first aromas are a mangled combination of polarizing extremes that expand on the palate in a way that might be off putting to some. Yeasty, earthy and full of an under-ripened apple sort of fruitiness and yet, if left to breath, these levels calm and integrate wonderfully well into themselves. Decanting allows oxygen to dissipate the odd aromas and brings the acid levels down a notch. While this will always be a drink that is distinct, if given time to open, the flavors shine with harmonious complexity.
This might be one of the single most impressive beverages to pair with foods. While sweetness is a great extinguisher for heat’s flames, the high levels of acid in the Isastegi are so bold, they can confidently overtake and dissipate hot foods. The same goes for highly salted foods liked brined fish, blue cheeses, cured meats and pickled vegetables. The cultural concept of tapas or Pintxos (as they say in Basque) is fully envisioned with a glass of Isastegi on hand. There might not be another liquid to make the transition from smoky to pickled, gamey to salty, fatty to sweet, roasted to acidic or any other varied combo. Palate cleansing and quite refreshing when drank over a variety of foods, this beverages keeps one on their feet.
Fans of real Lambic take note; there are wonderful comparative aromas and puckering flavors that aren’t too far from those found in the Belgian born brethren. This is a special opportunity as these ciders are not made in much volume and up until just a few months ago, were never found in our part of the world. Fermentation is the basis for civilization.