Monday, April 4, 2016

Pop Quiz

What's the #1 grape in California and the world?
Is it Merlot, Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay?
Think it might be Zinfandel?
Wrong again.
The answer is Sultana.
"But that's impossible," you might say, "I've never heard of it!"
Ah, but you have! In fact, you know it quite it well. You know it as a large, pale green seedless grape available in every grocery store in America. It's a "table grape", not a "wine grape". But because Sultana is not used for wine it holds a different place in social and commercial contexts. It is, for lack of a better analogy, an entirely different product than those wine grapes named above.

Because of the fact that nearly 100% of the wines in America use only "wine grapes" and nearly 100% of the grocery-stores sell only "table grapes" we have evolved two different agricultural systems for grapes. There's the viticulture famously thriving in the Napa Valley, for instance, and then there's the massive grape farms located in less traveled regions which produce the blemish-free seedless grapes for super markets. Very rarely are wine grapes and table grapes grown on the same farm.

See where I'm going with this? Ever wonder why cider, from America's favorite fruit, is not revered as a fine drink in the U.S. anymore? And now that every apple farm in the country is producing cider these days, do you stop to ponder why all these ciders taste like a watered-down version of a sweet white wine? Do you question why it's so cheap compared to wine? The secret to this lies right there in the Sultana grape. Nearly 100% of the apple farms in America are growing the Sultana equivalent apple and trying to pass it off as equivalent to Merlot. It is not, and I repeat, NOT cider fruit.  

So in the end we have a ruse. We have an exploding industry based almost entirely (no exaggeration) on a fruit that does not exist on American farms. Save but a fraction of 1%, there are no apples cultivated for producing fine cider. What you are drinking is Sultana in a champagne bottle with an elaborate marketing story.
Post script disclaimer: I want to make it perfectly clear that Aaron Burr Cider is also effected by the limited state of apples in America. In our 750ml line of ciders (our "fruit-wine" ciders, blended with other fruit like elderberry and grape) we too use "sultana equivalent" apples, apples which were planted and cultivated on table apple farms. It's for this reason we have always kept this line separate from the pure cider line in the 500ml bottles (the Homestead line.)
The purpose of this post is to prod the cider industry forward by way of cider apple cultivation. Relying on conventional apple farms presents a conflict of interest.  


  1. Great post! I too have noticed all these startup cideries trying to differentiate themselves, but its nearly all the same flavored but not very flavorful cider. Although I've had a number of ciders from dessert apple varieties that I've enjoyed, nearly all my truly favorite ciders are made from cider apple varieties. French and English ciders made from cider apples can also be a surprisingly good value (I often find them priced between American dessert apple ciders and American cider apple ciders). I do like to support local artisan cideries though.

  2. Andy, I agree with your sentiment but it's not fair to say 100% of apple farms are growing table fruit and putting into cider. There is actually a small but thriving (and growing) contingent of orchard based cideries growing proper cider varieties and making great cider out of them.

    1. Autumn, you are right. And in fact it is you, and a handful of others in mind in the words "a fraction of 1% are cultivating for fine cider." Truly though, the quantities grown for fine cider is a fraction of 1% of the overall US cider volume. So I stand by the carefully chosen words "nearly 100%".

  3. Although, to be fair, the Sultana is not a Vitis Vinifera species of grape while most cider apples and mass-grown dessert apples are in fact the same species of apple (just different varieties). The qualities of an apple that make it good for cider are sugar content, tannins, aromatics, and acidity, and some dessert (especially heritage dessert varieties) do have a good number of these qualities.

  4. So, what is the net result is of all these people deciding to try cider and encountering thin, back sweetened, back flavored stuff?

  5. I'm not sure. Sometimes I think customers continue exploring other ciders and eventually find a set they like. Sometimes I think they are confirmed in their prejudgement that wine is superior and they never return. I have seen both.
    I don't want to knock the tastes of those who find doctored thin ciders enjoyable but I am rightly concerned that cheap and easy apples can thwart a potentially healthy alternative.

  6. Thanks for the article. In your opinion what are the best type of apples to grow in New York state to produce wonderful cider?! would love to know which varieties to plant and how long from planting do these trees take to produce...

    1. Each location is different but in "non-ag" soils seedling trees do the best. They know how to survive in nature. Crab apples, especially Malus Baccata, are infinitely better for cider than the water-balloons. But even with them it depends on how you grow them. Farmed apples don't have the character of apples out in the real world. To farmers interested in growing the best cider apples, I think we should take as many cues from naturalized apples (with fewest compromises.)

  7. Great conversation:) cheers jimmy carbone, nyc