When you think of fermented beverages in Spain, you probably think of wine. The tempranillos and albariños made there are revered around the world.
But in the far north of the country — the regions of Asturias and the Basque Country — they grow apples, not grapes. In the north of Spain, cider is king.
Spanish cider sets itself apart from that of other regions by its dryness and acidity. The apple varieties grown in the region — Errezilla, Abalia, Altza, Andoain and others — are higher in acid and tannin than most. The resulting ciders are light and tart, finishing with a refreshing pucker. That higher acidity makes them perfect for drinking with food.
Spanish ciders are also naturally fermented using the wild yeasts that populate the skin of the fruit. This gives them a mild spicy and barnyard character that adds a feel of rusticity. Bottled “on the lees” (the sediment that occurs during fermentation), they can pour quite cloudy. The suspended yeast adds fullness to the mouthfeel.
The way a Spanish cider arrives in the glass is important. In the region’s many sagardotegia, or cider houses, cider is “thrown,” not poured. In the most traditional cider houses, cider is poured directly from large chestnut barrels. The txotx (chutch) — a wooden peg sealing the barrel — is removed, releasing a long arc of cider that is caught in glasses held at an angle to allow the flow to hit the side of the glass.
In cideries where bottled cider is served, especially in the Asturias region, a skilled cider server or escanciador holds the bottle high above his or her head and pours into a wide-mouthed glass held as low as the arm allows. The most skilled will do so while looking straight ahead.
The aggressive pour releases carbon dioxide from suspension, giving these otherwise still ciders a delightful tingle. The effect doesn’t last long, though. For this reason, cider is poured only a few ounces at a time. Drink it quickly and then go back for more.
This method really does improve the character of the cider. I encourage you try it at home. But do it over the sink.
In 2017, Basque cider was given a protected designation of origin. Ciders bearing the characteristic red Euskal Sagardoa label are made from a limited selection of apple varieties grown in the Basque Autonomous Community. They have also undergone rigorous sensory evaluation and lab analysis to ensure premium quality.
In the Twin Cities, Isastegi Sidra Naturala is a red-label Basque cider that is readily available. Cider has been made at the Isastegi farm since the 17th century. Sidra Naturala has a big, fruity aroma bursting with red apples. A hint of the characteristic Basque barnyard gives an impression of rusticity. The barnyard barely carries into the flavor, though, making room for luscious red apple flavors — juice, flesh and skin. Acidity is high, dry and tart with layers of pleasant acetic character and lemony citrus. It all comes together into a complex and highly drinkable cider.
Another Basque cider available here isn’t Spanish at all. It’s French, from the Basque region of southern France. Txopinondo Sagarnoa pours hazy gold into the glass. It’s bottled on the lees, so you may notice bits of yeast that have been roused from the bottom of the bottle. This cider explodes with fresh, crisp green apple in both the flavor and aroma. Acidity is again the star. It’s quite tart with a moderately strong acetic presence. Background notes of fresh herbs, citrus fruits, cedar and funk make this an extraordinarily complex and extremely refreshing drink.
Mayador Sidra Natural is the funkiest of the locally available Spanish ciders. This still, Asturian cider leans heavily on acidity. The flood of tart lime and vinegary acetic acid almost makes you pucker. The rustic barnyard character is also high. You can almost taste the stables. But it melds well with the perky taste of sliced green apples to create an intense, but tasty treat. It conjured the mental image of green apples lying in hay. This is a cider that wants to be drunk with food. It would be great with grilled shellfish. But it could stand up equally well to a grilled steak.
The limited-release sparkling version of Mayador brings the funk of the still cider, but in a gentler, Champagne-like package. While it’s still an acid-forward cider, a higher level of sweetness tempers the acetic sour. The funk is present, but at a lower intensity than the still version. What is in abundance is apple — all the apples. From bruised red apple to tart green apple, it’s all there in glorious juiciness. This celebratory cider makes a great introduction to Spanish ciders — sour and funky, but not too much.
Poma Áurea, a sparkling Asturian cider from Sidra Trabanco, is even milder. Red apple skins and flesh take the lead with green apple slices, honey and herbs in support. Acidity is very high. This is a tart, lemony cider. But the vinegary acetic acid is very low. There is only a faint hint of barnyard funk. Medium-high tannin gives it some bitterness and structure. The relatively clean profile and prickly effervescence make this a great substitution for sparkling wine or Champagne.
Trabanco Sidra Natural is similar to Poma Áurea, but without the fizz. Almost puckering acidity hangs on into the finish, but there is virtually no vinegar. There is also virtually no sugar sweetness in this extremely dry cider, a fact that is emphasized by the bitter tannins. Like the sparkling version, fresh apples — both red and green — are the stars of the show. Sidra Natural is still, but poured from a height — “thrown” — it assumes a gentle, lifting tingle.