The Cider Press: Spanish Sidra
Rustic, musty and tart, Spanish cider (or sidra) is one of the great treasures of the cider world. Sidra production in the España Verde region of Spain began in the late eleventh century when the region's climate was unfavorable for grape cultivation. Farmers planted apple orchards instead of grapes and began producing their own cider. Over time, two main production regions—Asturias and the Basque region—began to develop strong cider traditions and defined what we now consider Spanish cider.
What makes Spanish cider different from the stuff made in America, England and France? Sidras tend to have a dominant wild yeast character and a dry, tannic finish. These ciders are fermented naturally, without any added sugars or sweeteners, and are usually still, not sparkling. Both Asturian and Basque ciders exhibit acidic, complex, and musty flavors perfect for fans of traditional Belgian Lambics.
When served outside of a Spanish sidreria or sagardotegi (cider house), Spanish cider is served from a standard 750ml bottle. Instead of opening the bottle and letting it "breathe," Spain has a custom known as "throwing the cider." A server pours the cider from a height of approximately one meter to aerate and enhance the aroma and flavor of the cider.
Sidra with Food
While Spanish cider as a whole differs substantially from the rest of the world's ciders, the regional differences are a bit more subtle. Brett Helms, Manager of New York's Spanish wine shop, Tinto Fino, explains:
Stylistically, the cuisines of the regions tend to have a bit of an impact on how the sidras drink. The Asturian sidras seem to me to be a bit rounder and lengthier. [They make] good pairings for the heartier stews and rugged fare. The Basque ciders tend to have more intense flavors but seem to have more 'zip' to them...much like the food I've eaten in that region.
Basque ciders are traditionally served with salt cod tortillas and large platters of steak.
Tasting Spanish Ciders
The most common Asturian cider in America, Trabanco Cosecha Propia ($12, 750mL), is an excellent entry into Spanish cider produced from a blend of estate-grown, native varietals. The nose is full of red apples, butter, slate and moist soil while the palate leans more towards a grapefruit-like tartness with both floral undertones and barnyard flavors from the yeast. While Trabanco is not as complicated as most other Spanish ciders, the light body makes it an easy-drinking alternative to bright white wines.
Trabanco's Basque counterpart is Isastegi Sagardo Naturala ($6, 375mL). Isastegi is an unfiltered cider produced from over a dozen local varietals and aged in old, oak barrels known as kupelas. "It's got loads of spicy, apple, yeasty qualities," remarks Brett Helms, "but has an intense acidity that makes it almost too refreshingly drinkable." This cider has strong hay and white vinegar notes on the nose while the palate is bursting with unripe strawberries, limestone, red currants and a subtle mossy quality from the yeast. It finishes incredibly dry with a rustic tannic quality, and is ideal for anyone who prefers their cider a bit rougher around the edges.
Our favorite Basque cider is Sarasola Sagardoa ($12, 750mL). More rounded and robust than the Isistegi, the Sarasola's earthy character is balanced by an increased oak character, tropical fruits and mandarin oranges. There are strong, complex flavors of wet-blanket and barnyard but also a powerful tartness lead by hints of gooseberry and preserved lemon. While not for timid palates, this is the Spanish cider to try.
Unique amongst Spanish ciders, Asturia's Poma Áurea ($17, 750mL) is the only sparkling example that we encountered. The fruit for this cider is hand sorted and pressed using old wooden presses. After primary fermentation, the cider receives a dosage of apple must and disgorged using the méthode Champenoise to produce a cider with champagne-like characteristics. It's bone dry, tart, and effervescent with strong mineral notes and a more subtle yeast character than most other Spanish ciders. It's perfect for a festive toast.