Grapevine & Vintner Profile, Wining & Dining

Pressing Concerns at Albemarle Ciderworks

This month’s Grapevine Column is a little fruity – apple that is.  With four new cideries open in the last year, there are now eight across the Commonwealth.  Cideries are emerging throughout the Southeast and Virginia is producing many unique and tasteful ciders.  In fact, Virginia ranked #4 on the top 10 list for cider case sales in 2011 by Southeast States, with a total of 91,266 cases sold.

Cider is fermented apple juice just as wine is fermented grape juice. The best cider, just like the best wine, is carefully crafted from fruit chosen for cider making. That brown stuff you buy in the grocery store juice section is just that, apple juice. In colonial America, fermented cider was the drink of choice. Thomas Jefferson’s champagne-like cider, made with Hewe’s Crabapples, was his “table drink”. Throughout the 19th century, growing apples and crafting cider from cider apples was an integral part of every community. Many Virginia cidermakers now aim to revive the cider tradition by growing, or encouraging others to grow cider apples, and by crafting fine cider.

Albemarle Ciderworks is one of the pioneers in the modern Virginia cider industry.  Founded and operated by the Shelton family, it is clear the passion for cider drives the business.  The impetus for this agricultural adventure was Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.  As a part of their educational mission, the folks at Monticello regularly host lectures.  Charlotte Shelton attended a couple of lectures about the specific apples Jefferson had grown and were becoming scarce.

Bill, Charlotte, Chuck
Bill, Charlotte, Chuck

What started as a planting of a small array of interesting apples has grown now to more than 200 different cultivars, both heirloom and more recent varieties. In addition the farm produces about three dozen peach varieties, as well as several plums, pears, cherries, nectarines and apricots. The farm’s nursery operation offers over 100 varieties of fruit trees from their collection through the fall/winter catalog that they post online each fall.  Many of these varieties are virtually unobtainable elsewhere.

The cidery came about after Chuck Shelton had been experimenting with making cider from some of the apples on the farm.  With each successive batch he gained experience and a receptive audience among the nursery clientele.  The cidery opened with great fanfare, including Governor Tim Kaine in 2009.

Despite being directly on US 29, the tasting room is situated aside the old barn among the rolling hills of Albemarle County, just South of Charlottesville, Virginia. The cidery and tasting room were designed and built in 2009. The buildings are designed in a simple straightforward style, with some arts and crafts touches in the tasting room including walnut wainscoting from trees cut on the property, and a curved bar of fiddleback maple that Ciderist Chuck Shelton and his son Rob created.

The space is designed to be a comfortable place to experience a cider tasting, relax over a glass of cider, enjoy an a la carte picnic from their local food offerings or of your own, listen to live music, or host an event. No cider tasting is complete without a history lesson regarding the role cider played in American history.

Cider was the libation of choice in colonial and early America. Cider was already a centuries old tradition in England by the time America was settled, and the first settlers to the New World brought with them both cidermaking knowledge and the apples necessary to its production.  Most of the seedling apple types planted in Virginia and the other colonies would have been unappealing for eating fresh, but many made excellent cider, and as such were enjoyed as a locally pressed alternative to coffee, tea, and wine, all expensive imports.

Like wine, ciders are often named after the variety of apple used.  In other cases, when a blend of apples is used, a “fanciful” name is often used.  Such is the case with 2011 Jupiter’s Legacy a blend of Black Twig, Winesap, Albemarle Pippin and several crabapple varieties.  This is one of the most complex ciders tasted it is bright with citrus notes (tangerine and grapefruit dominate) on the attack and midpalate.  The finish is delightfully light and clean. Jupiter’s Legacy really shines when paired with complementary foods: chicken and cream-finished dishes, game meats, steak au poivre, and of course pork.

2012 GoldRush, which I would have pegged as a fanciful name, is actually a newer apple variety.  Slightly higher alcohol content than the average cider (10%), GoldRush exudes grapefruit notes throughout the flavor profile.  Most refreshing this cider would pair well with a mixed greens salad or grilled white fish.

Albemarle Ciderworks 2011 Royal Pippin is named after the Albemarle Pippin apple.  History tells us that Queen Victoria and her subjects were so enamored of the taste of the Albemarle Pippin that they were willing to pay higher prices and forego the import tax on this richly flavored apple.  This apple is also the official apple of the big apple (NYC).  The cider has a balanced acidity and a wide mouth feel.

My personal favorite is the 2011 Red Hill, named for the small community just north of Albemarle CiderWorks.  This blend of traditional cider varieties melded with the juice of Winesap and Albemarle Pippin apples that are grown in the red clay soils for which the area is named. It is a complex and earthy dry cider with a bright acidity and tart apple flavor.  The finish is memorable with hints of ginger and a touch of cinnamon. I envision enjoying Red Hill with oysters on the back deck.

Cider also makes a great blender for cocktails.  One tasting room favorite suggestion is the Honey Badger.  This cocktail is balanced enough to be able to use any cider with it but is best with a dry cider.  It calls for honey syrup (to make it easier to mix) but I just use straight honey, mixing it into the gin and lemon before adding the cider.  Ingredients: 1.5 oz Gin, 1 oz Honey (or Honey Syrup), 0.75 oz Lemon Juice, Hard Cider Combine the Gin and Lemon Juice in a glass, add Honey and mix thoroughly (Or dissolve the honey in a bit of water to make Honey Syrup), Add Ice, top off with Hard Cider.

Always growing, the farm operations continue to evolve. In addition to the cidery and the nursery, the original farmhouse on the property is now available as a guest house.  This once modest farmhouse has been expanded to include four bedrooms and two baths.  A most enjoyable respite from the hubbub of the city, the guesthouse is an attractive alternative to an extended hotel stay.

Albemarle Ciderworks is located just south of Charlottesville on US29 and is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11-5.

Ciderist Profile

Tom Unsworth, Assistant Ciderist

Hometown: Charlottesville

Item always in your refrigerator: a few bottles of my “basement” cider experiments

Comfort Food: Savory Meatloaf with roasted potatoes and broccoli

Favorite Saying: I worked for a farmer in Berryville who when asked about accolades for his fruit would say “well that’s not for me to say” such honest modesty is in short supply in today’s social media trumpeting of achievements

Best thing about the Virginia Cider Industry:  As a new industry, with a product that dates back hundreds of year, there is a spirit of adventure an esprit de corps among the Commonwealth’s Cideries.

Worst thing about the Virginia Cider Industry: Lack of the right fruit; it takes up to five years to bring an apple orchard online [compared with 3 years for a vineyard] of course once established orchards last upwards to 200 years.

Most embarrassing moment: Ciderist Chuck Shelton and I were working without power after a storm last year and we had the bright idea to use frozen CO2 to cool the cider that was in the midst of fermenting.  After dropping just a small amount of dry ice into the tank, we created a geyser of apple goodness.

Favorite Cider: Hewes Crabapple Albemarle Ciderworks first reserve cider.  It is made from the same fruit that Thomas Jefferson used in his cider.

Written by: Neil Williamson

Neil Williamson is the Chairman of the Virginia Wine Club Tasting Panel, The Virginia Cider Club Tasting Panel and Editor of The Virginia Wine Journal. He can be reached at

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