'They're the vineyards of Ireland... we don’t publicise them enough' - Apple Blossom walks and tastings of 'the wine of the north'
“It’s basically an Irish vineyard, that’s exactly what it is, but it’s apples in an orchard.”
Mark Jenkinson’s 12-acre orchard in Slane, Co Meath, is in full bloom. He is one of more than a dozen craft cider makers in Ireland who says craft cider is experiencing a revival on the coattails of the craft beer movement.
But craft cider is nothing like beer, Mark says, its closest cousin is wine. And apple blossom walks taking place around the country this spring are helping to grow its name.
Mark, who gives pre-booked tours, explains: “It was called the wine of the north. If you look at a map of Europe: where the wine regions stop, the apple regions start. In parts of Germany for example, they have apple wine which is really quite wine-like."
“Making real or craft cider is identical to winemaking. If you make it very carefully, it’s exactly the same, it’s quite difficult to tell the difference, and it can taste like a dry white wine.”
“I make a traditional cider from pressed apples – the apples are brought in from the orchard, washed, pressed into a pulp, and the juice is fermented into cider... The only difference between wine and cider is the alcohol content. Wine is 12 or 13 per cent alcohol because grapes have a higher sugar content. Apples ferment to five or six per cent alcohol.”
“In America at the moment there’s a huge revival in cider... and a lot of us cider makers are hoping for a revival here as well.”
Mark’s cider, Cockagee, is a keeved cider - only cider apples are used to make it; no sugar, no water, or anything else is added - which features on menus at Michelin starred restaurants like Mews in West Cork and Aniar in Galway, and Adare Manor in Clare.
A cider apple is "bitter and sweet," Mark says. "They’ve a different texture, they’re quite dry and mealy, and most people have never come across them."
Different yields produce different vintages of cider, just like wine.
And one night’s frost could potentially wipe out an entire crop of apples, says Olan McNiece who makes Dan Kelly’s cider.
“A frost hasn’t done that for us but you might have various levels of damage. My father can remember a frost that wiped out the whole crop. And after that you still have to maintain your orchard and take care of it for the next year. It’s an expensive way to farm.”
This weekend, Olan is hosting apple blossom walks in aid of Drogheda Homeless Aid and SOSAD.
“It is a beautiful environment, people travel to France to visit vineyards... It’s the fault of ourselves that we don’t publicise it enough.”
Honey bees, bumble bees and solitary bees are busy pollinating while hares, rabbits, badgers and foxes run around, and buzzards, crows and pigeons play.
'Live and let live' is Mark Jenkinson's modus operandi.
“I’m one of the few cider makers that let my orchards almost grow wild. Some others have got bottom lines and accountants chasing them, so [the orchards are] highly managed.”
“I have half a dozen beehives, a large farm pond that acts as a drinking hole like in Africa. It attracts wildlife in from all over because it’s a water source.”
Rupert Atkinson, sales and marketing manager for cider and brandy at Longueville House Cider in Mallow, Cork says their operation is "as biodynamic as possible."
“We’re as biodynamic as possible. We haven’t gone the full steps for going organic because that takes years.”
“We do understand and I have read a bit about planting by the moon and harvesting by the moon (a principle in biodynamic production), but if a storm is coming you don’t want to wait for the moon cycles. It’s all taken into consideration but sometimes you just can’t wait.”