May 1, 2019
By Melissa Madden
owner/field crew: Kite & String/Finger Lakes Cider House/Good Life Farm
2018 was a challenging year to fully ripen fruit. This has a significant impact on the quality of the vintage and deep repercussions for cellar practices starting with harvest thru to each cider’s release date. Usually we look back at vintages from the fully finished and aged standpoint. We are just beginning to release the first of the 2018 ciders, while the rest are laid down for secondary fermentation and aging. I find it to be a fine moment to lay out some Harvest ‘18 vintage details before we forget in the haste of Spring 2019 and all that is to come!
Starting in August 2018 we had torrential, record-producing rains (see our Blog post 8/23/18 about the floods on Seneca and Cayuga Lakes), and a consistent state of lower-than-average temperatures for much of the late Fall. 2018 was indeed the wettest autumn since 1895, with the fourth warmest September and third coldest November on record (NOAA Quarterly Climate Impact and Outlook, December 2018). I’m using weather data, brix at harvest and specific gravity at press, and my own memories of field harvest to draw some preliminary conclusions on the 2018 Vintage.
Brix (fruit sugars)
Specific Gravity (density of a liquid aka sugar content, in this case fresh pressed apple juice. SG is used to follow fermentations to dryness)
Each vintage we have an opportunity to express the fruit and the farming practices behind each harvest. Each vintage offers its own set of trials, and it is tempting to seek the year that was the BEST. I prefer instead to focus on what the vintage tells us about its own year, and explore how we tie our own story to that time.
I asked Jimmy to characterize his own experience from last Fall and to discuss his vantage at the press vs mine in the field. Jimmy reported a few facts that corroborated my memories about harvest, and used the variety ‘Goldrush’ to tell his story. He uses this particular and beloved variety because we use more of it than any other variety. Over the past three years, we’ve done Good Life Farm-estate only single varietal ferments with ‘Goldrush’, largely destined for the Cider Club. The 2017 SV was so limited it is only for sale (17 cases in total) that it is for sale but not on the tasting menu. It is spectacular, and since we both buy and source ‘Goldrush’, and value it so highly, it is an exceptional window into our experience of a vintage.
The 2018 ‘Goldrush’ coming out of Good Life Farm were harvested in a shorter window than in 2015 and 2017 (2016 being so extreme in terms of drought that data is scant and irrelevant), except for some early drops during a heat wave in September. We started picking earlier and had to finish earlier because the snow and ice arrived on November 16th, but the ripeness as represented by brix at harvest and specific gravity after pressing were lower compared to those years where harvest went on into December. As compared to other farms where we also source ‘Goldrush’, we had higher specific gravity- I’ll guess because of a mix of our orchard practices- organic, lower input, no irrigation, low Nitrogen inputs- and because we were able to spot harvest and visit trees several times to attempt to allow for greater ripeness.
What does this suggest for the 2018 vintage? I may be stretching a bit by trying to use specific varieties as a metric and for not manically keeping weather data collated by variety at the time of harvest. But from here, I’d sum up the 2018 vintage as this…
2018 was a tough year in ways unrelated to weather, and I think that the simple challenge of getting the harvest in is well documented in the subsequent challenge of getting the fruit to shine in the cider. Jimmy pointed out that several of our new experiments- First Pet Nat! First wild ferments with Good Life ‘Goldrush’! … represent a nod towards slightly more risky cellar practices with greater rewards. This might be a great way to sum up the challenges of 2018 generally. Because of our September heat wave and resulting early fruit drop, we spent a lot of time revisiting trees to spot pick what was left with hopes of increased ripeness. Similarly, in the cellar, Jimmy and Garrett spent a lot of time working around this weird harvest timing and low sugars, while all of us stood at the press far into the freezing temperatures of Fall. Over the next 9 months the 2018 vintage will arrive to tell its own story, and we’ll see how poignant this particular pin in time proves.
2018 releases to date: ‘Baldwin’, ‘Greenman’, ‘Rosé