Driving past a Québec apple orchard on a cold December day, one may notice what appear to be forgotten fruits hanging from the tree boughs, some covered in tiny icicles. But the shriveled pommes have not been left to rot; they’re destined for a noble end as cidre de glace, golden ice cider fermented from the dense, sweet juices pressed from frozen apples.
Québec’s hard-cider industry may seem relatively new — the first craft licenses were issued in 1989 — but the alcoholic apple drink has roots in the province that stretch back to the 1700s. Commonplace in early northern settlements, hard cider had so fallen in popularity by 1921 that, when Québec enacted new rules to govern the production of alcohol, it was literally forgotten — and left out of the Alcoholic Beverages Act. Because cider wasn’t regulated, it was illegal to produce or sell in Canada until 1970, when the oversight was corrected. The first companies to revive the drink’s production made a terrible plonk that gave it a bad name; for a while, quality cider could be found only inside private homes and farmsteads, where people turned out small batches on the sly.
In the early 1990s, artisanal producers made a concerted effort to pull hard cider back into vogue. Entrepreneurs such as Christian Barthomeuf, a French émigré who began making ice cider in the winter of 1990, helped develop an industry that now comprises 50 cider makers, a bona-fide cidrerie route and strict rules governing the drink’s production. The results speak for themselves. Served ice cold, Québec’s ice cider is perfectly matched with soft, aged cheeses and pastries; sparkling versions pair well with sushi.
Cidre de glace can be produced in two ways. In cryoconcentration, fruit is picked in the fall, left outside to freeze and then crushed; in cryoextraction, apples hang on the bough until temperatures dip below 14 degrees Fahrenheit. Both methods yield the sweet, concentrated nectar of apples, though cryoextraction produces stronger flavors. The cidrerie route offers ample opportunities to try both styles.
Cider producers are scattered throughout Québec. But day trippers from Vermont who don’t want to ping-pong around the province will find a high concentration in and around the village of Rougemont, less than 90 minutes north of Burlington: You can’t throw a frozen apple there without hitting a cidrerie. Autumn weekends in Rougemont involve plenty of hayrides, concerts and pick-your-own orchards to entertain children, while sipping options for the grown-ups range from light, rustic styles to more complex aged ciders.
If your French is rusty or nonexistent, like mine, expect to communicate in gestures. It doesn’t matter: Flavor is universal. Just bring a good map, since roads can get confusing, and, during warmer months, construction detours are commonplace.
Here are four very different cidreries within 20 minutes of each other.
710 Rang de la Montagne, Mont Saint-Grégoire, 450-346-3326, vergerboutin.com
On the road to Rougemont is a bulbous hillock rising from the flatlands — Mont Saint-Grégoire. In 1980, Léo and Denise Boutin purchased an orchard along its southern flank and began selling apples and apple jelly. They took occasional trips down to New England to compare notes with other apple growers, and soon their wares included apple butter, unfiltered apple vinegar and, since the early 1990s, apple wines and ice cider. Léo Boutin is one of Québec’s earliest artisanal hard-cider producers.
The portly Boutin is still a stern but welcoming presence in his roadside café, shop and tasting room, where aromas from his wife’s pastries scent the air. Most of his gentle, rustic wines are low in alcohol and range from off-dry to very sweet; they’ve won 33 medals since 1993, with many of those given to the tart-sweet, almost syrupy Mont de Glace, an ice cider made from McIntosh, Cortland and Empire apples. “It takes many apples for each bottle,” he says, pouring a sample; each slender, 375-milliliter bottle of ice cider is the concentrated essence of between 50 and 75 pieces of fruit.
Highlights of Boutin’s ciders are the Mont Brume, a smoky elixir with hints of honey, and the off-dry, feather-light Cuvée Versant Sud. Boutin also presses wine from pears, cranberries and currants; the deep-ruby, powerful Titania, made from black currants, is akin to a cassis.
Tastings are free, leaving visitors some dosh to buy one of Denise Boutin’s spongy apple doughnuts, a bottle of apple vinegar or a country-style lunch on the outside terrace.
1130 La Petite Caroline, Rougemont, 450-469-2676, micheljodoin.ca
Over a century ago, Michel Jodoin’s great-grandfather, Jean-Baptiste, purchased a small orchard on a rise above the village of Rougemont. When Michel Jodoin took it over in 1980, Québec’s cider industry was struggling. Luckily, Jodoin’s forebears were longtime down-low makers of the stuff, so he had cider crafting in his genes. He became one of the first artisanal producers to obtain a cider license in the late 1980s. Jodoin traveled to France to perfect his craft; he also obtained a distilling license to turn out powerful spirits such as eau de vie, the fermented and double-distilled juice of apples.
Now this cidrerie is one of the best-known producers in Québec. Inside, bottles of sparkling cider, ice cider and spirits are elegantly backlit and displayed along brick walls. Visitors (including those spilling from tour buses) can wander on their own or take a tour through the dim cellar full of aging barrels and a room of fermentation tanks, then return to a long, metal bar for tasting.
Jodoin’s sparkling and ice ciders have a polish and balance that suggest exhaustive attention to craft. The red tint of one of the apples grown here, Geneva, extends almost all the way through its flesh, lending a coral hue and unusual flavor to rosé ciders such as the effervescent Cidre Rosé Mousseux, with its notes of roses, berries and licorice.
Geneva apples are also the star of the first rosé cidre de glace, a moody, tart drink laced with mouth-watering acid and hints of raspberries. The golden Cidre de Glace, a mélange of three apple varieties, is more traditional — punchy but buttery, too.
Even more exquisite (and expensive) are Jodoin’s spirits. The clear Pom de Vie is a foil for vodka, with a crisp, subtly floral intensity; aged in oak for three years, it becomes Calijo, a deep amber liqueur with notes of caramel and vanilla. Out of this world is XO — an addictively smooth, 80-proof spirit aged in oak for at least eight years. The first batch, which has just been released, has a flavor similar to that of the smoothest Scotches and a finish that is both epic and ephemeral.
30 Chemin de Marieville, Rougemont, 450-469-1469, leduc-piedimonte.com
The wooden hut at Domaine Leduc-Piedimonte is a jarring contrast to the polished expanse of Cidrerie Michel Jodoin. You might have to flag down someone to unlock the door for a tasting. Have persistence, though, and be richly rewarded.
The first liquid to splash into your glass is from the populist, eight-ounce bottle of McKeown dry cider, which comes in four-packs. The original version — made from McIntosh apples — is light, fizzy and crisp, and tastes of tart green apples. The rose tint in the Canneberge variation comes from cranberries, which add a pucker to its candy-like sweetness.
Owners Robert McKeown and Andrée St-Denis, who called the orchard after their grandmothers’ surnames, also turn out a line of sparkling and ice ciders. The off-dry Cidre Mousseux, La Brunante, is a blend of ice and sparkling cider from McIntosh and Paula Red apples; beneath its gentle effervescence are notes of apricots and honey. The still Cidre de Glace has a surprising citrus tang in the mouth. For the pricier Cidre de Glace Reserve Privée, the cider makers let their Cortland apples hang on the trees until December, when they pick the frozen fruit and then press, ferment and age the juice in oak barrels for up to 18 months. The result is a layered, almost smoky cider, with notes of caramel, nuts and tropical fruit.
100 Rang de la Montagne, Rougemont, 450-469-3894, de-lavoie.com
A meandering dirt road takes you past grapevines and gnarled apple trees to this cidrerie, whose size and kitschy interior make it feel like the most traditional tourist destination of the four. On weekends, live music, pig roasts and games encourage family visits. Adult treats are plentiful, too: A broad range of both traditional wines (made from northern grape varietals such as Baco Noir, Marechal Foch and Seyval Blanc) and ice ciders is available for sampling.
The ciders are delicious, from the honey-like Bulles D’Automne sparkling cider (made with Cortland apples) to the tart Cidre de Glace, with its hint of green apples and cream. More unusual, but elegant, are Le Poiré de Lavoie, a rich, sweet and complex cider made from frozen pears; and Effehl, a fortified red wine aged for four years in oak and bursting with chocolate and toffee.
Tasters are asked to choose four samples for $3, but the amiable tasting room staff seem so proud of their line they might let you try a few more. Ask for a sample of the forthcoming first vintage ice wine. The worst they can say is “Non, je suis désolé.”