Cold is the ‘fantastic ingredient’ in this made-in-Quebec nectar that’s finding admirers around the world
It’s a budding industry on the cusp of a worldwide breakthrough – and an honest-to-goodness made-in-Quebec story to boot.
The first thing to learn about cidre de glace – ice cider – is to banish from your thoughts any parallel with, or similarities to, traditional cider, whose bad reputation has too often been perfectly justified.
From its inception a dozen years ago in southern Quebec’s apple orchards, dozens of ice cider liqueurs, crémants, sparkling wines, apéritifs and digestifs are now sold around the world.
Two rivals form the heart of the ice cider industry.
Domaine Pinnacle in Frelighsburg and La Face Cachée de la Pomme in Hemmingford were present at the creation and drive the new industry.
Together, they account for almost 80 per cent of the total production of ice cider in Quebec, the only place in the world where there is a significant industry.
Another dozen and a half smaller farms produce the rest, some of them just as high in quality.
It’s a rare enough thing to create a truly homegrown industry that makes optimal use of local natural produce and attributes – our near-endless supply of apples and the Quebec cold.
What makes ice cider even more unusual is that both pioneers were neophytes who spent the bulk of their previous careers in entirely unrelated fields.
François Pouliot, founder and president of La Face Cachée was a film and rock-video producer (not to be confused with Jean-François Pouliot), while Domaine Pinnacle founder and president Charles Crawford was formerly in the software business.
What’s more, both their businesses are set on similar trajectories.
In 2003, Camus, a marquee name in French cognacs and other spirits, started distributing Pinnacle ice cider in duty-free shops at 10 airports around the world. Camus, established in 1863, has a global network of distributors and retailers, and now is also exclusive marketer for a full line of Pinnacle products in 39 countries, from Malaysia to Mexico and Singapore to Spain.
And last month, La Face Cachée signed an exclusive distributor deal with a renowned French wine house with a worldwide clientele, Boisset, a leading rep of Burgundy and Beaujolais wines. This means the battle for the ice cider market is moving to a much higher sphere and a larger canvas, and will be led by two of the most venerable liquor distributors in the world.
In truth, it’s hardly surprising the two cideries are so similar. Both were godfathered by the same person, Christian Barthomeuf, a Frenchman who was considered a lunatic when he started planting grape vines in Quebec 30 years ago. He’s gone from goat to guru who also shepherded along Quebec’s small ice-wine business.
It’s tempting to equate ice cider with Ontario’s ice-wine industry, and there are indeed similarities, notably making maximum use of what’s organically at hand. But they are very different. For one thing, a 375-mL bottle of ice cider costs about $25, half or one-third of the price of many ice wines. And ice cider,
also called apple ice wine, cannot be designated as a wine in France because it’s distilled from apples rather than grapes, Camus house president Cyril Camus said in a telephone interview from Paris. On the other hand, that also means it can take its place alongside other specialty products like Calvados, port, sauternes and sweet dessert wines.
But there remains the Sisyphean task of educating finicky, knowledgeable palates around the world to accept this upstart – from Quebec, of all places. Most oenophiles, indeed most people, tend to be hidebound traditionalists in their preferences for alcoholic beverages. Getting people to adopt a new sophisticated fine liqueur from the world’s snowy, blustery attic is a constant and never-ending challenge, Crawford said. But in taste tests, tipplers become immediate – and fierce – converts.
“The director of Lafayette told me after his first taste that the apple Eve fed Adam should have tasted this good,” Pouliot said.
SAQ spokesperson Linda Bouchard said that in the grand scheme of things, ice cider remains a marginal product in volume terms, normal for a liqueur to be imbibed with foie gras, cheese or with dessert. Sales, however, have nearly quadrupled from 2003 to 2008 to $7.5 million from about $2 million.
“It’s a big word-of-mouth buzz product these days, so we carry 62 items from 17 producers now,” Bouchard said. “A few years ago, it was 15 items from six producers.”
The production method is simple, and modelled after ice wines – except that instead of picking grapes after they freeze on the vines, cider-makers either pick up the fallen apples in autumn or leave them on the trees until well after the frost. Many are refrigerated but not frozen. Others remain on the trees and a second harvest in December yields a premium, top-of-the-line vintage. After that, it’s a question of “cryo-extraction,” distilling the syrup from frozen apples.
“The cold is a fantastic ingredient,” Pouliot said. “The sugar is concentrated but not frozen, so it gives that honey, syrupy taste.”
Once fermented, it produces what many consider a remarkably delicate, sophisticated nectar – sweet, but balanced by acidity and body.
Raymond Nantel, vice-president of Boisset Family Estate for North America, said in an interview that competition with Camus will be good for business – for both.
“We can’t get bogged down about Camus. Tout est à faire (the world’s our oyster). This is not like making a new wine: We’re not going to try to be as good as someone else. This is our category, our creation.”