Winding your way through the rolling hills outside of Charlottesville, VA, the green velvety turf marked off by white picket fences, you can’t help but think you’re in horse country. Not the the working horse country of the cowboy West but the gentleman farmer kind. Thomas Walker was one such 18th century gentleman farmer as well as doctor, explorer, and statesman. He came into 11,000 acres near present day Keswick upon marrying a wealthy widow (cousin to a young George Washington) and promptly set about building an estate called Castle Hill, now home to Castle Hill Cider (www.castlehillcider.com).
Apples have long been a part of Castle Hill, for every Virginia land owner large and small had an orchard, and cider making was a integral feature of ordinary colonial life. Dr. Walker had an explorer’s eye, and as part of the Virginia regiments fighting the French and Indian Wars in Pennsylvania, he had the good fortune to come across some examples of a remarkable apple – the Newtown Pippin, a fine apple for both eating and cider first discovered in what is now the New York city borough of Queens. So impressed was he with the apple’s flavor that he returned to his Virginia farm with his bags loaded with cuttings intent on grafting his own trees. The apple proved so popular locally that it gained a new name, the Albemarle Pippin, and became a mainstay of local orchards and a significant agricultural export. Thomas Jefferson, Dr. Walker’s ward after his good friend Peter Jefferson died, even put in some 50 Albemarle Pippins at Monticello.
The Albemarle Pippin still grows at Castle Hill, though the current trees are less than a decade old, put in as part of a test orchard when the current owner concluded that the best agricultural use of his 600 acres and restored barn would be as a cidery. The orchard continues to grow and will number some 9000 trees in the next several years, an eclectic mix of local apple varieties (Albemarle Pippin, Burford Redflesh, Virginia Winesap, Black Twig) and classic English apples like Yarlington Mill and Pitmaston Pineapple. While waiting for the orchard to fully mature, Castle Hill cider maker Stuart Madany relies on outside sources for many of the same apples, the Albemarle Pippin in particular.
Stuart didn’t come to cider making with a long history of fermenting things at home. He was one of the architects working on the conservation and restoration of the old barn (and the manor house on the property next door) and part of the team considering what might be the ultimate use of the land. He wasn’t, at that point, even a cider drinker. But he took a leap of faith, attended a couple of cider making courses, brought in a handful of consultants from the wine industry to teach him about the fermentation of fruit juices, and local apple legend Tom Burford to suggest apple varieties to grow. It was Mr. Burford’s seductive stories about the Albemarle Pippin that induced the cider maker to try it.
Clearly Stuart absorbed the lessons well since in a short time he has come to make some distinctly sophisticated ciders. Celestial Merret is a blend of Albemarle Pippin, Virginia Winesap and a variety of English bittersweet apples, Bottle conditioned with a dose of unfermented juice, it has the fine sparkling bubbles of a good champagne and a bit of yeasty sediment in the bottle. Swirl the yeast into the liquid they way they do in the Castle Hill tasting room and you will be rewarded with a warm velvety roundness, a subtle nuttiness, and a hint of stone fruit in its dry, clean finish. It’s an easy cider to pair with food, especially aged goat cheeses, and sweet, briny fresh oysters.
Levity is is probably the most usual cider at Castle Hill, and is unique in the cider world. It is made of 100% Albemarle Pippin and fermented in modern versions of an ancient clay vessel, the kvevri, imported from the Republic of Georgia where they have been used in wine making for thousands of years. As an architect, Stuart was, and is, interested in shape and energy and how they interact and influence what is in and around them. The egg-shape of the kvevri evoked for Stuart the ideas of naturalist and philosopher Viktor Schauberger who believed that this shape was optimal for creating and holding generative energy. Buried deep in the ground outside the cidery the kvevri are naturally insulated and the clay walls allow the fermenting contents to breathe just a bit without introducing too much destructive oxygen. The result is a cider that is graceful and well balanced, starting with a sharp edge that mellows to nuanced flavors of tropical fruit with an underlying hint of mineral. Buttery, nutty cheese like leyden and gruyere bring out the flavors of the fruit, as do dishes of chicken, turkey, and duck.
Stuart is, in a way, as much an explorer as Thomas Walker. Cider making is still a grand adventure in trying new techniques that may revel as yet unexplored characters from his apples. It is hard to think of a more fitting means to carry on the legacy of Dr. Walker’s Castle Hill.