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West Avenue’s eclectic fall cider lineup, plus reviews for the new kid on the block — Niagara Cider Company

By Rick VanSickle

While sipping 100% Ontario crafted apple cider is a year-round pleasure, there is no denying that fall brings out the best in fermented apples.

Maybe it’s because we remember picking apples as kids (some of us still pick them!) every fall and those crunchy bites of fresh-picked fruit in the cooler autumn months stays in our memory banks forever. Or it could simply be that cider pairs so well with the more robust foods of fall — the stews, the hearty homemade soups, the braised meats and autumn root vegetables that start to emerge.

Whatever it is, hard apple cider and fall are a perfect match.

Ontario has become a mecca for hand-crafted ciders in the past few years with new projects big and small emerging in all regions of the province. Today we look at two cideries — one that has been a groundbreaking venture for nearly 8 years, and the other just getting started.

Ontario cider

Chris Haworth is a successful chef by trade, but gave all that up to create West Avenue Cider, a full-service cidery he and wife Amy Robson (above with Haworth) built from the ground up and run together in Freelton (just north of Hamilton off Hwy. 6). The couple planted 100 types of heritage apples in their spectacular orchard and have the most complete and eclectic stable of ciders in the province. It is a destination cidery with a gorgeous tasting and retail facility and an ever-changing roster of ciders that show no limits to the experimentation of fermented apples and whatever they feel can enhance the experience — like blending in Niagara grapes (or wine), use of different oak barrels, addition of fresh Ontario fruit, changing up yeast strains or myriad sparkling styles.

West Avenue makes all its ciders at the highest end of the quality spectrum, even the two staples in the portfolio — The Heritage Dry and Cherriosity, which, in my opinion, are a must for any cider lovers’ go-to list.

We have several West Avenue ciders under review below.

And then there is Niagara Craft Cider, the new kid on the block, operating out of Fonthill, on the outer edges of Niagara and just now starting to hit the shelves at LCBO stores with the first cider available being the Niagara Cider Company’s No. 1 Dry Apple Cider.

Hand-crafted with a proprietary blend of apples hand-picked from Niagara orchards, Niagara Cider is an ultra-premium tipple. Cold fermented in stainless steel tanks, it is fermented with specifically chosen white wine yeasts that give the cider a hint of Niagara’s vineyards amid the orchards from where the apples are born.

“We like to describe our flagship No. 1 Dry Apple Cider as complex and crushable,” says Rich Houghton, co-founder of the Niagara Cider Company and crafter of the refreshingly dry modern cider. “What we have landed on is a true craft cider using local ingredients that is perfectly balanced between sweetness and acidity.”

Houghton and his business partner Matt Dixon work closely with Niagara farmers to pick specific apple types that go into their unique blend. The company started as a hobby project for Houghton who was seeking a cider that suited his tastes, but was unable to find one currently on the market.

He joined forces with his hockey buddy Dixon, who has a long history working in Ontario’s beverage alcohol sector, to develop an all-natural style of dry cider that is rare in the current market — one they would be proud to serve to their friends.

“The unique blend of climate, soils and geography allow Niagara farmers to grow some of the best apples in the world,” says Dixon. “It was important to us to create a drink that shows off the bounty of Niagara. Using heirloom apples from orchards in our community, we have accomplished that.”

Niagara Cider Company’s No. 1 Dry Apple Cider earned a gold medal at the 2019 Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition, the largest and arguably most prestigious cider competition in the world.

The two ciders now available — the No. 1 Dry Apple Cider and the Rose Gold Berry Cider — are handcrafted using a proprietary blend of heirloom apples picked from the orchards of the fertile Niagara Peninsula. There is no water added, only natural ingredients and a specifically chosen white wine yeast that adds a distinct, yet approachable, hint of Niagara’s signature crop and beverage to a cider that is refreshingly dry and flavourful.

Another thing I like about the brand is the fact that they put a sweetness scale on the back of both ciders. It’s a brilliant idea as the cider category is all over the map when it comes to added residual sugar. You just never know if the cider you are buying is a sweet or dry style. The graphic ends the mystery.

We have reviews for both ciders below.

But first …

West Avenue Cider

West Avenue Oracle 2018 ($21 for 750 mL, 93 points) — This sparkling wine cider hybrid is a gentle nod to the future of fermentation in Ontario. Oracle is a blend of Niagara Vidal and Chardonnay Musque and a splash of Sauvignon Blanc grapes with Golden Russet apple. It’s made in the cuvée close (or charmat) method where the base wine/cider undergoes a secondary fermentation in a closed tank so that the natural bubbles cannot escape then filtered and bottled with a cork and cage. It is a collaboration with winemaker Steve Byfield’s Nyarai Cellars. There are full strength bubbles on this baby with a riot of peaches, spice, citrus and, of course, fresh-picked apples on the nose. It straddles the line of being wine-like and cider-like on the palate with a vigorous mousse that amplifies the complex array of creamy pear, peach, baked apple, citrus and spice with a lifted, vibrant finish. Wow!

West Avenue Rhineapple ($18 for 750 mL, 9.2% abv, 91 points) — This is a blend of 35% Niagara grown Riesling grapes (the Rhine part) blended with 65% Northern Spy and Snow apples (the apple part). It’s a beautiful marriage of bright apple, pineapple, lime zest and peach on the nose. It’s highly complex and vibrant with a subtle effervescence that tapers off leaving a juicy, full-bodied mix of apple, citrus and orchard fruits that’s all together bright and zesty on the palate.

West Avenue Autumn ($18 for 750 mL, 8.2% abv, 91 points) — This is an all-natural heritage apple cider that won a gold medal at Glintcap. This is made with some serious top-notch cider and dessert apples and fermented with West Avenue’s house stain yeast and is unfiltered and unpasteurized in a dry style. It has a robust nose of spicy apple, toasted vanilla and cream. It’s rich and silky on the palate with apple pie, cinnamon and a robust mousse that’s all perked up by a racy acidity on the finish.

West Avenue Cidre Blanc Cider (price NA, 8.2%, 92 points) — This cider-wine is a blend of barrel-fermented heritage apple and Sauvignon Blanc. An interesting funky note on the nose then a mix of grassy, herby, grapefruit notes that combine with fresh apple. A complex cider with a soft bubble on the palate that shows a range of citrus and grass notes with herbs and apple-skin flavours through a vibrant core.

West Avenue Northern Lights Cider 2015 ($50 for 375 mL, 10.8% abv, 95 points) — This Cognac barrel-aged ice cider is just about the greatest ice cider I have ever tasted. I do not know if it is available anymore or not, but buy the current vintage and cellar for a few years, and you will be equally enthralled. It’s extremely rare and made with frozen heritage apples, barrel fermented and aged. It pours a dark golden colour and has a heady nose of baked apples, brown sugar, caramel, baking spices and rich, mature aromas that swirl and intensify as you stick your nose in the glass. I poured this for friends and watched their faces light up as we sat on the back patio late at night and enjoyed with hand-made fruit tarts. They could not believe what they were drinking. It’s rich, hedonistic and lavish on the palate and tasted of warm and spicy apple pie and cinnamon that is honey sweet but nicely balanced and in a perfectly mature state. So decadent.

West Avenue Cider Carlisle Gold ($15 for 750 mL, 8.2% abv, 90 points) — A bubbly effervescent cider with a small amount of biscuit yeast sediment. It’s an all-natural pét-nat style cider with nothing added or taken away. It shows perky, tiny bubbles in the glass and pours a golden colour. The nose is all about the bin apples, apple skin, earth and guava. It shows electric acidity on the palate, a robust bubble with a reductive note, mature apples and zippy citrus through the finish.

Note: All ciders are sold at the cidery or available online here

Niagara Cider Company

Niagara Cider Company No. 1 Dry Apple Cider ($4 for a 473 mL can, LCBO, grocery stores, 6% abv, 91 points) — Let me just say this: I was impressed with both the debut ciders from this upstart Niagara cider company. They have achieved a fresh, dry style that doesn’t compromise on flavour and finds a niche position in the ever-crowded Ontario cider category at the LCBO. This is made from a proprietary blend of heirloom apples and cold fermented using white wine yeast in stainless steel tanks. The attractive nose features a clean and fresh array of bright apples, touch of apricot and subtle floral notes to go with a gentle effervescence. The soft bubble continues on the palate and highlights pure apple flavours, citrus zest with a touch of peach fuzz in a clean, super-dry and electric finish.

Niagara Cider Company Rose Gold Berry Soaked Cider (Only available to licensees at the moment, $84 for a 24 pack of 473 mL cans and 30 L kegs at $189, 6% abv, 92 points) — If you are out there watching, LCBO/grocery stores, go get this! This uses the base of the above cider but adds a mix of Niagara blueberries, strawberries and raspberries. It shows a pale salmon colour in the glass with a lovely nose of fresh apples, integrated red berries and subtle blueberries that my daughter (who tasted this with me) called a “very berry smoothie.” It’s bright and cheerful on the palate, made in a perfectly dry style, and shows apples side by side with fresh raspberries, strawberries and blueberries that all lead to a zesty, zippy finish. Bravo!