By Rick VanSickle
Coming from a successful career as an executive chef has served West Avenue Cider’s Chris Haworth extremely well.
As many are now quite familiar, Haworth quit his executive chef position at Spencer’s At the Waterfront in Burlington in 2008 to begin his dream of opening a cidery with his wife Amy Robson, both below. That decision led the couple to purchasing a property in Carlisle they named Sommerset Orchards, a 75 acre property, cidery, tasting/retail facility and home to 16 acres of heritage and heirloom apple and pear trees. With over 100 varieties of apples and 10 varieties of pears, Haworth has a very large playground from which he creates some of the most unique and exciting ciders made in Canada.
What was already a stellar and diverse portfolio of interesting and complex ciders took another interesting turn after Haworth, with his background as a successful chef, discovered something in Niagara that would take his cider program from 10 to 11, just like that.
“Back in 2013, I happened to be at Rosewood winery (in Niagara) collecting honey for a new cider/cyser when they had just finished punching down a Cab Sauvignon and were about to discard the pressed skins,” Haworth tells me. “My years in the kitchens of top restaurants and chef mentality of always utilizing the scraps had me inquisitive of what would happen if we add wine skins to a fermenting cider. Little did I know at the time but that ‘aha moment’ led me to explore more and more into the wonderful world of barrels and local fruit fermentations.”
That epiphany for Haworth has produced some incredibly unique, complex and stunning ciders since that visit to Rosewood. His latest concoction, that absolutely blew my mind, is the West Avenue Cider Rosie. It’s a cider aged on Gamay Noir grapes and blended with heritage apples, and it is my new love from West Avenue. Can we call a cider glou-glou? Because that’s exactly what this is — a crushable, porch-pounder with a Grade A pedigree.
“One thing I think we do extremely well at West Ave. and throughout our portfolio of ciders is let the apple be the super star and back it up with interesting and unique local flavours,” Haworth explains. “We never try to overpower the apple in our ciders and carefully blend to make sure you know what is in your glass. It’s an incredibly delicate balance.”
Haworth has a long, healthy relationship with Niagara, buying oak barrels that have been used for aging wine, orchard fruits and grapes for various ciders he makes. He only uses the best ingredients, coupled with a slow fermentation process, so every batch of West Avenue cider is characteristic of the orchard’s terroir. “Because heritage apples are rare in Canada, we planted thousands of trees in our orchard to ensure that our heritage ciders remain authentic forever.”
Here’s what I liked from a recent tasting of a range of ciders from West Avenue:
West Avenue Cider Rosie ($20 for 750 mL bottle, 7%, 95 points) — In a lot of ways, this exciting cider represents the heart of the West Avenue style. Haworth loves to blend his apples with wine country grapes, oak barrels and anything else that catches his attention. The Rosie is a blend of heritage apples and Gamay Noir grapes from Niagara. It’s aged on unfermented Gamay Noir skins to give it a beautiful Burgundy colour in the glass and is bottled unfiltered. I am freely admitting here, it’s my new favourite West Ave. cider (sorry, Cherriosity, it’s not you). This will appeal to both cider and wine lovers with its nose of plums, blackberries, dark cherries and underlying, perfectly integrated, apples. It’s reminiscent of a charmat style of Beaujolais on the palate with tingling acidity, lively bubbles with ripe red and dark berries (blackberries galore!), bin apples, hints of spice, subtle tannins and a bright lift on the finish. Killer cider/wine, glou-glou through and through.
West Avenue Cider Oracle 2019 ($23 for 750 ml bottle, 11.6%, 94 points) — The 2019 vintage of Oracle is crafted from a blend of Niagara Vidal, Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, 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 at Nyarai Cellars, a virtual winery in Niagara. Such an appealing nose of fresh summer berries, meaty/spicy notes, pepper, mulled apples and vanilla. There’s peppy effervescence on the palate to go with a bold array of red berries, currants, peppery/savoury notes, some tannic structure and integrated apple flavours and spice with a vibrant, juicy finish. Sensational cider/wine.
West Avenue Cider Golden Russet ($25 for 750, 9.2%, 92 points) — This single variety cider made from 100% golden russet apple is aged for two years in a Niagara white wine barrel then aged another 12 months in the bottle before it’s fully disgorged and the Champagne cork added. It shows an elegant bead in the glass with a golden colour and aromas of spicy mulled apples with some bready/leesy notes and toasted vanilla and butterscotch. It has good pep on the palate with a creamy texture, rich, layered spices, apple pie, butterscotch and a long, lifted finish. Elegant and complex cider.
West Avenue Cider Wentworth County ($16 for 750 mL bottle, 6%, 91 points) — This is a “community” cider made with wild and foraged apples. I first tasted this style of cider at the revelatory Fable Farm Fermentory in Vermont. The cider makers walk barefoot through abandoned and wild apple orchards, gathering apples that would otherwise rot on the ground, for the bulk of their ciders. My mind was blown! What a great idea and why aren’t more people doing this? So, I’m happy to see Haworth use this concept and create this cider that shows crisp, fresh orchard apples and floral notes on the nose in a bright and cheerful style. It has electric acidity, lively effervescence on the palate with fresh apple slice flavours, touch of sweetness and a clean, vibrant finish. It’s worth noting that proceeds from the sale of Wentworth County will go to Migrants Matter Flamborough organization to help the foreign workers in our area who spend over six months away from their families harvesting food for the good people of Hamilton and beyond.
West Avenue CRUSH! ($4.50 for a 355 mL can, 92 points) — This is made from Cold Snap pears matured on Cabernet Sauvignon skins from Featherstone winery in Niagara and represents perfectly the craftsmanship and innovation cider maker Haworth brings to his eclectic stable of West Avenue ciders. The colour shows a pretty pink grapefruit hue in the glass (unless you are crushing it straight from the can) and the complex aromas on the nose range from fresh pear and summer berries to plums and blackberries. It shows layers of strawberries, raspberry bramble, pear and plums on the palate with light tannins and a fresh vibrant finish. Delicious!
Note: Cold Snap is Canada’s newest pear variety grown by Canadian farmers. Crisp, juicy, and flavourful, Cold Snap pears are exclusively grown and distributed in Canada, making them a tasty alternative to imported fruit. With a higher resistance to disease and a longer storage life than other varieties, you can enjoy this pear throughout Canada’s long winter months.
West Avenue Cider Little Mac ($4, 355 mL can, silver can, 5.9% abv, 89 points) — Little Mac is made from 100% McIntosh apples. There is some cloudiness in the can (maybe it was just my early sample of the cider, I’m not sure) with leesy notes on top of fruity Mac apple aromas. There is some light effervescence on the palate and is made in a dry, crisp style with round apple flavours and lemon zest with a lively finish.
West Avenue Cider Frequin Rouge ($4, 355 mL can, 5.8%, 88 points) — This traditional Old World farmhouse style cider is made with tannic, bitter sharp and bittersweet Ontario grown English and French cider apples with zero sugar, non-GMO, all natural and gluten free. It’s golden in colour in the glass, with reductive notes, spicy apple, black tea, cloves, minty herbs, marmalade, and yes, some barnyard-y/funky notes that are to place. It’s super dry on the palate with mouth-puckering acidity to keep the earthy/funky flavours of marmalade, eucalypt and tart apple lively and fresh. This is maybe the most “out there” cider I’ve tasted from West Ave. and will appeal to the more daring cider lovers who crave the “natural” style of cider making.