Story and Photos by Robert J. Galbraith November 2010
FRELIGHSBURG, Quebec – Christian Barthomeuf trudges through the freshly fallen snow of his Frelighsburg orchard with a large drooping canvas pouch strapped to his waist. Looking somewhat like a kangaroo in green coveralls, he goes about his vocation in minus fourteen-degree weather, picking the rock-hard apples that still cling to the branches of the small apple trees, then dropping them in the pouch with a hollow cracking sound.
For Barthomeuf, this seemingly insane activity is a labour of love. He is the pioneer and creator of ice cider, a Quebec-born specialty, with over 40 producers, that is rapidly gaining recognition throughout the world. In Quebec, the SAQ (as of 2008) carried 62 items from 17 of those producers.
It all began in 1989 when he owned a struggling vineyard named Domaine des Côtes d’Ardoise, near Dunham, in the Eastern Townships. At the time, he was growing grapes and making wine, but it was expensive to produce and a difficult way to make a living, so he began making ice wine.
But it still wasn’t quite what he was looking for, and Ontario already had a growing ice wine industry. “I was looking for something truly unique, something that would attract people to the region, something specifically produced in Quebec, one thing that we have and no one else has,” explained the 59-year-old, French-born vintner who immigrated to Canada from the Provence region of France in 1974.
“One day in 1989 I was walking in my neighbour’s apple orchard and the idea struck me, why not make ice cider; apples are easier to grow than grapes in this climate. It made sense to me, as there are so many apple orchards in the region and no one else had tried it. So I started experimenting with the process of making ice cider, which is very similar to producing ice wine.
In 1989 he bottled his first ice cider, Pomelière using apples from a neighbour’s orchard.
He continued producing ice cider until 1991 when he left the Domaine des Côtes d’Ardoise, at which time other cideries began to seek out his expertise. He collaborated with three other producers over the next 17 years, developing their ice cider production. Two of these, La Face Cachée de la Pomme and Domaine Pinnacle, are the two leading producers of ice cider in Quebec with 80% of the market, each producing some 300,000 bottles a year, in comparison to Barthomeuf’s 9,000 bottles a year. François Pouliot, the owner of La Face Cachée de la Pomme, in Hemmingford, considers Barthomeuf a genius in the concept of ice cider production.
In 2002 Barthomeuf bought an 86-acre orchard in the apple producing region of Frelighsburg (90 kilometres southeast of Montreal), which he named Clos Saragnat. He began to produce his own line of ice cider, using apples from a nearby rented orchard. He had cut down the trees on his property because they were old and not very productive.
Over the next few years he planted 600 trees, many propagated from trees that he found growing wild in the region.
Most apple trees lose their apples after the first frost and only certain varieties of apples can be used for cryo-extraction of their juice, the method most used by Barthomeuf. Liberty and Cortland apples are two varieties used.
While regular cider is made by crushing apples then squeezing out the juice and fermenting it at a temperature of 4–16 °C for three months, there are two methods used in the making ice cider.
In the first, called cryo-concentration, the apples are harvested in late autumn and squeezed in a press that resembles a large tub with a lid mechanism that squeezes down onto the apples. It exerts up to 5000psi (pounds-per-square-inch). The juice is left out to freeze in the cold. As a result, the water freezes and separates from the concentrated juice. The juice is then drawn off and transferred to fermentation tanks to ferment for up to one year.
The other method of extracting the juice is done by cryo-extraction, which produces a top-of-the-line vintage. The apples are left to freeze on the tree, (which is similar to ice wine production). When the internal temperature of the apples reaches -8°C to -15°C, the apples are picked then squeezed in a press for up to ten hours. It takes this long for all the juice to be squeezed from the frozen apples. The colder the apples, the longer it takes to press. Barthomeuf presses about 400 apples at a time, which produce up to 30 litres of juice.
The ice remains behind in the squeezed apples, which are used for compost, and the syrupy juice is poured into fermentation tanks where it ferments for approximately 12 months. After fermentation it is bottled and aged from one to two years or more.
“Producing ice cider involves a huge amount of trial and error. We wanted to start small and develop a way of doing things properly,” he said. “Every season we develop a little something different in the process such adjusting the time and the amount of pressure in the press. It’s always changing and improving and this keeps you really interested in your work.”
When he began producing ice cider in 1989, many of the locals thought he was out to lunch, an eccentric dreamer. But his persistence would pay off with peer recognition, one national and three international awards for his ice cider produced at Clos Saragnat and a new enterprise conceived in Quebec that is a quickly growing industry worth $10 million dollars.
Barthomeuf’s most recent acknowledgement occurred on November 11, 2009, when he met with Prince Charles at a dinner put on by the Governor-General at Rideau Hall. Barthomeuf’s ice cider was served at a sumptuous meal for 84 guests. After the meal, Prince Charles spoke with him about his eco-friendly methods of agriculture and the use of horses in his orchard.
His philosophy is, that as important as it is to produce a good ice cider, it is equally important that no chemicals such as herbicides, fungicides, pesticides are used on the land. “It’s important to develop the crop while not using any chemicals. We want nature to work here. We want to use more natural methods and have the vineyard work like an ecosystem,” explained Barthomeuf’s wife, Louise Dupuis.
“The land is fertilized by three dozen chickens that wander the orchard and with the manure produced by our two horses. The chickens also are great for keeping insects in check and are constantly scratching for bugs under the trees. The horses take the place of tractors and heavy equipment. They are used for any heavy work around the orchard, turning the soil, as well as keeping the grass low. We call this eco-friendly way of production, biocenèse,” she said.
Five-thousand bottles of Barthomeuf’s ‘Avalanche’ brand ice cider (9.6% alcoholic strength) will be available this January for the first time at SAQ outlets under the product code number 11133221. A 200ml bottle sells for $26.85.
Clos Saragnat is located at 100, chemin Richford, Frelighsburg.