Small-crop cidery spins palate-pleasing gold from forgotten trees. Words & photos :: Kristin Schnelten.
Mark Skinner rattles off old-timer advice and patiently answers questions as he disappears into one tree after another, harvesting the crab apples that need to be harvested, like, now. Courtney is elsewhere in the orchard, helping a child or searching for a dog, while Mark briefly breaks the two-hand picking rule to entertain his daughter—who may or may not have lost all interest in this whole working thing about ten minutes before it began.
Before the bin is full, they pack up (the dog found himself, it seems) and head home, where there’s a short 30 minutes to set up and open the doors at their cidery: a simple, crisp quonset hut just steps from their house. Mark and Courtney will take turns pouring flights this afternoon, answering tourists’ questions, pointing out the floral hints and honey undertones that make each bottle unique.
Harvest season is busy for any producer. But at Windswept Orchard Cider, autumn months are a non-stop marathon. Other than a few seasonal hired hands and some generous friends, it’s Mark and Courtney who pull apples, haul bins to press and back, formulate recipes and ferment juice into cider—then, over the next 12-18 months, bottle, label, deliver and serve.
It’s their micro-scale that makes the hands-on approach possible. While other cideries can process 20,000 litres of juice a month, Windswept’s annual volume is little more than half that amount. And nearly all that cider begins in abandoned orchards.
After relocating from the Guelph area to a 100-acre Meaford farm 5 years ago, Courtney and Mark quickly discovered it wasn’t feasible to access the plot of land slated for their large orchard. “It worked out, though,” says Courtney. “A friend said, ‘Oh, friends have a property with an old orchard and they’d love to see the apples used; you should connect with them,’ and we did. As soon as we had one orchard, word of mouth took over and people would say, ‘Oh! You’re using old apple orchards! We have some apples!’ and it turned into this whole Lost Orchard project.”
Encouraged by the results from that first year’s ferments, they hit the farmers’ markets. Years of work on organic farms left them with contacts throughout the market circuit, and after setting up at multiple markets across the city every week they depleted their entire stock of cider within a few months.
Four years and countless market days later, they now harvest between 15 and 20 acres from 6 to 7 locations (numbers fluctuate from year to year as older, wilder trees can become biennial producers or even move to a three-year cycle). The diversity of apples they press is broad: Within just a single variety, the flavour distinction can be marked from one older orchard to a younger one a mile away. With meticulously sorted apples, long fermentation times and continuous experimentation, each vintage (or pommage in the cidery world)—from single-varietals to wild co-ferments—has subtle and not-so-subtle nuances, even to the untrained palate.
Courtney and Mark first experienced small cideries in Normandy, France, more than a decade ago, fresh out of culinary school and working their way through Europe on organic farms. The farmhouse ciders, dry and lightly carbonated, were a part of their mid-day breaks, bottles to be shared with friends over an unhurried meal. “It was a turning point for us,” says Courtney. “We really found our inspiration there.”
When Mark encountered these same European-style ciders while completing a cider production program at Cornell University, he had his ah-ha moment of, “Ya! Let’s do this!” Courtney realizes, “Eventually, without us knowing it or planning it, that experience in Normandy landed us here.”
Settling into their collection of fallow orchards and planning now for a larger tasting facility and organic certification, they’re grateful to have found a home surrounded by other small cideries and wineries—each embracing a community spirit of supporting one another, especially in crazy times. Courtney reflects on the move: “If we’re going to be working 24/7, let’s at least be somewhere that’s not only great for the business, but is great for our family, too.”