Buffalo Grove native's Left Foot Charley part of growing hard cider trend
By Mary Ross
Daily Herald Correspondent
Both bottling line and cellar rats are in full tilt at Michigan's Left Foot Charley as Buffalo Grove native Bryan Ulbrich, aka "Winery Sherpa," wraps up his 2017 vintage.
But it isn't wine flowing from the tanks; it's cider.
"The difference between the two is up to the Fed's," laughs Ulbrich, explaining that the Tax and Trade Bureau (our alcohol governing body) defines cider as apple wine, between 0.1 and 6.99 percent alcohol by volume.
"To keep alcohol down, we don't chaptalize," he says, referring to a winemaking practice of adding sugar to juice boost fermentation. "What's in the bottle is a pure expression of fruit."
But the fruit that Ulbrich is touting isn't the Pinot Noir or chardonnay also bottled by LFC; it's Winesap, Jonathan and other apples sourced from eighteen local growers for LFC cider.
Ulbrich continues with the winegrower's checklist: aromatics, acidity, tannic structure, terroir.
He earned winemaking credentials, not in the U.S. West Coast or Europe, but in Arizona, where he contributed to the state's blossoming wine region (currently 83 wineries and 950 acres under vine). Then, he went looking for the next wine region on the brink of discovery.
He found it in Michigan, which offered his family "quality of life and quality of wine."
In 2004, with the support of family, financiers and local farmers, Ulbrich established LFC in Traverse City. Today, Michigan's West Coast is called "the Napa of the Midwest," recently featured by the Wine Enthusiast (September 21, 2016) as the one U.S. wine region on the rise.
There's good argument that this rising wine region is also our nation's most authentic wine region. After all, the wine grape that made the West Coast famous is a foreigner; there is no fine wine grape native to the entire American continent.
But the apple is our American icon, introduced throughout the Midwest by American legend John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed (1774 -- 1845.)
Johnny favored "spitters" -- small, tart apples destined for the cider that Midwest pioneers required in the absence of pure water. He established nurseries throughout 100,000 square miles; on his death, he owned more than 1,200 planted acres.
But in 1919, the U.S. ratified the 18th Constitutional Amendment, prohibiting the production, sale and transportation of alcohol. At that time, orchards were destroyed or cultivated to eating and baking apples to prevent cider production.
Now, the U.S. is in a cider revival. Michigan's Cider Coast runs for 200 miles, growing dozens of heirloom varieties specifically for cider. Retailers and restaurateurs offer ciders from throughout Europe and the states. Major cities sport cider bars, such as Chicago's The Northman (4337 North Lincoln Avenue), which offers LFC cider.
While the growth of the cider category is off its 2014 peak, Ulbrich reports that LFC production can't keep up with sales.
This palate understands why. LFC ciders offer lip-smacking refreshment, natural apple sweetness, solid acidity (key to food pairing) and the gentle relaxation of low alcohol.
LFC offers styles based on the crop from local growers and seasonality ("which basically means how long it takes to sell out," jokes Ulbrich.) Along with "Ross's Choice," the following ciders are available at fine wine shops, specialty grocers and cider-friendly restaurants throughout Chicagoland:
Henry's Pippin -- Round in aroma, flavor and texture, with subtle accents from oak fermentation and a firmness that made me hanker for meat. For the perfect pairing, Ulbrich doesn't hesitate, "My wife's slow-roasted pork shoulder with onions, apples and herbs," as well as other smoked, grilled or barbecued meats.
Cinnamon Girl -- Exotic and perfumed, with a whisper of sweetness, serve Cinnamon Girl as you would a Gewurztraminer, with richly-spiced cuisines including Thai, Creole, Mexican "and my wife's Chicken Masala," injects Ulbrich. Just the right sweetness for autumn and root vegetables including pumpkin, carrot and squash.
Visitors to the Traverse City LFC winery can enjoy ciders and wines not yet in Chicagoland distribution, including the single-orchard Antrim County, and a 100 percent pear cider. LFC also offers evening open mikes, Happy Hours and performances by local musicians. In October, their "Harvest Festivus" celebrates the local community with live German music, carriage rides, and food and ciders available for purchase. For more information, visit: http://www.leftfootcharley.com/
• Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at food@daily herald.com.
Ross' choiceName: Classic Hard Cider
Region: Grand Traverse, Michigan
Producer: Left Foot Charley Wine & Hard Cider
Availability: Fine wine shops and specialty grocers, $8.99 per 500ml
(Distributed by: Cream Wine Company, Chicago)
"This blend of heirloom Michigan apples enters the mouth with a Wow! of focus and drive, with flavors that expand into a finish that doesn't quit. With delicate sweetness (no sugar added), green apple and mineral complexity, serve this cider as you would an excellent Alpine pinot grigio or craft lager, to ease into a meal and to complement light, flavory dishes and international noshes."