State News

French apples could be boon to local industry

Posted March 18

— When St. Paul Mountain Vineyards first wanted to grow French vinifera, or grape vines, in Henderson County, most thought it was likely doomed for failure.

But today, the Hendersonville winery boasts gold-medal winning wines from its locally grown French vinifera. And now, owner Alan Ward is hoping to recreate that success with cider, bringing in French and European cider apple varieties to make delicious artisan hard cider and boost the local apple industry with a new, high-value product.

Ward and former Henderson County Extension Director Marvin Owings were in the Normandy region of France until March 12, touring growing operations and nurseries and making orders for French apple varieties grown specifically for cider making.

Owings has leased land to start his own nursery operation near St. Paul Mountain Vineyards, and wants to help determine which root stocks will work best to raise the varieties, which are susceptible to fire blight, a bacterial disease that can cause extensive damage.

Owings and Ward traveled to France in May 2015, also touring growing and cider operations. Owings said they have an interest in the true cider varieties. Because of that trip, they know how important it is to bring back the French varieties, but for whatever reason, they've been difficult to attain.

"We want to bring the French, European-style apple here, not something close or similar like hybrids," Ward said.

Normandy's history in making cider dates back hundreds of years, to the 14th century, when a mini-ice age took hold and prevented grape-growing, Ward explained. Apples could be grown and became prominent, leading the French to perfect cider, the same for areas in the United Kingdom and Germany.

St. Paul has been working on cider for seven years, producing it for four, and has won gold medals at several places, even shipping the cider to France. It's an artisanal cider, Ward said, made exactly like wine.

Currently, the company's three full-time wine makers use seven different apple varieties in their ciders, using a rack and cloth cider press.

The goal is to bring cider-specific apple varieties back to Henderson County and establish another facet of the local apple industry; something they hope will catch on with growers and add to the county's and state's agricultural engine.

"We're really trying to do something for the family and Marvin's family and for the community that will be sustainable, that could really add an extra gear to the apple industry here by bringing in apples that are strictly cider variety apples, no different than we did with vinifera," Ward said.

The cider-specific varieties wouldn't be apples that would make good eating. They'd be small, bitter and are broken down into four categories based on acid and tannin content: sweet, bittersweet, sharp and bittersharp.

There are 12 varieties specifically that they'll be looking at establishing in Henderson County, including the bittersweets Harry Master's Jersey, Davinett, Yarlington Mill, Chisel Jersey and Binet Rouge.

Ward said that he hopes to have all 12 varieties in full production in just five years, saying that if they purchase 2-year-old trees, they'll fruit one or two years after that, and working with those varieties in a nursery could hopefully allow other farmers to grow them and will produce a good working knowledge of the best practices.

He has also opened an account through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and has looked into all legal requirements for bringing the plants back, though they'll have to be treated and go through European and U.S. Customs.

The current apple variety block, a block of apples grown by the county Extension to test how well different varieties will fare in the county, has 19 hard cider varieties that were planted in 2014, but because the block had to be moved last year, the trees had to be cut back, so there's not enough yield make solid conclusions on their success or failure, Owings said, though he's hoping to have some fruit this summer or fall.

But Ward doesn't expect too many challenges in growing the fruit, pointing out that they'll be grown for cider not fresh fruit, so they won't have to be USDA Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certified.

"We don't care if they have spots on them," Ward said, but there can't be any rot and he doesn't want to overspray because a systematic fungicide in the fruit can affect the fermentation process.

Last time they went, they spent a lot of time in the orchards and have a good handle on the farming practices used in France.

The climate in Normandy, France isn't too much different than here, he said, with Owings adding that the schedule for bud break there is about three to four weeks behind Henderson County's.

Owings hopes to work with different root stocks to eliminate the fire blight susceptibility, and said that while in France, he's really interested in seeing the nurseries.

"We're not trying to prove something to somebody," Ward said. "If you can grow things in Europe you can grow them here. It may take us a little bit of ironing out, but we want those varieties here."

Just down Chestnut Gap road from St. Paul, Ward and company are refurbishing a barn built in the 1930s that will eventually be the cider headquarters, with tasting upstairs and on the back porch and semi-underground, climate controlled storage downstairs.

"We will find the varieties and bring them back here one way or another, whether it takes that trip or another trip, we will do that, because it's no different saying we're going to go get some French vinifera over here. We just want to make it more plentiful to where it can be more widespread," Ward said. "Hopefully in the long haul, you're not going to have everybody push up their apple trees and put cider apples in, but if you can take.20-percent of your land, 10-percent of your land and make five times the profit off that land, that helps keep you sustainable."

Ward currently has about 50 acres and hopes to eventually plant up to nine acres behind the barn with the cider apples. Cider apples will also fetch a higher price for growers, with Owings quoting a rate of $400 per 20-bushel bin.

"We're trying to really push the envelope on high-quality, high-end agricultural products that are produced here in North Carolina," Ward said.

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