Astigarraga, Basque Country, Spain
The best way to appreciate Malus Mama Ice Cider is to taste it without knowing that it’s a cider. The remarkable balance between sweetness and acidity, the bright, tart fruit, the burnished, almost brandy-like quality of extended barrel and bottle aging, and the stunning, complex aromas are comparable to those of a fine dessert wine at three to four times the price.
The person behind this remarkable product is Iñaki Otegi, a winemaker who typically makes Txakoli. Iñaki was born in San Sebastian in 1972 to a humble family. His father was a machine operator at a factory in Mondragón and his mother was a homemaker. Iñaki’s uncles were shepherds in Alkiza, on Mount Ernio, where his parents still go regularly to stock up on Idiazabal cheese.
After studying chemistry in San Sebastian, Iñaki moved to Madrid to study for a Masters in Viticulture and Enology at the Agricultural Faculty of the Univesidad Politécnica. After getting his Masters, Iñaki spent five years as a teacher’s assistant and a laboratory technician at the University, where he met and befriended people like Dani Landi and Fernando Garcia of Comando G in Gredos, as well as Marc Isart of Benabeleva, and Pepe Raventos of Raventos i Blanc in Penedes. “Back in 2003, on a weekday in May, after attending a presentation on Canadian ice wines at the Canadian Embassy in Madrid, I was given the chance to taste my first ever ice cider… My mind went into overdrive and I got really excited.”
Ice wine or eiswein, most well known in Germany, is a sweet wine where the sugar is obtained by concentrating the grape juice through freezing the water content. The grapes are harvested in the early hours of the morning when the temperature is below -10°C and then quickly transported to the winery and pressed, producing a very concentrated juice with more sugar than usual, and the result is a sweet wine. In 2008, after returning home from working harvests in Argentina, South Africa, the US and Canada, Iñaki decided to try to make his creation in Astigarraga, the heart of Basque cider. “Apple juice for cider-making has about half the concentration of wine, that is to say, that it produces a cider with between 5% and 6% alcohol. I concentrate it further to get alcohol content of between 11% and 12%, something similar to wine. These processes concentrate everything, the sweetness, the sugar that will make the alcohol content increase after fermentation, but also the acidity, which is really important.” Acidity is key here as it balances the sweetness and makes the wine, or rather cider, sweet without being cloying.
Once the fruit juice is concentrated and fermented enough to make it stable, the next step in the process is the same as for all the best sweet wines in the world, aging in oak barrels, careful bottling, and subsequent aging in bottle. “Before being released onto the market, there is a first phase of in French oak barrels, where it is aged for approximately a year or a year and a half, depending on the vintage, and then after bottling, it rests another couple of years in bottle. This is where it starts to find its balance and personality that seems to keep over time. Each vintage takes just over four years to be released into the market.”
Since the first vintage in 2008, Malus Mama has always been made with fruit from the Etxeburua orchard in Astigarraga, which is about 40 years old and where there are seventeen identified apple varieties; Astarbe, Mendiola, Moko and Goikoetxe being the predominant ones. Inaki recently added a new (to him) orchard. the Ipizti orchard is more sandy soil while the Etxeburua orchard has more black clay. The vineyards are all organic; they only cut the grass, prune the trees and harvest the apples. Pruning is just as difficult here as picking the apples. “It’s really difficult to make those 2500 half bottles and it’s impossible to achieve a cheap product of this quality.”
Malus Mama can be found at many of the best restaurants in Spain, including Mugaritz, Akelarre, Etxebarri and El Cellar de Can Roca.
We are grateful to Luis Gutierrez's fine book, The New Vignerons, for much of the information above.
Malus Mama Basque Ice Cider 2011
- Iñaki Otegi freezes a wide variety of native apple varieties (Astarbe, Mendiola, Goikoetxe, Moko,....others) in order to concentrate the sugar and acidity.
- The juice goes from 6.5 potential alc. to about 11% when finished.
- The juice is fermented naturally then aged at least a year in oak followed by three years in bottle.
- The resulting product does not taste like cider. It has the complexity and acidity of a great dessert wine. 11% alc., 3.5pH and 8 grams of acidity. One can see the acidity in the green rim.
- His cider is mailing list only in Spain and is featured at restaurants throughout the country.
- Malus is latin for apple. Iñaki discovered after naming the wine that Mama is an old Euskera (the Basque language) word for quality cider.
- Malus Mama can be paired with a wide variety of foods, including desserts such as tarte tatin or fatty, rich foods such as foie gras or tripe. A stunning pairing is with the local Idiazabal al Pastor, a sheep's milk cheese with a bit of age on it.