Unless you've had this, it's not what you're thinking. I suppose this could be an overly broad generalization, but it seems the the general market for hard cider is something akin to the market for "hard lemonade." The resulting expectation is for sweet, fizzy beverages with little to set each apart from another, tasting vaguely of apples, but more of sugar. "Approachable" and "ignorable" might be apt descriptors.
While "approachable" might be a debatable term, applied to Isastegi, "ignorable" doesn't enter into the picture. This is not a beverage to be taken lightly, and the uninitiated may be in for a real shock. Isastegi comes from the Basque cider-making tradition, which eschews the addition of sugar or carbonation. The resulting cider is a pure expression of the fruit, and the processes of fermentation.
I was first introduced to Isastegi by Justin Vann, who paired it with a sort of pickled fruit salad at a recent collaborative dinner with Justin Yu. The sharp flavors complemented each other, with the richness of yogurt in the dish contrasting nicely. I brought a bottle to the recent Les Sauvages collaboration with Plinio Sandalio, largely because I had it on hand, and didn't have time to make other BYOB arrangements.
I figured its acidity would work well with a wide range of food, and I was right. It paired particularly well with a dish of Quail and Dumplings, the tiny birds served with Smoked Potato Gnocchi, Late Summer Vegetables, and a Bacon Veloute. With that much richness on the plate, it was nice to have something to cut through, and the Isastegi worked like a plasma lance.
Isastegi pours a pale, hazy yellow (the cider is bottled unfiltered) and is not visibly carbonated, since only natural carbonation is allowed in Basque cider making. The nose is sharp and acidic, with a slightly phenolic undertone. Brine, olives, pears, roses and a mild band-aid aroma predominate. If you're following Basque tradition, you should pour the cider from a great height, arms extended as far apart as is possible, in order to aerate the cider.
Tart green apples rush the palate on the first sip. It is, in fact, almost shockingly acidic. That acidity, like a Van de Graaf generator in your mouth, gives way to a bright and rounded mid-palate full of slightly malty, hay-like notes with a honeyed funk and the trace wildness of the yeasts responsible for the cider's natural fermentation. A mild residual sweetness clears things out, while pears return for the finish, along with grass, phenolic funk, and a ricochet of that clangorous acidity to sweep everything out before the next sip.
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Only sweet enough to offer a grudging recognition that sugar was, at one point, involved in the process, Isastegi is nearly bone dry and both mouth-watering and refreshing. I've enjoyed it on its own several times, but that acidity just screams out for food.
I believe it is typically enjoyed in warmer months, and I can certainly see that appeal. Its refreshing character and low alcohol content make it quite quaffable. My most recent experience, though, tells me it's bound to be just as well suited to splitting the richness of forthcoming cold-weather meals. Plus, while it's slicing through that cassoulet, it just might give you a brief sense of summer which, at that point, might actually seem like a good thing.