Cava is the Catalan sparkling wine that derives its name from resting on its side for long periods of time in a "cave", usually underground, before it matures into a spirited wine with compact bubbles that have formed in the bottle under tremendous pressure over a period of years.
Mark Muse and Gloria Frigola, founders of Widow’s Watch Cider and owners of Muse Orchard, lived the culture and industry of cava up close in the Catalan provincial town of Girona, nestled between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean, before returning to America with the idea of reproducing the cava style here.
We returned to the US in '98, and established our new life in Maryland. While working in and around Washington DC, our interest in cava only grew, and we built a small "cave" in our suburban house's cellar, and established a small vineyard and orchard outside our backdoor. There, we experimented with wine as well as cider. It soon became clear to us, however, that the MidAtlantic is more benign towards apples than grapes.
We built an underground winery/cave in our suburban home.
We were working professionals, and so our involvement with emulating cava was, necessarily, part time. Still, our knowledge grew as we continued to study and apply horticulture and wine-making techniques in suburbia.
Our persistence eventually paid off, and we began producing some very agreeable sparkling wines and ciders. Because we could control apple tree production better than vines, we spent most of our effort on perfecting sparkling cider.
We won our first gold in 2005.
We decided that if we were to pursue our passion, we needed to purchase land to establish an orchard, and perhaps a vineyard as well; but it took us well over a decade to find the "right place".
It was a cold wintery day in 2015, and we had been out looking at properties when we came upon a stately farmhouse, with an imposing widow's watch, tucked away in a bucolic corner of the Shenandoah Valley, and huddled under a pile of snow. The house was off the market, but we made an offer anyway.
The farmhouse was founded in 1864 when Jacob Lantz, the local magistrate, rebuilt there after his flour mill and original home were burned down by General Sheridan.
Our first view of the 1864 Lantz farmhouse.
We bought the farmhouse and its property, and spring came around not long after. The Shenandoah is truly a breadbasket, where everything grows. It does beg assistance, though, and we've come to realize that it is a fertile valley, but a fickle one. From March to November, constant husbandry is required; it needs that much overseeing.
Rainbow over Muse Orchard
We established a small vineyard with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier for making a champagne-style sparkling wine, and we also planted reds for a Bordeaux blend.
It was fenced on all sides, so we called it a Clos.
We planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meurnier for Champagne-like sparkling wine. And we planted Carbernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot for a Bordeaux blend.
The vineyard at Muse Orchard.
We also planted an orchard.
We brought in a dozen trees from our backyard orchard that were 10 years old, but still small enough to transport since they had never received adequate sun. We had Hewes Crab, Gravenstein, Winesap, Russetts, and something Thomas Jefferson once called Taliaferro, though it's a little doubtful that we have a true Taliaferro among our heirlooms. We planted over 150 new cider trees, including Hewes Virginia Crab, Arkansas Black, Kingston Black, Yellow and Orange Pippin, Golden Russett, Roxbury Russett, Winesap, Wickson Crab, and several other varieties. We also discovered that we had three fully matured heirloom crabapples on the property which lend a very singular flavor and nose to our cider.
While the mature trees that we transplanted have borne fruit in the last two years, the newly planted trees will need a bit longer yet.
Apple blossoms from our transplanted urban orchard.
We found time to plant many other fruit trees, and to train those that were left unattended for years. We were able to bring in enough peach and pear in 2019 to make a small batch of Pêche and Perry. Sparkling, of course.
And so, one season follows the other, right the way around the calendar.
Fall into winter.
Winter comes and goes, placidly enough in front of one of the farmhouse's three fireplaces.
And, then, finally a lone chick chirps the news that spring has sprung, again.
And the race is on, until spring sprints into summer, and summer runs into fall, when the rush is over, and the pace slows, and life gives the farmer a break from the day-to-day.
Yet, there is so much to do indoors in the winery. Fortunately, the fall and winter free one's hands from the field, so that the fruits of labor may have a crib to rest upon once harvest has arrived.
The winery at Muse Orchard.
Once fully fermented and clarified, and bottled for the secondary fermentation, we store our sparkling wine (Sappho, the 10th Muse) and our sparkling ciders (Widow's Watch Cider) in our underground wine cave, where they are allowed to sleep undisturbed.
The act of riddling is a slow dance in which the cellar-master, once the deep sleep comes to an end, coaxes the yeast from the sides of the bottle down into the neck and, finally, to the tip, where it comes to rest against the crown cap and a little receptacle that the French call a "bidule", or "thingy". From there, the tip of the bottle is frozen, ensnaring sediment in the bidule, and the crown cap is popped off, releasing the frozen plug into a recycled barrel that has been modified to capture the crown cap, bidule, frozen plug, and accompanying spray.
Riddling takes 14 days as bottles are gently turned clockwise and counterclockwise to 24 position.
When the wine or cider has undergone its second fermentation, and has lain asleep for ever so long, we gently wake it up, when its time has come, and purge it of any remaining nightmares...
Or, "there you have it", as someone was purported to pronounce over the most extraordinary of results.
"Champagne cider", ready for chilling, popping the cork, and imbibing. There really is nothing else quite like it.
Ready to put on ice. Bottles are sitting on the farmhouse's hand-dug well.
If the French can do it....
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