Raising cider apples on the Island does create its own challenges, as the mild winters here are hospitable to the air-borne fungal spores of anthracnose, which eats at the young bark of the trees. Rather than use harsh chemicals, Rick carefully trims and prunes around the damage. Nontheless, Rick prunes his trees heavily every three years for improved health, functionality, and to avoid clumping. Typically, the trees in Merridale’s cider orchards are pruned more lightly than with orchards of eating apples, for which appearance is all important.
Much like their wild crabapple ancestors, cider apple varieties have flesh that is fibrous and dry. They give fuller body and colour to cider, unlike the sweet, juicy dessert apples most other cidermakers use.
In the early 1980s, when this orchard was planted, there was only one other orchard in North America dedicated to growing cider apples. Even today there are only a few cider orchards on the entire continent, growing limited quantities of cider apples.
The Cowichan Valley mirrors the optimum growing and climate conditions of the renowned cider regions in the UK and Europe. Merridale’s location was chosen, after years of research, as the perfect combination of climate, aspect and soil conditions to grow world-class fruit. As with fine wines, you need world-class fruit to make a world-class beverage!
We have almost 13 acres of cider apples here in our orchard, yielding about 60 tons of fruit in a good year. We purchase up to another 50 tons from smaller orchards that grow apples for us on trees started from our own cuttings.
Our apples are grown for their juice characteristics, not appearance or shape, allowing us to eliminate the use of herbicides and pesticides not approved for organic orchards. Indeed, you’ll notice that the ground under our orchard’s trees is green, in contrast to most commercial orchards, where Roundup is sprayed for weed control. Although it is much more labour intensive to weed by hand, we choose not to use this chemical. We are conscious of our place in our environment.
We have two rows of Jonagold apples, the only dessert apples in the orchard. All the rest are cider-specific varieties like Tremlett’s Bitter, Michelin, Yarlington Mill, Dabinett, Chisel Jersey, Kermerien, Julienne, Judaine, Frequin Rouge, and Hauxapfel.