La Ferme d’Hotte

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Although it is historically less respected than its neighbors to the north, the Aube has seen its winegrowing reputation surge over the past decade or so as an ascendent generation of producers coaxes increasingly expressive Champagnes from its Kimmeridgian soils. Less commonly known, however, is that the Aube is where some of the first apple ciders in France were produced—in an area known as the Pays d’Othe.

This zone, situated 40 minutes northeast of Chablis, is a rolling, heavily forested countryside with soils of flint-rich clay over a Kimmeridgian-limestone bedrock. A bevy of indigenous apple varieties flourish here, yielding fruit of exceptionally high acidity and powerful minerality—a perfect backbone for cider. Production here dates to the Middle Ages, having flourished in the ensuing centuries but suffering a major hit in the aftermath of the Second World War. Today, the Pays d’Othe is home to just ten producers of cider, and general awareness of the area’s output is dwarfed by that of Normandy and Brittany.

We were recently put in touch with a young man named Théo Hotte by a mutual acquaintance, who suspected his family’s ciders may be right up our alley. The category was theretofore uncharted territory for Rosenthal Wine Merchant, but we indulged our curiosity, and a few sips into the first sample bottle we popped, we were already adjusting our upcoming European itinerary to accommodate a visit to La Ferme d’Hotte. This was indeed cider that spoke to our sensibilities: vivid and non-confected in its fruit character, bracing in its acidity, and evocatively rustic, with a commanding mineral presence on the palate. (It was also utterly delicious and a real pleasure to drink.)

Théo is the fifth generation of Hotte to farm these fields around the town of Eaux-Puiseaux in the Pays d’Othe. The family’s old orchards were ripped up and planted to grains after World War Two, but Théo’s father began growing apples again in the 1990s, planting varieties indigenous to the area: Avrolles, Locard, Nez Plat, Chatagnier Bondon, Petit Jaune, Jolibois, Sebin, and Vérolot, among others. Following in his father’s footsteps, Théo works completely organically, and the farm is certified as such. They employ only minimal quantities of copper-sulfate in their fields, which encompass both traditional tree orchards and more modern bush orchards, and their immediate neighbors also farm without synthetic chemicals—so there is no contamination risk from outside the property.

Théo works remarkably naturally in the family’s modestly equipped cellar, whose simplicity and rustic charm resonated with us immediately; whether it’s for wine or cider, a cellar like La Ferme d’Hotte’s reassures the visitor: fashionable technology finds no purchase here. Apples are pressed within two hours of harvesting, and fermentations proceed in steel without any added yeasts. Pasteurization is never employed, and no sulfur is added at any point, including at bottling. Except for their elite cuvée “Boemius,” which is produced like Champagne, the second fermentation occurs when a small portion of unfermented and unfiltered juice is added to the cider at bottling, generating bubbles as the still-living yeasts in the juice devour the sugar. Théo does nothing to force fermentation to a certain level of sweetness, and the ciders typically end up with around 25 grams per liter of residual sugar, which is counterbalanced by towering yet beautifully integrated acidity (pH is typically 3.3 to 3.5).

Remarkably, all of La Ferme d’Hotte’s ciders are kept two years before being put up for sale, and Théo enthuses about their age-worthiness, remarking that they continue to develop complexity and depth for well over a decade in bottle. Terroir is hardly the exclusive province of fermented grape juice, and it is thrilling to encounter ciders such as these which bear such an indelible sense of place.

Cidre du Pays d’Othe “Brut Tradition”:  La Ferme d’Hotte’s Brut Tradition is produced from the main four apple varieties of the farm, which are pressed immediately after harvesting, then fermented spontaneously in stainless steel. Bottled for secondary fermentation several months after the harvest, the bubbles are formed via the addition of a small amount of unfermented and unfiltered apple juice to the still-sweet cider just before being capped. The finished product ends up with about 25 grams per liter of residual sugar, a super-low pH of 3.3 to 3.5, and a natural alcohol level of 6.5%. The flavor profile of the “Brut Tradition” is explosive and expansive—a rush of tangy apple flesh, intermingling low tones of fresh caramel with intense, almost prickly spices, and shot through with an unmistakable note of gunflint. The cider’s supple sweetness and bristling acidity are intertwined beautifully, putting one in the mind of a great Vouvray “Sec-Tendre,” yet with an irresistible thread of gusty rusticity.

Grand Cidre du Pays d’Othe “Boemius”:  Named after a legendary figure from the Middle Ages who dwelled in the forests of the Pays d’Othe, Boemius is a selection of the best juice from each harvest, typically comprising six apple varieties from throughout the family’s orchards, with production topping off at 15,000 bottles per year. Contrary to the ancient method employed for the “Brut Tradition,” this is produced in the same manner as Champagne, and spends two years on its lees before disgorgement. Carrying around 25 grams per liter of residual sugar and 6.5% alcohol, Boemius reads as drier and sleeker than the Brut Tradition, yet with a more profound mineral-inflected funk, as well as an undertone of new leather. Structurally concentrated and tensile, Boemius should blossom even further with a bit of bottle age.

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