Carmen Gray is a chemical engineer, winemaker, and now an award-winning cider maker.
Owning and operating Elemental Cider, a small boutique cidery in Ōtaki, Carmen has won Best Traditional Cider at the New Zealand Fruit Wine & Cider Awards for her Totally Oaked variety.
Made from Kingston Black and Slack Ma Girdle apples and aged in French oak barrels to create a dry cider bursting with toffee and vanilla, the win was a surprise for Carmen, having entered the awards before, but never received a medal, let alone a trophy.
"I was stoked, gobsmacked, I did a little happy dance – more than a little dance," she said.
"It wasn't just winning a trophy, but four medals too."
The judges described Totally Oaked as, "having great florals on the nose, the oak does not dominate and is complete, full, and round, an excellent example".
Elemental Cider also walked away with silver for supermarket variety Dry As, and bronze for Pear Drop, a prosecco-inspired drink and Orchard Fall modelled off a gewürztraminer wine.
A small midlife crisis after turning 40 was the starting point for Carmen.
"I was a chemical engineer, but I enrolled in winemaking school at the Eastern Institute of Technology and did a postgraduate degree in winemaking when I turned 40.
"In the meantime, I had planted all the apple trees with the thought of making cider.
"Turning apples into cider is the same process as turning grapes into wine.
"They are fermented the same way and even come through the same regulations whereas beer is brewed so it's different."
Getting into her winemaking after completing the study, Carmen felt the winemaking bug hit.
So while she was waiting for the apples to mature, Carmen travelled the world as a travelling winemaker.
"Predominantly in Australia and Europe, I travelled around getting jobs during the busy seasons.
"My last overseas vintage before Covid-19 was in Austria in 2019, making wine in 16th-century tunnels."
Having just turned down a contract in Australia next year because it's too hard to get back, Carmen's focus has instead turned to Elemental Cider.
"I launched in 2018 but didn't get it moving until I got into supermarkets and started doing tastings - it's a premium product that sells on tasting."
Just starting to do regular tastings in supermarkets when Covid-19 hit, Elemental Ciders are traditional, with a taste reminiscent of English West Country Ciders.
Traditional cider makers use oak or malolactic fermentation to give their ciders more complexity and richness, meaning the taste is different to your supermarket-bought ciders, which are often modern ciders - fruity, clean, with a light-to-medium body and varying degrees of tannin and sweetness.
"Most people are used to ciders that are very sweet and fruity whereas these are traditional ciders.
"I wanted to work with what the apples give me rather than infusing it with sugars and concentrates."
With 220 trees in her Ōtaki orchard, the trees produce apples of varying kinds, all of which are heritage apple cultivars specific for their use in cider production.
"I grow all my own apples with 220 trees on 2.4ha of land."
This is the first year Carmen has produced multiple varieties of cider, and the first time she has won a medal at the awards after trying for the past few years.
The ciders were launched at the Kāpiti Women's Expo last weekend.
"I've been entering awards for the last two years and never got any medals, so I've been talking to the judges and other cider makers.
"They've been giving me feedback, and this year I got four medals and a trophy."
With four varieties this year, the Pear Drop is modelled off a prosecco, Totally Oaked, a chardonnay, Dry As, a riesling, and Orchard Fall a gewürztraminer wine.
"I had those styles in mind at the beginning this time rather than trying to make an obnoxious cider.
"I decided to make them the same way I make wine.
"While real ciders shouldn't be flavoured, I've had people asking about a fruit-flavoured cider so I took apples, quinces, pears, and put some feijoas in to create Orchard Fall."
Doing everything herself, from harvesting the trees, making, bottling and labelling, to marketing and everything else in between, Carmen believes there's a place in the market for a premium cider that is gluten free, natural, refined-sugar free, and vegan.
"I like to make cider with integrity and use what the apples give me".
The ciders can be found at New World stores in Ōtaki, Waikanae, Thorndon, Foxton and Marton, Pak'n Save Kapiti, and the Waitarere Beach Four Square, along with several cafes and restaurants.
To purchase Elemental Ciders, email Carmen at firstname.lastname@example.org.