“I don’t care what you two think, I love this.”
“How has this not been in oak?!”
“It’s almost, sort of … and this will sound really negative, but it’s not … sort of medicinal.”
“It’s totally its own thing. There’s nothing else like it.”
“That is just ridiculously good.”
I’m in a room above a pub with two cidermakers and a dog. A dozen or so open bottles in various states of emptiness pepper a small coffee table. There’s a jug for pouraways … it isn’t very full. And we’ve been making our way through a tasting that would be almost impossible almost anywhere else.
The flavours of a cider, assuming it is not faulty or adjunct-heavy, are dictated by apples. Well of course they are; that sentence seemed almost too obvious even to type. But what’s astonishing, when you look at back labels and web copy, is how infrequently the apple varieties themselves are actually discussed. More often than not, the guide to what you can expect from your drink is couched solely in the ubiquitous scale of sweet-medium-dry. Which tells you nothing whatsoever about how it will actually taste. The first step up are those which proclaim “traditional West Country” or “Eastern counties style”, but as the diversity of producers and their liquid portfolios continues to increase, those catch-alls seem ever-more insufficient.
Then there are the ciders which describe themselves as made from “cookers/eaters” or “cider apples”. There’s a certain usefulness there, in that you’ll broadly know that the former is likely to be acid-led, whilst the latter will likely have higher tannins, but it implies that all eaters share a broadly similar palette of flavours and that the same is true of all cider apples. An implication refuted by a short walk through any orchard growing more than one variety.
The oft-touted wisdom you hear around cider is that the best are always blends. But whether that’s true or not (for what it’s worth, I don’t believe that it necessarily is) every blend is dependent upon the individual flavours and characteristics of each constituent apple. Of course these individualities may well be ironed out and homogenised in blends that use forty … fifty … sixty different varieties. But is there not something more profound in deliberately drawing on the known qualities of just a few different apples to craft a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts? Is there not something more engaging – more satisfying – to the curious drinker in recognising the origins of flavours and using them to gradually build a mental map of personal preferences?
Pondering these questions, this particular drinker was curious enough to reach out to Albert Johnson at Ross on Wye cidery. Ross isn’t the only cidery in the world to release single variety ciders, but I can’t think of anywhere that takes them as seriously, that has such a broad range and that – crucially – has fermented each one to complete dryness and then left it there.
(A quick aside, to pre-empt the complaints … that last sentence was not to disparage ciders that aren’t dry; cast an eye over my twitter feed and you will see it buckling beneath delicious offerings both medium and sweet. But for the purposes of a tasting concerned solely with studying the individual characteristics of apple varieties, tasting ciders in which sweetness is not either heightening or reducing any particular flavours was of paramount importance.)
I’d visited Ross on a couple of occasions, and pinged emails back and forth to Albert, but in the name of really understanding the apples for myself, I needed to go a little further. And Albert was kind enough to invite me over for a proper Variety Performance.
I wasn’t entirely sure exactly how the tasting would pan out when I bowled up at Ross on the Saturday evening. But after a bit of a catch-up we made our way to the shop to pick out a few bottles. I’ve been in that shop several times now, dizzied by the array on offer, but what I’d never clocked or realised is that the ciders are already lined up in order from the sharpest (Foxwhelp) to the most tannic (Ashton Bitter).
I suppose I had expected that we might have just grabbed a few; perhaps mainly the most famous … Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Foxwhelp … but the bottles just kept coming. “Grab a Brown Snout … get a Reinette O’Bry … definitely a Redstreak”. By the time we were done, nine unoaked single varieties were in our box, plus a trio of their older, oak-aged “big brothers”, just for good measure. Out of respect.
Might as well come clean straight away and admit that I was only taking the most perfunctory of notes, that we spent a chunk of it watching the football, that we weren’t spittooning and that we decamped half way through to have dinner (complemented wonderfully by the Somerset Redstreak). A professional, pondering, head-down, zero-distractions tasting it was not. But that wasn’t the point. It was less about the minutiae of the nittiest, grittiest intensely personal tasting notes and more about letting each variety hit us with its clearest, biggest, most unmissable personality.
And it was absolutely fascinating.
We decided to start with the sharp stuff (Albert didn’t call it “stuff”, he called it something ruder) and work our way down the octave to the most tannic. Submitted below are my own impressions as a drinker; I dare say – in fact I am certain – that Albert will disagree with at least a few of them. But that, of course, is another joy of single varieties …
One last quick note: 500ml bottles of Ross on Wye single varieties are available at Scrattings for about £3, which, as with so many things cider, is unreasonably good value. (Though my tip, of course, is to visit Ross itself.)
Foxwhelp 2017 (Batch D13)
There’s no mistaking Foxwhelp; it’s one of those apples that, sensitively handled, should be instantly recognisable every time. Ross handle it very sensitively indeed, and the result, when young, is like tasting forked lightning. Almost rose-gold in hue; big, fresh, zingy aromas touched with strawberry bound out of the glass and are followed on the palate by citrusy fruit and the most laser-like, mouth-puckering sharpness imaginable. As someone who will cheerfully eat lemons and limes, I absolutely adore it. In fact it vies with Yarlington Mill to be my favourite apple. But sharpness like that will always polarise. Easy to see why a little Foxwhelp goes such a long way in a blend. Equally, that acidity will soften with time, and the flavours and aromas have the intensity to stay the course for years too. What’s ridiculous is how bristlingly fresh and direct everything still is after two years.
Reinette O’Bry 2017 (Batch C97)
My first experience of this sharp French variety; not one I’ve seen individually on any other label. Tasted next to the Foxwhelp its acidity seemed almost mild by comparison, but was certainly more pronounced than the others we tried. Rather prettily flavoured; yellow fruits and chalky minerality. An apple for fans of Chablis or Loire Sauvignon. But perhaps only medium-light intensity in most of its characteristics. Not what I’d think of as a “statement” cider, certainly not by comparison with some of the others. But (admittedly without a Browns to directly compare it to) I felt it did many of the same things as Browns … only better.
Michelin 2016 & 2018 (Batch D1)
Michelin, to me, feels like a canvas on which other apples can express their stylings. It has a bit of most things, without having a lot of anything. A touch of tannin. A touch of acidity. Its flavours aren’t broad or instantly arresting. And yet several of my favourite ciders have had this apple in their makeup. When I visited Albert in September he said “the point of a blend is to showcase qualities of varieties and hide their deficiencies”, and few workhorses are better than Michelin. Digging for equivalents with my wine hat on, I can’t think of terribly many single variety Cabernet Francs or Grenaches have really wowed me. But I can’t begin to imagine how many brilliant blends I’ve had that have featured one or the other. Intriguingly, in addition to the 2016-18 blend, we tried a straight 2018 Michelin that was significantly juicier and fruitier. I’d love to know what the 2016 tasted like as a solo act.
Somerset Redstreak 2018 (Batch D17)
The comment I made when we tasted this was that, of the ciders we’d tried by this point, the Somerset Redstreak smelled and tasted the most of what I thought a non-cider-nerd would describe as “apples”. Certainly it was the ripest, juiciest and most overtly fruity up to this point, offset by a seam of tannin. Its flavours followed through nicely on the palate (and, as mentioned, it went very nicely with Albert’s chicken curry). Medium to medium-plus in terms of aromas and flavours, but it struck me that it hit a very good balance in terms of its acidity-tannin-fruit.
Ashton Brown Jersey 2017 (Batch C77)
Fruitier still than the Redstreak, indeed my notes read SUPER fruity, which shows the step up in intensity from its predecessor. Tannins have also increased, but such is that ripeness of fruit – almost conveying an erroneous impression of sweetness – that to the perception of the drinker, they seemed softer. (With the caveat that this has had an extra year to mellow, by comparison with the ’18 vintage Redstreak). Still sits in that happy middle ground in which there is more than enough of everything to make it a deliciously balanced single variety.
Brown Snout 2017 (Batch D4)
One of the ultimate “statement” apples, and Albert’s favourite variety. There’s no mistaking Brown Snout, and I can’t do better than offer the description Albert sent me a few months back:
“Often smells like barnyard, or old horse, etc. Which is an interesting topic, as those aromas are often associated with Brett [the Brettanomyces Cerevisiae yeast. Ed.], but how could the same variety, year after year, alone amongst 100+ fermentations develop a brett infection? There must be something in the compound of the apple which releases these aromas when milled and fermented. But regardless, I have come to love the smell, as it is so recognisable. I knew we had a good Brown Snout earlier this year when, pouring Dad a glass just before release day, he sniffed it and sighed. “Oh, it’s SO Brown Snout” he complained. Nevertheless, he reached for the bottle when his glass was empty. It is a cider of exceptional smoothness, with seemingly no beginning and end, just a rolling, tumbling middle that flows over and around your palate like jelly. It is subtle and rewarding to those who develop an affinity for the flavour.”
This was one of the varieties we tried that I could barely believe hadn’t been in oak. Indeed there’s a quality, particularly on the finish, that reminds me of the almost sticking-plaster note of some old Laphroaigs. Another attribute associated with Brettanomyces. Curiouser and curiouser. There’s absolutely no way this could be described as an apple for everyone. It’s so individual, so marmite. But it is unquestionably one of the great single varieties; perhaps the most distinctive of all. And for what it’s worth, I’m well in the ‘love it’ camp. If you see any bottles of Ross-on-Wye’s Brown Snout Oak Cask 2017, you buy them on sight. But you’re not likely to come across very many.
Dabinett 2018 (Batch D6)
Cidermakers love this apple for so many reasons. Late ripening, crops massively, easy to mill, even easier to press. Drinkers love it because it is another in the category of “has a good bit of everything, without being overwhelming in any single regard”. Particularly alluring is a sweet vanilla spiciness – not of the sort you would derive from American oak, but of a juicer, fruitier complexion. To my taste, as a single variety, it’s a little low on acidity, but it’s not entirely without it, and that – after all – is the point of blending. In a weird way it makes me think of Michelin-plus-plus – Michelin with a megaphone, if you like – but that’s not so much in terms of its specific flavours as it is in terms of having many of Michelin’s attributes … only more so. More tannin, more body, more ripe juiciness, more heft of flavour. Where Michelin exceeds Dabinett is in its gentle extra nudge of acidity. (Though this is not, of course to describe Michelin as ‘sharp’.) You can see why the two go together so nicely.
Harry Masters’ Jersey 2018 (Batch D3)
Ooft. That’s challenging. Big, snarling, astringent tannins that suck the moisture right out of your cheeks and gums. Not especially overtly fruity – certainly not at this stage of life – and there’s a strong element of a medicinal character, of a different style to that of the Brown Snout. It isn’t acetone and it isn’t TCP, but whatever it is I’m in mind of painful liquids from the school nurse’s cabinet. Looking through my spider-scrawl notes I can see I’ve written ‘dry’ three times, prefixed with ‘so’ twice and underlined once. So it must be true. Clearly an apple for grunt and structure in a blend … as well as one that wants time to mellow and soften and is more than a match for oak. I’d be fascinated to try this again in a few years when those tannins have been massaged a little and the fruit has been given room to strut its enormous stuff.
Yarlington Mill 2017 (Batch C70)
Even before we’d broached the bottle there was something about the Yarlington’s depth of hue that gave it a special aura. But so intensely deep, so languorously, mesmerizingly fulsome were its billowing aromas that even Albert thought for a moment that we’d grabbed a bottle older than any of the other eight. In fact it was the same age as the Foxwhelp, the Reinette, the Aston Brown and the Brown Snout, but never in a million years would you have guessed. Nor, if you tasted this blind, would you think for a moment that it was wholly unoaked. An astonishing quality of rich, clove-studded, Christmassy spice, almost suggesting the lignin flavours from European oak barrels. The fruit itself was had a warming, hearty, almost-baked inflection, buttressed to the inch by comforting, mouth-filling, velvety-smooth tannins. Can you tell I liked it? Within moments Matt Miller, a visiting cidermaker from America, was declaring it his favourite of the lineup. And so was I. Doesn’t feel nearly as tannic as the HMJ – is that just because the fruit is so voluptuous that tannins are kept wrapped up?
There are goodness knows how many thousand varieties of apple growing in the UK. We tasted nine of them, completely untouched by oak, and no two were really in the same ball park. I have done a lot of cider tastings in my time, but I can’t think of another that has been quite so instructive.
Fifty years ago, in the back end of the sixties, you’d never see the names of grape varieties on wine labels either. Bottles were marked by their region of origin; a secretive code understood by only a rarefied few. It wasn’t until the wines of the new world percolated onto British shelves, labelled “Merlot” and “Malbec” and “Chardonnay” and “Shiraz” and “Sauvignon Blanc” that wine really began to democratise; became an understandable pleasure to even the least-knowledgeable members of its audience. Today any shopper in any supermarket or specialist store can choose a varietally-labelled wine, confident that they have a rough idea of whether they’re likely to enjoy it.
I’m not suggesting that all ciders should be single variety – of course I’m not. Some apples simply aren’t suited to it, to begin with, and there’s always a danger that, in focussing solely on variety, certain apples will dominate plantings and ciders at the expense of others. But what I do believe – all the more so now – is that discussion of the individual flavours and qualities of apples is where the most fertile ground lies for the evolution in the language we use to describe cider. After all, it is these flavours and qualities that form the building blocks for everything else.
My order of preference for current drinking – just for fun:
Yarlington Mill 2017 (Batch C70)
Foxwhelp 2017 (D13)
Brown Snout 2017 (D4)
Ashton Brown Jersey 2017 (C77)
Somerset Redstreak 2018 (D17)
Dabinett 2018 (D6)
Reinette O’Bry 2017 (C97)
Michelin 2016-2018 (D1)
Harry Masters’ Jersey (D3)
One last postscript: listing them by my preferences I’ve just noticed that, other than the Reinette O’Bry, I preferred all of the 2017s to all of the 2018s. Whether that’s coincidence or not I’ve no idea. Certainly, the Dabinett and particularly the Harry Masters’ Jersey seem built for much longer ageing than the one year they’ve had so far. I dare say I’ll have to keep on tasting to find out …
Can’t thank Albert enough for his hospitality and generosity in making this tasting possible and talking me through each variety. Also for indulging my overenthusiastic burbling and scattergun opinions.
Images kindly provided by Ross-on-Wye.