Few words in booze sound a note of apparent alarm like “blending”. Mark touched on this in his excellent Velvet Fig piece; relatively new-minted members of the whiskerati often like to flash their clued-up credentials by vocally dismissing blends outright, whilst at the longer-toothed wonk end it’s so often single cask this and purest possible expression that. Mainstream consumers often don’t know what “single malt” actually means, let alone getting bogged down in the technicalities of blended malt vs blended whisky. And for Christ’s sake don’t start trying to explain that almost all single malts are blended anyway – your friends will have mentally uninvited you to all future parties long before you get there.
I see the same thing when I talk to friends and customers about wine. Single varieties somehow seem to hold a higher mental standing amongst the uninitiated. I suppose they’re something to cling to. You like Merlot. Or Sauvignon Blanc. Or Shiraz. You know where you stand with them. Those who like entry-level clarets or Rhônes tend to have fixed on that one name or style. They’re not standing in a supermarket aisle thinking “gosh I must find another wine that’s a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre, perhaps with a cheeky slosh of Piqupoul Noir and Cinsault”. By and large, you start talking about blends and people switch off.
The vast, vast, overwhelming majority of ciders are blends. There’s a vocal school of thought that suggests truly great cider has to be. It’s a school of thought I disagree with, as I explained in this article on the single varieties of Ross on Wye, but I can understand where it’s come from.
When assessing a wine or spirit’s quality for the WSET diploma (which I don’t recommend to anyone who doesn’t actually need it, as two years is a lot of life to sacrifice) you’re encouraged to consider it in terms of balance, length, intensity and complexity (BLIC). The idea being that, in conjunction with your notes on aromas and flavours and body and sweetness and tannin and acidity and everything else, you can reach as objective a conclusion on quality as is reasonably possible. Whether the wine or spirit is to your personal taste or not.
Going out on a limb I’d suggest that not many apples or pears would score highly enough across the BLIC scale to be objectively “great” single variety ciders and perries in their own right. Decent, sure. Interesting, certainly. But real greatness sits on a rarefied plinth, and few apples and pears quite get there on their own. Few have what I’d call enough striking individuality to reliably command your attention, respect, remembrance and repeat custom. Yarlington Mill would be one. Kingston Black, when it’s good (and it’s very, very often not nearly as good as its legend suggests) perhaps another. I’d argue a case for Brown Snout and Foxwhelp; they’ve certainly got the force of individuality, but I’d be the first to admit that they’re marmite personalities. Everybody’s obsessed with Dabinett, but like Kingston Black I’d say the exceptional examples as single varieties are rarer than folk suggest, and I’d add that it tends to need a bit of acidity. And there are perhaps a small handful of others you could add, plus a cluster or two of pears but I think you get the point.
I’ve never heard a better description of the rationale for blending than “to highlight qualities and hide inadequacies”. The cliché here is to consider an orchestra, but it rather checks out, if we consider richness or tannin to be the bass and acidity to be the treble.
Where I start switching off personally is when a blend is made up of dozens and dozens of different varieties. To me that’s where things become a bit homogenised. A bit plain. A bit stripped of interest and, dare I say it, craft. Considering our orchestra again, whilst I appreciate the whole, I want to be able to pick out the strings, the brass, the drums. A view of the pieces doesn’t diminish my respect for the picture – it amplifies it. I want to feel the richness of Yarlington Mill, the distinctive grip of Harry Masters’ Jersey, the crackling acidity of Foxwhelp, the rounded heft and sweet spice of Dabinett. I want to understand the role that each constituent apple or pear is playing; to feel that they have been chosen and blended specifically and thoughtfully to create something deliberate and unique. Something I can ponder over as a drinker; pick apart, discuss, get excited about. Something that genuinely is greater than the sum of its parts, rather than just something into which everything has been chucked.
As part of my apparent lockdown mission to buy out the stock of every cidery in the UK, I recently invested in four three-litre pouches of single variety cider from Hecks. They’re a Somerset producer whose single variety range seems to be surpassed only by Ross on Wye. I’ve had a couple of their ciders before, and enjoyed them immensely, but as they don’t commit many of their ciders to bottle, I didn’t often see them popping up in the places from which I usually do my buying. But, seeing The Cider Blog’s Nick enjoying their Foxwhelp, my curiosity was sufficiently titillated to invest from source.
Two unusual occurrences immediately followed. Firstly, I received a text from Albert Johnson asking me to let him know what I thought of them. And secondly, the geophysicist, an inveterate meddler, developed a blending addiction and has spent most of the last week sitting cross-legged in front of the pouches, cocktailing her way through the various combinations and demanding my opinion on her handiwork. So dedicated has she become to her new-found craft that the pouches are receding at an alarming rate, and I thought I’d better get my review written before she tapped them out entirely.
First up is the cider that prompted the purchase, the Broxwood Foxwhelp of 2019. Foxwhelp is such a comparatively ancient variety that, like the Pinot Noir grape, it has mutated several sports over the centuries, all bringing broadly the same profile and the same laser-like acidity. I seem to recall that the strand at Ross on Wye is Bulmer’s Foxwhelp, but I may be wildly mistaken. Anyhow, this one is from the 2019 vintage and has spent its short life in plastic.
Our other cider is Porter’s Perfection, which you don’t see much of about. Like Foxwhelp it’s a bittersharp cider apple, suggesting a presence of both tannin and acidity. 2017 vintage, fermented in plastic and matured in oak.
Following those are two perries, a 2018 Hendre Huffcap and a 2016 Rock, both matured in plastic. Neither is a variety I’ve tasted very often in solo form, and they remind me that when the world returns to some semblance of normality, I must do my best to wangle a return visit to Ross for a practical lesson in perry pears.
In the meantime we must soldier on and self-educate. Three-litre pouches of each of the above (all still, obviously) came to a grand total of £40, which works out at less per 500mls than a bottle of Westons vintage. Almost ridiculously they came with free delivery too. So, Albert, to answer your question, here is what I thought:
Hecks Broxwood Foxwhelp 2019 – review
Color: Freshly-squeezed lemon juice, haze and all
On the nose: Houston, we have Foxwhelp. That unmistakeable malic blast of green apple and laser-like lemon tinted with wild strawberry. There’s a little gooseberry here too and some softer florals. It’s tremendously fresh, if not super-complex.
In the mouth: Yes – double confirmation – there really is no acidity like it. Cheek-sucking, intense and direct. When it fades you’re left with a greater presence of red berries – strawberry and cranberry – but it’s mainly about that white grapefruit and lemon. It’s arresting, for sure, but you can tell it’s very young. A little on the simple, undeveloped side. But immensely zingy and fresh.
Hecks Porters Perfection 2017 – review
Color: Light, hazy gold
On the nose: Now there’s a nose to conjure with. It’s almost herbal – there are elements of spearmint and dill and eucalyptus here, alongside a fatter, weightier meatiness. Some stone fruit and a bit of woody forest floor. Most intriguing.
In the mouth: Falls off a little here. Bone dry, with an intense bitterness that’s pithy rather than tannic and which overwhelms much of the flavour. Chalky, medium-weight tannins and an intense, stony minerality then crash in alongside that herby nuance. It’s actually not intensely fruity. Green apples and a nibble of citrus. The flavours don’t have as much weight as either the aromas or its stablemates. Nice enough, but a little challenging and without “wow factor”.
Hecks Hendre Huffcap 2018 – review
Color: Young Chablis
On the nose: There’s some lovely fruit here. Soft, plump, juicy and redolent of a stroll through a hawthorn-lined orchard. It’s quite simple fruit – heavily accented towards pear – with just a hint of sweet lime bordering on lime chewits. Very attractive, mind you.
In the mouth: Follows through very well – round and ripe and fleshy-toned, the pear just swaying towards a flutter of grape and light apricot before swishing back again. A light ray of acidity keeps things fresh; keeps any potential flabbiness at bay. The merest smidgen off-dry. It’s simply very, very easy to drink.
Hecks Rock 2016 – review
Color: Bright gold
On the nose: Ooh. Now then. On first whiff there’s a meatiness here that – please don’t be put off by this – has the sense of walking into a butcher’s shop. As that subsides, in steps a dazzling, honeyed brightness and a developed pear and quince. We’re into that wonderful quasi-Vouvray territory where many of the best perries roam. Just a touch short on intensity.
In the mouth: Full, round and developed – and more intense than the nose. Honey and syruped-pear, quince jelly and brioche. Tannins are tremendously integrated, weight and balance near-spot on. A tiny morsel more acidity would lift this to outstanding, but it’s comfortably the most complete drink here. More please. Now please.
I like all four of these, all are individual, clean and expressive of the fruit, but the two that held my interest most (by quite a stretch) were the Foxwhelp and the Rock. Both bring completely different qualities to the party and I must admit that the best drink these four pouches have afforded me is a Foxwhelp-Rock blend mixed 3:1 in the Rock’s favour. The fullness and breadth of the perry plus the dazzling vivaciousness of the Foxwhelp hits the BLIC brief wonderfully refreshingly. There was a great deal to love about the Hendre Huffcap too, and the Porters Perfection had nice moments, though the pouch is emptying notably more slowly than the other three.
If the quartet’s missing anything it’s a little more collective richness and depth, but that’s down to the varieties I chose rather than any shortcomings in the liquid. I will unquestionably be heading Hecks-ward again in very short order and would highly recommend that you do likewise.