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Nightingale Kentish Perries 2017 and 2018

I do wish “vintage” wasn’t used as an adjective.

Christ, kicking off with a grammar lecture. I do apologise. Grammatical pedants, generally speaking, are the joyless, unfulfilled, po-faced traffic wardens of language. I’ve never fully got my head around their ins and outs; never slung the grammatical bat. I can’t remember what a preposition is, I think subjunctives sound filthy, my semi-colons are incontinent and my commas look like I’ve opened the jar with too much force. And I don’t have a problem starting sentences with “and”. Grammar, at its most proscriptive, is a linguistic lockdown. But on one grammatical hill I shall make my stand. “Vintage” should be a noun.

Certainly when we’re talking about drinks. When it comes to wine, there isn’t even a debate. Outside of champagnes and a few bottom shelf horrors almost every bottle, however humble, carries a statement of vintage denoting the year in which the grapes were harvested. Yes, you still find the odd Sinatra mouthing off about “vintage wine” meaning “old” or “good”, and yes, it still needles at me as a tortured gerund might an inveterate grammarian. But where producers are concerned, “vintage” has a clear, defined and universally acknowledged meaning.

When it comes to cider and perry things get a little messier. To begin with, bottles carrying a vintage are far thinner on the ground than they are with wine. Ciderista conversations seldom feature debate on the merits of great years of Strongbow, for example. True, there are handfuls of producers, Find & Foster, Bollhayes and Cwm Maddoc for example, who mention vintages, but I’d suggest that the majority of producers currently don’t. I’ve heard a couple of reason for this; in America the wine industry has absurdly copywrited the term, prohibiting cidermakers from using the word “vintage” on their labels. Hence makers such as Eden describing their 2016 Guinevere’s Pearls as “Batch 2016”. A more practical explanation was given to me by Dave, of Berkshire’s Crazy Dave’s, who said that the batches in which he needed to print labels were too small to be financially worth changing every year, but too large for him to be able to hand-write a vintage on every one of them.

Confusingly, “vintage” is often printed on the label of a cider or perry without an accompanying date. And this is where I think we creep into adjective territory; where “vintage” is perhaps being used to describe a cidery’s best, or flagship expression, as a French winery might use “Grand Vin”. An interesting thread I saw on twitter recently featured an opinion that a cidery’s recent expression was “too light for a vintage”. Completely understandable, if we’re talking in adjectives. But misses a point of potential importance if we want to look at vintage as a noun.

I am obviously biased. I’ve worked in the wine industry for seven years now, and have loved wine for a good bit longer than that. I am steeped in the understanding of “vintage” as the signpost of a year; as the implicit description of the twelve-month vagaries of weather and climate that coaxed this particular parcel of fruit on this particular parcel of land into a bottled expression. Nonetheless, I maintain my argument that this remains the bet use of the term. Why? It comes back to consistency, last talked about when we visited Bignose & Beardy.

Vintage is the ultimate in inconsistency. Especially when one finds oneself in a fickle, marginal climate, as so many cidermakers in England, France, northern Spain, Germany and the North-East Coast of the USA do. No two years are exactly alike, and nor is the fruit they produce. Even two exceptional years carry their own nuances, their own thumbprint, that distinguishes them from each other. The classic example in wine is the stunning double-punch of 2009 and 2010 in Bordeaux. Both lionised as gleaming stars in the region’s firmament; both celebrated for distinct differences in character.

That interest, that human excitement in discussing these vagaries, is where the seeds of much of wine’s intellectual pull are sown. People like to argue the toss over their preferred years, to taste the differences next to each other, to understand why 2013 might be a duffer, and 2008 an undervalued gem. Now I’m not suggesting that cider should become a sniffy, haughty, exclusivist closed shop as much of fine wine can be. On the most basic level we drink wine or cider simply for pleasure; everything else is secondary. But it is in the building of an interested, educated and communicative base that a drink becomes more than just tasty light-up juice. When I toured the West Country and Three Counties last September, almost all the cidermakers I met talked excitedly of the quality of the 2018 harvest and juice; of its potential for brilliant cider. I want to see that enthusiasm translate into bottle labels and online discussion. I want potential cider nerds to care about the ripe, fulsome generosity of the 2018 harvest, to taste the difference it made compared to 2017, 2016, 2015. I want to line up verticals of vintages, to see how each one differed and how each one has aged. And then I want to argue about it heatedly and at length with like-but-differing-minded wonks.

In short: vintage as a noun is something that I think would help educate. Would make people care more. Would grow and foster a community of interested, knowledgeable, talkative drinkers who would treat cider and perry generally with more respect. As an adjective, it’s just a word. And a confusing one at that.

In the spirit of all things vintage, todays perry pair is a vertical-ette from Kent’s Nightingale; their 2017 and 2018 vintages respectively. They’re a blend of Comice, Conference and Concorde pears, so we’re talking dessert fruit, we’re talking no tannins to speak of and, intriguingly, Bramley apple juice has been added to “balance the acidity”. Whilst some perry pears, such as Thorn and the Pont de Blanc that we encountered last month, have zesty acidity by the bucketload, many dessert varieties have a much higher ph, hence the need for a bit of extra tang. And I’d certainly rather it came from Bramley apples than simply through acidification.

I visited Nightingale a couple of months ago, back when the world was normal and you could shake peoples’ hand. They’re one of the foremost exponents of the eastern counties style, making culinary and dessert-driven ciders from their own orchards in Tenterden. their Falstaff & Bramley and their Russet being especially worth looking out for as well as their particularly vinous Songbird No.1. But I’ve never actually tried their perries previously, so today is something of a first. And, indeed, a second.

Nightingale Medium Dry Perry 2017 – review

Colour: Lightly hazy lemon juice

On the nose: Soft, floral and grassy, with a bit of sneaky citrus just creeping in at the back. It’s fresh, but there’s a sense that it’s becoming just slightly tired – that it was really a “drink inside two years” job. Just a little bit dusty, and there’s a bit of back-end acetic, too.

In the mouth: On the drier end of perries, this, with a good bit of acidity. There’s a little more voluptuous pear fruit, but the flavours aren’t intense, this is all about light-bodied sharpness. That acetic note is on the distractingly prominent side though.

Nightingale Medium Dry Perry 2018 – review

Colour: Sauvignon Blanc. Clear.

On the nose: What a difference. Honeysuckle, honey and juicy pear fruit. The aromas are still delicate, but they’re clean and defined and very inviting. None of that must or acetic at all. A lovely, fresh, springtime perry.

In the mouth: You see, there’s acidity and there’s acidity. I’ve said it before, but it bears constant, table-thumping repetition. This has the gorgeous, mouthwatering, whistle-clean, refreshing kind. Not a breath of acetic. Elderflower, honeysuckle, fresh pear and guava play in the background. The flavours are light, delicate – they’re not forceful – but they’re very pretty.

Conclusions

But for the delicacy you’d never believe these two shared so much DNA. I’m afraid the 2017 wasn’t really for me, but I’d take the 2018 again in a heartbeat, though I think on the whole I’m a greater fan of Nightingale’s ciders than their perries.

Admittedly these differences can’t be ascribed to vintage variation; whether my 2017 simply came from a bad batch, had got a bit tired or was part of a work-in-perry-progress that led to the 2018 I’ve no idea. Nonetheless, full marks for vintage labelling. I’ll look forward to 2019.

CategoriesCider
Adam Wells
Adam Wells

In addition to my weekly-ish articles on Malt I write about whisky for Distilled and cider for Graftwood and Full Juice Magazines. Somewhere amidst all that I've also done the WSET Diploma in Wine and Spirits. I share my home with several hundred bottles and one geophysicist. For miscellaneous drinks banality, find me on twitter at Twitter.com/DrinkScribbler

  1. Avatar
    Pablo says:

    Hi Adam,

    I felt the urge to write a longer comment, so please accept my apologies in case it gets out of hand.

    I’ve been reading your articles for quite some time now and always find great joy in doing so. Your writing is, to me, among the most entertaining, appetizing and intriguing not only on Malt but in the whole foodie-and-fine-drinks blogosphere and journalism bubble. As I love a good cider but know far too little about it and have tasted far to few expressions, I especially relish these current proselytization efforts of yours. Please keep it up!

    Now to my question: Do you know of any good place to start with German cider? There are some “craft” enterprises around here, whose ciders pop up in the odd bar with the slightly alternative menu or – even less frequent – in wholefood shops. Now, I’m not saying they have bad products (hell, at this point I am happy to find any bottle labelled as “trocken”. I see bottles of Bulmer’s Original mixed amidst craft beer selections in bars and supermarkets, that’s how ignorant we are. It’s weird because Germans love their apples, I don’t get it, really…)
    Anyway, I’m not saying there’s no decent cider around here but it feels like the craftiest part about most of these craft-cidermakers is their marketing department. The growing demand for regionally farmed, organic products – as positive as it is – not necessarily satisfies the needs of us drinks-enthusiasts. Fresh, young companies venture enthusiastically into cider. They create a brand, buy apples from local orchards, process them without throwing in loads of additives, develop the brand some more… and then stop right there. That’s the picture I’m getting, mostly. I’d like to see more information, though. I’m talking vintage info, breakdown on the varieties used, single-varietal expressions, details on processing methods. Also extended musings by the producer on why certain expression was processed the way it was. Enthusiasm over the product, not merely enthusiastic marketing and pretty but ultimately faceless brands.

    Sorry for the rant, it seems like your writing has struck a chord. The lack of exposure to good cider in my neck of the woods is frustrating me more than I would have ever thought 😉 Any hints or recommendations on German cidermakers and their expressions is greatly appreciated.

    P.S. Triggered by the adjective rambling in this piece, I remembered something, I had thought about commenting on for some time now. I never did, for fear it might come off as pushy. Now, as a post scriptum, I sheepishly find the courage to say: About the only thing I don’t like in some of your articles (not in this one, though) is the perceived overuse of bloomy, fancy adjectives. It makes your texts tiring to read at times and can distract from your otherwise brilliant writing. Mind you, this is coming from a non-native speaker, so maybe it’s just me. Also, take it as a sign of appreciation. I wouldn’t comment on this if I hadn’t read so many of your articles, and I wouldn’t have read all of them if I didn’t enjoy them a lot!

    Cheers
    Pablo

    1. Adam Wells
      Adam Wells says:

      Hi Pablo

      Don’t worry, you’re not the first person to comment on the florid adjectives! A positive, compassionate and humble chap on twitter recently called them a “grotesque over-use of English”, though unfortunately he forgot to tag me. I know they’re bad form – I’d get a slap on the wrist from my Uni lecturers for them – but I’ve grown quite attached to them now, so they’re probably here to stay! Hope that doesn’t dissuade you from continuing to read.

      As to German cider, I was planning to plug that gap in my knowledge with a trip to Frankfurt’s Ciderworld this year, but unfortunately that was cancelled for the same reason as everything else at the moment. So it’s still a bit of a blind spot for me. I know that there’s some tremendous Apfelwein made in that part of Germany, but I suspect it’s still very small in quantity. Kertelreiter, made by @BarMas on twitter is apparently excellent, and @BarMas himself is well worth following.

      I would also highly recommend the Cider Explorer blog. Natalia is now Frankfurt-based, has written about cider for a good few years and is wonderful on German ciders. She’d be my first port of call if I were you.

      Best wishes, and thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment.

      Adam W.

      1. Avatar
        Pablo says:

        Thanks for the great tips, Adam!

        I wasn’t aware of such a prolific blog covering German cider and Apfelwein amongst others. After a thorough scan of the Cider Explorer I now get the impression that our main problem over here is that of distribution. Some of the most interesting ciders are not available yet, although Kertelreiter as well as Böhm Cider Werkstatt, another promising sounding venture, are seemingly very close to launching their own shops.
        Gutshof Kraatz is now on my list for an order of their Apfelwein selection and then there’s Mostbarone shop from Austrias perry-land “Mostviertel” who thankfully ship to Germany. Of course there are other small scale producers but, more often than not, they sell only one expression which, thanks to rather high shipping costs, makes it hard on the wallet if your aim is to to try a great variety of ciders/Apfelweine.

        In the meantime, I found a German shop selling proper British ciders which still come roughly at about a third to a half of the bottle price of German Apfelwein (not the Champagne method ciders of course). This is where I’ll place an order first, to get some Apfel-mileage on my palate before I dive into the Apfelwein category.
        I’ve already put some Oliver’s and Burrow Hill in my cart but there’s also Sheppy’s and Perry’s (the brand, that is) who caught my attention. Have you tried any of their stuff? They seem to be slightly larger scale but still offer some single variety expressions, maybe not on the driest end of the spectrum.

        And don’t worry, I’ll keep reading. At least then I know it’s still you writing and not the geophysicist having locked you in the basement in order to receive your free samples.

        Cheers
        Pablo

        1. Adam Wells
          Adam Wells says:

          Cheers Pablo

          I’m pleased to say that I’m going to be a Kertelreiter customer as soon as the next payday hits, and that Barry has kindly consented to have a chat on Malt. So we’ll be continuing our international cider coverage soon!

          Perry’s are very solid (though confusingly-named, given they’re cider-makers(!) and occasionally a little sweet for my everyday taste.) Sheppy’s are a pretty big brand. I’ve not had them in a long while. They wouldn’t represent our top end, by any means, but they’re streets ahead of Bulmers/Thatchers etc.

          Ha. I wouldn’t put it past her. I’m saved by our lack of basement … but the attic is another question. Mind you, I don’t get enough samples to make it worth her while. And I’m wise enough to give her a free run at the whisky/cider/wine collection. She is also technically my landlord, after all …

          Cheers again

          Adam W.

          1. Avatar
            Pablo says:

            Thanks again for your response, Adam.

            Perry’s it is then, and I’ve thrown in two Sheppy’s, a Dabinett and a declaredly dry Kingston Black, for the sake of comparison. At the very least they will make me appreciate the top end even more.
            Great news about Kertelreiter! I’m very much loking forward to that article.

            Have a good one
            Pablo

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