I like to imagine that if the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil had been an apple (despite popular artistic depiction the bible does not say), it would have been a Dabinett. Its crisp shiny exterior luring one to temptation, sweetness touching the lips followed by the astringent bitterness of realisation that you have eaten something that you should not have. If only Adam and Eve had been provided with a press and demijohn, many a fun day would they have had in the Garden of Eden. It’s completely impossible given that the genetic ancestry of the apple suggests domestication took place several thousand years ago and the Dabinett dates back to the early 1900s. Still, though, it is such a beautiful apple with fruit that blushes red where it faces the sun, vibrant green in the shadows, it’s certainly tempting enough to try and eat.

First discovered by and thought to be named after William Dabinett who found it growing in a hedge in Somerset. It is a bittersweet apple, meaning it has more tannin than acid and produces a fruity, well-balanced cider with enough structure and body to stand up as a single variety. Despite playing second fiddle to the Kingston Black (which Adam and I dove into a couple of months back) it is much more resilient to disease and a regular cropper. As a result it’s probably the most ubiquitously planted cider apple in England, in part thanks to Bulmers that had it planted across Herefordshire, although given the recent early expiration of many contracts it is unclear how many of those orchards remain or will continue to in the long term.

It has to be said Dabinett doesn’t just shine as a loner, it’s also a wonderful dance partner when it comes to blending, especially when paired with something sharp like Bramley. One of my favourite cider’s and one which inspired my own cider making journey, but which is sadly long sold out is “Gordon’s Surprise” from Ross On Wye Cider and Perry. A blend of 80% Dabinett and 20% Bramley it has just the right amount of sharpness to keep the fruitiness of the Dabinett poised and fresh despite being in the bottle since 2016. A blend I have tried to recreate with my own Pét Nat this year, which is tasting different (you cannot copy another cider, even with the same fruit – more on that later), but still great and will only improve with age.

Where it is used as a single variety, Dabinett has some delicous characteristics on both the nose and the palate; bitter orange, spice and vanilla, which is why it’s such a popular choice. I had no difficulty sourcing different maker’s versions to explore the terroir and vintage impact on this apple. I’ve got 18 different cider’s here, so I’ll follow Shakespearian wisdom in that “brevity is the sole of wit”. I’ve separated them into five groups the first being a little experiment I wanted to share with you and the others are based on their cleanness (as in the absence of faults) and whether I would buy them again.

1. THE EXPERIMENT

I’m going to start by sharing a little experiment with you all. Back in 2018, I helped with the pressing at Ross On Wye Cider and Perry for a couple of days. We pressed Dabinett and Mike kindly gave me 25 litres of juice to take home to Lincolnshire. I transferred to demijohns and left to ferment. Now 2 years later I am comparing back with Ross On Wye’s ciders crafted from the same fruit we pressed together.

Chapel Sider – 2018 Unoaked – review

This is my own cider adventure, properly started last year with just over 2,000 litres of imported cider fruit juice. I’ve planted an orchard of 35 trees, which are now mostly three and half years old, so not yet in viable productivity. This cider was wild fermented in Lincolnshire in a small 4.5 litre batch. It’s still, in a 500ml bottle and reached 7.4% abv.

Colour: Orange gold with a slight haze.

On the nose: Really phenolic, medicinal qualities of cinnamon bark and clove paired with orange.

In the mouth: Almost no acidity detectable, there’s orange rind but with no bitterness, so very smooth and soft. It’s very fruit-forward with lots of apple flesh and skin. The finish is dry but does not linger at all. Because of so much fruitiness it tastes sweeter than the Ross Unoaked but is definitely dry (I did check the specific gravity personally).

Ross on Wye – 2018 Unoaked – review

I hardly need to introduce Ross on Wye Cider and Perry, three generations of cider making at Broome Farm. Mike now fully in the process of handing over to his son Albert, who since returning from university has focused on modernising the brand and deservedly increasing the value perception of their exceptional ciders. This 500ml bottle contains juice pressed in Nov 2018 and has an ABV of 7.4%.

Colour: Orange gold as above but no haze.

On the nose: Similar notes of spice and orange to the Chapel Sider, but overpowered by a wooden, barnyard/aged wood aroma. Slight hint of sulphite.

In the mouth: Bubbles disperse quickly leaving more acid than the Chapel Sider, but it’s gentle and smooth. Not as fruit forward, with more woody notes but really smooth (have I said that already?). The finish is a bit chewier than the Lincolnshire version, coating the tongue and cheeks, definitely the driest tasting of the three. The only difference between this and the Chapel Sider is the fermentation location, vessel and the racking and bottling times. Yet both are so different on the nose and palate.

Ross on Wye – 2018 Oak Cask Fermented – review

The juice for this batch was pressed slightly earlier than the above two in October 2018. It was fermented in ex-whiskey oak cask, bottled as 500ml and has an ABV of 8.4%.

Colour: Paler gold compared to the other two and hazy.

On the nose: Peat, grass meadow and bitter medicinal notes, like TCP. There’s also a spirit like orange oil scent. It’s earthy, raw and edgy compared to the others.

In the mouth: Smoke…smoke….smoke. Bearing in mind I tasted all three of these together and this one last, which I think has amplified the difference and in particular the smokiness. It’s also very juicy, with an interesting perception of sweetness, tastes the sweetest of the three, there’s also more acidity too. The dominating influence from the barrel is the smoke but the way it has guarded the juiciness of the fruit is fascinating. The typical flavours of the Dabinett are definitely lost somewhat due to the barrel.

Same fruit, same orchards, same year, same pressing, same equipment – just fermented in different batch sizes and locations. Really interesting how different flavours are more prominent in one compared to another, especially from the Chapel Sider to the Ross Unoaked. I bought more juice from Ross last year, of several different single varieties to do this experiment again. They may end up as a gift pack to buy and see for yourselves.

2. THE STAND OUTS

The Newt – review

You’ve met The Newt before on here, a state of the art cider making facility in Somerset, with vintages starting from 2018. 65 acres of newly planted orchards which includes bringing the Yarlington Mill apple back to Yarlington where the orchard is located. This is their 2018 Dabinett, with an ABV of 6.7% which cost £3 for the 330ml bottle. Crafted by arrested fermentation, where using temperature control the fermentation is stopped at the desired ABV and/or sweetness. Then filtered and force carbonated.

Colour: Pure gold.

On the nose: Apple skin, caramel, spices of clove and star anise along with hints of baked apple and marmalade.

In the mouth: A creamy mousse mouthfeel which is so full of fruit and very well balanced with a smidge of acidity as well as some medicinal/herbal qualities to it, like bitter tea leaves. The mid palate is full of astringency whilst the finish is really fruity with some residual sweetness that doesn’t linger for long. Really clean but still tastes fairly young, with a little more time this will excel.

Pang Valley- review

A joint project by two lifelong friends, Pang Valley is Gary and Rick. Initially starting with eating varieties which Rick has 12 years’ experience working with, and more recently expanding to use traditional cider apple varieties, including the Dabinett. This 500ml bottle is a 2018 vintage and was a gift from Adam Wells, it’s an unlabelled bottle so I’m unsure on the ABV.

Colour: Hazy golden straw.

On the nose: Initial aromas of wood, clove spice and orange oil, make way for baked apple and buttery Tarte Tatin. There is also a brandy like spirit quality to the nose.

In the mouth: This is a beautiful expression of the fruit. It’s fairly well balanced, albeit slightly sweeter than I would like. It’s juicy with a smidge of acidity, full of ripe apple. There’s a smooth bitterness, not at all harsh on the tongue but the finish is on the sweeter edge. A faultless example, which I would love to taste dry.

Charnwood – review

Ex park ranger Rob Clough makes cider just outside Leicester, focusing on single varieties and blends from his own orchard and other fruit he brings in. Working with his friends at Anstey Ale, they have created ‘The Mash and Press’ in Anstey, a brewery tap and cider house. This is his 2018 Dabinett which clocks in at 8.4% and cost £4 bought for the 500ml bottle from the Mash and Press.

Colour: Pale amber.

On the nose: Really savoury nose, smoked bacon, bitter orange and molasses. A slight whisper of oxidation.

In the mouth: This has conditioned very well, such gentle acidity and strong bitterness, yet so harmonious. It coats your mouth with teeth furring dryness and has a brandy spirit like quality to it. Where other 2018s on this list like The Newt tasted youthful, this feels full of age. Comparing the two really shows the difference between bottle conditioning and force carbonation. I think it’s at its peak though, a few more months and I’d be worried about that whisper of oxidation on the nose working its way to the taste.

Tom Oliver – 2017 Dry – review

Adam has written about Tom fairly recently, so not much introduction required only to say that Tom is one of the most highly regarded and respected cider makers on the craft scene. Barrels are definitely his vessel of choice and this Dabinett is no exception, aged in old oak barrels from the Speyside region of Scotland. It’s 750ml, still and clocks 9.3%.

Colour: Dark straw.

On the nose: Full of wood and smoke, at first I thought peaty but then a bourbon like vanilla starts to come through too. Very intriguing.

In the mouth: There is a strong perception of sweetness through a real juiciness, similarities to the Ross on Wye 2018 Oaked. It is very light, any grippy tannins have been loosed by smooth barrel influence. Orange and gentle spice are still there in the undertones along with vanilla and oak. This is a well-crafted cider, the expression of the fruit has been masked somewhat by the barrel but so smooth. Really wish I’d bought another bottle.

3. THE ENJOYABLE

Perry’s – review

Perry’s have been making cider in Dowlish Wake for 100 years. Coincidently this was the first craft cider I ever tried (back in 2012) and the one which led me on quite a journey. Perry’s produce a range of single varieties as well as some bottle conditioned blends. I bought this 500ml bottle direct from them for £2.90. It weighs in at 5.6%, with no vintage listed although the batch number (28/19) suggests last year. This cider is no longer filtered as it was when I first had it and I believe it has been back sweetened, pasteurised and force carbonated.

Colour: Dark straw/hazy gold.

On the nose: This expresses the whole making process; freshly milled apples waiting to be pressed followed by old oak beams, finishing with aged vanilla and rum like notes.

In the mouth: Well balanced, with some initial sweetness parting into a ripple of astringency that runs down the side of your mouth and teeth. Those characteristic tastes of bitter orange and spice are evident but the vanilla shines through the most. It’s not an overpowering depth of flavour, the carbonation dissipates quickly which leaves the nose a bit flat after the initial gusto but very smooth and easy drinking.

Harry’s Dabinett – review

Harry Fry and his son Toby have been making cider in Somerset for over a decade. Dabinett is their only single variety in the range and it won Supreme Champion at the Royal Bath and West British Cider Championships in 2018. It’s a fairly low 4.5% abv, described as medium and cost me £2.90 for the 500ml bottle, with no vintage listed.

Colour: Amber with a slight rosé hue.

On the nose: We’re into classic Dabinett territory with dried apple, orange peel, clove, cinnamon and wood.

In the mouth: To my taste it is on the sweeter side of medium, but there is a good amount of cheek drying leading to a clean and abrupt finish. This is back sweetened with Dabinett Juice, so the sweetness is more natural than with cane sugar or sweetener. Quite juicy and plenty of that bitter orange pith, but I wish it lingered a bit more on the finish. A very easy drinking session cider.

Apple County Cider Co. – review

Ben Culpin (brother of Alex – see Ty Gwyn below), has been making cider in Monmouthshire since 2008 when he moved back home to be a full time cider maker. Apple County has existed since 2014 and since then has won many awards from Golden Forks to several stars from the Great Taste Awards. Single varieties and blends with other fruit span the range, this Dabinett has no vintage, sits at 6.5% and comes in 500ml bottle.

Colour: Gold.

On the nose: Very complex; caramel, toffee apple, raisins and dried fruit. Along with apricot brandy, cinnamon bark and oak barn.

In the mouth: Definitely the sweet end of medium plus there is a bit of cooked apple, perhaps from over pasteurisation. The caramel and toffee apple come through along with a hearty amount of bitterness and gentle acidity. Typical contributions of candied orange and cinnamon spice also shining through.

Little Pomona – Enter the Dragon – review

Appearing a few times in Adam’s writing, James and Susanna Forbes have been making cider in Herefordshire since 2014. Mainly focusing on blends in the past, their range is now broadening with several single varieties including this blend of several different ferments, aged for a year before then conditioning in the bottle. Clocks 7.6% and comes in a 750ml bottle.

Colour: Hazy gold.

On the nose: Aged wood, smoke, spices of clove and anise. A faint whiff of oxidation which starts to grow with warmth.

In the mouth: Exceptionally juicy, fresh pressed apples juicy. There’s a tangy pineapple acidity which is really interesting but it’s coupled with a very slight sour like flourish of acetic acid. Doesn’t have the throat burn of Dead Flowers though (see below), quite a lot more subtle. A satisfying amount of astringency coats the tongue. My preference out of their two on this list, but still somewhat lacking compared to the superb Old Man & The Bee 2017 or the Art of Darkness 2017 trio you’ve read about on here before.

4. THE OVERLY SWEETS (ones I wouldn’t buy again Part 1)

Southdown Cider – review

Based in Shepton Montague, Somerset. Not much to find online about these folk apart from them winning 2019 Supreme Champion at the Royal Bath and West British Cider Championships. A relative newcomer to the scene, using cider apple fruit from forgotten orchards. It’s a 2019 vintage with an abv of 7% and cost me £2.80 for the 500ml bottle. Eagle eyed amongst you will spot this isn’t in my group photo, being a last minute find and addition.

Colour: Amber.

On the nose: Very fruity; orange, vanilla, clove and dollop of apple brandy.

In the mouth: Very clean and juicy but really over sweetened for my taste, to the point it over shadows the fruit. It’s almost orange squash like but with a slight tang of acidity. It’s actually almost confusing to the tongue, as there is astringency that dries the mouth but it’s coupled with that sweetness, which the more you drink the more starts to feel artificial, as it’s still I’m guessing it is a fully fermented base which has then had sweetener added instead of sugar to prevent any in bottle fermentation.

Ty Gwyn – review

Alex Culpin (brother of Ben Culpin – see below) makes cider in Pontrilas, just below the Black Mountains. Still, sparkling, single varieties as well as blends. I sourced this 500ml bottle from Hereford Beer House for £3.20, it is 6.5%, described as medium and again no vintage listed. It’s apparently been aged for a year so I would assume it’s a 2018 vintage.

Colour: Gold.

On the nose: First off is a huge wallop of sulphite, once that dissipates the nose is of baked apple, vanilla and apricot brandy.

In the mouth: Typical territory of vanilla, orange and spice, but the spice seems curtailed somewhat. Not so typical flashes of tropical fruit, like pineapple are an interesting change, but the finish is predominantly sweet to the point of being slightly cloying.

Sheppy’s Cider – review

Over 200 years of cider making in Somerset and on the very large end of “craft” compared to the others in this flight. I can’t recall where I bought this 500ml bottle but I think it was roughly around the £2.50 mark. ABV is 6.5%, described as medium and no vintage is listed. Full disclosure, I’ve had this bottle a while and BBE is August 2019.

Colour: Dark straw/pale gold.

On the nose: A pleasant nose full of vanilla, orange, gentle amount of cinnamon and further notes of wood and green apple.

In the mouth: The bubbles are gone as quick as they come, but just enough are left to give a creamy mouthfeel. Unlike the nose, the taste is a little one dimensional. There’s a hint of acidity along with vanilla and baked apple as well as plenty of sweetness. The finish is clean but very finite, it tastes of apples but other than that, it’s a bit bland.

Whinn Hill Norfolk Cider – review

Conceived in Norfolk in 1994 with the planting of 1000 cider apple trees. Run for 18 years by friends Jim Fergusson and Pete Lynn, who both retired in 2012. Now run by Mark and Lisa Jarvis who aim to innovate and expand. They make several single verities as well as blends. This 750ml Dabinett has no vintage, has an abv of 7.4% and is described as “Medium”.

Colour: Gold with an amber hue.

On the nose: Orange rind, pineapple, melon and apple skin. With a hit of brandy.

In the mouth: The sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted, ever! My palate is in total conflict, one minute there’s a ripple of astringency drying my mouth then it’s kicked out with a surge of artificial tropical fruit like sweetness. It actually tastes like Um-Bongo, but sweeter. Far too much for me, I couldn’t finish a glass let alone the bottle. Again I think this is a dry base sweetened artificially which really clashes to me.

5. THE ACETIC (ones I wouldn’t buy again part 2)

Little Pomona – Dead Flowers – review

Another of a new chapter in single varieties from James, Susanna and Blair. 2018 but released earlier than Enter the Dragon (see above). It’s an 8.2% ABV, 750ml, still creation.

Colour: Cloudy gold.

On the nose: Full of vanilla, orange rind and fresh/young bourbon oak. A whisper of oxidation on the end.

In the mouth: This has a real chalky texture to it. There’s a perception of sweetness from vanilla and buttery flavours, almost like butterscotch. That hint of oxidation annoyingly translates through to the palate as a burn on the back of the throat from acetic acid. The finish lacks the definition I’m used to from Little Pomona, I didn’t have this too cold, but as it warms closer to ambient the flavours become like orange crème brûlée, vanilla custard with burnt sugar and orange oil. I really want to enjoy this one, but that acetic burn tarnishes the experience somewhat.

Dorset Nectar – review

Started in 2008, Dorset Nectar is an organic cider producer based in…Dorset of course. I bought this bottle as part of a mixed case which came out at £2.30 for the 500ml bottle. Despite buying in March 2020, this bottle disappointingly has a best before date of end of January 2020. It’s 5.8%, described as medium dry and has no vintage listed.

Colour: Hazy Jurassic Park amber.

On the nose: Straightaway my nose is filled with acetic acid. Giving it a few minutes I can get undertones of apple skin, bitter citrus and caramel but they are smothered by the volatile acidity.

In the mouth: The palate is dominated by sweetness followed by a sour and tangy finish to the point that any other flavours are disguised. After a little while, when you become acclimatised to how sweet it is, that acetic acid rears its ugly head. The ingredients are listed as just “organic Dabinett apples”. Given the ABV and sweetness of this one, I cannot believe that water and sugar/sweetener haven’t been added. Not an experience I care to repeat.

Ganley and Naish – review

Founded in 2011 by two friends Andy and Steve in Bristol. Now it’s just Andy who has continued to produce both single variety ciders and blends, as well as limited releases. This 500ml bottle was £2.70 from Scrattings, has an ABV of 6% and no listed vintage.

Colour: Slightly hazy golden amber with a distinct orange blush to it.

On the nose: All the classics: orange, spice of clove and star anise, plus aged wooden barrel. There’s a slight whiff of volatile acidity on the end.

In the mouth: Well-balanced acidity against woody tannins, a slightly watery finish but reasonably dry by comparison to some of the others in this list. Sadly there is a hit of acetic acid in the mid palate, which not only distracts from anything else, but also lingers in the mouth the further down the bottle you get. It’s nowhere near the Dorset Nectar, but it’s enough to be noticeable and distracting.

Conclusions

I think what strikes me the most from these 18 are two things, firstly the common thread of flavour that Dabinett exhibits across the range which is an important point to make. Apple varieties, like grapes are all different in the flavour profile they provide and being able to highlight similarities in a single variety cider across a range of producers hopefully goes a long way to move on the conversation to be about varieties and terroir, a change which I think is just beginning to work its way into the public consciousness. Cider is so much more than sweet, medium and dry.

That, however, leads me on to the second point, which is that in at least 7, maybe 9 of these ciders the maker has( unintentionally or not) diluted or changed that natural flavour profile, either through sweetening, diluting or barrel aging. Personally I can embrace the latter, in some cases a well-chosen barrel can enhance or bolster, but in some it can mask or overpower. I’m not adverse to barrel aged ciders, in fact there are many I love, including single varieties, but the skill is in the choice of barrel and the time. I can forgive the second, naturally fermented cider will reach higher alcohol by volume. The Dabinett juice I bought last year for my cidery naturally fermented to +7% ABV and not everyone wants to drink something that strong. So in order to be more accessible some dilution to reach a session strength might be chosen as a method. For me it depends on the motivation behind it. Diluting just to increase volume however is a very underhanded way to treat your customers.

The sticking point for me though, is the sweetening, and it’s not just the bottles on show here. I’ve found it with many single varieties over the years, that some (not all) of the natural expression of the fruit and vintage is lost or disguised as dryness is “managed” away with some sugar addition to cater for sweeter teeth. If you’ll indulge my personal opinion for a minute, I think it’s a travesty. I realise that not everyone likes dry and so sugar or sweetener is seen as the easy addition to remedy that, but it’s not really, because if sugar is used then that leads to filtration or pasteurisation to ensure stability and then forced carbonation. All those together really change the drink. The exceptions being back sweetening with juice or keeving which helps preserve some of the astringency and complexity of the fruit. If consistency is the aim here, which I would assume it is, then I would suggest that perhaps single varieties are not best placed. I’m not alone is this conclusion with Adam making a similar point back in May. If you’re going to the trouble of bottling a single variety because you think it tastes that good on its own, why would you want to meddle with it? Blends are for meddling.

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James Finch

James Finch has been a champion of real cider through his blogs and vlogs for several years now as The Cider Critic. Writing for several online blogs including his own as well as local magazines. His quest, nay thirst, to seek out new drinks and producers and to hear and tell their stories, has led to the start of his own cider journey. Look out for Chapel Sider coming soon.

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