I’m no great hand at seasonal drinking. I might reach for the fridge when the mercury gets enthusiastic, and I’ll have a port or a mulled wine in the winter (more from a confusing sense of obligation than anything else) but generally my glasses are led by place, by company, by time of day and – most compellingly – by random whim. I’m as happy with a peaty, sherried single malt on a balmy summer’s evening as I am with a Clare Valley Riesling in the depths of November. Which is to say, very happy indeed.
But if any drink carries with it the stigma of being a one-season wonder, it’s cider. Sure, there might be pints thrown back in the murky bowels of murky pubs all year round, but by and large the drinking public tends to view cider as a bright, fresh, frivolous, fizzy, sunny-weather glugger to be drunk, when it is drunk at all, over a large amount of ice and preferably in a field. Which, in British terms, offers a relatively limited window.
As Discover Cider has recently undertaken to assert in a very compelling article (confession – I was spoken to for it), this stereotype can be refuted by one sip of the likes of Casus Belli or Charnwood Dabinett or Gregg’s Pit Dabinett & Yarlington Mill, long before we get to such wintery styles as Pommeau or Ice Cider. Ciders can be deep, soulful drinks redolent of long, scarf-clad, leafy walks, and with the glint of winter in their amber hues. These are the answer to red wines cut from Rhône valley or Brunello cloth; ciders that offer warmth and richness when most it’s needed. And – as all things to do with cider worth drinking are – they are shaped first and foremost by the apple varieties in their makeup.
This is the time of year when tannin-rich bittersweets really earn their keep. Fuller-bodied, muscular; built for long ageing, oak barrels and slow, contemplative sips beside hearty, protein-driven autumnal fodder. The sort of drinks that can stand up to casseroles, stews and spice.
One such apple is Harry Masters’ Jersey. Named for the 19th century nurseryman who originally raised it in the late 1800s, it’s a Somerset bittersweet that now grows across the West Country and Three Counties. Like many of the Jersey-suffixed apples it takes on a broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted strawberry shape, it seems to be occasionally referenced as “Port wine” (goodness knows why) and it is, in many respects, an utter bastard of an apple.
Let’s start with the positives: it crops well, has a long ripening window and is pretty resistant to disease. But then the problems start. “Curious and somewhat unruly trees that seem to have forgotten that, not only should they grow fruit, they should try and ripen it too,” says Little Pomona’s James Forbes. “Half the fruit our trees produce never get close to having the level of flavour development we look for in our apples, despite all the efforts we’ve made to tame the trees over the years. Of the rest maybe 75-80% will make the cut”.
This site’s own James Finch also cites problems on the tree: “I’ve planted four trees in my orchard of this variety and I have to say they’ve been the most challenging of the lot. The first winter was very wet but they were on the same root stock as twelve of my other trees yet it was the HMJ that got some blossom rot, which resulted in me having to prune one of the trees very heavily. They’ve also proven to be the weakest of all the varieties, buckling under the meagre fruit they have produced this year and not all of the four trees have produced anything”
The teeth-grinding doesn’t stop once the apple is off the tree, either; if anything that unevenness of ripening was just the warmup. “For cidermaking it’s a nightmare,” was the comment from Albert Johnson at Ross on Wye. “It is incredibly dense, but the density does not translate to juice – at least not on our hydropresses, and I gather it is a common complaint. Whilst in ripe cider fruit we typically average around 65% yield, with HMJ it is genuinely more like 35%. You work twice as hard for your juice. We have tried using enzymes and other innovations to increase the yield, but nothing makes a significant difference.”
So: finnicky to grow and a pain to make, but what of the drinking? Well, one of my very first cider articles on Malt was a single variety lineup at Ross. Penultimate of the nine sampled was an unoaked Harry Masters’ 2018, and it’s fair to say the impression was significant: “ooft, that’s challenging … snarling, astringent tannins that suck the moisture right out of your cheeks and gums … not especially fruity, certainly not at this stage of life.” Young, unadulterated Harry Masters’ is often more challenge than pleasure; more rage than warmth; all sinews and elbows and untamed coarseness. “It can add some interesting flavours to a blend but I find it a bit raw, harsh or unpolished,” is James Finch’s assessment.
There is (there almost always is) a “but”. Ripe HMJ fruit, carefully sorted and given time – often in oak – can be one of cider’s crown jewels; a variety that can sculpt and enrich as part of a blend, or engross and enthral as a solo act. Little Pomona’s Old Man and the Bee 2017, for my money the best Old Man and the Bee yet, was 87% Harry Masters’ Jersey (something I hadn’t realised until James told me last weekend). Although rather sweetened I had a great deal of time for the example I tasted from Rich’s too, and one or two other Harry Masters’ I’ve encountered this year have left glowing impressions on my palate. “The reward for your hard work is significant,” said Albert. “One of the most complex tannic apples grown in the UK. It has huge, huge flavour … it develops over time in a way that few other apples really match.” James Forbes agrees: “what we end up with is so good it seems worth all the frustration. Just about everything you’d want in a West Country apple.” Regular Malt readers will know that my long-time favourite varieties are Foxwhelp and Yarlington Mill. Dabinett and Kingston Black are two more that are reliably behind some of my favourite drinking, and if were to pick another to make up my personal “big five” I suspect I wouldn’t pause very long before naming HMJ.
To try and stick some organoleptic pins in the shifting face of this truculent pomme, I have four in front of me today. The first is an immediate sibling of that which I tried in January. It is another Ross on Wye from the same vintage, 2018, is also unoaked but was bottled at a slightly later date (February 2020) and has obviously had an extra nine months of mellowing time. The batch number, for real obsessives – hello friends – is D30, and a 500ml bottle will cost £4.05 from the excellent folk of Fram Ferment.
Our next pair are also from Ross on Wye, but have been subject to that extra degree of time and oak. Batch C63 is a 2016 that was fermented and matured in oak casks before bottling in 2018. 500ml was £3.60 directly from the cidery and I am deeply worried that they have now sold out of this utterly ridiculous bargain. Third up, and completing our Ross trio, is their 750ml triple-vintage blend of 2016, 2017 and 2018, some of which was fermented and matured in oak. Released a year and a half or so ago, but still very much available, Scrattings has it for £7.50, and you can also find it on Fram Ferment and directly from Ross.
For a point of contrast I’m also tasting a 2019 vintage Harry Masters’ single variety from Andrew Williams, who I visited back in February. Andrew hasn’t started releasing his ciders for general sale yet, but I believe they will soon be available and, having been lucky enough to try a few of his creations, I intend to be first in line. This Harry Masters’ was pressed in 2019 and fermented to a gravity of 1.003 before being bottled “pét-nat” for a touch of natural fizz. Whether I’m committing infanticide by opening it at this stage remains to be seen. My gums are bracing themselves …
Ross on Wye Harry Masters Jersey 2018 (D30) – review
On the nose: There’s a nose to conjure with. Really phenolic; there’s a cured meatiness here – almost chorizo – and a touch of that medicinal iodine. Time has certainly fattened the aromas though – honeysuckle, yellow plum and dried apricot. For a single, unoaked variety it’s pretty complex.
In the mouth: There’s the astringency. The longer it stays in your mouth, the coarser and slateyer and the more drying and pithy those tannins become. That said, it’s far fatter and fuller than the unoaked HMJ I remember from January; loads of honeysuckle and warm lemon and dried yellow fruit before that super-mineral, earthy finish comes in. This is a cracking, faithful, unoaked HMJ. It just needs more time … or a bit of charcuterie if you can’t wait.
Ross on Wye Premium Harry Masters Jersey 2016 (C63) – review
Colour: A tone deeper. Burnished gold.
On the nose: So inviting. Deep and rich and fat and complex without losing its poise or definition; a wonderful fruit-oak-time combination. The yellow fruits have taken on a waxy tone and are coiled around by vanilla and unpeated whisky. A little golden sultana. Really nice, if not as in-your-face intense as the unoaked.
In the mouth: It’s rounder and riper and more mouthfilling, but that structure’s still there in spades, lending balancing grip. Victoria plums, raisins and oak. A little more of that dried apricot and vanilla. The sinewy tannins offset the waxy yellow fruit into a long, dry, and again very mineral finish. Actually less intense than the unoaked, but deliciously deep and satisfying.
Ross on Wye Harry Masters Jersey 2016-2017-2018 – review
Colour: Gold again.
On the nose: A lovely marriage of the two that preceded it, with the extra curl of smoke that gives away an Islay cask or two. Wet rock, lemon and honeysuckle. Cured meat and forest floor. Apricots both fresh and dried. Waxy yellow apple skins. Very complex.
In the mouth: What an advertisement for blending skill. Medium body with just enough fullness to wrap around those sinewy tannins. The yellow waxy fruits are perfectly on song, with a lovely in-mouth perfume of straw and honeysuckle and just the right weight of oak. Smoke emerges more on the finish with driftwood, char and lanolin alongside that pithy, drying HMJ minerality. An autumnal coastal walk in a glass.
Andrew Williams’ Harry Masters’ Jersey Pét-Nat 2019 – review
Colour: A touch hazier than the Ross.
On the nose: Gosh, that’s unexpected. Fulsome, ripe, super fruity aromasbillowing straight from the glass. Plums, apricots, mango, pineapple – it’s a veritable fruit basket. That is so aromatic. Like a yellow-fruited answer to Caledonian’s Craobh Lan, really. Superb fruit selection on show. A little petrichor towards the back.
In the mouth: Unbelievably supple and ripe and appealing and friendly and fruit-forward for one-year-old Harry Masters’ Jersey. There is some tannin – plenty of structure, nothing flabby – but it simply adds backbone and sinew to that gorgeous oh-so-ripe yellow fruit. Incredibly winey, pretty much totally dry, just a touch of fizz. There’s not an ounce of flab despite the low acidity. Stoney, lightly-drying, ultra-mineral HMJ finish. Maybe a smidge less complex than the Ross multi-vintage, but that is just gorgeous. How on earth is unoaked single variety Harry Masters’ Jersey like this after just one year? Top-tier cidermaking and care for fruit, that’s how.
Harry Masters’ Jersey is a variety that can go wrong in so many ways, that takes so much work on the part of the maker, that offers so few places to hide. It doesn’t give itself up as easily as Dabinett; it doesn’t just fall into a place as a big-bodied juicy, sun-filled fruit bomb. To re-appropriate from Sideways (the film, not the appallingly dreadful book that somehow gave birth to it) only someone who takes the time to understand Harry Masters’ Jersey can coax it into its fullest expression. And, precisely because of that, and because its fullest expression can be so compelling and arresting and complex and labyrinthine, I think it has more of my respect and love than the West Country’s most ubiquitous apple.
The four we’ve tasted here really do show the twists and turns that Harry Masters’ can take. I was gripped by all four in different ways, but the yellow fruits, sinewy muscle and mineral finish that they shared were fascinating and wonderful. I’m torn between the multi-vintage and Andy Williams’ for my top pick; the Ross for its supreme blending and complexity, Andy’s for its simply astonishing generosity of fruit, given the age. Dry 2019 Harry Masters’ Jersey has no business being so sun-filled, affable and downright charming. I don’t know whether Andy has more bottles, or how many, but if he’s selling then I’m buying and I can’t recommend highly enough that you do so too. In the meantime, for goodness’ sake get that Ross.
In wine metaphors, Harry Masters’ tannic structure and medium weight of body is left bank Bordeaux to plumper, fleshier Dabinett and Yarlington Mill’s right bank; North Rhône to their South Rhône. In painful sports metaphors, its muscle and poise and sinewy verve make it a swashbuckling centre bashing holes in the opposition’s back line. Clunky imagery, of course, for which I apologise, but conjured because HMJ is an apple that captures my imagination. Makes me think. And as the days darken and the evenings lengthen, that’s exactly what I find myself wanting most.
(Many thanks to Andy for the bottle and to Albert, James and James for taking the time to talk all things HMJ with me.)