First thing’s first. Today I am reviewing a perry. A wonderful perry. In fact – don’t quote me on this – it might be my favourite perry of the year. (Subject to comparative tasting at a later date which I shall enjoy tremendously.) You’ll find a full review at the bottom of this article, as is proper and broadly my remit, but let’s park it for the time being, because what this perry makes me most of all is worried. As it should you.
You see what we have in our glass today is a single variety Thorn. Thorn is a relatively endangered perry pear – not to the extent of a Coppy (one mature tree in existence) or a Flakey Bark (six mature trees in existence) or a Betty Prosser (number of trees in existence uncertain – probably less than twenty). But certainly, few enough to class as rare; as something we should cherish and hug close and plant more of wherever possible.
But that’s not my primary worry. My worry is a more universal one; one which affects every plant in existence and, by extension every drink. Indeed, it is the most clear and present danger to all life on earth. I am talking, of course, about climate breakdown.
There’s not a great deal I can do to expand on the seminal article written by Angus MacRaild on this topic. Our whisky readers may well already have devoured it; I would urge all of our cider readers to do the same. In it he superbly and compellingly makes the case for a sort of selfish regard for the environment, one in which we are motivated to think, act and vote in the name of preserving those small privileges we individually hold most dear.
To those of us who love perry, the requirement to act, to wrap our arms around that which we love is perhaps even more immediate than it is for whisky lovers. James Marsden, the man behind today’s masterpiece, is of the opinion that it may already be too late. A former director of Natural England, cider and perrymaking was what he described as his “antidote”, but he has, with a professional hat on, catalogued and starkly graphed the change in sugars, acidity and ripening time in his Thorn pears over the last decade and a half, and it makes for sombre viewing indeed.
A great part of the Thorn pear’s genius is what Albert Johnson described to me as “its yellow acidity”. Indeed, it is structurally brilliant across the board; it has tannin, acidity and sugar – “the Holy Trinity” as Tom Oliver has it. In addition to its gorgeous elderflower and green and yellow fruit flavours, it is this structural excellence that makes it not only a compelling single variety, but probably my personal favourite perry pear of all. Acidity is not only the key to freshness and poise and balance and definition, as we discussed in my piece on Foxwhelp, it is the vital component when it comes to utilising the traditional (champagne) method. Without the structure leant by acidity drinks can be lifeless, flabby, challenging and from a technical point of view, far more at risk from such faults as mouse. The average consumer is afraid of the word “acidity”, and my day job involves much conjuring of coy, user-friendly euphemisms for it (zestiness being my personal staple) but it’s the reason Sauvignon Blanc is the UK’s favourite white and the reason that the Foxwhelp, much to Albert’s chagrin, is the fastest-selling keg conditioned cider from Ross on Wye. It is also first against the wall when climate change comes.
James’ assiduous note-taking shows a significant rise in Thorn ph over the last fifteen years. This can be countered by picking earlier, but sugar ripeness (which dictates acidity) is one of only two ripenesses that the perrymaker (and cidermaker and winemaker) has to consider. The other is phenolic ripeness, and the two do not act in tandem. The frustrating genius of Herefordshire perry, as with, say, Bordeaux or Burgundy wine, is that its marginal climate has historically allowed a gradual tip-toeing of ripenesses such that, in a vintage of optimum conditions, neither is either in excess or in want. With the result that, whilst there may be vintages that are slightly thinner and weedier, when a year goes well, it goes really well. Phenolics and sugars and acidity slowly and steadily creep to their fullest expression rather than rushing headlong and falling off an organoleptic cliff.
The changing climate has significantly shortened the distance to that cliff edge. When I spoke to James in August for a Thorn-specific article, he mentioned that he would be picking his pears before the month was out – not for the first time. Granted, Thorn is always, with Moorcroft, one of the first perry pears to fall, but as its window on the tree shortens, so does the time in which its vital characteristics. In short, whether it be sugars, acidity or phenolics, something has to give. With the long-term inevitable result of a lower quality liquid in your glass.
Obviously, I am not suggesting that maintaining Thorn pear’s zestiness is in any way a global priority. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter in the least. But viewed as a prism it serves as a tangible demonstration of that which we will lose – which we are visibly losing – through inaction; through not doing as much as we can to thwart climate catastrophe. And as Angus eloquently points out, the real fear of losing a small, treasured privilege is often, sadly, more individually compelling than attempting to wrap one’s mind around the inestimable global damage caused by a gradual upward creep in temperatures. I doubt there is anyone reading this who couldn’t take more personal action than they already have done or are. And I write that as someone who is a recidivist culprit of appalling inertia myself. Cider and Perry, as Discover Cider has undertaken to point out, has the potential to be a flagbearer for environmentally considerate drinks. But it can only fulfil that potential if we, its consumers, are as conscientious and, critically, concerned as the people who make it.
Back to the glass. This Thorn, as mentioned, has been made by Gregg’s Pit in the champagne method of provoking a secondary in-bottle fermentation prior to disgorgement. It’s a 2017 vintage; how much of the subsequent time it spent on its lees I couldn’t tell you. I bought my bottles from the Hereford Beer house for £15.50 each; at the time of writing it is also available through Fram Ferment for £14.40 per 750ml bottle. Both excellent and impeccably knowledgeable independents which I am happy to independently urge you to support.
Gregg’s Pit Thorn Champagne Method 2017 – review
Colour: Pale lemon.
On the nose: Good Lord. Herefordshire or Marlborough? That nose has notes that are ringers for a more elegant, refined New Zealand Sauvignon. Cut grass? Check. Lime? Check? Gooseberry and passionfruit and elderflower? Check, check, check. Lots of elderflower in fact. It’s definitely a Thorn. Crystal clarity, outrageous elegance and class.
In the mouth: See nose. Both inimitably Thorn – that elderflower, taut, lean body and beautifully weighted scrape of light tannin – and a shoo-in for the most crystalline and elegant of mineral-driven Sauvignon Blancs. What’s really impressive though is the balance. Acidity, body, mousse and intensity so brilliantly weighted that nothing pulls you too far in any direction. There’s the lightest toast from the lees autolysis adding a touch of extra richness. A streak of gunflint minerality a mile wide. Just so much class and finesse and poise and refinement and character.
Nothing to add to my opening salvo really. By the indices of balance, length, intensity and complexity it objectively one of the best perries currently commercially available and subjectively it pulls a fleet of my stylistic triggers too. It is that rarest of things – a drink which engages me on the highest intellectual level and one that I would pour for even my most timorous-palated friends, certain they would want another glass in nothing flat.
Drinks of this quality should be the sharpest of spurs to action. Fragile things to treasure and safeguard and champion. Privileges worth fighting for.