Tradition can often be a wonderful thing. An indelible link to the past; the sense of continuing something that people long forgotten continued before you. A way of doing things that has been handed down, Chinese-whispered through generations and which settles now upon your shoulders to be nurtured, protected and, ultimately, handed down again in turn.
It is also a privilege and, often, an advantage. For evidence of this, we need look no further than Scotch whisky which, as my editor once memorably commented “could write Glen McShit” on the bottle and still sell cases by the million. Consciously or subconsciously, when the average consumer buys a bottle of Scotch whisky, they believe they are purchasing something with the guarantee of time-chiselled, hard-practiced quality. Something made to methods that have been finessed and refined over centuries, which hearkens back to smoke-choked smuggler’s dens and which, through long tradition, has become unassailably the best in its class.
And there’s the rub. It’s not just that Scotch doesn’t have to try very hard on the labelling front to sell cases, it’s that it doesn’t actually need to be wildly impressive liquid, either. We have written unto death of the creeping tweaks to efficiency that have gradually watered down the quality of much Scotch whisky over the decades; reduced malt content in blended whisky, shorter fermentations, yeasts that work faster but at the cost of flavour, faster distillations, shell and tube condensers, casks re-filled long after the garden centre would have thought twice.
Scotch is hardly the sole culprit when it comes to resting on the hard-earned laurels of tradition. Taylor has written extensively about the predilection of big American brands for signposting dubious pseudo-history rather than tangible production information. John has frequently highlighted the sundry shortcuts taken by several of the larger rum brands. We’ve seen previously that, around the 1970s, shelves were full of French wines not fit for purpose, but seen as untouchable by dint of being French wine until the flying winemakers of Australia introduced filthy co-operatives to stainless steel and pressure hoses.
The dexter side of the coin are those producers whose sales force isn’t weaponised by the place in which they are operating. People whose product has to be absolutely A1, because if it isn’t, no one will buy it. People whose brand has to be built on a reputation for excellence, who grow by individual effort and through word of mouth. In whisky terms, we’re talking about distilleries such as Smögen, Bimber, Langatun, Zuidam. Whiskymakers working in countries where there is no whisky tradition, no broad established industry and no easy sell. For decades the same was true for the winemakers of Napa Valley, Australia, Marlborough, Mendoza, all places that have carved out a niche on British shelves and in British minds because they offered flavours, styles, qualities that in one way or another outmatched what was available from the old world.
Modern English cider is the descendant of a long, long tradition. When I visited Burrow Hill last year I was struck by Julian Temperley’s comment that “I’m not making anything that hasn’t existed for centuries.” Thanks to this tradition, England boasts the most extensive cider apple orchards in the world. It boasts a status as the only country in the world in which cider of one sort or another is served on virtually every licensed premises. It is a country in which everyone has, at minimum, heard of and likely tasted cider and it is home to the world’s biggest producers as well as a clutch that represent the very ceiling of international quality. This year alone I have tasted, to date, 677 new ciders and at least a couple of hundred in addition that I’d sampled previously. I have tasted ciders from five continents and over twenty countries, and if someone put a gun to my head and told me I had to choose just one country to drink cider from I wouldn’t miss a beat before naming England. The breadth of style, the range of flavours derived solely from apples and the number of producers worthy of world class status is currently, to my mind, without equal.
And yet the quality of English cider is just as guilty of being hamstrung by tradition as any of the examples cited in earlier paragraphs. Although the general prevalence of faults isn’t nearly what it was a decade or so back, there is still far too high a risk of the general consumer unwittingly selecting a bottle that is tainted by mouse, by ethyl acetate or by excessive acetic, but has been put into the retail sphere nonetheless. “This is how it’s always been made; this is what it’s traditionally supposed to taste like” is far too often a stick with which to beat the customer and a cheap get-out to excuse cider which is simply unfit for purpose. There is nothing traditional about vinegar or nail polish flavours in a drink; I doubt very much whether the 17th century crystal goblets on display in Hereford’s Cider Museum were originally charged with mouse.
There is no divine right granting England a monopoly on cider’s quality and style any more than there is for Scotch whisky, Kentucky bourbon or French wine. Nor is it owned by Normandy, Brittany, Asturias or the Basque Country. The reason the USA and Australia are, in quite different regards, such exciting places to drink cider at the moment is that producers there don’t take sales for granted or feel that their creations merit a certain status by default. They are building their reputations entirely from scratch, going out of their way to prevent fault and bottling only that which the standard customer is likely to order a second time. Some of the most memorable ciders I’ve tasted this year have come from non-traditional sources; the intense, poised, weighty Malus X Feminam fortified cider from Cold Hand Winery in Denmark, Caledonian’s sun-drenched fruit-bomb Craobh Lan, the linear precision of Abel’s Méthode from New Zealand, virtually anything from Estonia’s Jaanihanso.
When I visited the Basque region I was struck by the varying levels of acetic acid that presented in disparate ciders, with the best, from such cideries as Zapiain and Zelaia, showing a barely perceptible trace. Zelaia’s Maialen was at pains to talk me through the work in the cellar that has gone into reducing acetic acid, encouraging cleaner acidity and allowing the fruit to shine brighter. Were her ciders any the less respectful to Basque traditions because of it? Of course not. If anything they were far more so.
I suppose the best advice for a drinker contemplating any cider is to step away from tradition almost entirely. To ask yourself whether you’d consider that cider up to snuff if it wasn’t from someone, or somewhere, that had been making it for generations. Whether it delivers on flavour, quality and cleanliness, irrespective of heritage. After all, when it comes to the drink in your glass, it’s only the present that counts.
In that spirit, today I’m tasting a cider from a distinctly non-traditional location. Jacques Perritaz has been harvesting fruit for his Cidrerie du Vulcain in Switzerland’s Fribourg since the turn of the millennium. He was another of the standouts at CidrExpo, though I’d encountered his wares first on the shelves of Pilango, by far my favourite place to drink cider in London until it closed its doors for good.
Jacques is a rare cidermaker who can count the usually secretive Eric Bordelet among his mentors, and there’s certainty a parallel in the precision they separately achieve. The differences primarily coming from terroir and from the low-tannin, lower-phenol varieties available to Jacques. The ciders are made from fruit grown on old, traditional trees in a 120 year old orchard. In the case of Premier Emois 2016, Bohnapfel, Pomme Raisin, Boskop and Engishofer, which apparently are acid, aromatic varieties. Jacques uses the same methods typical to Normandy and Brittany, and given this is a modest 4% alcohol we can assume it underwent at least a couple of rackings. In common with its French counterparts, Premiers Emois 2016 was bottled before fermentation had been completed, resulting in a natural sparkle. How much this would cost in Switzerland I’ve no idea; I have in mind I paid something like £18 for my bottle. Buon Vino, the natural wine specialist, currently stock a range of Jacques’ ciders; somewhat unhelpfully none of them are this one.
Cidrerie du Vulcain Premiers Emois 2016 – review
Colour: Bright Gold.
On the nose: Incredible freshness for something four years old; really bright, vivid, clean fruit. Culinary apple aromas – big, red, juicy eating apples, perfectly ripened. Sweet lemons and pineapple chunks. Green pears, lime fruit pastilles. It’s a real advert for interesting fruit pressed at perfect ripeness and given time to mature properly.
In the mouth: Certainly on the sweet side, but vivacious mousse and a lovely, clean seam of gentle acidity provides balance. It’s light in body, but big in flavour. More citrus; lemon and orange fruit pastilles, juicy apples. It’s not actually all that complex, but it is very, very tasty, ridiculously fresh for the age and wonderfully precise and refined.
An easy recommendation. There’s no doubt in my mind that Jacques is one of the world’s foremost cidermakers, and this cuvée backs up that assertion deliciously.
The world of cider is becoming ever more connected. Distributors are becoming more adventurous; consumers are becoming more informed and are tasting more widely. The last forty years of wine have taught us that tradition, in and of itself, will not make up for faulty liquid once it sits on shelves beside superior competition from aspirational producers. The world is broadening; cider drinkers are becoming more auto-didactic. Flavour will soon be the only criterion of relevance. There’s a lot of it at Cidrerie du Vulcain.