My damascene moment with cider wasn’t a bottle but a book.
I had drunk cider, mostly mainstream pub cider, mostly not very good cider, for a few years by that point, but more as a means than an end. Night out fuel; a thin, bland, mildly fizzy, slightly more palatable alternative to the thin, bland, mildly fizzy lagers. On those rare occasions that holidays took me south instead of north I might dabble with something farmy-crafty, but never with any zeal or zest. Until, about seven or eight years ago now, I read the book.
The joke is that I can’t remember what the book was. Just a dog-eared, dog-chewed paperback abandoned on a table in the sort of Hereford café I used to doss around in fairly often seven or eight years ago. Something about making your own craft cider, I recall. But I remember, flicking through it, thinking “I’ve read all this before”. Because this was just before I started life in the vino business, just after the wine bug had really bitten, and it was in that Hereford café, reading that tatty old unwanted book that I realised that, but for the necessary* grinding up (‘milling’) of apples before pressing, there was nothing in the processes of making cider that need distinguish it from its vaunted, grapey cousin.
Cider is not wine, the way that pot still rum is not whisky and humans are not orang utans, if you don’t look too closely at our incumbent Cabinet. But at their purest, their simplest, their most essential and unsullied, the DNA of their craft is much the same. Fruit, grown over a vintage, harvested at the time of optimum ripeness and fermented with yeasts, either wild or cultivated, until dry.
The “but”, and it is, as with so many things cider, a large but, a King Kong rump, a brontosaurus derrière, is that wine which follows the description above is more or less the norm. Whereas you could only apply those terms to cider’s most rarefied nub.
Even discounting the ultra-meddled mess of the average mass-produced cider, the number of producers brave enough to ferment a cider made entirely from the juice of the apple to absolute dryness and then leave it there is almost distressingly low. Brave, because the market believes – almost demands – that cider be sweetened, be weakened, be frothed and flavoured and furtled about with. Brave because educated drinks boffins; smart, clued-up, right-thinking folk who read Jancis Robinson and know the Latin names for yeasts and are trusted with wine lists and sharp objects still sniff and curl their lip at the pooterish notion of cider being an appreciation-worthy thing. Brave, because even amongst those who buy into the idea of “fine cider” there are a number, perhaps a majority, of folk who so often define it as simply that to which additional, wonkish, hifalutin processes have been applied; the keeves, the ice ciders, the pet-nats, the champagne methods.
I don’t deny the right of the “fine” appellation to anything on that list. But to me a still (or lightly bottle-conditioned), dry, full-strength drink made with the fruit, the whole fruit and nothing but the fruit of the apple, nurtured through the orchard and coddled through the cidery is the essence and zenith of what cider ought to be. Ciders whose pulses race with apple and provenance; whose flavours capture an undiluted, unmasked, unvarnished portrait of just one year and just one place. Cider, in short, with soul.
These are the ciders who rub shoulders most naturally with wine, and it is a happy trio of these ciders that we’re tucking into today. We’ve an international band; one from England, one from the USA and one from France, countries whose booze-wrangling proclivities seldom fully intersect, England being a relative slouch with a grape and France being journeymen barley jockeys at best. But cider is something that all three do pretty well, when they can just about be bothered, and these three hail from fêted appleistas indeed.
In the English corner is Little Pomona, who we met in my case of essential ciders back in January. James and Susanna Forbes are a pair of drink nerds turned makers; winos seduced by apple grog. When they’re not pressing, fermenting, harvesting, blending they each run a separate cider magazine, and I might as well admit that I contribute (or am about to contribute) to both. Their cidery should be in any self-respecting drinks enthusiasts top five must-visits and their creations tend to be tiny-batch, ultra-ambitious and often mildly bonkers. James, being very much a “what next” type when it comes to his creations, doesn’t really do “flagships”, but in-so-far as Little Pomona has one, it’s Old Man and the Bee.
Named for the chap who planted their home orchard and the bees that pollinate it, Old Man and the Bee is a vintage-driven, wild-fermented, unoaked blend of Harry Masters’ Jersey and Ellis Bitter, with a bit of barrel-aged Foxwhelp to add zing and life to those lower-acid, tannin-led bittersweets. The 2017 is the third in the series, only recently released because James reckons any fewer than two or three years does Ellis Bitter a disservice. I should come clean and say that, whilst I have enjoyed previous vintages, my estimation of Old Man and the Bee ’15 and ‘16 has generally been overshadowed by my opinion of other Little Pomona bottlings, the Brut Crémant and Cryo-Conditioned in particular. Nonetheless, anything from this cidery sits in “see it, buy it” territory (though, in this particular instance, James gave me a free bottle).
I can’t do much better in describing Eve’s Cidery’s Albee Hill 2017 than point you to the product page, here, which for detail and information and showing-of-working knocks most cideries, wineries and distilleries into a cocked hat.
We learn that the blend comprises forty or so different varieties, a mixture of eaters, cookers and cider apples, with the most prominent listed by percentage. We’re told that the apples came from a variety of terroirs across Albee Hill, and that before fermentation in stainless steel the blend was put together ahead of any of the other ciders that year, giving it priority access to the best fruit of the vintage. Similarly to Antoine, below, still cider is expressly not the stock in trade for cidermakers Autumn and Ezra. Eve’s has made naturally sparkling, particularly champagne-method cider their stock-in-trade, approaching orcharding and cidriculture with a winemaker’s sensibility. But Albee Hill was their first bottling to make a UK debut, followed closely by a pair of their traditional methods. As you’d imagine, I snapped up all three on the spot.
Finally, representing France, is Antoine Marois. I’d heard of him by reputation before I tasted his ciders at CidrExpo, and in a crowded field of excellence he was my producer of the show by la Manche’s breadth. His would likely be in my top two or three cideries to pack our Mark off to; Antoine names most of his cuvées by their terroir and is a student of one of wine’s most forward-thinking and prominent champions of biodynamic viticulture, Michel Chapoutier.
On which basis you might expect fully fermented, dry ciders to be Antoine’s stock-in-trade, but in fact today’s bottle, Casus Belli, is an outlying rogue. Because Antoine tends to follow the French de rigeur of keeved ciders, his mainstay cuvées are lower-alcohol, off-dry and naturally sparkling. But he deemed a parcel of his fully-fermented 2016 vintage dry cider to be too good to sacrifice to Calvados distillation, and bottled it instead as “le premier vin de pommes de Normandie”. It’s the only bone-dry, full-strength, still French cider I’ve yet to come across outside of Basque France – a complete anomaly in its home country – but it completes our Trois Mousquetaires in style.
Albee Hill 2017, Eve’s Cidery – review
Colour: Bright gold
On the nose: Really precise, defined aromas, if quite delicate. Apple skins and chamomile. Flintiness and grass. Just a little ripeness of nectarine and orange, but we’re firmly in Chablis territory here.
In the mouth: Totally dry, but the ripeness and juiciness have ramped up a notch. There’s only the mildest whisper of tannin but the acidity is taut, defined and structured. More of the juice than the skins here, a development of the orange rind, chamomile and honeysuckle. A squirt of peach juice and more of that pristine, almost austere minerality. In many ways it feels like the still answer to Find & Foster Methode Traditionelle Zero. Thinking cider.
Old Man & the Bee 2017, Little Pomona – review
Colour: A tone deeper than Albee Hill. Old gold, perhaps.
On the nose: The Harry Masters’ Jersey is certainly making its presence known. Earthy, almost smoky tones of warm straw interlace with delicate florals and even some sweeter, juicier reddish tones; cherries, possibly plums. A little pithy pink grapefruit and sawn wood. Mild baking spices.
In the mouth: Ripe, chalky, upfront tannins – that Harry Masters’ again – waltz with the lilt of strawberry-tinted Foxwhelp. There’s less barn here and more ripeness of apples and lemons, though the seam of smoke beguilingly persists. The woody tones have a sappy complexion and the earthiness of the nose has given way to a slatey minerality. I’ll happily drink this solo right now, but you can happily cellar it for at least three or four years more, and it’ll stand up to a nicely protein-rich meal, no problem.
(For another opinion on Old Man & the Bee ’17, take a look at James Finch’s (aka The Cider Critic’s) Fine Cider Friday video and chat with Little Pomona’s James Forbes here.)
Casus Belli, Domaine Antoine Marois – review
Colour: Lightly-hazed amber
On the nose: Instantly the ripest and broadest of the trio. Cloudy apple juice, peaches, plums and a lovely, waxy, not-quite-smoky, bacon fat quality. Wonderfully generous and complex, but again it’s tremendously defined – every aroma is crystal clear. And it shares the wet rock quality that is the common DNA to all three of these.
In the mouth: Meaty, robust tannins on the palate, though the ripeness and fullness is such that they don’t seem astringent. Follows the nose beautifully but with a ripening of peach and additional nuances of dried apricot enveloping the developed red apple, beeswax and acacia. It’s unmistakeably Norman – that ripeness and depth – but with more than usual complexity and mineral clarity. This is gourmand cider, make no mistake. I’ve a hunch that Ross on Wye’s Albert Johnson would get a real kick out of this.
I cannot begin to tell you how happy it made me to sit and slowly nose and taste my way through these three ciders. They are the absolute epitome of craft; so vastly, vastly different in their flavours and aromas, but so magnificently united in their precision, their definition, their sense of place. Casus Belli could not be anything but Norman … despite being completely one of a kind. Old Man and the Bee screamed Herefordshire, but again is wholly its own thing; distinct from anything else you can currently buy.
These ciders make a mockery of the ever-touted term “minimum intervention”. You absolutely cannot land on this liquid quality without the highest degree of skill and of care; without obsession and dedication and love and determination to show your drink off at its most spellbinding. Anything less than your fullest, minutest attention as a drinker does them a complete disservice.
But you’ll want to know my order of preference, won’t you? Well, alright. Old Man and the Bee is, without doubt, a big step up from the already good 2015 and 2016 editions. Albee Hill is buy-on-sight fare, is the easiest to sip on its own, and was the geophysicist’s favourite. But to my taste, the Norman wins this round. Leaving Casus Belli on the shelves is quite simply a crime against good taste and, Antoine, if you happen to read this, please, please, please, please, please don’t let this be a one-off. France needs more of this sort of thing, and so do I.
So yes: France – England – America for my money. Just. But ranking them really misses the point. If a tenth of cider was made with the consideration and deliberation of these three the world would be an infinitely more delicious place. And I’d never have to listen to friends call still cider “flat”. Buy them. Buy them all, if you can find them. Thank me later.
*Technically not “necessary”, as apples can be frozen, thawed and then directly pressed. But as I only know of one producer who takes this approach, we can safely describe milling as ubiquitous.