There’s a line in Good Will Hunting that’s always stuck with me. It’s in the first scene between Matt Damon and Robin Williams; Damon has just criticised Williams’ book selection, and Williams asks what books he should be reading. A shrug. “Whatever blows your hair back”.
Something about that strikes so keenly to the core of why hobbyists exist. We don’t detect metal or collect beetles or build models or play Dungeons and Dragons or write about whisky from necessity. We certainly don’t do it for financial incentive; my bank balance would look far perkier if I was just a “glass of Glenfiddich on special occasions” sort of chap. We do it because, perhaps just occasionally, something blows our hair back. Something gives us a moment of “my God, that’s incredible”, heaves us from our seats and our apathy, bathes us in the light of unfakeable enthusiasm; the sort of enthusiasm that those who aren’t hobbyists or Americans will simply never understand.
(That’s also the seed from which the anger sprouts, incidentally. The real objection to corner-cutting and efficiency savings and price cynicism is that, by a thousand cuts, they shave away at what blows your hair back. There’s actually very little “undrinkable” whisky out there, for example. The objection, to my mind, is that most hobbyists aren’t interested in “drinkable”, we’re interested in tasting the stars. Chipping away at the processes by which whisky is made has created a vast lake of ordinary, and, since it is comparatively easy to taste “old style” whisky; whisky from before the changes, it rankles all the more when marketers tell you that we’ve never had it this good.)
But I’m not here to talk about whisky this morning, I’m here to talk about cider. And today what blows my hair back is Foxwhelp.
Foxwhelp is a bittersharp apple. No, that doesn’t quite say it. It’s a bittersharp.
It contains tannin, but focussing on that is a bit like saying that Roger Federer’s handy with a lawnmower; it isn’t really the point. Foxwhelp is the ultimate, the last word in acidity. “No acidity like it”, to quote Albert Johnson. It’s sharper than a katana crossed with David Mitchell. People talk about eastern counties, the cookers and eaters, and about Spanish ciders in terms of their sharpness, but Foxwhelp, from the land of bittersweets and tannins, laughs at the lot of them and kicks sand in the face of their puny acidities.
Across the three counties and Herefordshire, few apples command the same respect as Foxwhelp. “The foundation acid apple of Oliver’s Cider,” said Tom Oliver, when I asked him. “The main source of acid in the fruit blend and the icing on the cake in the final blend.” Little Pomona’s James Forbes practically levitated with veneration: “It has the strongest personality of all cider apples … time can shape it, bend it, sculpt it, but it can never really grind it down. It remains, through all, Foxwhelp. It has the magical ability to amplify flavours. If Lionel Messi is the first name on the Barcelona team sheet, so Foxwhelp should be the first tree that goes into the ground in any orchard.” And my favourite of his comments, from a conversation a long while ago: “as with every cider question, I suspect that Foxwhelp is the answer”. Foxwhelp is the breath of life; it is the edge, the zing, the lift. It is everything that the likes of Dabinett and Harry Masters’ Jersey aren’t; the scalpel in the blender’s toolbox.
But as a single variety it gets precious little love. “You must be joking,” was Tom Oliver’s comment. “Getting hit over the head with a baseball bat is memorable but not an experience I would wish to repeat. Such is the same with Foxwhelp.” When I did my multi-variety tasting at Ross on Wye, Albert ranked Foxwhelp bottom of his list, memorably receipted and filed as “sharp shit”. In his book, Fine Cider, Felix Nash writes “to drink it alone as a single-variety can be near unpalatable”.
At which point I shall have to thumb my nose at two of the world’s best, most respected cidermakers and one of cider’s foremost retailers. Four cheers for Foxwhelp I say; it’s an utterly magnificent variety and if more Foxwhelp-dominant ciders were out there the world would be an infinitely more refreshing and flavourful place. So many ciders can be plodding and lifeless and dull, but Foxwhelp is alive. It pierces and keens and shrieks, it imposes its personality upon you. It is one of the very few instantly-recognisable, unforgettable apples and it doesn’t just blow my hair back, it plugs it into the mains and fires five thousand volts down every follicle. I’ve seen it called the Riesling of the apple world, but it isn’t. There isn’t a grape like it. It’s the Foxwhelp of the apple world, the alpha and omega of acidity.
But it’s more than the acidity; it’s the aroma. No apple, however well-treated, has the same pristine, cut-glass brilliance as Foxwhelp, the same teasing, haunting, delicate aromatics of strawberry fruit, fresh flowers and orange citrus. And those aromas only, only show themselves to their beautiful fullest when Foxwhelp is allowed the tiller hand in a cider, allowed to strut its full, uninhibited, mesmerising stuff. Nothing disappoints me more than a botched Foxwhelp; a Foxwhelp that has been released as a single variety but over-sweetened, hamstrung, reduced from its fullest expression. One of the worst ciders I have had this year was a single variety Foxwhelp that had been made with badly-selected, rotten fruit and then sweetened to cloying excess. It was a mouthful of grungey, brown, anonymous misery; the fingerprints of Foxwhelp scoured from it entirely.
I’m not alone in my discipleship, either. I know for a fact that the keg-conditioned Foxwhelp from Ross on Wye has proven one of their most popular lines. Pommelier Cath Potter was awash with heart-eyed emojis when I posted a picture of today’s bottles online. Wine lovers, sour beer lovers, wise folk who relish the nip and zing of acidity, who want crystal clarity, who want flavours in high definition, these people must know the truth. That there is nothing quite like the individuality of Foxwhelp, that such individuality should be cherished and trumpeted, that not all ciders need be round and mellow and bittersweet-led. That rumbles of thunder are all very well, but sometimes you want a flash of lightning. Foxwhelp excites me. It puts me on the edge of my seat. I drink it with relish and swirl the memory of its flavours around my mouth days later. When I taste a good Foxwhelp it makes me feel alive.
My other favourite apple is Yarlington Mill. Now that’s a rumble of thunder. A round, rich, sonorous mouthful of deep fruit, baking spice and ripe tannin. It is, in many ways, the antithesis of Foxwhelp, which I dare say may be one reason I love it so much. Because so often I see ciders that are designed to sit somewhere in the middle, under the banner of balance. Blends using dozens and dozens of varieties to iron out a cider into safe homogeneity. Ranges comprising simply “sweet”, “medium” and “dry”. And many of these ciders are very nice. I happily chug through them, but I doubt I could pick them out of a lineup. A day later the memory of their flavours has all but slipped away.
If cider is to build an educated, invigorated, enthused audience it should remember that no two palates are alike; that not everyone wants to drink the same thing as each other, and very few people who are interested in the craft end want to drink the same thing every time. It must explore the length and breadth of the spectrum of its available flavours, shine a light on the styles and sensations that uninitiated drinkers may not know exist. I accept, totally, that Foxwhelp is a marmite apple. But so, I would argue, are Harry Masters’ Jersey, Brown Snout, Tremlett’s Bitter and I can name devotees of all three. Not everything needs to be safe and easy and middle of the road. Sometimes people want their hair blown back.
With that, on to today’s bottlings. We’ve got a single variety Foxwhelp and a near-as-makes-no-odds. The single variety comes from Ross on Wye. We’ve tried a Foxwhelp of theirs before, as well as their Raison d’Être, which is about as far from Foxwhelp as you can realistically get. This one’s their First Press 2018. Foxwhelp’s an early-ripening variety, meaning producers can get it into blends and bottles right from the start of the season. In this case, after a six-week wild fermentation. A modest 5% abv – Foxwhelp tends to be lower than a lot of varieties – and, according to the label, “meant to dazzle you” with “lip-smacking, transformative character”. 750mls cost me £7.90 – I forget where from.
Our other bottle comes from Cwm Maddoc, just a short drive away from Ross. They’re not a producer whose ciders I’ve often found for sale; mine have largely come from the Hereford Cider Museum and the National Collection of Cider and Perry, but I visited back in January and Jeremy and Clare kindly took the time to show me around. They’ve a fascinating range of ciders and perries, including several varieties I’ve rarely seen before, but this was the one that really grabbed me. It’s from the 2017 vintage, predominantly Foxwhelp, blended with a little bit of Pig’s Face and Tom Putt (apple names can be just tremendous, can’t they?). My acclamations were met with deeply sceptical looks – I think there’s general disbelief in Herefordshire that anyone actually likes acidity – but I bought a 500ml bottle for £3 or so, and I dearly wish I’d bought more.
Fasten your seatbelts – let’s crack them open.
Ross on Wye C1 First Press 2018 Foxwhelp
Colour: Pale white wine
On the nose: Not even Foxwhelp can completely overhaul the sensory stamp of Ross on Wye; that earthy musk and slate sitting atop big, zingy, citrusy fruit. There’s certainly a good dab of strawberry, but there are also aromas here that remind me almost of carbonic maceration – banana and bubblegum – adding complexity to the zesty limes and pithy grapefruit. Complex fare for an unoaked single variety.
In the mouth: The mousse of bottle conditioning rounds this out beautifully with the effect of softening the acidity a touch and giving the fruit more room. Flavours follow the nose almost note for note. Super young and fresh and tangy, but Foxwhelp’s more extreme excesses have been tethered well. There’s green apple, softer pear and ripe Sicilian lemon – nothing’s too lean; you don’t have to be a masochist to get a real kick from it. Once the world returns to normality I recommend pouring this in large glasses whilst sitting on the grass.
Cwm Maddoc Foxwhelp with Pig’s Face & Tom Putt 2017
Colour: Light amber
On the nose: “Light, hazy, early summer day”, said the geophysicist, who grabbed my glass before I could get to it. I see what she means; this is all about freshness – you’d never guess it had two and a half years on it already. Oranges, strawberries, a little tomato stem. Foxwhelp absolutely takes the lead, but there’s an additional plumpness too. They’re delicate aromas, only medium in intensity, but very, very pure.
In the mouth: Yep, that’s Foxwhelp! Full on lemon and grapefruit alongside a steely minerality and a big blast of strawberry. A dusting of tannin adds grip, but let’s be real, this is all about that electric, crackling, racy, citrusy acidity. A zesty yellow slap across the palate. Those other apples may have put a saddle on it, but the Foxwhelp still kicks. Utterly pristine in its acidity and its fruit. I love it. Geophysicist’s contribution: “good lord … well if you’re a fan of eating lemons”. She still wanted the lion’s share though.
Dry, bottle-conditioned Foxwhelp is simply one of my favourite things. When you want a good one, nothing else will scratch the itch, and these two scratch it magnificently. To my palate no one bottles a better Foxwhelp than Ross on Wye – a delicious irony given Albert and Mike’s preferences – but I wish I’d grabbed a whole case of the Cwm Maddoc too.
If you’re not a fan of sharp tastes, stay well away, but if you love your sour beers, your Rieslings, your Sauvignon Blancs then I suspect either of these would steal your heart. Hot weather essentials, both.
I’ve a notion – I can’t prove it, as none to my knowledge currently exist – that, as attractive as it is in youth, Foxwhelp would also age magnificently. Certainly it has the structural components to steer a very long course, and sufficient intensity and complexity of flavour too. Neither of today’s pair is particularly old, but both seem younger than their years – I’d readily believe that either had come from the 2019 harvest. I would be fascinated to taste a Foxwhelp of five or so years in age, to see how those flavours develop, how that acidity mellows.
In the meantime, I can only hope that a few more producers brave a bottled Foxwhelp. I’m not saying it isn’t in its element as a blending apple. I’m not saying it’s for everyone. I’m just suggesting that there are those out there who fancy tasting a thunderbolt from time to time. That there’s interest in big, thrilling, challenging flavour. In difference. In drama. So go on. I dare you. I’m not joking.