The ancient Roman philosopher Lucretius, in his De rerum natura (“The Nature of Things”, to you and me) wrote “see you not that even stones are conquered by time, that high towers fall and rocks moulder away, that shrines and idols of gods are worn down with decay, and that holy divinity cannot prolong the bounds of fate”.
In short, that nothing lasts. And Lucretius should know, because De rerum natura is all we have left of him. In the end, everything decays and dies. I happen to agree. Mind you, the English satirist Terry Pratchett wrote in Johnny and the Dead, “it’s wrong to think that the past is something that’s just gone. It’s still there. It’s just that you’ve gone past. If you drive through a town, it’s still there in the rear-view mirror. Time is a road, but it doesn’t roll up behind you. Things aren’t over just because they’re past.” And there’s something in that as well.
I was musing on this lately (not the quotes, I looked those up) because a cidermaker on twitter recently told me that his cider shouldn’t be kept: “like champagne we do the ageing in the bottle before disgorging. Once in cork the taste doesn’t change that much.” It was a gentle rebuke in my direction, after I’d pondered with a fellow cider bore on how a particular bottle in his range might develop over the next couple of years. But I don’t want this to come across as wounded esprit d’escalier from the top of the Malt steps. Rather I want to shine a torch into a cranny that I think has been underexplored by modern cider.
There is much debate in whisky over whether spirit changes at all in the bottle. The scientists say no, as you can read in some detail here and here, but many a long-in-the-tooth imbiber says yes. And, to be fair, they often have bigger whisky collections than the scientists do. What seems relatively certain is that the difference, if it even exists, is fractional enough to be worth bickering over.
Wine, on the other hand, famously changes in the bottle. Indeed, so enshrined is the myth of the greatness of aged wine, that more bottles are consumed too old than too young. There’s a cultural difference in the length of time people leave their wines to age. The French and the Spanish tend to drink their own wines far younger than the English do, the English being ever-overawed in the presence of the slightest whiff of culture. Some wines simply aren’t designed to age; they’re designed to be gulped down with the fresh dew of youth still on them, and very wonderful they are too. But there remains a special magic to a wine that has spent years, perhaps decades gradually shifting, unfurling, decaying, to the point that it reaches a new, more perfect coherence and complexity of expression. These are the wines that make the most audible, insistent demands on your concentration, time and care. They’re the wines, I admit, that got me into wine, and they’re the wines that, more than any others, still keep me enthralled, entranced, engaged and reverent years later.
When it comes to cider, everything goes a little bit quiet. Admittedly that’s a sentence I could write about so, so many things, but I think the question of ageing is an important one given such terms as “fine cider” are now fairly liberally thrown around. This was brought to the forefront of my mind partially by the aforementioned tweet, and partially because I was recently sent a bottle of cider (which must, for the time being, remain anonymous) only to be told a few weeks later by its maker “don’t drink it yet – it isn’t ready”. Fortunately I hadn’t already seen it off.
Drinks change because of volatility. Without a high enough alcohol level to act as an indefinite preservative, oxygen will ultimately react with the liquid, cause the fruit to dull and turn the acid into vinegar. The freshest, primary fruits are the first to go – that’s why Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t tend to age well. But what allows a drink to develop is the presence of preservative characteristics – tannins, acidity, alcohol, concentration of polyphenols, high residual sugar. For a much fuller explanation, this article in Decanter is well worth a read. The point is that a combination of some or all of these elements will slow the decaying process; will lengthen the life of a drink as its more complex compounds slowly break down, unclench if you like, and fall out of suspension.
Certain decisions on the part of the drink’s maker can also lengthen the potential life of a wine or cider. One that might cause some yapping among the more purist-minded of natural wine folk is the use of sulphites, which stabilise a drink, giving it protection from the more immediate ravages of oxygen. Fermentation and/or maturation oak adds an element of tannin, especially if newer oak is used. But perhaps most significant is the choice to age a drink on its lees.
Lees are particles made up of yeast cells that have died post-fermentation. They have antioxidant properties, which means that they keep a cider or wine fresher for longer. Stirring the lees, when the drink is still in tank or barrel, is better known by its French name, bâtonnage, and can give your drink greater body and richness. Generally, before bottling, these lees are racked or filtered off, for the sake of clarity. But drinks which undergo a second fermentation – which is to say those which are bottle conditioned, inevitably sit on their lees for a great deal longer, not only taking on additional flavours, but being preserved by the antioxidants. Producers who take the next step and choose to disgorge their wines, á la champagne, do this to remove the lees sediment and attain a crystal clear product. But, importantly, and here is where my on-twitter cidermaker and I part opinions, this does not take away that drink’s capacity and potential to age. Some of the longest-lived wines of all are Champagnes, thanks to their high acidities and concentrations of fruit. And bottled evidence suggests that many champagnes disgorged after a shorter time on lees subsequently evolve more slowly than the same champagne disgorged after a longer period on its lees.
By now I have talked an awful lot about wine in an article about cider on a predominantly whisky-focussed website. So I do hope some of you are still with me, because I think that cider and cider appreciation can take an immense amount away from everything above. Many ciders share those same properties of tannin, acid, concentration and residual sugar. Large numbers of ciders are aged, in tank, barrel or bottle, on their lees. Alcohol levels might be lower, but that doesn’t slow the sweetest German Rieslings down. And even if cider’s ageing potential is lower than its grapey cousins, I am convinced that it exists nonetheless. Most of the best ciders I have ever tried have had at least a few years under their belt. The best ice ciders I’ve encountered are the Saragnat Avalanche 2012 and the Eden Falstaff 2011. Ross on Wye’s original Raison d’Étre – 2016 – tastes better now than it did when it was launched nearly two years back. One of the best champagne-method ciders I’ve drunk this year was the rich, beautifully-developed Mimi from Stopham Estate winery – another 2011 – that had unquestionably developed flavours which would not have been present seven, five, even three years ago. James Forbes has told me again and again that the Ellis Bitter apple needs at least two or three years to even begin to say anything interesting. Time makes a difference. Time has a flavour. Time counts.
Look, I’m not suggesting that every cider could – or should – be subjected to ageing. Soft, low-tannin, low-acidity, ciders are designed, like Sauvignons, to refresh. To be well-chilled, fruity and approachable, and they do that tremendously. Whilst I suspect that the Foxwhelp apple and the Thorn pear both have tremendous potential to age, both make drinks that are also absolutely delicious to gulp down in the bloom of youth, and I shall continue to frequently do just that.
But if we’re talking about things as “fine”, if cidermakers want their creations to be mentioned in the same breath as good wines, then we need to start considering and talking about ageing potential where appropriate. Looking at the differences between an aged cider and its more youthful equivalent.
That won’t happen overnight; most cideries are so small that vintage comparisons – certainly of any real length – are a very rare privilege. But today we have one of the broadest age gaps of all and – wouldn’t you know it? – it’s between a pair of champagne-methods.
Bollhayes, on the northern border of Devon, have been at the champagne method game longer than anyone besides Gospel Green. Cidermaker Alex Hill started experimenting with the technique in the early 90s, and champagne method ciders are still very much the Bollhayes flagships. For reasons pertaining to controversial duty laws in the UK they don’t make them every vintage, but at present they are selling a 2014, a 2013 and – most intriguingly – a 2003.
As far as I’m aware, this is comfortably the oldest commercially-available cider in the UK. Alex didn’t make any cider for the decade that followed, whilst he concentrated on his primary business, and the continued existence of the 2003 is, I gather, to do with a parcel being forgotten or inaccessible at the back of a quite large cellar. Ridiculously, given its unique position, it costs exactly the same as its decade-younger stablemates, and is available for £12 from source, or a bonkers £10.50 from Scrattings.
Beside it we’ll be looking at the not-yet launched 2017. Alex didn’t make any champagne-method in 2018, so this is currently the youngest disgorged vintage. But still, at three years old, longer-in-the-tooth than the majority of cider on shelves in the UK. Both have been made with a blend of 100% cider apples, and both will have done a similar amount of time on lees before disgorgement. So let’s see what difference time has made.
Bollhayes 2017 – review
Colour: Burnished gold with orange tint.
On the nose: Really dry, woody-pithy nose, this. Apples are ripe, crisp and red, and backed up by fleshier orange peel. Really tight and concentrated with just a little toasty smoke. Austere, elegant, whistle-clean and needle-bright.
In the mouth: Absolutely bone-dry arrival. Bollhayes sit on the more tannic end of champagne-method ciders, which can occasionally clash with the mousse, but here feels just right. Smoked oak chips, green apple, satsuma peel and dried leaf. There’s an almost hoppy tone to the light bitterness. Mouthfilling, vivacious mousse. Tremendous poised and nicely-judged acidity. Really good traditional method cider that will cellar excellently but be a wonderful match for high-protein food in the meantime.
Bollhayes 2003 – review
Colour: Runny honey.
On the nose: There’s some richness and depth in this glass and no mistake. Caramel and leather and hay. Luscious baked apple. Not quite cream sherry, but nudging that way. There’s an aroma that sits in cider brandy territory. Decadent, endlessly sniffable stuff.
In the mouth: After such an unctuous nose the bone-dry palate, laced with pithy bitterness, catches you almost unawares. 17 years have calmed the mousse and afforded it a lovely creaminess. The baked apple and smoky apple brandy continue, edged with light, grippy tannin. It’s still very taut and refined and elegant despite its depth. Blood orange, dark chocolate and stony minerality, with a little autumn leaf. Another food-matcher par excellence. Complex, intellectual fare. You can’t taste this next to any of its stablemates and still contend that these things don’t change under cork. This has matured and developed splendidly.
I often get the sense, with certain champagne-method ciders, that they are a bit embarrassed to have been made from apples. That they would actually much rather be wine than cider. I suppose I get this sense because many are made by wineries and say unhelpful, patronising things like “forget normal ciders” in their website copy.
What I love about these Bollhayes is that they don’t make any attempt to disguise what they are. They’re not sparkling wine also-rans, they’re champagne-method Devon ciders, and every word in that description counts. The cider fruit is clear, defined, rich and clean, and the mousse of the secondary fermentation is mouthfilling, vivacious and creamy, just as such things should be. It’s been a while since I had the 2013 and 2014 vintages, but from memory, as good as they were, I think both of these, in dramatically different ways, may be better. The richness and depth of the 2003 is gorgeous, whilst the 2017 has incredible balance, crispness, complexity and poise. It certainly has a long, long life ahead of it. In the meantime, I’d argue that both offer more versatile food matches than any champagne. Though unlike champagne, don’t put them anywhere near oily fish. Those tannins won’t play nicely with it. Anything from charcuterie to a roast will see you just right.
I’m not entirely sure why, but I felt, on re-tasting these, that I’ve overlooked Bollhayes recently. Perhaps because their range is relatively small, and I had already tasted my way through it some time ago. Perhaps simply because they’re a relatively quiet presence on social media. Whatever the reason, these bone-dry beauties were a timely reminder to me that Alex makes some of the best, cleanest, most complex and interesting ciders around. At £10-£12 these both demand a place in your collection.
The 2017 vintage was a free sample from Bollhayes, but that had no bearing on our review.
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