Last September I took a gaggle of American whiskey types to visit Little Pomona in Herefordshire. The cement of their swanky new cidery floor had barely hardened; the sum-total of the room’s contents was a show-off wine press, a tank or two, three hundred champagne bottles in pupitres and eight barrels of cider.
The barrels were James Forbes’ opening gambit to us. All were ex-Super Tuscan wine casks (I got the impression that James was thrilled that another grape nerd was as excited by this as he was) and all contained differing quantities of Ellis Bitter and Foxwhelp. All were vinous, refined, elegant, plus a slight outrider that struck me as more for the cider-only crowd (still delicious, but somehow less wine-like). When I asked what he was planning to do with them, James said that most were destined for their champagne-method Brut Crémant, but that he was thinking to bottle one of them as a single cask.
Well nine months later we have no fewer than three of the casks in bottle, as the latest vintage of their long-standing Art of Darkness range. First launched a couple of weeks ago as a preview for members of the new Little Pomona Club, and as of yesterday made available for the wider public. As an aside, I’m constantly surprised that more cideries don’t set up members clubs. It’s become practically de rigeur for new distilleries looking to capture a dedicated fan-base early, and that’s not to mention the obsessive discipleships of older gaffs like Ardbeg and Springbank, who sign up to such schemes in their thousands for access to exclusives and previews. As far as I’m aware, only Little Pomona and Bignose & Beardy really offer a cider equivalent, and I can’t help but feel that others would do well to follow their example.
Having been bothering James about this launch for the best part of a couple of months now, I bought three sets the moment they became available. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if mine was the first order. But before I tuck in I thought I’d get James on the phone to answer a few questions about the trio in order to give us an instructive sense of how this sort of cider comes about from start to finish. His answers are presented below, condensed and edited for clarity:
Malt: Firstly, tell us about how 2017 was as a vintage?
James: It was a strange vintage. The flowering and pollination were all great. The summer though was actually quite cool, and often damp but there were also these – what I would call them – about four or five kind of “heat spike” days where the temperature was over 30 degrees. And what was interesting with the early varieties like Foxwhelp and Ellis Bitter was that it almost tricked the trees into thinking they were ripe, and they started to shed fruit really quickly. And it came very early. So it was quite a struggle to get all the fruit in, ‘cause a lot of the fruit wasn’t on the trees. And then when we got the fruit in we had to be really careful with selection, because essentially the fruit was at all different levels of ripeness. So we basically shed a lot of the fruit – probably 40% of the fruit was left behind – because it just wasn’t ripe. So what we ended up taking to the press was great. The later varieties, because the autumn was long and dry and quite warm, they did really well. So it was tricky for the early varieties – that’s my kind of summary of it!
Malt: Why Ellis Bitter and Foxwhelp? What does each bring to the table?
James: Well I like Foxwhelp for its gentle acid and demure nature … (Laughs.) No, well Foxwhelp we all know about. It has this amazing electricity and energy that it brings to anything that it comes into contact with. And also a lovely kind of strawberry character about it, but also real citrus. And it’s just kind of a great skeleton on which to overlay any other liquid. So it’s a really exciting cider apple, for me. And Ellis Bitter, on the other hand, is kind of a dark horse of cider. ‘Cause I think it needs to be ripe when you pick it, it needs to be perfectly ripe when you press it, and then it needs a lot of time. And it’s a clever variety because it assimilates the character of – or it melds very well with other varieties, and it also assimilates the characteristics of its fermentation vessel, particularly in barrels, which is why we always us it for Art of Darkness.
Malt: Two varieties is far fewer than go into most ciders …
James: Basically it kind of started with the 2015 Art of Darkness where we had limited numbers of barrels and limited amount of space, and it ended up being predominantly Ellis Bitter. And to give it a little acid, that electricity we talked about, we blended in a bit of Foxwhelp which had also been in barrel. And we liked the result of it, and we did it again in 2016 and it was a very different beast. And I liked the fact that it reflected the vintage and again the Foxwhelp lent a bit of acid to the Ellis Bitter. And so in 2017 there was a bit of a backstory, and it just made sense to do it again. And to sort of play with those two varieties in the context of extended barrel maturation because they seemed to work quite well together. So yeah, I think when you restrict yourself to just a couple of things it’s like a haiku, where you’ve got a defined structure. It’s what you do within that structure that’s the interesting part of it. So it’s become a sort of discipline thing really for Art of Darkness. To narrow the parameters but to play as much as we can within those parameters.
Malt: Previous Art of Darkness iterations have been only 5% Foxwhelp. Why the general increase (other than that you can obviously never have too much Foxwhelp)?
James: Yeah, exactly! Well we liked it, and we wanted to increase that proportion. The thing was that in 2018 we went to Cidercon in Baltimore. And after that we did like a three-day trip in the Finger Lakes in New York State. And we hooked up with a guy called Steve Selin of South Hill Cider, and amongst the ciders that we tasted there we tasted some that he’d matured in red wine barrels. And I’d never really given … white wine was kind of the thing that I really wanted to get hold of – some really, really good white wine barrels. Which we managed to this year, but we didn’t have any access to then. But tasting this thing he’d matured in red wine barrels, I really liked it. And I was open to the idea of red wine barrels, so when we got back I began exploring it.
And I was still looking for white wine barrels, but I found an Italian wine broker – barrel broker, rather – and I was asking him about white wine barrels and he said “no, I’ve got some red wine barrels from Chianti”. And of course my heart sank because, as you know, Chianti can be either magnificent or just thin and weedy. So for some reason I just said to him “do you know which winery the barrels came from?” And he said “well I think I can find out.” So he just called me the next day and went “the barrels are from a winery called Ornellaia” [Ed: one of the best wineries in Italy.]. And I went “Oh. Oh, well go on then, I might as well take them!” So we really lucked out there. So we got these eight Ornellaia barrels, which were from the finest French cooperages, as you saw when you were here.
And it just made sense to fill them with the tanks of Foxwhelp and Ellis Bitter, which were here. Which were almost at the right stage for racking, so they were almost through their primary fermentation. I like to rack when the fermentation is still active, but is nearly at its end. So you get some of the – ‘cause the liquid still has some turbulence, there’s still some lees floating about in it. And prolonged barrel maturation you actually want some of the fine lees to age on, because it protects it from oxidation. So we had these liquids, they were ready for racking, and we had the barrels. So we just decided to ditch the previous iterations of Art of Darkness, which were spirit barrels, and try it with wine barrels. That was the reason. And the barrels were amazing, so …
Malt: What differences have the barrels bought to the table flavour-wise?
James: So you’ll see when you pour them, the colour’s the first thing, they’re sort of a rose gold in colour, which is coming from the red wine influence in the barrels, that sort of pinky tinge, that’s where that’s come from. And I think basically, the reason we ended up doing the three different barrels is that the performance of the principal variety in these three blends is sort of shown off really well in these three barrels. You know, the Ellis Bitter takes on all of the influences of the barrel and all of the things you’d expect from an Ornellaia barrel, which is, you know, the classic flavours of Sangiovese. So flowers – dried flowers – black tea, rich sort of purple fruits. You know, it’s all in there. So part two of Art of Darkness, it’s really winey. Whereas the Foxwhelp it’s just got such an indomitable spirit, you can’t break it. You can leave it in the barrel forever and it will still be Foxwhelp. But the barrel has kind of softened it – ‘soften’s’ the wrong word – but it’s kind of polished the acid so it’s enjoyable to drink. Because you’ve rounded it off and it’s still very high acid, but somehow it’s contained. It’s less raw, far more polished. And the 50:50 just seems to me to have the balance of those things really well. And it’s a nice combination.
Malt: 22 months is a long old time for cider to be in cask for?
James: Yeah. They said it couldn’t be done with cider! But yeah, it is. It’s a long time. But we were just tasting them and you were part of that process, and it just became evident at one point that actually we should bottle these because, you know, they’re tasting great. And it’s hard to see them getting better in barrel – they’ve had enough influence from the barrel. So it’s just time – it felt like the right time. And there’s no science to it, it is just simply tasting it and making a decision at some point. But early on … it was a while before I felt, tasting them, that they began to feel, well, that there was some sort of harmony in the barrels. But it did come, and then we just left them for a bit. And then there’s a point where it’s like “we should bottle these now. They’re ready.”
Malt: As a wino, you weren’t tempted to let it get to three years and call it a Reserva?
James: Tempting! I think we’d have the Spanish onto us. They’re quite hot on that. But I think 22 months is quite a long time for any liquid to be in barrel [Ed: spirits notwithstanding] including wine. So yeah. It’s great to see that cider apples can actually do that without turning to vinegar, which is what everyone worries about. But the critical point is that when you rack into barrel you must take some of the lees with you. ‘Cause the lees are an oxygen sink, so you’ve got some natural protection there.
Malt: What’s the idea behind releasing three single barrels rather than one larger blend?
James: Well that would have been the sensible thing to do, because doing three smaller runs is stupid. It’s three different labels – more expensive. But I just thought, to me the three barrels really showed – and I’ve already talked about it – but I was just fascinated by the way that Foxwhelp remains Foxwhelp, even under the harshest conditions you can put it under. You can put it in a great barrel, it still refuses to take on all the influences of the barrel. Just won’t do it. It says “no, I am Foxwhelp and I am not going to be conquered.” Whereas Ellis Bitter is like “aaah, this is nice. I’m going to mingle; I’m going to take on board everything.” But it does still have its characteristic fruit. So it doesn’t give up everything, but it just kind of welcomes everything, and it takes the best bits and just kind of joins together with it. It’s lovely. And then the 50:50 blend is just kind of marrying those things really well, those two separate components into kind of a harmonious whole. Having said that, I think all three liquids drink really nicely separately. So the first two – I mean obviously 75% of Foxwhelp is a high-acid thing, it is a grown-up, adult cider, but it drinks really, really well. And similarly the Art of Darkness 2, it is complete in and of itself.
Malt: I’m always impressed by the level of transparency you give on your labels. What’s the philosophy behind providing so much information about the ciders you make?
James: Well we don’t have any secrets really. And I think our ciders – maybe not so much now, but when we started five years ago – they were pretty different. People weren’t making ciders like us, with high acid. So we felt it was kind of necessary to explain what we were doing and why we were doing it and why it was different. Because otherwise people just wouldn’t get it. And we just kept doing it. Because hopefully the things we are doing are of interest to people drinking our cider. And we were very keen to talk about individual apple varieties, because that was one thing I felt, coming from a wine background, was that it was very odd to see just “a blend of bittersweet apples”. It’s like “ok. Are they all the same?” Well they’re not all the same, they bring different characteristics. So we were quite keen to begin talking about apples in the way that wineries talk about their grape varieties. It’s kind of important, really.
Malt: And final obvious question … which is your favourite of the three?
James: Oh, really good question. I don’t know … tasting them I kind of tend to swing between all three of them, depending on my mood or what we’re eating or whatever with it, so I don’t have a real … Ellis Bitter gets a bad time amongst cidermakers, and I think if you give it time it will reward you, so I’m going to go with number 2.
Recapping, Art of Darkness 2017 #1 is 75% Foxwhelp and 25% Ellis Bitter, #2 is 75% Ellis Bitter and 25% Foxwhelp and #3 is 50:50. All spent 22 months maturing in oak after a six month fermentation and are bottled still and bone-dry at natural strength. The set of three set me back £24, though that was with a member’s discount from £30. RRP, I believe, is about £10 each.
Little Pomona Art of Darkness 2017 #1 – review
Colour: Somewhere between deep rose gold and onion skin.
On the nose: I’m afraid to say I smelled this and then said something naughty. Because that is just the most gorgeous, clear, cut-glass, precise and beguiling nose you will find on a cider. Foxwhelp in its most alluring, red-robed guise, all strawberries and sour black cherries and ripe pink grapefruit, all riding in tandem with vanilla oak, hard caramel and something akin to slightly aged Pinot Noir. Not quite truffle but not far off.
In the mouth: You just cannot put Foxwhelp down! You’d never say this was two and a half years old and 22 months in oak. Electric, racy, exhilarating acidity on arrival, yet rounded and softened a little by cask and time and Ellis Bitter. Lemons and grapefruit join the cherries, fading to strawberry and vanilla yoghurt on an endless finish, with just a little, firm grip of tannin. Beguiling, brilliant, spellbinding, thrilling, alive.
Little Pomona Art of Darkness 2017 #2 – review
Colour: Mature Tavel rosé.
On the nose: Lighter than No.1 and very floral. Rose petals, crushed violets. Some sweet strawberry laces, red cherries and seashell. Black tea and dried herbs. It’s not particularly woody, but is very wine-like.
In the mouth: Bigger than it is on the nose, and the Foxwhelp makes its presence known with a rasp of acidity, but significant chalky tannins come into play too. Red apple skins, sour cherries and lime. Untreated leather and a little pine needle. Dried oregano and bitter pith. This has major ageing potential – still really concentrated and focussed.
Little Pomona Art of Darkness 2017 #3 – review
Colour: Pretty much identical to #1.
On the nose: Oh that is just the most luscious, broad, indulgent nose yet. A shade richer than #1 – strawberries and cream and marzipan and butter and oak. Some snappy pea-pod greenness too and a little pink lemonade.
In the mouth: A textural meeting of minds. The zing and poise of #1, with some of the chalky tannins of #2 (though without the bitter pith). One of those ciders where deconstructing the constituent flavours is a real challenge, they’re so interlaced. Foxwhelp takes the lead with redcurrant and raspberry and strawberry, but there’s a peach skin and pomegranate here too, a light liquorice and a thread of taut, wet-granite minerality. Again, just epic, and like its stablemates will last for years.
The reason I write about drinks and work in the drinks industry is because, perhaps just occasionally, something moves me. Something is good enough, profound enough, complex and arresting and different and new enough to haul me from my seat and compel me to know what it is and why it tastes as it does.
This trio; this wonderful, wonderful trio of ciders have done just that. They have moved me. They have shown me something that I have not tasted before, they have made me want to taste them again and again and tell everyone I know about them. They are compelling, searching liquids that have the potential to ask questions and open eyes. I cannot think of a single, self-respecting wine lover whom they would not utterly entrance and my world is bigger and better for having tasted them.
Without Ellis Bitter they would not be the same, but make no mistake: more than anything else these are the most dazzling paean to Foxwhelp imaginable. The team at Little Pomona have shown the potential and class and mesmeric aroma and poise and complexity of this wonderful apple, have shown what a crucial and magnificent role acidity can play in a cider when it is allied to texture and complex flavour, and I am so, so grateful to them for it.
I have to disagree with James: in my book number one is the standout, the best still cider I have ever tried, just edging number three, and a little way ahead of number two. But perhaps ranking them misses the point. Please, please, if you love wine and you love cider, if you love drinks that make you think about and re-evaluate what you thought you knew and what is possible of fermented fruit, try to buy and taste these if you can. If you want to see what a confluence of simply apples and spontaneous fermentation and oak and time is capable of in its most eloquent expression, try to buy and taste these if you can. Though I must warn you – you will have to beat me to it.
Many thanks indeed to James for answering all my questions about these releases. They’re available through the Little Pomona website or the Fine Cider Company, who I believe are doing an Instagram live tasting in a week or so. (Not that you need more convincing, having read all my wonderful words … )