Ross on Wye Special Releases! Five words guaranteed to get any self-respecting cider nerd’s juices pulsing. We’ve been teased for a few weeks with enigmatic twitter pics and half-covered flashy labels, and now they’re here: the first batch of special new launches of 2020. More are to follow soon … and rest assured we’ll cover them when they do, but for today we’re digging into the first pair – single variety Dabinett and Michelin, aged in ex-Armagnac casks.
I read a fascinating account in the latest issue of Graftwood Magazine (whose taste in contributors is impeccable) of the decision taken by Bulmers some decades ago to plant thousands and thousands of apple trees in Herefordshire – all Dabinett and Michelin. With the result that they are by far the most common cider varieties you’ll find. They were chosen because they crop regularly and well, and are, to quote Andrew Lea, “a ‘must-have’ for behaviour and blending”.
Michelin is very much the Robin to Dabinett’s Batman. Indeed it pollinates Dabinett, which is one of the reasons it was such a popular commercial choice. But Dabinett is the one over which so many cider nerds coo and gush, so let me get straight to my confession: I think it’s often over-rated.
As a single variety, that is. As an apple for blending I admire Dabinett enormously. It is fleshy, appealing, reasonably rich in flavour and it has a good whack of tannin. But it is also one of the lowest-acid varieties you’ll ever come across, and far too often I find that single varieties fall a bit flat. I’ve had a couple of crackers, but they’ve been the exceptions, rather than the rules. Most single variety Dabinetts I’ve drunk through have been a bit nice-but-dull. Nothing to get you off your seat. More interesting for the fact that they are a single variety than for the actual sipping experience. To my taste, it tends to need a bit more nip. A bit more life, perhaps. As to Michelin … well it’s generally rather a quiet character. You feel it wants to be the sidekick. It’s not shouty, it doesn’t wow you with flavour and intensity. That’s very much not its role. It doesn’t really want to be in the limelight as a solo act.
Together now – that’s a very different matter. The first cider I ever reviewed in these pages was the 2017 Raison d’Être from Ross on Wye, and it was simply magnificent. Since then we’ve had the Cryo-Conditioned from Little Pomona, the Spartan from Bignose & Beardy and the Mór from Longueville House, and I’ve either liked or loved every one of them. But if we look at my notes from the Ross varieties tasting, the Dabinett sat in the lower-mid table and Michelin was second-to-bottom. (Admittedly Albert disagreed – we won’t hold that against him; nobody’s perfect, as I’ve often remarked in these pages.)
The two I’m tasting today both came from the same vintage – 2018 – as the Dabinett I tried back in January. Now 2018 was a tremendous year for ripeness. It baked all the way through summer, and there wasn’t much rain to spoil the party during autumn, so late-season varieties did very well. These Dabinett and Michelin apples were harvested at the back end of the year and then matured in oak. So far, so Ross on Wye. But unlike most of the casks at Ross, which tend to have begun life in America and then reached Herefordshire via a tour of duty in a Scottish distillery, these were made of French oak and previously held Armagnac.
Even accounting for the huge differences imparted by the previous spirit occupants themselves, French oak is a very different concept to American. It’s far tighter-grained, to begin with; doesn’t give up its flavour so cheaply. But more than this, its flavours tend far less towards vanillin and far more towards lignin. So where American oak offers sweetness such as vanilla and coconut, French oak is more interested in savoury spice; clove, black pepper, cigar tobacco. The Dabinett spent two months in freshly-emptied casks, whereas the Michelin spent three months in second fill, before they continued to mature in their respective bottles.
So – will this have any bearing on my opinion of the ciders as single varieties? Let’s find out.
Ross on Wye Dabinett French Oak Cask 2018 – review
Colour: Hazy copper
On the nose: Big, muscular, classically autumnal Ross Dabinett. Oranges – both peel and juice. Vanilla, forest floor and rust. Just the right weighting of oak – enough to add that extra dimension whilst leaving the fruit as very much the star. Super intensity – you can smell an opened bottle of this from across the room.
In the mouth: Wonderful texture – big, chunky, full-bodied juiciness meet burly tannins, still with the grip of relative youth, and a light, pithy bitterness. All balance out wonderfully. The Armagnac shows through more here; cloves and toffee and spice, but they sit on top of immense notes of fresh and dried orange that just bellow Dabinett. It’s very complex for a single variety, if not quite as complex as Raison d’Être. Drinks gorgeously now, with or without food but will certainly reward cellaring for at least three-five years.
Ross on Wye Michelin French Oak Cask 2018 – review
Colour: Bright new penny
On the nose: Leaner and lighter than the Dabinett, but with nice clarity and definition. Green apple skin and toffee – perhaps salted caramel. Given the strength it’s on the delicate end of noses, but it’s crystal-clear, rounded, soft and wonderfully clean.
In the mouth: There’s a big change here. Very apple-juicy to begin with; medium bodied with just a trace of chalky tannin. The Armagnac makes itself known in smokey caramel form, with just a touch of crystallised sugar citrus. Toffee on the finish. Deliciously soft and ripe – ridiculously so for an 8.4% cider. This is a bright, pretty, elegant bittersweet cider that will continue to unfurl wonderfully for at least the next two years.
Both of these ciders are elevated immeasurably from their unoaked stablemates. Both point towards excellent fruit selection and very good casks. There’s not a duff note between the two.
The Michelin is wonderful. Pretty, elegant, soft. It’s probably the best single variety Michelin ever, and I shall be picking up at least a couple of bottles. But the Dabinett, for me, is the clear winner. Indeed I think Dabinett may have found its ideal oak in French ex-Armagnac; that note of dried citrus compliments the fruit to perfection, whilst the lick of spice adds a vivaciousness that the apple doesn’t always otherwise have.
I wanted to see just how much I liked it, so as a control I also opened one of my last few bottles of the 2017 Raison d’Être. They’re completely different beasts; the Raison d’Être being a blend of the two apples and aged in smokey whisky casks, but for current drinking I’d say the Raison d’Être takes the laurels for complexity and completeness, whilst the French Oak Dabinett is the deeper and perhaps more easily accessible cider to the new drinker. I will be very interested to compare the two in a couple of years (if I can restrain myself). Oh, and yes, of course I blended the French Oak Dabinett with the French Oak Michelin. I’ve dubbed it Raison d’Êtrignac, and you can thank me later.
That’s the first batch of special releases from Ross tasted. Check back in in a couple of weeks though. There’s more from this tranche to come …
Image provided by Ross on Wye.