If you ask me, acidity is tremendously undervalued by most cider and perry drinkers. Not so much by the makers, I suspect; almost all producers I’ve spoken to express their admiration, if not their love, of such apples as Foxwhelp. But drinkers – or rather, many of the more vocal online cider and perry drinkers – don’t always show acidity much affection.
Tannin, meanwhile – that’s another question. Nine times out of ten, when I see someone raving about a cider, it comes down to the tannins. “We want tannin” “oh my God, so much tannin heart-eyes-emoji” “tannins or gtfo”. That sort of thing. I have read, across twitter and in blogs, the phrase “too sharp for me” repeated ad infinitum. But I can’t think of a single instance of a cider nerd complaining that something was “too tannic”.
This, as it happens, is more or less the opposite to the average consumer in the street. In another, pre-pandemic life I led Gabe Cook’s cider tour for him in London, a role I landed solely by dint of boffinry and living relatively close. I am a woefully under-qualified tour guide, possessed of all the confidence, charisma and capability with strangers of a bucket. And that’s before we mention my inability to grow a Ciderologist-approved moustache. But somewhere amidst my stammering and gibbering and scattergun wonkishness, part of the “experience” would be a comparison of an acid-forward cider against a tannin-forward cider. I reckon I gave that pairing to something like 150 people, and I’d be surprised if the sharper, tannin-free cider took fewer than 120 of the votes. And here’s the thing – both were made by the same cidery, Hawkes. Soul Trader vs Big Wow, since you didn’t ask.
When it came to pairing the ciders with food, the field evened a little. It’s astonishing what happens when you match a tannin-rich drink with something high in protein. It’s no coincidence that Somerset is home to both tannic cider and cheddar cheese. But as something to drink on its own, the average consumer is much happier with sharp than with bitter, thank you very much. Even if they wouldn’t couch it in such terms themselves.
Look, don’t get me wrong – I love a tannin. If I were to compile a list of the ten or so best ciders and perries I’ve tasted this year, tannins would have played a significant role in the vast majority of them. Just look at my writeups of the Ashton Brown Jerseys the other week, or the Dabinett from a couple of weeks before that. Not only are they wonderful preservatives, allowing the best ciders to age, but they add structure, grip and depth to a drink. A well-managed tannin is a thing of beauty.
Equally, acidity certainly doesn’t always mean good. We’ve already seen that it presents in many forms, some of which are distinctly off-putting. And I accept (albeit with ill grace) that not everyone wants the full 5,000-volt Foxwhelp. Many’s the cider that offers a bit of acidity but very little by way of flavour, fruit and depth; finding those components is often the key challenge for makers using cookers and eaters, just as managing tannins and preserving freshness is for bittersweet users.
But I suppose my point is that if we are to build a community of enthused and informed apple and pear botherers; if we’re to take real cider and perry appreciation beyond our little online bubble, then we must learn to understand and embrace and discuss and champion acidity as much as we do tannin. It is, in my opinion, one of the two great structural building blocks; the primary, perhaps sole, source of zing and zest and refreshment. It is the best friend of the summer sipper and the way to the hearts of the vast majority of wine drinkers both casual and informed, whether they know it or not. There’s a reason you can’t move for Sauvignon Blancs these days, a reason Riesling so captivates wine bores like me, and it’s certainly not that they’re deep, tannic bruisers.
In which spirit, let me introduce the last of our Ross on Wye limited release miniseries, their very-nearly-single-variety Thorn. Thorn is a perry pear, and a wonderfully named one, given its chief role is to provide the sharpness that Albert Johnson calls “yellow acidity”. It’s a properly ancient variety – written about in the seventeenth century – and also much-beloved of James Marsden, who makes exceptional perries at Gregg’s Pit. Walking round the orchards you can’t miss the trees, their trunks mushrooming over the graftwood scion. As a random aside, when you google “Thorn pear”, the first hit you get is Star Wars fan fiction.
You’ll have spotted that there’s 5% Foxwhelp in the blend. I asked about that too. Acid on acid? From Ross on Wye? The answer was that they pressed 1900 litres of Thorn in 2019 – not quite enough to fill two IBCs. Meaning the second needed topping up urgently, and Foxwhelp, ever-early, was what was to hand.
This, Albert says, changed the fermentation significantly. The pure Thorn IBC was almost stuck on a specific gravity of 1.020, whilst in just a couple of months the Foxwhelp-aided IBC shot down to 1.002. Albert wanted to do a “pet-nat” (naturally sparkling, non-conditioned) bottling, so the IBCs were blended. Three weeks later they were down to 1.008 – a little higher than Albert was after, so another 20 litres of fermenting Foxwhelp was added, and the whole thing was bottled after one additional racking to complete its fermentation in glass.
Pet-nats are always an interesting thing to come at; you’re never quite sure when you first approach one where the fermentation and carbonation will be at. Albert’s also mentioned that he’s planning to disgorge them before sale, which means that this review, from an advance, non-disgorged bottle, may differ ever-so slightly from your final bottled experience. But let’s see. We’ve had four very good bittersweet ciders in our limited edition Ross out-turn so far … how will the acid-led perry get on?
Ross on Wye Thorn 2019, Pet-Nat – review
Colour: Very pale gold.
On the nose: Jumps out of the glass with plump, fresh, ripe orchard fruits and just a little bit of that yeasty funk of fermentation. Dabs of citrus and grass; a flutter of the Ross earthiness. It’s very alive, but there’s a nice softness to it.
In the mouth: Oh my flippin’ giddy aunt, that is what acidity is. The nose kept these cards very close – the geophysicist took one sip and made a noise that sounded as though she’d been unexpectedly zapped with a cattle prod. And then drank the rest of the glass in nothing flat. We’re talking new vintage Riesling here, we’re talking Foxwhelp territory. And yet there’s a fullness of tannin and a roundness perhaps, to the character of the acidity and fruit that coats your cheeks and grips your tongue, giving friendliness to that livewire zest. It’s fuller-bodied than Foxwhelp, for sure. Pear fruit and citrus are in loud, clean, gorgeous song. . This perry is absolutely coursing with life. It’ll last for years, if you’ve patience to lay some down, but it’s so, so, so thrillingly wonderful right now. Buy.
Which would have been the end of the review … except that Ross invested in that disgorger after all and pushed back the launch date by a month. Meaning I was able to buy a disgorged, finished bottle and see what difference a few extra months had made. (For reference, review one was a sample sent at the star of April, whereas I’m tasting this “finished” bottle on the first of July.
Colour: No change.
On the nose: That slight funk of fermentation has all but dissipated entirely, leaving bright pear, blossom and pronounced elderflower in its wake. A touch of grated lime zest, but this nose remains deceptively soft and gentle and delicate and docile, with no hint of what’s coming …
In the mouth: Wham! A double punch of that yellow, lemony, sherbety acidity and super fine-grained, gum-sticking rasp of tannin, more developed now than in the previous bottle. So crystal-clear and precise and defined, with a steel skewer of stoney minerality. Just the lightest, lightest touch of sparkle buttressing the medium body. Elderflower and green nettle notes buzz around plumper notes of pear and dessert grape. There’s the lightest touch of sweetness, but amidst the tannin and acidity and ripeness of fruit it presents as the best part of bone dry. It remains utterly pulsing with life. Why would anyone drink prosecco when they could have this?
Well. That was the yin to the yang of the other four Ross special editions. And what a magnificent yin it was. This is electric, pulsing, brilliant perry that Foxwhelp, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and sour beer lovers should absolutely froth at the mouth for.
It’s amazing what difference two months made … but then that’s about a quarter of this perry’s life. My comment to Albert was that it now feels more complete; the acidity, though vibrant, has softened, allowing those fine-grained, grippy tannins to catch up. It sits in the highest octaves flavour wise – of course it does, given age and character – but it’s one of the more all-encompassing single variety perries you’re likely to find. And, particularly texturally, it’s an utterly thrilling experience.
As I say, my plan is to buy a good few bottles and squirrel a few of them away – I suspect these will develop tremendously as they continue to unfurl and the acidity gradually softens – but I’ll have to lock them up and give someone else the key, because otherwise they won’t see Christmas.
Which brings us to the end of the Ross on Wye special releases, and you’ll want to know my order of preference, won’t you? Well alright. From top to bottom they’d be:
1. Ashton Brown Jersey 2015
2. Thorn 2019
3. Dabinett 2018 French Oak
4. Michelin 2018 French Oak
5. Ashton Brown Jersey 2017
I was back and forth for a good old while in compiling this list, and have tasted all five of them multiple times in doing so. On a different day I could have had the ABJ ’17 in fourth, but the more I tasted that Michelin, the more I got to know it, the more impressed and enamoured I became. Similarly, whilst the Dabinett is a glorious, wonderful cider, the ABJ ’15 is just so unique and compelling that I had to leave it as my top pick. The Thorn sat in third place initially, but tasting the sheer exuberance and life and attitude and joie de vivre of the finished article, I couldn’t help but bump it up to second. (Though I’d hate to live on the difference.)
The short version, however, is that all five sit among the best ciders and perries that I am likely to taste this year, and at the time of writing I’ve tasted 403 in 2020 so far. Like the Little Pomona Art of Darkness trio reviewed a few weeks ago, they go beyond simple organoleptic merit; or rather their organoleptic merit and their sheer variety is such that they represent an incredibly important step in the bottled history of our drink. Needless to say, you ought to buy all five, if you are able. Absolutely tremendous work by everyone involved. What a series.
Samples of all five were sent to Malt. Such things don’t affect my reviews though, and to be honest my bank balance would be a lot safer if I didn’t know these ciders and perries existed.