No one’s afraid of dry wine. Quite the reverse, in fact. More often than not, when people don’t know (or care) about the wine options in a pub or restaurant, “dry white” is the default request. If anything it’s the sweeter wines that tend to turn people off; a hangover from the bad old days of Liebfraumilch, from which poor old, unfairly maligned, Riesling is still recovering.
Say “dry cider” to the uninitiated, though, and prepare to be met with a shudder. A colleague of mine, a gentleman of over twenty-five years standing in the wine industry, a man who has opinions on corkscrews and is trusted with opening champagne bottles and picking the drinks in restaurants, recently sent me a picture of a cider he’d come across at Reading market. “Raspingly dry”, he informed me. The label read “medium”. Dry cider is so often seen as something uncompromising, unapproachable; something drunk from unmarked flagons by weathered old souls with battle-hardened livers; undrinkable and alien to the urban palate.
And yet, when I mentally scroll back through the 1200-or-so different ciders and perries I have tasted in the last two years, the lion’s share of the standout bottles – the expressions that really brought me to my feet and then snuggled into the crook of my soul – have been dry.
Part of the fear of dry cider stems from the fact that people say “dry” when they mean something else. More often than not, “this is too dry for me” translates as “too tartly acidic”, or “too pithy and astringent”. I have certainly poured ciders of over 1.010 gravity to friends who have pronounced them too dry, when their issue is clearly one that pertains to tannin. And this misuse of “dry” certainly isn’t helped by the still-significant percentage of ciders that present as uncompromisingly acetic.
It is, admittedly, true that over the last few decades the British tooth has Americanised and sweetened. For a long time the producers of sugary foods were allowed to hide the extent of their tooth-rotting invidiousness. And since many peoples’ first experience of cider is either something sweetish and industrial or – worse – a masquerading alcopop like Rekorderlig or Old Mout, pumped to the gills with artificial sweetener, it isn’t surprising that many mental markers for cider are set to “sweet” before they have a chance to encounter the good stuff.
But dry cider – good dry cider – really isn’t the snarling beast it’s so often portrayed as. A few months ago I gave a presentation to The Manchester Cider Club in association with the magazine I co-edit, Graftwood. The two ciders I presented both sat in the “dry” category – one the lean, elegant, poised and green-fruited Egremont Russet from Little Pomona, the other the soft, developed, opulently fruited and gloriously ripe Ashton Brown Jersey 2015 from Ross on Wye. Both dry, both poles apart from the other in style and flavour, but both utterly approachable, friendly and universally appealing. I would confidently pour them for absolutely anyone.
I’m not saying that all ciders should be dry, nor am I suggesting that all dry ciders are good. But there are, as James Forbes and Albert Johnson have said, flavours in dry cider that simply aren’t possible unless that cider has fully fermented. I believe that it is with dry cider that the greatest breadth of flavours become available, and I would love to see more of it bottled and drunk. I think that in the name of perceived commercial imperative a great deal of cider is backsweetened or artificially sweetened with sucralose when it would have been perfectly appealing and rounded and wonderful beforehand. The challenge is to convince the public that ‘dry’ is not a challenge – it’s not an “eat the hottest chilli, drink the strongest alcohol” ordeal – rather it is a natural state that results in ciders which can alternately be ripe and juicy and pillowy-soft or refined and clean and elegant and pulsing with energy. I’d love to see more makers backing themselves with dry cider – I suspect if you can get it into the glasses of the public they’ll find it’s nothing to be scared of after all. And the sooner we can move away from exclusively discussing cider in the parlance of sweet-medium-dry, the sooner we can start talking about what those ciders actually taste like.
Speaking of which, I’ve three in my glass today.
First up is a complete newcomer to me – something I was passed by my Malt colleague James. Sicklesmere is a Suffolk-based cidery and blueberry field farm just outside Bury St Edmunds. I’m struggling to find out anything at all about them online – so often the case with these small cideries – but the Facebook page says “full juice” and the bottle says “dry,” which, so far as this article is concerned, is enough for me. It’s called “Type 22 Still and Dry” and if I was a gambling man I’d wager it’s predominantly made from cooking and eating apples.
We met Germany’s Kertelreiter and cidermaker Barry Masterson in an article a couple of months back. Virtually everything Barry makes is dry and, in my experience, jolly good too. Lacrimae Mundi 2019 is described as “an acid led dry cider” and has been aged in an ex-Cabernet Sauvignon barrique. My bottle arrived in part of a mixed case I ordered from Barry at €41.40 before postage and packaging.
Last up is a bit of a cheat, as it has already been covered on this website by Mr Finch. It’s the 2018 Dabinett from Leicestershire’s Charnwood, written up by James as part of his Dabinettiad. When we last met up James gave me a selection of Charnwoods, all ranging from very decent to absolutely excellent, and (so I thought) all dry. But when I came to review the bottle I had earmarked for this piece I discovered that, unlike its stablemates, it was only medium. So, still keen to use Charnwood for the article, I turned to the last of their ciders left, which happened to be the Dabinett. In any case, it’s always wise to seek a second opinion where James is concerned …
Sicklesmere Cider Type 22 Still & Dry – review
Colour: Light Gold.
On the nose: Hmm. I’m guessing this is culinary apple, but it noses on the deeper end of cooking and eating ciders. There’s a brown sugar and sultana note behind the baked apple, and a slightly industrial, artificial-esque warm plastic character. A touch of ethyl acetate? A bit of contamination from whatever cleaned the bottles? Who knows – it’s not excessively overpowering. Bubblegum and crushed petals. It isn’t super complex, but the intensity’s reasonable.
In the mouth: Pretty much the same story here. Maybe a whisper off-dry, actually, but close enough. There’s no tannin and the acidity’s fairly low. It’s quite neutral. Green apple, white peach. Quite mineral. Reminds me of a lot of central Italian white wines – something of the Trebbiano to it, I guess. It’s clean, it’s simple, it’s not out to make a big statement, but it’s nice enough as a chilled sipper.
Kertelreiter Lacrimae Mundi 2019 – review
Colour: Gold with a slight haze.
On the nose: Noses on the tropical end initially. Pineapple chunks, ripe apricots. There’s a touch of vanilla and malolactic butteriness and a smatter of yeast, but the fruit is the star. A flutter of apple and blackcurrant scores it through.
In the mouth: Lots more red and black fruit here. Blackcurrants, red cherries. Strawberry fizzy laces on the finish, with a touch more of that malolactic cream. Lipsmacking acidity presents alongside the light fizz in an almost sour, tangfastic way, but although puckering, it’s absolutely clean – we’re not talking acetic. Just the lightest flicker of wood and tannin. Rammed with in-your-face flavour and character. Another hit from Kertelreiter.
Charnwood Dabinett 2018 – review
On the nose: Easily deepest of the three. Very Dabinett – huge baked apple, orange and vanilla. Echoing James I’d say it noses more developed than its years. Big alcohol and forest floor. It’s fleshy and fulsome and a lovely mélange of fresh and dried fruits, but the alcohol (8.4%) does overwhelm the fruit ever so slightly. Just a touch off-balanced.
In the mouth: Massive orange – orange marmalade really – upfront. Ripe, fat, jammy fruit, vanilla and clove. A touch of apple brandy. Quite quickly shifts into enormous, drying, pithy tannin – this is Dabinett at full tilt, another candidate for roast pork. It’s big-boned, it’s mouthfilling, it’s another fruit-bomb from 2018 and it’s a bit of a joy really.
What an incredibly varied trio. We’ve hopped all over the flavour map here – and indeed all over the actual map. There are virtually no similarities across these three bottles; it’s a wonderfully variegated showcase of the apple’s spectrum of character, to an extent that you simply wouldn’t experience had these ciders not been allowed their fullest expression.
None is entirely without a rough edge or two, but I’d certainly drink the Kertelreiter and the Charnwood again and would confidently recommend both to you. Sicklesmere left me the coldest of the three, but it’s still a solid cider that might appeal more than the latter two to those who want lower levels of acidity or tannin. An easy sipper for a summer’s day – not that any of those are on the horizon.