In my first ever cider article on Malt, way back in September 2018, I remarked that there are certain orchards you can walk through without seeming to see the same fruit twice. Whereas with vineyards you have to know your stuff to tell one variety from another, in an orchard the differences are dazzling and immediate.
Dandling through the orchards at Ross on Wye the other weekend it struck me again. The contrasts are never stronger than they are now, at harvest time; violent full-crimson beauties next to soft shades of sun-blushed yellow and pink. Dark, swirling hues of purple beside vivid treefrog green. Apples rough with russet or polkadotted with black freckles. Waxy, pallid skins beside glossy, near-varnished sheens. If the first bite is with the eyes then a walk through an orchard is a soul food feast.
That mesmerising variety is reflected in the tasting. There are apples whose resultant cider is similar, but there are very few which are the same, and there are a handful which are absolutely unparalleled. We’ve looked in-depth at a few varieties here on Malt; I wrote a bit of a love letter to Foxwhelp back in April, and teamed up with the excellent Mr Finch to scrutinise Kingston Black a couple of months later. James has since investigated Egremont Russet and in September tasted a palate-thumping eighteen Dabinetts in the line of duty. I believe he’s currently scratching away at something on Bramley, whilst I have Harry Masters’ Jersey and Yarlington Mill in my sights. All distinct, unique and affording the drinker wholly individual pleasures, from the fat, sun-filled, orange-and-vanilla of Dabinett or the sonorous, spicy rumble of Yarlington Mill to the chiselled, haunting aromatic precision and pin-bright acidity of Foxwhelp and the sinewy, muscular tannic gnash of Harry Masters’. Each brings a different quality; scratches a different itch.
The sum-total of real cider’s diversity derives from the variety or varieties that comprise a bottling’s makeup. But just as different apples bring different flavours to the table, so there are certain varieties that are best suited to different styles and processes. When we talked to Martin Berkley at Pilton he espoused the affinity of low-nutrient bittersweet apples towards keeving, the ambition being to create something ripe and rich and pillowy-soft. Andreas at Brännland talked about the importance of a seam of acidity in his ice ciders; something to lend refinement and precision to a sweetness which might otherwise present as cloying.
Which leaves me rather intrigued about the two ciders I am thrusting into the Maltlight this morning. Both are from Smith Hayne in Devon, a producer we’ve not covered before. They have been made from apples grown in the eponymous and ancient Smith Hayne orchard, part of which apparently dates back to 1333. The pair have been made using very different techniques – one a Méthode Traditionelle (think Champagne), the other, their Special Reserve, a keeve. Yet looking at the information on their website, both use the same blend of eleven different apples.
Looking down the list of varieties, they seem very well suited to the keeve. Yarlington Mill, Tremlett’s Bitter, Harry Masters’ Jersey and Dabinett all loom large – big-bodied, hefty, tannin-rich bittersweets given a lift and pep by the handful of mildish bittersharps. But using that same blend for a champagne method cider feels a bit of an eyebrow raiser. Tannin and pronounced mousse are not always the easiest of bedfellows when there isn’t the fat sweetness of a keeve for them to bite into, and champagne-method anything tends to need a decent thread of acidity for elegance and balance. In my first article for Graftwood I pondered whether this was why so many Eastern counties makers like Chalkdown and Anatomy turn their hands to the style, unencumbered as they are by any meaningful tannin in their fruit. A big-boned, brawny traditional method would feel an odd sort of creature indeed, and it’s worth noting that James, reviewing the Smith Hayne Methode Traditionelle for his Fine Cider Friday video found it a particularly intense experience.
That being said, the Bollhayes ciders I reviewed back in March were that combination of tannic apple and champagne method, and both worked perfectly well for me. So I’ll try not to be too influenced by James as I march into the glass. Both of these ciders are available directly from Smith Hayne’s website, or you could visit Scrattings, where the Special Reserve is £9.50 for 750ml and the Methode Traditionelle is £10 for the same size of bottle.
Smith Hayne Vintage 2018 Special Reserve – review
Colour: Rich amber.
On the nose: That is an absolutely note-perfect keeved nose, that is. Big, ripe, fulsome orange and apple juice, ginger and clove spice, woody phenolics and saddle leather. Faultlessly clean and a wonderful marriage of freshness and depth.
In the mouth: The gorgeousness continues. By keeved standards this isn’t too sweet at all – the balance is superb; a fulsome gulp of juice and spice and savoury tannin. The structural elements work so well that you barely notice them doing their job – tannin and acidity and pith and body all finding mouthfilling equilibrium and balancing out that sweetness and exuberant mousse. The freshness and faultlessness and depth and life of the juice and ginger spice are exceptional, with a light, lovely metallic tang at the death. Just tremendous.
Smith Hayne Vintage 2018 Methode Traditionelle – review
On the nose: Once the initial woomph of fizz dies down it’s instantly higher-toned and leaner than the Special Reserve. Bright nails and citrus peel. Light sourdough and hay. The faintest wisp of coiling woodsmoke. It’s wonderfully poised and precise and again the fruit is impeccably clean.
In the mouth: There’s certainly some tannin offering a nice grip, but body and flavour are easily sufficient to match it – there’s nothing coarse here. The leaner, sinewy tones, perhaps from the Jerseys and Bitters, come through beguilingly with orange oil and lemon peel. A little woodiness and florality too. Taut, bright and concentrated, just as a traditional method should be. Really defined and, considering the varieties, astonishingly elegant. That light grip would make it outstanding with food and the freshness of the fruit adds a cutting edge. This is unquestionably fine cider.
Well that shows what I know. The varieties might be the same in both of these ciders, but each one is beautiful, beguiling and a wonderful showcase for method used in its making. I would be fascinated to learn whether the proportions of the varieties used were the same across both blends.
What is unquestionably identical in both is the care and sensitivity to their constituent fruit. Anne and William Chambers have made two absolutely wonderful ciders here which I will be re-ordering as soon as I can. The geophysicist wants to put the Special Reserve on our wedding drinks shortlist (it’s possibly the crowdpleaser of the pair) but I’m not sure that the defined, elegant methode traditionelle isn’t my favourite of the two. Both are very welcome in my life. They are a superb advertisement for Devon cider, required drinking for enthusiasts and worthy of mention in the same breath as any fine ciders you could name. At £9.50 and £10 respectively I cannot recommend them enough. What a marvellous duo of drinks.