As I have said before, The Newt in Somerset is a very exciting cidery. Indeed it has moved past being an “exciting cidery” and ought now to be couched as a “really rather good cidery”. And the only thing stopping it from being an “absolutely excellent cidery” is, based on my tasting, a little more depth and complexity. Which tends to come with time, and I dare say they’ll get there in short order.
Yes, we have a lot of time for The Newt here on Malt. I have reviewed eight ciders and a perry from these Somerset fruit-wranglers thus far, have thoroughly enjoyed all but one or two of them, loved a couple and found them all to be reliably whistle-clean, which isn’t something every cidery can boast. Nor am I the only admirer around these parts. James Finch elevated their Dabinett to the top tier of his Dabinettiad, and even our illustrious founder, Mark, makes approving noises about them, although I believe that’s largely because The Newt’s gardens are almost as lavish as his own.
Today we have an all new Newt in our glass – their “Fine Cyder 2018”, no less – which is always cause for two cheers. I’m particularly thoroughly sorted for it, as I bought one on launch, received a second in my quarterly Newt Cyder Club box and then, for the sake of transparency, they sent me a sample. But before we tuck in, a few (more) musings on “fine cider”.
As I wrote in this very long article a few months back, the base concept of fine cider – that is, that a cider can quite simply be better than is the norm, just as a wine or a whisky can be – is effectively irrefutable. Whether through the care with which it was made, the quality of the fruit that was pressed, the age of the trees on which the fruit grew – whatever the metric may be, something is produced that has better than average balance, length, intensity, complexity. To use one example, the Reinette O’Bry from Ross on Wye that I had at the start of the year was a perfectly nice bottle. It had plenty to commend it, and I dare say some people might prefer its flavours to those of, say, Raison d’Être 2018. But the Raison is, without question or debate, a better, finer cider. Objective quality is different to personal taste. Some things are better than others. And that’s ok.
That base concept, however, is separate to the way in which the term “fine cider” is considered by its detractors to be used – as a sort of schlocky, easy-peasy marketing wheeze to add a few quid to anything in a 750ml bottle. There is a sector of cider drinkers who, almost by default, are cynical about anything presented in that format and react almost with relish when they find something in a 750 which is of lesser quality than something else offered from bag-in-box. There is an equal and opposite camp arguing that those who throw stones at “fine cider” by default are engaging in unhelpful reverse snobbery, of the sort that would mire cider in a swamp of low value perception and prevent makers from being able to actually make any money from it – money which could then be invested in better equipment and, ultimately, better cider.
I must admit that whilst I have a degree of sympathy with both points of view (I have certainly tried some highly-priced horrors in 750ml bottles and plenty of glorious things from ostensibly more humble formats) I incline more naturally towards the latter. Fine cider, at least conceptually, simply has to be a thing. Taste more than thirty, forty ciders and you’ll come across a couple that make you sit up and say “wow. Yes. That’s incredible”. Which, at the end of the day, is the most telling metric for fineness.
Where fine cider currently finds itself struggling is that very few people can actually put their hand up and say that they know what the checkpoints for it actually are. It comes back to the article I wrote inspired by Tom Oliver’s comment that “we need to talk more about what we consider to be quality”. My personal opinion, for example, is that something strongly acetic can’t possibly be considered fine. But since very few prominent voices even know what acetic is, there’s nothing to stop acetic cider from being put into 750s and passed off as natural wine-inspired magical unicorn juice.
The situation is further muddled when such and such broadsheet persuade a wine writer to wade in and pass judgement as a once-a-year article. Can you imagine a cider writer being asked, in a national newspaper, to make a selection of the best wines out there? Or to lay down an assessment of what they consider to amount to quality in wine? Of course you can’t. Because, unless that cider writer had also spent years getting to know wine in all of its depth and messiness and diversity, it would obviously be ill-informed, would lack authority and would likely be full of misleading half-truths at best and downright, immensely irritating errors at worst. (As a related aside, I was very pleased to see that The Guardian’s Fiona Beckett recently took the time to visit several Herefordshire producers to increase her knowledge and understanding. I hope others follow her example.)
For fine cider to be more than just a soundbite, we need to talk more about what makes it what it is. Makers need to show their hands; for “fine cider” to exist as distinct from simply “full juice cider” and “industrial cider” there needs to be a degree of transparency that goes beyond just “this is made wholly from fresh-pressed apples”. What additional work or time or quality has gone into it? What apples were used? What individual flavours and characteristics do they bring? Where was the orchard and how old were its trees? How was it fermented, how long was it fermented for, and in what? How fussily selected was the parcel of apples or juice used in the cuvée? What was the vintage – and what was that vintage like? Were oak barrels used and if so, how large were they, how often had they been used before and what, if anything, did they previously hold?
Questions like these – difficult questions, lots of difficult questions – have to be asked and answered if fine cider is to resolve itself into ‘a thing’ and if the best producers, irrespective of size, distribution or marketing clout are to rise to the recognised top. Otherwise it becomes far too easy for cynicism to slip in at both ends. It will take a long time. It will be hard. And it should be, because fine cider is not an easy thing to make and it deserves the respect of being a. recognised as such and b. not undermined by well-marketed imposters. For fine cider to establish itself, there has to be understanding of what it is and for there to be understanding there has to be information – information that consistently checks out. It is precisely that sort of verifiable detail that, in wine terms, has taken consumers to the stage at which they recognise the difference between a simple Bourgogne Rouge and a Gevrey-Chambertin; between any old Californian Cabernet and Opus One; between Moët & Chandon Imperial Brut NV and Dom Pérignon. Most importantly, it allows them to clock that difference on the label before they have parted with their cash. Consumer belief and confidence – that’s what fine cider needs to build. And it takes more than just writing “fine” on the label.
Which, returning to The Newt’s Fine Cyder 2018, is my only real niggle. I don’t have much information about this cider besides the name’s assurances that “fine” is what it is. Besides that, I know that it’s a “product of Somerset”, that it contains sulphites and that it is 8.1% abv. And if I were an average punter buying this off a shelf, that’d be my lot.
Visiting their website doesn’t yield much more. “Hand-picked, pressed at The Newt, slowly cold-fermented”. No real problems with that (though how slow is slowly?) but what distinguishes it from any of their other ciders? If I were buying through the Cider Is Wine website I would further learn that it is off-dry, though I’m not told what method was used to make it so.
As a member of The Newt’s Cyder Club, I get a bit more of the picture. It’s made from Ida Red apples: “a dessert fruit that has superb storing attributes” and was picked from West Bradley Orchard. I’ve since learned (because I emailed and asked) that the long-term storage resulted in a lower yield of more concentrated juice and that a small portion of it was freeze-concentrated to intensify flavours further before fermentation. I was also kindly told that the word ‘fine’, alongside the use of the 750ml, was to encourage consumers to take their time with it, to drink it in small sips and enjoy its finer delicate flavours. To indicate that this is not a challenging, puckering, scrumpyish sort of thing, but something with a little more elegance and finesse.
I am not, by any means, denying this cider the right to the moniker “fine”. As you’ll see from my notes below (spoilers) it’s a very tasty thing indeed. But my challenge to The Newt is this: you have an absolutely world-class facility and access to brilliant fruit from truly special orchards. You have a hugely talented team both in the cidery and at the keyboard. You have the resource and the presence to easily sell through whatever you make, and I dare say you could tell us barely anything about your ciders and it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to your bottom line. But you also have the capability to lead the way in developing an understanding and appreciation of what fine cider really is – what it can be. And for inspiration you need look no further than your own sister winery’s website, and the two-paragraph description of what’s gone into the making of their flagship red. It may not be everything; in wine terms it may not even be all that much. But it’s a damn sight more information than cider drinkers are usually given access to. Individually, you aren’t the only place making fine cider in the UK. But it is within your power to be a standard bearer for the fine cider movement altogether – to help the average consumer understand and appreciate this wonderful drink on a more comprehensive level; to be a guiding light in this brave and challenging new world. You are making tremendous drinks already; I have no doubt they’ll become more tremendous still. We just want to know more about them.
Anyway – to the bottle. It’ll set you back £9.50 either directly from The Newt or from Cider Is Wine. (Which actually, relative to liquid volume, is only a very modest premium per ml on what their 330ml bottles cost.)
The Newt Fine Cyder 2018 – review
Colour: Very pale straw.
On the nose: As pristine and elegant and clear as I’ve come to expect from The Newt. Bags of honeydew melon and pear, with a little grassiness and aniseed. It’s in the direction of some of the less-green Chilean Sauvignons actually, though this isn’t as flabby as they can occasionally be.
In the mouth: That’s ace. Lovely, full, wine-like body despite the absence of tannin, and a skewer of acidity perfectly balances fleshy fruits and the touch of sweetness. Deliciously fresh, packed with ripe pear, melon, green apple and freshly picked herbs. Follows the nose pretty closely. My goodness you could drink a lot of this. A little sweet lemon’n’lime aspect and a touch of stony minerality. Super refined. Demands smoked salmon.
I’ve seen cidermaker Greg compare this to a Mosel Riesling. For my money, if we’re linking it to a wine, it’s the love child of a Sauvignon Blanc and a young Alsace Pinot Gris. But that’s a disservice – it’s a properly, properly elegant, refined and downright delicious cider; a fabulous expression of apple which I strongly advise you buy a bottle of.
A totally different beast to this morning’s wonderful Smith Hayne offerings; another advert for the diversity that this marvellous drink can offer. If I could make something half as good as this I’d want to tell everyone about it; how I’d made it, where those flavours and textures came from; the extra miles I’d gone to. So go on, The Newt. Tell us everything.
A sample was passed to Malt on behalf of The Newt, but (whilst much appreciated) such things oil no greens in these parts.