There’s an implicit homogeneity that slips into our discourse when English cider nerds cluster and the talk turns to France. We all think we know French cider, and that it’s all the same. All keeved, all basically sweet, all fizzy and all full-juice. None of this is true.
We’ve dealt with the “all full-juice” myth previously, in conversation with Camille from Calyce Cider. France may have a better record than the UK in this regard (shamefully, the shoddy food standards enthusiasts of the USA have a better record than the UK in this regard) but they’re far from the infallible angels so much of English cider communication depicts. The vast, vast majority of French cider, as we learned, comes from two huge co-operatives who see no issue with concentrates, with water, with colouring and with every other trick in the big cider playbook. Their output is still far tastier than that of their English counterparts, but it’s not half as artisan as their cork and cage bottles would have you believe.
Having addressed that point, let’s move to the slightly sadder issue, that of the lack of exposure of the English drinker to the breadth of full-juice, craft styles that France has to offer. Certainly, before my visit to Caen in February I had no idea of the stylistic diversity, the range of flavours and the degree of innovation to be found on the other side of the channel. And why would I? My chances of popping into a standard booze shop and finding something French that isn’t from one of the largest producers are virtually nil. In fact they’re even smaller than they once were now that the excellent Pilango has closed its doors for the last time.
I suspect many of the assumptions stem from the fact that most French cider comes from the contiguous regions of Normandy and Brittany and that, yes, most of it is keeved. What’s more, tasted in isolation, there do tend to be certain similarities between many of the standard, ‘farmhouse’ ciders, which is what you’re perhaps most likely to come across. But taste across the board and a far broader picture begins to emerge. Sticking to Normandy alone, even a novice taster will recognise marked differences between the maritime, tannic and astringent ciders of Cotentin AOC and the softer, riper, more directly fruit-forward creations of the Pays d’Auge. Du Perche, whose appellation status has finally been confirmed, sits, to my taste, somewhere in the middle, again entirely distinct from the others.
It can’t be repeated often enough, the flavours of cider are dictated first and foremost by the apples in their makeup and, like the UK, France is home to hundreds of varieties, each imparting different notes. The Morbihan area of Brittany is particularly proud of its Royal Guillevic variety, such that there are a handful of single-variety bottlings available. Fresh, floral, green-fruited, its flavours would be more than familiar to a Kentish cidermaker, but are a world away from what the British drinker expects of France.
Nor are Normandy and Brittany the only regions in which apples are being fermented into something more fun. Our conversation with Camille threw up another few – most famously the Basque country, where the ciders are still and dry and sharp. I’m guilty of automatically thinking of the Spanish Basque when I cast my mind over their ciders – not least because I’ve been lucky enough to attend txotx in Astigarraga myself – but as can be tasted through the ranges of the likes of Kupela, the skills and heritage of the region’s south are just as tangible north of the Pyranees. Then there’s the Ardenne, near the Belgian border, and Le Pays d’Othe, between Champagne and Bourgogne, both driven by terroir and culinary fruit. Leaner, greener, meadow-fresh. Two of my favourite French cider and perry makers, Côme Isambert and Julien Thurel (more on him later) hail from the Loire Valley. The white wines of that region are lionised the world over for their freshness, verve and minerality, qualities that are more than reflected in the Loire ciders and perries I’ve been lucky enough to taste.
Styles. Yes, there’s a lot of keeving going on. Yes, I’d personally love a few more bottles to be a little closer to complete dryness. But even here the picture’s not as homogenous as it looks from across La Manche. Casus Belli, from Antoine Marois, is a fully fermented, all-but-still cider, and one of the very best I’ve tasted this year. In a side-by-side tasting I thought it edged Little Pomona’s Old Man and the Bee 2017, and praise for dry cider doesn’t come much higher than that. One of my biggest cider regrets of the last 12 months was only bringing one bottle back with me. It’s not just Antoine either – casting an eye over the range from Dupont you have rich, drier Grande Reserves, champagne method bottlings and wonkish triple-yeast, saison-inspired ciders. The champagne method is deployed elsewhere too – one of my favourite producers, Les Vergers de la Morinière, combined it with a dosage of mandarin in one of the most compelling “made wine” innovations I’ve come across. Elsewhere there are ice ciders, co-ferments and, of course, one of France’s great specialities, the fortified cider, Pommeau.
Just a couple of weeks ago a notification popped up in my email inbox that CidrExpo will be returning for a second instalment in February next year. Whilst, for obvious reasons, I won’t be able to attend this time, I’m thrilled that this showcase of modern French cider is set to become a regular occurrence, and my fingers and toes are crossed that in 2022 I might be able to nip down to Portsmouth and hop on the ferry again. There is so much to discover about French cider; so much breadth and flavour and variety that, if the English drinker only but knew, would, I think, convert them by the hundred.
My stocks from February are starting to look threadbare, but in the name of celebrating French cider’s diversity, I’m popping the corks on three of them today. None of which, I am very sorry to say, are available in the UK. First up is the aforementioned Julien Thurel. I was particularly keen to try his creations when I saw him at CidrExpo, since they came with the highest recommendation of Eleanor Leger of Vermont’s Eden. Based in the Loire, Julien’s creations are almost all from culinary apples. Solstice 2017 is hand-picked and fermented in stainless steel before ageing in neutral old oak barrels and then afforded a secondary fermentation in bottle before being released undisgorged. Julien only works with a handful of apple varieties; this cuvée is an extra-brut made from Sebins and Saulettes. Since I don’t know a thing about either, we’ll move swiftly on and hope that someone can fill us in through the comments selection.
Antoine Marois is a producer we’ve met and admired before. Having adored his dry Casus Belli, today we’re treading more conventional turf via one of his keeved méthode ancestrales (naturally sparkling ciders which have achieved their fizz through being bottled before the first fermentation has finished. Also known as pet-nats.) Antoine, a former vineyard agronomist, takes his lead heavily from winemakers; La Roche, in our glass, is named for the rocky terroir on which the single orchard that produced its apples is based. One of its stablemates is Silex, from the flinty soil type made especially famous by the Sauvignons of Sancerre. Like Julien, Antoine hand-harvests from traditional, tall-trunk trees, but in this case we’re talking about tannin-rich Normandy varieties. Fruit selection, both in the orchard and on the cidery sorting table, is critical to his approach, as is a low-intervention, skin-contact natural fermentation.
Since we’re casting as broad a stylistic net as possible, now for something absolutely crackers. Kystin is a Breton cidery run since 2012 by Sasha Crommar. At CidrExpo it was constantly one of the most heavily-populated stalls, laden as it was with some of the most bonkers and brilliant liquids on show. Just a peek at Sasha’s range refutes the notion of French cider homogeneity; fortified ice ciders, perry with ginger as well as his classic cider, Opalyne. Albert Johnson and James Finch showcased the Kystin co-ferment with chestnuts (widely grown in the region) in a Fine Cider Friday video early on this year, and today I’m tasting something in a similar vein, albeit it’s a co-ferment of apples with – yes, honestly – toasted buckwheat. With absolutely no frame of reference for what such a thing might taste like, let’s leave it at that and move straight to the glasses.
Julien Thurel Solstice Extra Brut 2017 – review
On the nose: Very dessert-fruity. Green apple, soft pear, hawthorn blossom, honeysuckle and hay. It’s a long way from the typical styles of Normandy and Brittany – much more delicate and ethereal.
In the mouth: Follows through very closely. All the notes above; perhaps a little more pronounced, but still very much a high-toned, taut and delicate thing. There’s a great deal of mousse, which is worth leaving for some time to blow off a little. Just a hint of acidity, no tannin to speak of. By stereotypical French standards this isn’t too sweet at all – very easy drinking. As the name suggests, it’s real meadow-in-summertime drinking. If you like culinary-driven Eastern Counties ciders you’ll love this.
Antoine Marois La Roche 2017 – review
On the nose: Gorgeous, deep, whistle-clean autumnal tones instantly billowing from the glass. Very aromatic. Red apples both fresh and baked. Dried leaves, woody lignin. Dried orange rind. Almost Calvados-like in its richness and generosity. All beautifully defined too. Super nose.
In the mouth: Again, a near-identical follow-through. What’s most impressive is the cleanliness, definition of fruit expression and the balance of light sweetness with tannin. (“Is that not dry?” asked the geophysicist. It isn’t, quite, but the balance is so good it’s deceptive.) More wood and orange peel. A classic ‘autumn walk in the forest’ cider. Red apple skins and juice underpinned by a granite minerality. This is a superbly accomplished keeve – the double act of faultless, ripe fullness and structural definition is one of the hardest things to get right, and this absolutely nails it.
Kystin Sarrasin Blé Noir Torréfié – review
Colour: Lightly-hazy brass.
On the nose: That is totally nuts. In more ways than one. Toasted grains and Kinder Bueno and pink wafer biscuits. There is some fruit in there, but it’s buried under that roasty, savoury toastiness. Properly intense and expressive, if not wildly complex.
In the mouth: There’s a little more juicy apple here, but it’s underneath that huge toasted nut, cereal and wafer biscuit character. Slightly on the sweet side and the heaviness of the toasted buckwheat pulls away some of the freshness of the apple. Could really do with a few sharps to liven it up, to my taste. The juice itself is rich and clean with a small scrape of tannic grip. Totally unique, but a bit heavy-going for me. Just a bit too much of that toasted buckwheat.
No similarities here! To generalise in English terms we’ve one that’s Eastern Counties, one that’s West Country and one that’s barking mad. I have to admit, the Kystin, to me, had gone a little far with the toasted buckwheat. It just felt as though it needed to be lifted a little more; just a little lacking in acidity, given the weight of the dusky toastiness. The geophysicist and I managed a glass, but found it on the challenging side thereafter. But perhaps we missed the point by drinking it solo. Stick it next to a plate of sweet crêpes and you may well be onto a winner. And although the experiment wasn’t quite for me, it wouldn’t for a moment put me off trying anything else Sasha puts out. His base cider really is very, very good.
It’s clear to see why Julien and Antoine aren’t short of admirers. Both the Solstice and La Roche are precise, defined showcases of their fruit and terroir, packed with character and finesse. My favourite (quite comfortably) is La Roche, but much of that will be stylistic preference. If they were readily available to me I’d be a regular repeat customer from both producers. Antoine, in particular, is easily in my top 10 in the world.
Which I suppose is a good note to end on. The paucity of French cider offering in the UK isn’t a scratch on what I’d like it to be, and even lags behind that which can be found on the far side of the Atlantic. Cidermakers like Antoine and Julien and Eric Bordelet and Côme Isambert and Jérôme Forget and Cyril Zangs and so many, many more would find a welcome home for their wares in our cellars, glasses and hearts, if only we knew. The impending train crash of our embarrassing extraction from the EU will, I dare say, make it only more difficult for English cider lovers to get their hands on creations such as these, but it remains my fervent hope that one of our excellent and emerging distributors will find a way. Over to them.