Sandford Orchards is a place and a team for which I have a tremendous amount of time and respect. Paraphrasing Gabe Cook, they have their own niche in UK cider as a place that straddles the middle ground, making draught ciders with far more character than is found in the average pub whilst also cultivating a higher-end range for drinkers interested in such things as apple varieties, barrels and vintages.
Talking of which, their new “Vintage Collection” has just been launched, and I intended it to be the subject of this review. It comprises the 2019 edition of The General, previously enthused at by the geophysicist here, as well as Apple & Oak 2020 and Sandford Reserve 2019.
Around the same time I was contacted by head cidermaker Andy May with a generous and intriguing proposition. A few bottles of the Y.D.B Double Vintage (Yarlington Mill, Dabinett and Browns) from their Fine Cider range had not been force-carbonated with the rest of the batch, but had finished their fermentation in their bottles instead and, as such, were naturally sparkling. Would I, in the interests of High Scientific Research, like to try one next to the standard-issue to see whether I could detect a difference?
“Yes please very much and thank you” having been the obvious and immediate answer, Andy sent over a bottle of each, as well as a bottle of Tremlett’s Bitter, also from the Fine Cider range. So in the interests of full disclosure, the YDBs and the Tremlett’s written up below were free samples, whereas the others I paid for myself.
Right. Still with me? Let’s crack on.
First up is the ‘standard’ YDB Double Vintage. A vintage blend of 2018 Yarlington and Dabinett for depth and structure with 2019 Browns for freshness. Fermented with cultured yeasts and yours from Sandford’s website for £5.99 per 660ml bottle.
Sandford Orchards Y.D.B Double Vintage – review
Colour: Mid Gold
On the nose: All the shades and elements of apple are in here – the sharpness of green, the juiciness of red, the savouriness of skin. There’s a leafiness too. Toffee pennies and indeed the tang of real pennies. A flutter of vanilla. Light and bright, given there’s Yarlington and Dabinett in the blend, but there’s certainly some depth.
In the mouth: Follows through nicely and with a good grip of tannin. The brightness and metallic tang remain, but there’s a deeper juiciness as well. Lots going on texturally. Just a spritz of fizz. It’s close to dry really, only a little bit of sweetness. Oranges, red apple, a flutter of Speyside whisky. Totally clean. Nice.
In a nutshell: Justifies its positioning. Definitely worth your time.
Next is the naturally carbonated Y.D.B which in every other respect is exactly the same as the bottling just reviewed. Sadly not something available at retail, but detailed here in the aforementioned name of High Scientific Research as a thing of potential interest.
Sandford Orchards Y.D.B Double Vintage Naturally Carbonated – review
Colour: Same initially. Hazier as we got towards the bottom of the bottle. Had been standing.
On the nose: Similar to the standard (shock!) though the fizz is more pronounced, so there was a greater initial whaff of carbonation. (‘Whaff’ is a technical term, though neglectfully omitted from our taxonomy of cider). The predominant difference is that there is a touch of the aroma of fermentation still upon it. A touch of yeastiness, a smear of sulphur (and we are talking the tiniest smear). Lends an earthiness to the cider. Less overtly fruity than the regular.
In the mouth: Similar story. Again the mousse is more pronounced. Still get that nice, broad fruit from the bittersweets but coupled with a (very) light yeasty soiliness. Seems to present as a smidge drier too. Fascinating comparison.
In a nutshell: Fascinating to taste the difference. This one may be more wonkish but I actually prefer the classic. Just.
Now on to the new-look “Vintage Range”. Taking pole is the youngest, Apple & Oak 2020. It’s a blend of Browns, Northwood and Sweet Coppin, which particularly interests me as all three are native Devon varieties, the former a sharp and the latter pair sweets. Another point of particular note is that they were aged in new oak barrels, something seldom seen in cider for reasons a. of expense and b. of concerns that virgin oak casks will overwhelm fruit if cider is left in them too long. Which perhaps explains why this member of the Vintage Range has been bottled the youngest. All very exciting and intriguing. £30 buys you 12 500ml bottles from Sandford’s website.
Sandford Orchards Apple & Oak 2020 – review
Colour: Light, hazy gold
On the nose: Higher-toned, aromatic and a little simpler than the YDBs. Fizzy green apple sweets, lots of vanilla, a good brush of oak. A touch of coconut. I think this was taken out of the barrel at a well-judged point – the fruit and oak are evenly weighted. Smells like walking between a sweet shop and a furniture store.
In the mouth: Light to medium in body and flavour intensity, just a teensy brush of tannin. Fizz dialled down too, which I think works well. The green flavours of apple sweets are still here. Sherbet. Those UFO sweets from tuck shop days. Lots of vanilla, but it hasn’t muted the fruit.
In a nutshell: Simple, quaffable, plenty to like. An excellent “gateway”.
Next we have Sandford Reserve 2019, which set off my wine nerd sensors through its use of barrels which formerly held red wine from the tiny Spanish DOC of Priorat. Stylistically they tend to be big, full-blooded (and very expensive) things made from the Garnacha grape, often abetted by Cabernet Sauvignon and a handful of others. So we are expecting these barrels to impart significant spicy, dark-fruited vibes. The apple blend charged with standing up to all that red wine richness is Harry Masters’ Jersey, Michelin and Ellis Bitter, of which the latter is another Devon variety. So all bittersweets, with the first and third typically boasting significant and semi-significant quantities of tannin respectively. £31 gets you 12 500s.
Sandford Orchards Sandford Reserve 2019 – review
Colour: Clear brass
On the nose: Juicy, rounded, deeper. Red apples, peaches, Victoria plum. Oak, but it’s bright – sawn wood, rather than dusky. Strawberry jelly. There’s a slightly sweet, almost confected sense here, but the spice of the oak keeps it from going anywhere near sickly.
In the mouth: Full bodied, with lots of rounded flavour, still tending in that peachy, jammy, red-fruited direction. A grip of tannin is wrapped up by that red, haribo-loveheart sweetness – perhaps gets ever so slightly heavy without something there to balance it by way of freshness and acidity. But I’m quibbling. This is still, for the price, a good cider which strikes a nice fruit-oak balance.
In a nutshell: Lots of big jammy apple and wine cask character, perhaps a smidge heavily sweet to my taste, without counterweight acidity.
The General is the returning character of the Vintage Range, now in a bigger 500ml bottle and with a smart new livery. Once upon a time its previous iteration was a particular favourite of the geophysicist’s, and I have very fond memories of drinking it on the Devon coast with a spread of goodies assembled from Dart’s farm. Let’s see if the 2019 keeps those recollections rosy. A blend of Yarlington, Dabinett and Tremlett’s Bitter named for the mighty oak vat in which it does its ageing. £32 for 12.
Sandford Orchards The General 2019 – review
Colour: Bright Gold
On the nose: All three varieties present nicely here. Some orangey Dabinett for sure, the straw and yellow fruits of Tremlett’s and a little of the Yarlington Mill depth. The longer you smell it the more the Tremlett’s takes the lead. There’s still some of that Woolworth’s pick’n’mix energy and there’s that ever-so-slight plasticised note that (I think) comes with pasteurisation and sweetener, but this is a very good blend.
In the mouth: Again the Dabinett orange juice and rind is to the fore on the palate, and the longer you hold it in your mouth, the more the Tremlett’s kicks in, leading to a tannic, phenolic finish. Very juicy – yellow-skinned apple, nectarine. There’s a bit of that sweetness but the tannins, body and light carbonation balance it a little more than in Sandford Reserve. Very good stuff.
In a nutshell: If all pubs served bottles of this there would be far more cider drinkers about.
And rounding things out we return to the “fine cider” range for the previously mentioned Tremlett’s Bitter. Devon’s native blockbuster, fermented with wild yeast. Six 660ml bottles are yours for £35.95.
Sandford Orchards Tremlett’s Bitter – review
Colour: Lightly hazy burnished gold
On the nose: Ooft. Very Tremlett’s. Earthy, forest floor, dead leaves and sack cloth over apple skins, dunnage warehouse and the classic waxy yellow fruit. Intense, visceral fare that really shouts its identity.
In the mouth: Surprising touch of sweetness and those yellow apple skins upfront with a touch of honeysuckle and apricot. Then in crash the huge, pithy, drying tannins and soily, almost medicinal phenolics – touches of TCP, germoline and sticking plaster. A little bit of oxidation on the finish.
In a nutshell: A real full-throttle showcase of Tremlett’s with plenty to say. Bring protein!
Sandford Orchards occupy an almost unique role in British cider. They manage the balance of being a commercial-scale cidery whose output in 2019 was 1.5 million litres whilst also one whose product I actively look for in pubs because I know it to be made by people who truly, deeply care about cider and about making something interesting that reflects much-treasured apple varieties.
Everything in this lineup tastes of the apples varieties it is made from and thus different to each of its stablemates. As a collective they showcase tannin, acidity, vintage and cask. I recommend all but the Apple & Oak be served at room to cellar temperature to get the most out of their tannin and big bittersweet fruit. Apple & Oak is for sticking in the fridge and drinking in the garden if you please.
In Sandford’s draught range, their vintage range and their fine range they offer rungs of a ladder up which new drinkers can climb away from the homogeneity of larger, industrial pub tap blandness. There may be a few touches in the name of accessible commerciality and a couple may sit on a sweeter end of the spectrum than that at which I tend to do most of my drinking. But these are all bold, flavourful, variety-driven ciders which I have either bought before or will certainly buy again. I would pour them with confidence for any of my friends.
As I say in my ‘nutshell’ for The General, if these were broadly available in pubs there would be far, far more interested cider drinkers. Sandford Orchards is one of this country’s most important cideries, and Devon is very lucky to have them.
Thanks to Andy for sending over the YDBs and Tremlett’s.