I don’t think we’ve too much more to say about Little Pomona, have we?
I’ve written up twelve of their releases in these pages (13 with their One Juice contribution yesterday) – Mr Finch has added two more – and although it hasn’t been a clean sweep of apotheosis (I was picky here, James was even pickier here) I don’t think he’d refute my contention that they’re comfortably one of the best, most exciting cideries in the UK. Their Art of Darkness 2017 trio made me as happy as any flight of ciders did in 2020, and the blisteringly intense, complex, aromatic, spellbinding #1 was the cider last year that I loved most of all.
At the start of March they launched their spring outturn.* Amongst piquettes and rare pears, the trio reviewed today stood out to me as cleaving to similar themes. All three are still, dry, and feature Dabinett as a significant – if not the significant – component of their blend. What’s more, all are entirely based on bittersweet apples, with the puny exception of a penurious 7.5% Foxwhelp in the Old Man and the Bee.
In short, sufficient similarity on paper to make me want to do a side by side and drill into their differences. So, in no particular order, that is just what I have done.
First up is Netherwood Estate Reserve 2018, made in collaboration with Michelin-starred Pensons on the eponymous estate. It’s a blend of 58% White Norman, 25% Dabinett, 13.5% Chisel Jersey and 3.5% Harry Masters’ Jersey, with all but the HMJ grown at Netherwood. Fermentation took forever – a whopping 18 months – before it was racked into a pair of Sauternes casks for eight further months of maturation. A bottle, at the time of writing, cost £14 from Little Pomona’s website. But the time of writing is 11th March, so at the time of reading you may need to look elsewhere. (Update – you do). A quick last-minute snoop reveals it still available at The Cat in the Glass for the same price.
One last aside, before I plunge in, which is to admit a real fondness for the label. I know it’s rather formal and much less colourful than all of the beautiful artwork on their other bottles, but it’s important that we know ourselves, and stuffy and formal is very much my energy. So since I didn’t expect this label would be the subject of general gushery, I thought I’d offer my two cheers.
Little Pomona Netherwood Estate Reserve 2018 – review
Colour: Burnished copper
On the nose: The biggest, ripest tropical fruits ever – apricot, mango chutney, interweaving with the developed spice of oak and time. There’s a fresh leather and nutmeg touch that reminds me mightily of good Rioja Reserva. Honey and orange marmalade from the Sauternes. Fruit and oak in equal, throaty, super-complex song. I could nose this forever.
In the mouth: The fireworks continue. The fruit is enormous – jammy orange marmalade and exotic tropical fruits to the huge-bodied fore. The longer you hold it in you mouth, the more the layers of vanilla and oak and clove and velvety tannin creep in. Leather and sandalwood. Layers of sweet spice. Voluptuous in its richness – almost implausible that this is utterly dry cider.
In a nutshell: A huge, complex marriage of fruit and cask and time.
Next up is Orange Cider 2019, also dubbed as “The Cider With No Name”. Confusingly, this is neither a cider made from oranges, nor a cider made through the same techniques as Orange Wine, rather it is a cider whose flavours reminded tasters of that latter category. For those who Orange Wine has passed by, it is a style made by fermenting a white wine in the same way as a red – with the skins in contact with the juice throughout, for a more intense, full-bodied style. Skin contact fermentation makes a little bit less difference to cider, as the tannins and phenols of an apple are spread throughout the fruit – skins and flesh (though admittedly more in the skins, as Polly Hilton has recently shown me) – whereas in grapes they are concentrated far more intensely in the skins.
Orange cider is a blend of Dabinett (67%) and HMJ (31%) from Little Pomona’s home orchard. (With 2% perry added, so I’m going to call it Orange Pider from now on, just to be irritating). It was originally intended to be a part of The Old Man and the Bee 2019, but, in their words, the flavours went in another direction, so it was bottled instead as a solo act. It spend six months in four white wine barrels – three Sauternes and one Meursault.
2019 was a generally more challenging year for British cider than the perfect, hot, generous 2018. Ripeness was certainly an issue in places, so we approach this blend of middle-to-late-harvest bittersweets with duly calibrated expectations. Bottles were sold from Little Pomona’s website for £13 each on launch. You can still find it elsewhere with an assiduous google – Clapton Craft have it for £13.50, Pullo ask £11.70 and Hop, Burns & Black have it for £12.95. You might also find it elsewhere; I only have so much time to google and link!
Little Pomona Orange Cider 2019 – review
Colour: Hazy burnt amber
On the nose: Another that is huge in aromatics and another that is packed with juicy, orangey Dabinett. But the aromas here are all about that upfront fruit – the oak takes much more of a back seat than in Netherwood Reserve. Mixed fruit pastilles, mandarin, vanilla. High tones of blackcurrant and menthol Tunes, a curl of lightly savoury HMJ phenols – cure and old furniture. But really about that fruit and almost sweet in the ripeness of its delivery. Beautiful again.
In the mouth: Not as full-bodied as Netherwood Reserve, but still on the voluptuous side, and just the most exuberant fruit-basket mouthful of pure juice. An explosion of orange juice, passion fruit, peach and apricot over some delicious soft yet supple tannins – again, less than in Netherwood. The flavours are an exotic arm-wrestle with fleshy, beaming Dabinett on top at first, then the yellow fruit and spicy phenol of Harry Masters’ taking over towards the finish. The oak cleaves beautifully to the fruit such that you can barely see where one ends and t’other begins. Orange and yellow fruit pastilles laced with sweet spice. This cider is joyful.
In a nutshell: An absolutely glorious fruit-bomb. Stunning for 2019. Another essential.
Last up, we have Old Man and The Bee 2018, the previous vintage of which we covered about a year ago here. A bottle with almost iconic status among UK drinkers of aspirational cider, and probably Little Pomona’s flagship. It’s made entirely from fruit grown in their home orchard – varying degrees of Dabinett, HMJ, Ellis Bitter and Foxwhelp, always leaning most towards the first two. Unoaked, but for the small component of Foxwhelp, Susanna and James intend it as the purest expression of vintage and of their own much-treasured orchard.
2017 was, to my palate, easily the best Old Man and the Bee yet, and with the general hype around 2018 as a vintage for British cider, I approach this bottle with no small expectation. Whereas 2017 contained 87% HMJ, this is something of a varietal volte face, with Dabinett making up 50% of the blend, HMJ accounting for 37.5 and Ellis Bitter and Foxwhelp scrapping it out over the remaining 12.5. Bottles cost £11.50 directly from the cidery, and – glory be – are still there on Little Pomona’s website. So I won’t direct you elsewhere.
Little Pomona Old Man & the Bee 2018 – review
Colour: Hazy burnished gold (yes, I love ‘burnished’ as a word. Get over yourself.)
On the nose: Here’s something wild. This has 50% less HMJ than the 2017 and 40% more Dabinett and yet I can instantly taste the link. The Harry Masters’ really pops – honeysuckle, wet rock, warm hay and yellow apricot skins, yet behind that is the generous, juicy orange and vanilla of Dabinett and, particularly, of 2018 Dabinett. Another gorgeous and beguiling aroma.
In the mouth: Perfectly treads the line of juicy and structured. Biggest tannins yet, which, given the blend, isn’t too surprising. They’re not coarse, but firm and grippy. Flavour intensity easily matches them though – the ripe yellow and orange tones balance them perfectly. Fleshy Dabinett and sinewy HMJ intertwine in a mesmerizingly textual mouthful – the juiciness is paired with a big, slatey minerality. This isn’t earthy at all, but despite the juiciness is the firmest of the trio and, with its nuances of hay and dried leaves, the most redolent of the outdoors. The most cerebral and probably ageworthy of the set.
In a nutshell: A stellar Old Man and the Bee that drinks beautifully and will keep for years. The textural, HMJ-led one of the trio.
James, Susanna and Blair, take a bow. Not only a tremendous trio, but one in which each constituent manages to touch each others’ hands whilst remaining entirely distinct and individual. They revolve around an axis of ripe bittersweet fruit and, particularly, Dabinett, but each heads in its own idiosyncratic direction.
Netherwood is the stately, oak-influenced, spicy one. The cider for Rioja or Bordeaux drinkers: rich, complex and full-bodied. It’ll keep, but it’s absolutely ready to go now. In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that this one split the CR judges, Mr Finch feeling that it was a touch oxidised. So, since my initial note I have opened another bottle in the company of a wine pal and given it our pickiest scrutiny. My feelings remained as-were, and my friend too picked up on the tertiary vibes and agreed that it was full of “mature oaked red” character. Neither of us felt it to be over-oxidised to our palates, but another cider-only pal shared James’ take. So there you are. Make of it all what you will, but don’t say I don’t present both sides. If you don’t buy it, more for me.
Orange is the joy-filled fruit-basket. Just a burst of exotic orange and tropical fruit. Compared to Netherwood the oak’s a minority concern. This is all about Dabinett and HMJ at their most explosively fulsome. You can’t drink it without grinning. It is a major endorsement of Little Pomona’s dedication to hand-picking – tasted blind you would never have thought this came from a year which struggled for ripeness in any respect. This evinces fruit selection from the very top drawer.
I can’t give Old Man and the Bee higher praise than to say it absolutely nails its brief. The enormous generosity of 2018 is showcased here alongside a beautiful demonstration of varieties that long-term Old Man fans will recognise as instantly reminiscent of the 2017 edition despite differing quantities in the blend. In short: something that speaks to its orchard. Dabinett here serves as industrious second fiddle, adding warmth and ripeness to the broad, phenolic, cerebral stokes of HMJ. This will age magnificently – if you bought a magnum, please, please don’t open it yet, because it will just improve and improve from its already mesmerising place.
Pick a favourite? No – get out. I want them all in my life, and so should you. Netherwood for drinking when feeling especially formal or when I’ve summoned the courage to attempt a roast. Orange for when I want to bring the sun out and paint a huge grin across the face of whoever I pour it for. Old Man and the Bee for when I want to spend a long, contemplative evening picking apart the layers in the glass. I reckon in a couple of years that one might be the clear pick of the trio, but honestly ranking these ciders right now would do each a disservice.
There is no better feeling for a drinks lover than tasting something you have to sit down and write about straight away. And in this marvellous triptych I get three. If the Art of Darkness 2017 trilogy was, first and foremost, a love letter to bittersharp Foxwhelp, this trio is a tribute to Herefordshire-grown bittersweets and especially to Dabinett and Harry Masters’. They are another advert for voluptuous, ripe dry cider that deserves the same respect and consideration as wine. They are absolute validation of care for specific apple varieties, for building liquids just from land and apple and oak and time. What a series. What a wonderful time to be a cider drinker.
*Outturn was common parlance for any series of simultaneously-launched releases in my old whisky gig – I mention this only because a cider friend asked me last time I used it.