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Fizzical education: some thoughts on sparkling cider

This was meant to be a straightforward rip-off.

Back in December Rachel Hendry wrote this incredibly user-friendly piece on sparkling wines for Burum Collective.

It unpacked the various methods by which the popping of bottles is facilitated and pointed towards their most famous practitioners – Champagne, Prosecco, Cava, pet nats and so forth.

I thought this was a jolly good idea, and pledged to subject cider to the same treatment, when I was brought up short on three counts.

First, and most prosaically, my old digs on Malt went through their will-they-won’t-they flirtation with closure, meaning that I stopped publishing cider content altogether for a while as we built this site. Secondly, I wrote our new taxonomy, which somewhat awkwardly covered virtually all the ground I had intended for this piece. (I also remembered that we took a pretty heftily in-depth look at sparkling styles when we spoke to Tony Lovering at Halfpenny Green).

Most significantly, it occurred to me that I can’t simply walk you through the flavours of various sparkling ciders as Rachel was so deftly able to do with wine. For the simple (but in practice, very complicated) reason that sparkling cider has none of wine’s relative stylistic conformity.

Let me give you an example. In wine, generally speaking, if I see a bottle of champagne or indeed a bottle from anywhere else marked “methode traditionelle”, I can make a pretty good guess at what I’m getting into, as Rachel laid out. I would expect something probably based on some combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (even outside of champagne) and I would expect its flavours to manifest somewhere along a spectrum running from green apples, lemon and dough at the young end to Rachel’s magnificently framed fancy hotel breakfast buffet at the other. With a fluttering of berry fruits should the bottle in particular be a rosé.

There are one or two exceptions to this rule – the wild, full-hearted traditional method reds from Australia and the swankier Riesling Sekts of Germany spring to mind. But by and large, the traditional method wines of this world, the English and Welsh sparklings, the Crémants, the Franciacortas and even those from such places as New Zealand, California and Argentina, have fallen in line with the Champagne template. There will be variations, of course, but I know, roughly speaking, the field of flavour in which I will find myself.

That is very much not the case in cider.

The second cider article I ever wrote was a piece for Graftwood about the fledgling traditional method cider category. In it I pointed out that the flavours presented within it are as disparate as they are across cider full stop. The delicate, culinary-fruit-led flavours of Chalkdown, for example, deliberately hearken to some of the appley, citrusy, toasty notes I’d look for in a champagne. But then you have something like the Smith Hayne 2018, with its Devonian heft of phenol and pith and smoke. Or how about the deep baritone of the near-leathery Bollhayes 2003? Or the spicy, woody dried apple and blood orange tones of Burrow Hill Stoke Red?

All are traditional method, all have gleaned their fizz in precisely the same way as each other and as champagne. But none are within touching distance of each other in terms of taste. If you were to enjoy the Smith Hayne, there is no guarantee that the Chalkdown would be your cup of tea and vice versa. And so here, once again, the knotty problem of grouping ciders purely in terms of style or method rears its head.

Rachel closed her article with a lovely reflection on pet nats, commenting:

“Pét-Nats can be made with any grape in any region, so it’s impossible for me to give you a rough taste profile here … this is very much a style to have fun with.”

In cider terms her words could apply not only to pet nats, but to all sparkling ciders full stop. Which is wonderful – diversity is (or should be) a tenet of cider’s potential, and my world is so much the larger for all the bottles I list above being in it.

Crucially though, particularly as the category grows and as consumer choice becomes wider, it impresses the importance of Naming The Apple Varieties On The Label. Or at least giving the closest possible sense of the flavours and textures that a customer can expect. I don’t want Bollhayes 2003’s intensity and depth and tannin as a Christmas morning foil for smoked salmon, but I might very well want it as a partner for a roast. Meanwhile Chalkdown would be absolutely lost if I drank it with something rich and hearty, but as a toasting glass for a celebration, just try and stop me.

The importance of talking about flavour and about the different apples from which it springs really can’t be understated. As elitist as wine can be, it would be far more so were it not for the increase in consumer familiarity with grape varieties ushered in by Australian and Californian producers in the 1970s. Education, understanding, confident purchases and, most importantly, enjoyment comes from knowing what you can expect from any given bottle you might find on a shelf. (As an aside, this is likely another reason people buy “strawberry cider”, “lime and elderflower cider”, “kiwi cider” so confidently – they have a good idea what they’ll taste like.)

If two ciders sit next to each other on a shelf and both just say “medium,” new cider drinkers can’t possibly be expected to understand why one might be different to another. If something says only “methode traditionelle” and does not subsequently taste very much like champagne, it risks turning an unsuspecting wine-lover off cider completely. Discussion of apple varieties and their flavours is where cider can demystify itself and broaden its audience. And, honestly, it really isn’t going to take up too much space on the label.

Anyhow. Partially to demonstrate this tremendous diversity of flavour-within-style, and partially just for a bit of fun, I thought we’d trot through a handful of fairly randomly-selected sparkling ciders. I’ve indicated apples and style where known; our aforementioned taxonomy and our list of apple varieties by flavour offer more detail, should any words be new to you. And, since this whole business was inspired by her article, I’ve roped in Rachel to offer her tasting note tuppenceworth too. (Incidentally, for Rachel’s take on tasting notes generally, you should read this edition of her newsletter. And then subscribe to it full stop if you haven’t already.)

Since I’ve been banging on about them a fair bit, todays first fizzics lesson comes with a pair of traditional method ciders. First up, a new producer to these pages, Hampshire’s Gospel Green. Founded by James Lane in 1990 and taken over by Brock Bergius in 2016, they were the first English producer to pick up the traditional method baton since Bulmer’s stopped using it for their ‘Pomagne’ in 1975. Gospel Green source their fruit from the Blackmoor Estate, just across the road from the cidery, and use a mixture of culinary varieties including (off the top of my head) Cox, Russet and Bramley. Today we’re looking at their Brut 2016, which can be bought from their website for £13.50. It’s also available via Cider Is Wine, Scrattings and a handful of other retailers.

Following the GG, rather appropriately, is the next cidery to have joined the traditional method chorus, Devon’s Bollhayes, who have worked with the style since 1992. I was tremendously impressed with their 2003 and 2017 vintages last year, and today we’re investigating a vintage in between – 2013. Varieties aren’t listed on the bottle, but are cited on the website as: Kingston Black, Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Harry Masters’ Jersey, Bramley and Browns. So a huge range of flavours and a good mix of acid and tannin. But no indication as to proportions of each one, so let’s dive in and see if we can guess. Bottles are £12 from the Bollhayes website and again are available via Scrattings.

Gospel Green Brut 2016 – Rachel’s review

Looks like: Pale gold with a very persistent fizz

Smells like: Soft chamomile, green apple skin, lemon sherbet, hints of brioche, it’s very gentle, I get hints of flaky croissant and toasted crumble topping

Tastes like: The sparkle has a real energy to it, it literally fizzes on the roof of your mouth. There’s a sharp lemon acidity, very biscuity with a bit of a bite to it that’s like a very citrusy dressed salad? Nectarine skin as well. It’s very dry, with this real lovely salinity. I also get that crispier outer layer of a flaked pastry good, alongside fresh apple skin.

Gospel Green Brut 2016 – Adam’s review

Colour: Mid gold, significant mousse

On the nose: The baked notes of age are starting to creep in here. A couple of years back this was all green fruit and wisps of white flowers, but the apples have deepened and bruised to an autumnal hue with time and a croissanty pastry note has increased with it. Grated lemon zest. Still delicate but the toasty leesiness is now at its fullest.

In the mouth: Bright on the palate – crunchy apples (with deeper apple skins) and bitter dried lemon energised by that vibrant sparkle and offset by buttered melba toast. A little pithiness and a good crack of acidity keeping things fresh. I have a sense that the fruit is now at its peak; that it will just start to tire if this vintage is kept any longer. Not perhaps as fresh as it once was, but it does seem to have reached its fullest expression.

In a nutshell: Definitely a cider, no question, but one of the more well-camouflaged champagne facsimiles.

Bollhayes 2013 – Rachel’s review

Looks like: Strong amber, steady fizz

Smells like: Crisp, red apple skin, lime, some soft hints of honey, apricot jam, fuzzy nectarine fur, a touch of peat and straw

Tastes like: Oh it’s a big acid bomb, sour green apple this time, lemon juice, radicchio, orange pith, it’s very dry but that works well with the acid and tannin to create a real nice balance, grapefruit segments, the crust of a very good loaf of bread

Bollhayes 2013 – Adam’s review

Colour: Rich clear gold. Good stream of fine bubbles

On the nose: A deep, husky bittersweet nose. Aged apple, dried blood orange peel, dunnage warehouse. Piles of autumn leaves. Leather strop (part age, part a very light touch of savoury brett – in smoky/clovey form, not smelly animal form, thankfully!). Hard caramels. There’s a nice balance between the characters of the sharps and the heftier bittersweets in this aroma.

In the mouth: Even more so on the palate – despite nearly eight years this is so textural. Pin-bright, lemony Browns Apple acidity skewering big, firm tannins in a real dried orange skin pithiness. Resiny, citrusy. More of that leather which, alongside that firm, dry bitterness, offers much that I think ale and bitter lovers would enjoy, too. The more the mousse dies down the more a real, bright, citrusy juiciness emerges.

In a nutshell: Just screams dry Devon cider, in the best way. Bring robust food and draw out a long, cerebral evening.


Popping up next (sparkling ciders are positively bristling with bad punning potential, aren’t they?) is something that’s been bottle conditioned. Again, the full breakdown is in the taxonomy, but the principal difference between this method and the traditional method is that bottle conditioning involves the addition of less priming sugar/liqueur de tirage (and thus less resultant sparkle) and disgorging is not mandatory (though is occasionally practiced).

Ross on Wye, who have graced these pages enough times not to need introduction, are perhaps its most prominent practitioners, so it’s towards them that we’re turning, through their Hagloe Crab and Bulmer’s Norman blend. The former a very rare sharp, the latter a medium bittersweet. You can pick up a bottle from a fair few places – Fram Ferment, Cat in the Glass, Beerzoo and Scrattings all have it for around £9.50. And because I’ve kindly given you all that information you’re going to forgive me for somehow losing my tasting note, aren’t you? Luckily, here’s one Rachel made earlier:

Ross on Wye Hagloe Crab and Bulmer’s Norman 2019 – Rachel’s review

Looks like: Hazy gold, bubbles are present but not persistent 

Smells like: Honey, lilac, orange blossom. I wrote ‘woodenness’ and on reflection it did smell like a very good bit of tree, in my opinion. A little peat too, apple skin. It’s a muddy field in the height of summer. White musk, hay, lime, just real heady outdoors. It’s dusk basically, that time of day when everything is heightened, perfumed, heavier. 

Tastes like: Bubbles fizz ever so gently across the mouth. Sharp and sour, like very red apples and also citrus – lemon, lime, maybe some orange too. The apple is raw, crisp, juicy. I’m getting a little mango too, maybe gooseberry and a taste that I associate with cranberry, peach, nectarine.

Moving on, we’re abandoning all traces of secondary fermentation and diving into a Pétillant Naturel (“pet nat”) – made by bottling the cider whilst the initial fermentation is still taking place, thus encouraging a natural sparkle to develop in the bottle as fermentation continues.

It’s a method reasonably commonplace in cider and, confusingly, is often referred to as “bottle conditioning” in England. (Though, in fairness, it has been for some time.) We’ve chosen to use the French “pet nat” in our taxonomy so as to reserve “bottle conditioning” for the practice listed above, which has no other suitable pseudonym.

The bottle bubbling over today though is not from England at all, but from Sweden – the first appearance of a Brutes in these digital pages. I’ve tasted a lot of excellent ciders from Sweden – mainly Pomologik and Brännland – and was told good things about Brutes in my conversation with the former.

Their website is fairly sparse on detail – “fruit pet nats and ciders” is about your lot – but digging around social media it’s fairly clear that we’re talking whole juice creations presented at natural strength from a range of different fruits. In this instance we’re sticking to apples though, with “Toot Your Own Horn 2019”, made from the Swedish Vealth and Cox Pomona varieties as well as a small amount of crabapple. You can, at the time of writing, pick up a bottle for £17 from Beerzoo or £15.50 from Scrattings.

Brutes Toot Your Own Horn 2019 – Rachel’s review

Looks like: Hay in the sun, a gentle stream of bubbles

Smells like: Sweet, apple crumble, mixed spice, sweet cinnamon, peach cobbler, pie crust specked with demerara, vanilla, ripe stone fruit

Tastes like: Lemon sherbet, the soft fuzz of a raspberry, peach melba, sour apple candy and licking a boiled lemon sweet. Acidity that I associate with a well made daiquiri, or caipirinha. Some noticeable tannins, gives a nice graze of your mouth. A little passion fruit maybe. 

Brutes Toot Your Own Horn 2019 – Adam’s review

Colour: Mid gold. (my colours are so boring compared to Rachel’s). Light ‘pft’ of fizz on bottle opening – no pet nat explosions here!

On the nose: Most unusual – in a good way! Light and clean. Big nectarine – and nectarine yoghurt. Pineapple. Banana. Rosewater and tangerine skin. It’s actually really aromatic in a rather delicate way. Nice.

In the mouth: Those fragrances are amplified here by a spritz of fizz and a zing of clean tangfastic acidity. Thrilling and fresh in its tropical, stone fruit delivery. There is also an increase in the florality of its character – roses and lily petals. Touches of pineappleyness amidst that nectarine, and a reddish blush of pink lemonade.

In a nutshell: The tropical face of culinary fruit. On the pricey side, perhaps, but clean, elegant and expressive cider. Might be my first Brutes – won’t be my last.

Almost there now! Last of our sparkling categories (I thought we could manage without covering force-carbonated – it’s in the taxonomy, should you wish to look it up) is the keeve.

Strictly keeving doesn’t automatically equal fizz, it’s simply a way of making a naturally sweeter cider by reducing the nutrients available to help yeast convert sugars to alcohol. But since a vast majority of keeves are bottled pet nat, it feels a worthy subcategory.

Keeves tend to work most successfully with low-nutrient bittersweet apples, and that’s what you’ll find in both of the ciders here. The twist is that our first example is British and our second comes from over the water in France, where keeving is virtually de rigeur.

Our British example comes from Scotland’s Caledonian, whose ciders we’ve enjoyed several times previously. This one’s a blend of Somerset-grown Dabinett and Yarlington Mill, utilised because the Highland weather wasn’t Ryan’s friend in 2019 and his local bittersweets succumbed to frost damage. Bottles are still available for £9.95 from the Cat in the Glass, though I should possibly add the caveat that, although mine and Rachel’s were delicious and absolutely without fault (spoilers) I’ve heard educated rumblings of a bit of bottle variation with this batch. Just a slight note of caution in case your experience differs from my extremely pleasant one.

*Embarrassing addendum. Since writing my note for Heavy Sun a couple of months ago, which I know I did, and which ran along the lines of “pure apple juice for grownups” I have somehow completely lost it, along with the earlier Hagloe Crab. I’ve combed all of my little notebooks as well as the larger ones which I used when I briefly ran out of the ‘smalls’ and I have come up with nothing and am worried that their page got torn out. So, uselessly, all I can do is say that it tasted very nice and that it was on the sweeter, riper, juice-forward end of keeves and point you towards Rachel’s fuller considerations. God, not my day today. Sorry.

Alongside the English grown, Scottish-made cider, we’ll be pitting a French-grown keeve produced in Normandy by an English maker. Confused yet? Adam Bland is a Gloucestershire native who for some time now has plied his trade on the other side of the channel. Initially, following his surname, his brand was “Bland’s Cider”, but deciding that wasn’t an ideal moniker for a drink of craft and care, he changed it to Templar’s Choice. We’ll be drinking the Dry, which is available from their website for £6 or from Scrattings for £7.

Caledonian Cider Heavy Sun – Rachel’s review

Looks like: orange, bruised apricot, heavy sun indeed, no visible sparkle

Smells like: peat, sunshine, straw, a very soft spike of clove, opens up into vanilla flecked stewed apples, there’s a brightness here that is quite salivating

Tastes like: more vanilla, strips of dried mango. The sparkle is quite soft here, if I didn’t know better I would say it was a still but that doesn’t matter to me, it’s got more of a vinho verde-esque spritz than a sparkle I would say. It’s just so light and bright isn’t it, with this really sweet softness. The faintest hint of tannins, they just gently graze the tip of your tongue. Its sweetness gives a really nice body that glides through your mouth, lots of apple juice and honeydew melon. Big sweet, ripe, sunpacked energy, I want to eat it with jamón. 

Templar’s Choice Dry – Rachel’s review

Looks like: apricot, almost rose gold, a gentle fizz

Smells like: soft apples, almost cooked, but with a bit of sharpness to suggest not fully. It’s biscuity, like shortbread. It’s quite reserved to me, a little like dusk in Autumn, I think. 

Tastes like: nice and mellow, a very gentle fizz that fades to some quite prominent tannins that compliment an initial peatyness. It’s almost smoky at times, a little hay too. Then that cooked apple again, crisp, the bit of a peach right by the stone. Dry, but not searingly so. A little bit of toasted oats as well.

Templar’s Choice Dry – Adam’s review

Colour: The first glinting rays of sun off … off … off … oh look, I don’t know colours, ok? Gold. Quite deep, clear Gold. Some fizz, not excessive.

On the nose: Ripe, russet apple, golden sultana and the outside of dried mango slices. Yellow-orange fruit but in a skins-y, savoury way. So different to the darker keeves often found in England. Husks and bark and earth. Root ginger. A faint meatiness of raw lardons. It’s complex but it’s not an enormous nose – creeps and grows from the glass, rather than billowing.

In the mouth: Big here, though the mousse is well-judged, not overwhelming at all. Chunky, grippy tannins, refreshing light-pithy bitterness (finishing to copper pennies) and a real ramp up in the intensity of flavours. The English apples I’d be in mind of would be those chewy, yellow-fruited structural types like Harry Masters’ Jersey, but this is fuller bodied, and that fullness, with its dried apricot, dried apple and yellow plum fruit, wraps up those tannins and keeps them ripe, rather than too coarse and astringent. Some clove and earthy spice mingles with the fruit too. Barley husk savouriness. A touch off-dry but tannins, body and flavour disguise the sweetness.

In a nutshell: Really lovely and smashing value. Would love it with some meaty, fatty charcuterie. Or a massive sausage roll.

Rachel’s conclusions

In the interest of my naive honesty, I found tasting all of these a brilliant lesson in learnt complacency. I’m so used to reading traditional method or pet nat on a bottle of wine and going oh, okay, so it’s gonna taste like X, Y or Z and more often than not being proven right.

These ciders turned all of that on its head. They didn’t taste like sparkling wine, because they’re not, they’re sparkling ciders. It was really wonderful and thought-provoking to see how the tastes I associate with those methods changed with the fruit they were applied to. Tasting cider, to me, is always a welcome reprimand whenever I find my tasting brain steering away from open-minded inquisitivity.

Adam’s conclusions

First of all, huge thanks to Rachel for providing tasting notes (especially when I failed) along with insights and inspiration. It is always a joy to read her thoughts on any sort of drink, she has a real gift for bringing flavours to life and I’m relieved to see that our notes and takes on each cider cleave to similar organoleptic themes, whilst of course being orbited by our own individual satellite observations. Just as you’d want companion takes to be. I very much hope that we’ll see many more of her tasting notes (and longer articles too please?) here in future.

Second of all, a few really good bottles amongst these. In particular Templar’s Choice is a must for the price, Bollhayes hits their usual excellent standards and Brutes is well worth a look too. Apologies to Ross on Wye and Caledonian for my inexplicable failures on their fronts, hopefully the many things I’ve written about them both elsewhere makes up for it a little.

Tasting through this flight really did reiterate that there are no set rules when it comes to combining fruit and method in cider. The two keeves were deliciously different in their flavours, the two traditional methods even more so. I’ve had many a pet nat along my tasting journey, have reviewed dozens of them here on CR and the Brutes showed me something totally new. If I had these ciders blind I reckon I could have roughly guessed at the method used for each one, but in no instance did it dictate or anticipate the totality of flavour on show.

This is a wonderful state of affairs – one that opens up infinite dimensions of possibility to makers around the world, but it does reiterate the importance of providing prominent information. We are simply not at the point of consumer awareness at which we can expect anyone to know instinctively what a cider might taste like, and it’s naïve to expect that everyone wants to be taken by surprise every time.

If more cidermakers commit to succinctly unpacking what a cider’s flavours are and how those flavours have been arrived at, we could be in for a whole new level of consumer confidence, understanding, empowerment and conversation. I’m excited already.

Thanks again to Rachel for everything. For translation of any unfamiliar terms or apple varieties, or for an expanded look at the topics covered here, do take a peek at our taxonomy of cider and list of apple and pear varieties by taste.

5 Comments

  1. Fantastic article covering the breadth of styles of sparkling cider and the diversity within. Loved the guest appearance by Rachel. Her reviews are engaging and evocative. Will definitely check out her newsletter!

    Like

    • Hi Andrew
      Thanks very much for reading – so pleased you enjoyed it. Rachel has a real gift for tasting notes – for drinks writing generally – and I was thrilled she added her voice to this. Definitely sign up to J’adore le plonk. Can’t recommend it highly enough.
      Best wishes
      Adam W.

      Like

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