Grape and apple varieties go in and out of fashion. Fifty years ago, hardly anyone outside of south-western France had even heard of Malbec, yet now it’s the ubiquitous red on supermarket shelves. On the other hand, there was a time when sweet German Riesling fetched the same prices as First Growth Bordeaux, whereas it’s now arguably the greatest bargain in all of wine. I’ll generally take a Riesling over a Malbec any day of the week, but then the vagaries of fashion don’t follow my tastes. And why should they? I am, after all, just one lone obsessive with a penchant for quirky and intriguing drinks. Taking me as your target market is probably a hiding to bankruptcy.
The sad story of Bulmer’s Norman is rather more redolent of sweet Riesling’s regrettable fall than of Malbec’s meteoric rise. In the late 1800s, this as yet unnamed bittersweet variety was imported to Britain from France by H.P. Bulmer, and was widely planted in Herefordshire. It was prized for its vigour, its cold-hardiness and the size of its fruit, and it soon became a cider maker’s stalwart. Apparently, it produced a strong and full-bodied cider, which fermented quickly and was highly regarded for the intensity of its tannins.
Fast-forward a hundred and twenty years, and Bulmer’s Norman is almost unheard of. I have no memory of trying a cider made with it and I’m sure that I haven’t tasted it as a single variety. It is certainly never mentioned in the same breath as the most lauded ‘vintage’ varieties, namely Dabinett, Kingston Black, Yarlington Mill and Foxwhelp. I suspect that it went out of vogue due to its susceptibility to disease, its biennial fruiting and its tendency not to store well, but these commercial considerations have no bearing on its flavour. From a purely qualitative standpoint, is Bulmer’s Norman due a revival, or does it deserve to be consigned to the scrapheap of history?
When one has such arcane questions about apple varieties, one rarely has to look any further than Ross on Wye. This company really is the last word in single variety ciders, and many of my reviews will be devoted to drinking its seemingly endless range of single variety offerings. Today, I’ll be tasting the 2017/ 2018 multi-vintage Bulmer’s Norman, which was aged in an oak barrel. A 750ml bottle costs £6 from Scrattings. I’m following it with the 2018 vintage expression, which is unoaked and comes in a 500ml bottle which you can find for £3.20 from The Cat in the Glass.
I have to admit that I’m going to be cheating a bit, because the oaked expression is not, strictly speaking, made from a single variety. 10% was pressed from donated sharps (better known as cooking apples). I hope that I’ll be forgiven for this faux pas, seeing as it seems almost impossible to find any other single variety ciders made from this cultivar, and given that the unoaked expression was entirely pressed from Bulmer’s Norman.
Ross on Wye Bulmer’s Norman Oak Barrel Aged 2017/18 Batch C93 – review
Appearance: Pale straw, with a very slight haze and a little sediment. Petillant rather than truly fizzy.
On the nose: Utterly beguiling. This smells like top-quality Islay whisky, minus the heat from the alcohol. I am immediately struck by Islay’s characteristic peat smoke and iodine, but a peacock’s tail of aromas gradually unfurls as the glass warms in my hand, revealing wildflowers, sea minerals, freshly mown hay and a healthy dose of horse blanket. It’s the alcoholic equivalent of National Geographic, taking you on a whirlwind adventure from the sea, to a meadow, to the farmyard and back in every enthralling sniff. I could happily smell this all day, but I’ll content myself with greedily nosing it over the course of the evening.
In the mouth: Although it isn’t mentioned on the label, I would bet my bottom dollar that this was matured in an Islay whisky barrel. The smoke and bandages are undeniable. Then again, it’s just about conceivable that I might be mistaken. Ross on Wye does have the uncanny ability to wring improbable flavours from apples like some kind of pomological alchemist. Tart apple juice and spring flowers emerge from behind the peat and farmyard, to remind us that this is cider and not whisky. The acidity and tannins are medium-plus in intensity and finely balanced, and a caress of soft oak rounds out the palate nicely. There is a deep undercurrent of salinity on the finish, which ends with a slightly mouth-drying astringency. To be honest, any talk of a finish is rather misleading, because its persistence on the palate is almost never-ending. This cider lingers on the tongue like crude oil on a cormorant. Unlike crude oil, however, it urgently invites another sip.
This cider is fascinating because it’s so gloriously self-contradictory. It performs the unlikely balancing act of being whistle-clean while capturing all the flavours of the farmyard. It is dry, burly and muscular, but has no rough edges. It is not too acidic or too tannic, but rather smoky, savoury and saline. It’s yet another astonishingly good cider from the inimitable Ross on Wye.
Ross on Wye Bulmer’s Norman 2018 Batch D23 – review
Appearance: Burnished gold from an Anglo-Saxon horde. There is the tiniest, almost imperceptible hint of a sparkle, but the cider is very nearly still. It’s also so clear that I can read my tasting notes through the glass.
On the nose: Much more reticent on the nose than the oaked expression, initially only presenting a fulsome burst of fresh, ripe apple. As the glass warms in my hand, I gradually begin to notice a touch of barnyard and undergrowth, with an undercurrent of something faintly medicinal. There is no smoke to be found, but I do sense an intriguing lactic note, which reminds me a little of mature cheese.
In the mouth: The contrast between the ripeness of the apple and the bone-dry finish just screams Ross on Wye. I’ve tasted too many of Mike Johnson’s ciders to be surprised by this juxtaposition, but it will never cease to give me pleasure. What really does take me by surprise is that the lactic note, which was somewhat indeterminate on the nose, has transformed itself into a very clear and distinct impression of blue Stilton. I’m a big fan of pairing cheese with cider, but cheese flavours in cider are divisive, to say the least. I’m enough of a cheese lover to enjoy them, but I suspect that many people wouldn’t. This cider is nevertheless very well-balanced, with rather more elevated acidity than the first expression. The tartness counteracts the lactic richness with sufficient freshness and lift. The tannins are full but supple, without much in the way of astringency. There is a little earth, a little dry leaf and a little iodine, but the flavours tend to whisper rather than shout, at least compared to the oak-aged expression. Whereas the oaked version immediately grabbed me with its intensity and its complexity, this cider is relatively stripped-back and linear. It’s a drink to enjoy with chattering friends and a cheeseboard, rather than a profound experience that demands your undivided attention.
These two dry ciders are made from the same apple variety, but they couldn’t be more different. When tasted side by side, there can be no doubt that the first expression is aged in an Islay whisky cask and that the second expression is unoaked. And what a difference that cask makes! I tend to think of the influence of oak aging on cider as similar to the effect of seasoning on food: Too much is unpleasant and overwhelming, but when you get the balance right, the flavours are enhanced and consolidated in a harmonious whole that exceeds the sum of its parts. Ross on Wye’s oak-aged Bulmer’s Norman faultlessly achieves this precarious balancing act. It deepens the slightly medicinal and earthy character of the unoaked version, rounds out its acidity and replaces that divisive cheesiness with wood smoke, sea minerals and the essence of summer meadow. The result is genuinely entrancing and easily makes my shortlist of the best dry ciders that I’ve tasted this year.
Of course, this isn’t to say that the unoaked version is a bad cider. It isn’t, by a long shot. It honestly expresses some interesting idiosyncrasies, while remaining refreshing and well-balanced. I would happily buy and drink it again, although I’d be wary about serving it to cheese-averse acquaintances. That it doesn’t quite live up to the example set by its bigger, oak-aged sibling can’t be held against it, because very few ciders do.
If these two ciders are typical expressions of Bulmer’s Norman, then every West Country cider maker should be planting this variety. However, I just can’t be sure that they are true to type in any meaningful sense. In spite of Ross on Wye’s single-minded focus on single variety ciders, I don’t think that this producer should be too closely associated with the concept of varietal typicity. Every cider that I’ve tasted from Ross on Wye has expressed its singular terroir. These ciders have a sense of place that exceeds their varietal character. Besides, Mike Johnson is a master cider maker who leaves his unmistakeable stamp on all of his creations. I have no doubt that he would shudder in horror at the thought, but I firmly believe that he could make delicious and highly distinctive single variety ciders from Granny Smith or Golden Delicious. [Ed: in the spirit of balance, good ciders from these varieties do, in fact, exist!] You’re no more likely to get an average dry Bulmer’s Norman from Ross on Wye than you are to get an average sweet Riesling from Egon Müller. Ross just doesn’t do average.
So what do these ciders show us, if they fail to prove that Bulmer’s Norman belongs on the pantheon of great cider apples? At the very least, they demonstrate that in the right hands, this variety can make truly compelling cider that merits our time, our attention and our respect. These ciders surely won’t kick-start a commercial revival of Bulmer’s Norman, but they are nonetheless powerful statements in favour of the cultivar. If I ever stumble across another cider made from it, then I will taste it without a moment’s hesitation, and I encourage you to do the same. If that cider happens to be Ross on Wye’s oak-aged expression, then buy it by the caseload. Serve it to your whisky-drinking friends and watch their faces light up in amazement at the very first sniff. Or better still, save it for yourself and spend an intimate evening getting to know its charms and foibles. Whether you drink it in company or alone, make sure that you treat it with the contemplative reverence that it demands, for it is rare, remarkable and strangely seductive.