Can we promise something for 2021? A belated resolution of sorts. Can we all agree to stop worrying so much about whether or not cider is wine?
I’m on record several times in the annals of Cider Review as saying “no, it definitely isn’t,” and that remains my personal position. But if couching cider in your head as an appley member of the vinous family is what helps you to understand it all then honestly, and with my blessing, go for it. Do you. It is doing no harm.
The strength of feeling on this reasonably trivial matter is a pointless waste of oxygen and thought. It has entrenched divisions disproportionate to its importance. It reminds me of a similarly boring ‘debate’ from my whisky days – that of whether Jack Daniels counts as a bourbon. (It would, it does, but it chooses to label itself instead as Tennessee Whiskey. Move on.)
Most annoyingly, the focus that seems to be put upon this question distracts from a far more significant one: are there things that cider can learn from wine? To which the answer is a resounding and irrefutable YES.
Cider has its own history, baggage, challenges, culture and flavour palette, but at the end of the day it is, like wine, the product of fermented fruit. It is therefore inevitable that many of its similarities are stark and, given wine’s head-start in knowledge, appreciation, awareness and so many other facets runs to the tune of decades, if not centuries, it would be bafflingly stupid if cider were not to plunder wine’s intellectual property at every relevant opportunity.
In exactly a month from today I will have worked in the wine industry for eight years. When I got serious about cider it was, in no small part, through my excitement at discovering a new drink to which I felt I had an existing and applicable blueprint. Another dialect of a language I could already speak. Were it not for a grounding in wine I wouldn’t think to ask a tenth of the questions that I put to cider producers nor to write half of the articles that I have published on Cider Review and elsewhere.
Wine directly informs my thinking on apples, trees and the land. It is why I am interested in varieties, in discussing flavours beyond “sweet, dry, medium, sharp and tannic”. If I talk about faults it is because wine has gone so far in researching and reducing them. If I talk about the need for cider to become less insular it is because I have seen the benefit to the drinker of wine having done the same. Wine throws cider’s presentation into the sharpest relief, it reveals to the steepest degree the amount about cider that we simply don’t know and it offers cautionary tales on matters of elitism and inclusivity with which cider has not yet had to fully grapple.
The benefits to taking an interest in drinks besides your favourite are obvious and legion. The drawbacks, so far as I can see, are nil. It is to cider’s great credit that it is increasingly prepared to look around at what other drinks are doing, learn from their errors and develop from their strengths. It is my sincere hope that it will continue to do so. Strength in compound.
With that preamble aside (I said I was done with pre-ambles to reviews, didn’t I? That’s lasted well – who honestly believed me though?) today I am tasting, fairly predictably, a clutch of cider-wine hybrids. Some are co-fermentations and others are blends, but all derive their flavours from the fusion of grape and apple.
The first pair come from Herefordshire’s Once Upon a Tree and maker Simon Day, who is as wine-cider hybrid as it gets. He comes from a wine family, has made it for all of his life, continues to do so through his Sixteen Ridges brand and got into cider when he discovered that it was produced in approximately the same way. To the greatest extent of all the makers represented in this article, his thinking on cider is informed by his experiences in wine and that has always been reflected in the Once Upon a Trees that I have been lucky enough to taste.
For some reason I’ve not covered a Once Upon a Tree since one of the very first of my cider articles, back in January 2020 when Simon’s The Wonder Ice Perry 2015 was included in my inaugural ‘essential case’. I’m looking forward to putting that right today through the medium of two co-fermentations. The first, “Bacchus Cider” is a blend of 2018 Russet and Dabinett that has been fermented on wine lees from the Bacchus grape – a relatively little-known white variety that performs well in England’s chilly climate. It has been bottled pet nat and dry. The second has seen the skins of Cabernet Cortis and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes co-fermented with 2018 Dabinett juice before being given sparkle through the traditional method.*
I first tasted both of these ciders very early in their development – when they were still in tank – but haven’t tasted either of the finished articles. The Bacchus is available from a handful of places – Cider Is Wine have it for £12.50, whilst it’s yours from The Cat in the Glass for £13.95 and from Novel Wines at £11.99, all for 750ml bottles. The Cabernet Co is only, at time of writing, available through The Cat in the Glass, where 750ml will cost you £13.50.
Once Upon a Tree Bacchus Cider 2018 – review
How I served: Chilled
Colour: young white wine
On the nose: Here’s a funny thing. This is a cider made on wine lees and yet what I think about from first sniff is Thorn perry. A huge – I mean huge – hit of elderflower intercooled with lime and clover and minerally freshness. Really clean and clear and precise. That’s a superb nose.
In the mouth: Gorgeous. A lovely weight – the Russet and Dabinett lending, full, textural body with a little extra breadth from a light beam of fizz. Elderflower and Thorn perry vibes again, with that seam of green. Bacchus notwithstanding, the wines this makes me think of are the likes of Vinho Verde, Picpoul, Grüner Veltliner. Great acidity given that this is Dabinett and Russet. In fact the Dabinett itself seems to be generally fairly quiet, but I think, for this creation, that’s a good thing. No real tannin. A seamless blend of apple and grape.
In a nutshell: Gloriously refreshing, absolutely delicious. Very impressive. Buy.
Once Upon a Tree Cabernet Co 2018 – review
How I served: Chilled
Colour: Deep orange-pink
On the nose: Really unusual. Doesn’t necessarily smell s it looks – instead of red berries this is perfumed with pomegranate and rose petals and blackcurrant skins and an intriguing, persistent herby woodsmoke. Beneath that is a green streak of sugarsnap pea. Plum skin.
In the mouth: More surprisingly deep and dusky woodsmoke in the mouth. Really lovely structure – clean lined, creamy mousse. The redness emerges more here, a deep herby redcurrant and a grind of black pepper spice. Really impressed with the marriage of depth and elegance. Good weight in the mouth. This is very much a drink that necessitates mental recalibration. I’d say the grapes are imparting more influence than the apple, but really it doesn’t taste much like wine or cider. I suppose because it is neither.
In a nutshell: Tasty stuff, but very unusual. Think Bacchus is my slight preference.
Our next stop takes us to Somerset, where we find Martin Berkley of Pilton, a man with strong proclivities towards fermenting the weird and wonderful. Having started with keeved cider (I reviewed his magnificent Tamoshanta here) he has since seemingly set himself to fermenting Every Other Thing Possible, as we discovered in our spotlight of Pilton here.
Martin is aided and abetted in this endeavour by the Neutral Cider Hotel’s Martyn Goodwin-Sharman, who by this stage, I have convinced myself, has just cut himself a key to the cidery and nips in to rustle up a blend whenever Martin B’s back is turned. This one, In Touch, was one of the early co-creations, Pinot Noir grape skins soaked in fermenting keeved cider for three weeks before the skins were removed and, after some maturation, additional 2019 keeved cider was blended in. It was originally wrapped in paper and tagged simply with the bold statement: “very tasty cider”.
Since its launch Martin and Martyn have created a batch 2 blended from the 2019 and 2020 vintage, this time deploying Bacchus skins as the grape of choice. It was similarly wrapped up before an unveiling at the 2021 South West cider week and, like edition one, was labelled with an original Goodwin-Sharman poem.
I got In Touch (God I’m funny) with Martyn-with-a-Y for a few more details about this second iteration, which he kindly furnished thus:
“It’s a new take on the same process [as the first]. This time I was there from press to bottling line and each step has been about bringing those worlds of wine and cider together, whilst remaining unmistakeably Somerset cider. To me it’s an ode to the summer we lost and one destined for the sunlit parks and gardens of 2021.
Bacchus skins in barrel with keeve working towards dry, being so clean and eldeflower/honey. We did a preliminary blend and after four goes, tweaking the amount of Dabinett and Jonagold to lift with acidity and round out with orange notes, it was then down to dialling in the amount of young keeve for body and sweetness.
Added more keeve this time around than I thought would be right for me, as you’re kind of working toward an unknowable future and how it sits in the bottle. I felt a tocuh sweetness more than my dry/funky palate would normally ask for, so make sure this was a summer smasher and lift those green grapestalk and honey qualities, whilst ensuring the Somerset tannins were not drowned out, and worked with the skins to create that grippy finish to hold it.”
At the time of writing you can find In Touch Batch 1 in a range of places, but can buy both editions directly from Pilton’s website for £10.99 each and with free delivery if you take the pair. So that is probably what I recommend that you should do.
Pilton In Touch 2018/19 (Batch 1) – review
How I served: “Cellar” temperature. (Half an hour in fridge)
Colour: Onion skin
On the nose: What I really like here is that I put my nose to the glass and instantly thought: “yep, keeved cider”. (As did the geophysicist when I gave her the glass without telling her what it was). There’s a twist of sour black cherry skins and wild cherry (more Sangiovese vibes than Pinot, really) but it’s atop a broad base of deep apple skins and maple syrup. A herbiness again. Big apple and blackcurrant pie vibes. Spotlessly clean, deep and very precise for a keeve. Impressive.
In the mouth: More apple and blackcurrant pie – spices and all – but the apple, importantly, is in the driving seat. This is effectively a classic, medium keeve, just one that happens to be burnished with a winey redness. Wild strawberry. Apple skins. A touch of wood polish. The tannins are lovely – firm but not excessive or astringent – and the mousse elevates rather than distracts. Great stuff.
In a nutshell: Perhaps my favourite cider-wine hybrid to date. Maybe alongside the earlier Bacchus. Outstanding work.
Pilton In Touch 2019/20 (Batch 2) – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Colour: Peach juice
On the nose: Bright, light, fresh. Very different animal to Batch 1, as you’d expect, and wears its youth overtly, which I think works for this style. I’m tasting this before getting the full details from Martin (or Martyn) but the character of the base cider seems to be different, I dare say the better to intertwangle with the different grape. Floral – blossom, elderflower. Definite shades of the Bacchus but that almost sweet meadow character is pulling me away from the West Country and towards something like Jonagold** – daisies, dandelions and soft green apple juice.
In the mouth: Some good blending here. Has the green fruit and floral tones of softer culinary varieties and Bacchus but the firmness of light, pithy-bitter tannin and gentle acidity to prevent those notes going soapy. It’s helped in this respect by a medium-dryness and a very well-integrated mousse. All flowers and grasses and white grapes and green fruit but plumped and ripened with touches of canteloupe and nectarine. A big departure from number one, but treads its new path very nicely.
In a nutshell: The West Country in an Eastern Counties t-shirt. One for big gulps outside in the sun.
Completing our clutch of compounds we leave the south-west and head, of all places, to Melton Mowbray, of pork pie fame, in Leicestershire. It’s a place I’ve found myself from time to time, being just twenty minutes or so from where my aunt and uncle live, but I hadn’t realised until a year or two back that it played host to Cidentro Cider and Orchard.
I’ve not reviewed Cidentro here before but I enjoyed their dry 2018 immensely at Manchester Cider Club in March, and was prompted to belatedly snap up the rest of their range. Peeking through the website I learned that Hiranthi and Matthew Cook planted an orchard of 540 trees and have since made their cider from seven varieties of apple.
Their Rosé Cider 2018 differs from the hybrids we’ve tasted so far in being, to the best of my knowledge, a blend of Pinot Noir and Cider put together after their respective fermentations had ended, rather than co-fermented in the same vat. You can buy a case of 6 750ml bottles directly from their website for £57 or individually from Cider Is Wine for £13.50 a bottle.
Cidentro Rosé Cider 2018
How I served: Lightly chilled
Colour: Old rosé wine
On the nose: By contrast to the Pilton this feels more wine-led. Redder of fruit. Strawberry jam, red cherries, raspberries. Red apple skins but otherwise not too much noise from the apple. Victoria plum and a bit of oregano. (Lots of herby notes in these hybrids, it seems!) Not an enormous nose but loads here to like.
In the mouth: Again more about the redness and the wineyness. Fairly hefty of body despite no real tannin. Red jelly and forest floor. Eucalyptus. Communicates a slight sweetness. There is a touch – and I mean a touch – of TCA. Just the faintest cardboardy nuance on the finish. There’s still loads of fruit and freshness though – just one small personal cavil in an otherwise juicy, jammy, rosé-like drink.
In a nutshell: Bursting with summer fruits. Clearly a cidery to keep an eye on.
One of the more fascinating flights I’ve ever made my way through. Lots of good drinks and, in the Once Upon a Tree Bacchus and the Pilton Batch 1, two absolute worldies that I insist you try if you can. In Touch Batch 2 is also a definite buy, and an excellent stylistic departure from the original. Batch 1 may be my favourite, but much of that comes down to flavour preference and perceived complexity. There is plenty of space for both in my life.
I found the different approaches to hybridisation and the way they manifested in the glass particularly interesting. The light touch of skins that just brushed a layer onto the Pilton. The blending to show off the riper red fruits from Cidentro. The astonishing flavours from Once Upon a Tree that fused apple and grape completely such that they transformed into something entirely new.
If you’ve not encountered cider-wine hybrids before, the above are recommended as a deliciously educational place to start. All will broaden your mind and palate. All make me think – and care – more about both wine and cider for their existence.
*As ever, should any terms be unfamiliar, our taxonomy here will hopefully clear them up!
**Tasting note written before I knew it actually was Jonagold, hence weirdness of phrasing.