One of the shortcomings of the current conversation around international ciders is that countries are so often discussed in very general terms concerning style.
“French style” is the classic – and one increasingly used by English producers who are making a keeved cider. Which I suppose is understandable. In broad terms, “French style” translates in most peoples’ minds as a blend of predominantly bittersweet varieties, keeved, bottled pét nat for a bit of sparkle and likely somewhere between medium sweet and medium dry. And certainly you could apply this description to a large number of the ciders being bottled across Normandy, Brittany and beyond.
The problem is, this approach lacks nuance and overlooks diversity, just as the applications of “Eastern Counties” or “West Country Style” do in our own British cider discourse. Take the treasured Royal Guillevic variety from Morbihan, for instance. Packed with green, bright, fresh flavour completely removed from the average Norman or Breton farmhouse blend. Or how about the regions beyond Normandy and Brittany? Pays d’Othe, for instance, touched on by James last week, on entirely the other side of France, growing entirely different apples in a different soil and climate? Or the Ardennes, to the north, different in flavour and character again. Sticking just to Normandy, this general couching of “French style” within limited brackets ignores the innovation and diversity shown by producers such as Antoine Marois, with his magnificent dry Casus Belli, or champagne method Cuvée Collette from the outstanding Famille Dupont?
Even within the generalisation of keeved-sparkling-medium sweet crouch layers and layers of individuality. One of the joys of tasting through a range of, say, Normandy ciders, is getting to grips with the stylistic differences between appellations. The soft, ripe, rounded, juicy ciders of the Pays d’Auge versus the more tannic, astringent, intense and husky creations of Cotentin, and the full-bodied, burly Du Perches that sit somewhere in the middle. And none of those ciders taste the same as their keeved English counterparts, because of course they are made from different apples.
Just as we would rightly take umbrage if someone were to categorise English cider as being de facto from-concentrate, force-carbonated, heavily diluted and industrial, so we must strive to avoid laziness in our discussion of ciders from other places and cultures. Of course, within those cultures, will lie certain broad strokes to which many ciders will adhere, and indeed human geography and the impact of culture upon a drink is a vital component in affecting how ciders have come to taste. But it is the diversity, the individuality and the layers beneath those broad strokes that make international cider truly compelling. The importance of talking about different apples and methods and the idiosyncratic ways in which they affect the flavours of a given cider is paramount. If all French cider, or all English cider tasted the same and could be summarised in a sentence or with a single tasting cue, they would be of no interest whatsoever.
Spain is another country whose ciders are often discussed by outsiders in rather reductive terms: dry and sharp. Again, whilst not generally false, these terms fail to acknowledge breadth and innovation – look at the fortified and ice ciders from Zapiain, to name just two. And where, amidst all this, is the discussion of how Basque and Asturian ciders differ in flavour, or how differing blends of apples favoured by differing producers result in a broad spectrum of differing flavours? But there’s another, more problematic generalisation made about Spanish ciders, which is not only over-simplistic, but results in hard-to-shift reputational damage, and that is the generalisation that they are defined primarily by acetic acid.
Two important points to deal with here straight away. The first being that, as I learned when talking to Maialen at Zelaia, a huge part of the last twenty years in Asturias and the last ten or so in the Basque country has been the reduction of the levels of volatility in their ciders. In the Basque country, for instance, the maximum permitted quantity of acetic acid in cider is 2.2g/l, and in practice few ciders nowadays go over 1.6. (Maialen attested, if I remember correctly, to a practically imperceptible 1.1 in the ciders at Zelaia, the result of significant work on temperature control and hygiene in the cidery.) The introduction of independently-assigned tiers of quality and provenance in the last few years – Gorenak, Euskal Sagardoa and Euskal Sagardoa Premium – have also incentivised producers to reduce volatility and improve quality. Quite simply, Basque and Asturian ciders cannot be discussed in the same way that they were five, ten, twenty years ago.
The second important point to acknowledge is the cause of these volatile components, and its direct influence on the character of their volatility. For a more detailed breakdown, this thread featuring Andrew Lea and Claude Jolicouleur is essential reading. The crux is that the trace volatility in most modern Asturian or Basque ciders is the result of particular yeast strains metabolising lactate to acetate early in the process of fermentation. This is wholly different to the acetic flavours brought on by oxidation (these are the flavours that particular effort has gone into reducing in Spain), but again, this distinction is squashed by a lack of nuance. With the result that I have seen on more than one occasion, ciders from other parts of the world described as “Spanish style” or “Sidra style”, simply because they have, through whatever alternative means, become acetic.
It’s my opinion that this is not only lazy, but arguably disrespectful. The flavours of Basque or Asturian ciders are the result of particular apple varieties processed and fermented in particular ways to achieve a broad spectrum of particular flavours. Bottling, for example, a cider made from English apples – inevitably different to Spanish cider apples in their expression of flavour – and labelling it ‘English Sidra’ or ‘Spanish-style’ simply because it contains elements of acetic not only reduces the whole huge history and breadth of Spanish cider to one characteristic, but removes the important nuance that distinguishes Basque or Asturian expressions of that characteristic from ciders that have simply gone faulty.
I am absolutely in favour of the cross-pollination of ideas, techniques and varieties. I would love to see cidermakers from different cultures sharing their methods, varieties and thoughts; I think it would make for a bigger, more interesting and generally higher-quality world of cider. Just look at what’s happening in America, should you need more persuasion. But there is a difference between putting that effort in to really ingest the building blocks of another culture’s cider, and using generalities about that culture as a shorthand marketing hack which simultaneously reduces the degree to which an individual cider’s flavours and their origins are being discussed.
For a demonstration of effort being put in, consider Ross on Wye’s Spanish Apples Cider 2019. In 2014 Mike Johnson grafted a row of Basque apples including Moko, Udare Marroi, Haritza, Urdin Sagarra and Urtebi Txiki into his Herefordshire orchard, and in 2019 they gave their first big enough crop to produce a bottling. Unusually, for Ross, this cider is therefore a blend of several varieties, but I suppose that approach puts it more in line with the Basque Cider norm.
What I like about this bottling is that nowhere does it suggest itself to be Basque-style or Sidra-style. It is very much an English cider which happens to have been made with Spanish varieties. Its making has also not been dictated by a Basque approach; rather than being bottled still, or very lightly sparkling, Spanish Apples has been cryo-conditioned by inducing a second fermentation in the bottle using ice cider, rather than granulated sugar as the priming material. In the words of the label, the result aims to be “reminiscent of Basque ciders, but unmistakeably Ross on Wye in character”. When asked about it, Albert Johnson said “I think we have made a cider I’d be proud to share with a Spanish cidermaker and say: this is how our worlds meet, a little bit of you and a little bit of us.” A 750ml bottle costs £9 from Scrattings, and is also available from Fram Ferment.
To see just how reminiscent of Basque ciders this Ross on Wye is, today I’m tasting it next to one of the Basque’s own. Although situated in Spanish Basque country, Bereziartua is a cidery I first encountered at France’s CidrExpo, where I mentioned them as one of my standout exhibitors. I wasn’t able to visit them on my trip to the Basque country, but they remain high on my to-do list when I go back. Like many Basque cideries their history stretches back considerably, with over 150 years of cidermaking experience. They make cider from a range of Basque, Galician and French apples in around 60 1,000 litre temperature-controlled Kupelas made of wood, plastic and stainless steel. You can find more information on the cidery and the team behind it in Susanna Forbes’ book, The Cider Insider.
Today I’m tasting their Edición Gourmet, made from a blend of apples including Txalaka, Urtebia and Gezamina. It’s produced to the standard Basque methods, is dry, virtually still and the Bereziartua website lists its volatile acidity at 1.5-2g/l, which I think is admirably transparent. A bottle costs somewhere around €7 once you’ve worked out all the VAT, but the website seems to only sell by the case.
Bereziartua Edición Gourmet – review
How I served: Chilled
Colour: Lightly hazy pineapple
On the nose: Haribo tangfastics, green fruit pastilles, candied lemons, starfruit and cut down weeds (the geophysicist has done some gardening today, so I assert this one with confidence). A little fresh hay. They’re very bright aromatics with medium intensity. The light volatility interweaves with the aromas, rather than distracts.
In the mouth: Still big in the lemon and lime sugar-dusted sweets territory here. Green apples, a touch of Lilt-esque pineapple, preserved lemon. No tannin and the acidity is in no way overwhelming. The prickle of mousse is refreshing and the zing of acidity is nicely matched by ripeness and a little pith. Screaming for something like anchovies and roasted peppers, really. The lightest murmur of perceptible volatility doesn’t detract, works perfectly with the style and would combine with those foods completely.
In a nutshell: Tangy, citrusy, vivacious. A benchmark Basque cider.
Ross on Wye Spanish Apples 2019 – review
How I served: Chilled
Colour: Light amber
On the nose: The apples may be unfamiliar, but the nose instantly hearkens to Ross. That slatey-nettley thing and light touch of struck match, which dissipates after a minute in the glass, revealing a bloom of flowers, ripe lemon peel and the flesh of lemons and Seville oranges. Very bright and summery. I could believe this was a Browns-based blend, if I had it blind, though there is definitely something distinct here.
In the mouth: That cryo-conditioning has resulted in more mousse than you find in the average Ross, which really works with the bright, pithy lemon and orange rind and white grapefruit. Bone dry, some refreshing acidity (though not too sharp) and a light trace of moreishly bittering tannin. You could absolutely hoover up a plate of jamon with this.
In a nutshell: Super refreshing, vivacious and moreish. A perfect marriage of the Basque Country and Ross on Wye. Yum.
This is likely to be one of the most fascinating side by sides I do this year. The Bereziartua is an absolute classic of its type – one that sits in the same eschelons as the Zapiain and Zelaia Euskal Sagardoa Premiums I tasted last year as yardstick examples of Basque ciders. Don’t leave it on the shelf, should you come across it, and treat it with the respect of some really good tapas, or the sort of food you might find at a txotx evening.
The Ross has absolutely succeeded in its aim of reaching out and touching Spanish ciders whilst remaining true to the place in which it was grown and made. It has so many of the cues I associate with this cidery, yet the flavours of the apples instantly hearkened to those you might find in the Basque country. I’ve talked before about the joy in wine of tasting, for instance, Pinot from France next to the same grape from California, and it was a joy to have some of that experience with cider here.
The story of apples, and how certain apples came to be grown in certain areas and for certain purposes is one as much of migration as it is of practical necessity. Virtually every English bittersweet, for instance, owes its ancestry to varieties introduced from Normandy a millennium ago. In fact some of the most-grown cider apples of the last century came over from France in far more recent times – Bulmer’s Norman, as Chris pointed out, and Michelin; one of the most widely planted varieties of all in the west country. It is this continued migration of apples and flavours and techniques and ideas that will increase our understanding and make cider’s world and audience bigger. There is so much here to learn and to marvel at; so much nuance and diversity. So let’s embrace that breadth and wonder and potential, not whittle it away with reductive generalisations.