Here’s a tuppenceworth of hand-grenade opinion to start your weekend with. I reckon, were French cider readily available in the UK at reasonable cost and from a range of producers, the quality of English cider would start rising exponentially. I think it would have to.
This is not to suggest that British cider is by any means “bad”. If I were to make a list of my top ten producers in the world I imagine at least half of them would be from the UK. And I’d further argue that for range of flavours, varieties and approaches gleaned from apple-only cider alone, Britain takes top spot. But, even excluding macro producers like Bulmer’s and Westons, even sticking only to craft/full-juice makers, I don’t think it’s contentious to suggest that on aggregate quality across the board, France knocks the UK into a cocked hat.
Last year, a month before Europe shut down, I was lucky enough to go to CidrExpo in Caen, which opened my eyes to an extent that no other cider tasting has come close to. Across three days I tasted around 180 ciders and perries – maybe half of what was available, and that’s not including Calvados – and I’m not sure I can remember more than maybe two or three being perceptibly “faulty”. No acetic acid, no ethyl acetate, no mouse, no H2S, barely any examples of over-oxidation. The couple that I didn’t get on with were down to a surfeit of Brettanomyces – always a potential challenge when you’re making cider in the keeved method that is virtually de rigeur in France. But even then, my strong impression was that Norman and Breton cider is far less heavily affected by ‘brett’ than it was even a decade ago.
I simply don’t think that it would currently be possible to taste 180 full-juice English ciders without encountering at least 50 that are afflicted by significant perceptible fault. In fact I’m possibly being conservative in that estimation. Judging for the International Cider Challenge we’re instructed that if a cider is drinkable it should be awarded at least a Bronze medal, with “no medal” reserved for drinks that are overtly faulty. This year, in my flight of 24 ciders, nine were given no medal. And that’s by consensus of a group of four judges. Last year’s competition was a similar story.
Tellingly, these aren’t even solely my opinions. I went around CidrExpo with an English cidermaker, and he made his feelings abundantly clear that the average quality on show couldn’t currently be matched by an equivalent exhibition of British cider. Nor is he the only English cidermaker to have privately expressed similar opinions. Last week I mused on how many English cidermakers have taken up keeving in the last few years, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that it’s at least in part down to their having one eye on what’s happening across the channel. Jeremy at Cwm Maddoc is on record as having been inspired by his “best ever” cider – a Normandy keeve. I’ve heard similar things speaking to Tom and Lydia at Artistraw. Martin Berkeley at Pilton adopted keeving because he and his wife liked French cider better than English. For a notion of just how star-studded France’s cast of makers is, consider the affection and respect in which Pilton is held by English cider enthusiasts. And then imagine there being thirty, forty, fifty Piltons all making cider in the same way, to the same quality and, importantly, in generally more significant quantity than the bulk of England’s full-juice makers currently produce too.
“But it’d be boring”, I hear you shout. That’s certainly a criticism often levelled at French cider – that the ubiquity of keeving makes it all samey and dull after you’ve tried four or five. And sure, I’d love there to be a higher proportion of entirely dry French ciders available. But my own take is that, after trying from some sixty or so French producers last February, the individualities of region, appellation, varieties and makers were clear as day. I found everything from zingy sharps to bombastic, rumbling bitter-sweets. I found keeves, traditional methods, sparklings and stills, bone-dry bottlings and lusciously sweet cidre de glace. There are ciders made from particular terroirs, champagne method ciders using the likes of mandarin or cherries as liqueur d’expedition, ciders co-fermented with chestnuts and toasted buckwheat, ciders aged under the sea (though even the maker himself admitted that one was more random ‘see what might happen’ than anything else).
And that’s without mentioning France’s glorious perries or its indulgent pommeaux. And bear in mind that the overwhelming majority of exhibitors at CidrExpo were Norman – I barely scratched the surface of Brittany, never mind the Ardennes, the Pays d’Othe or the French Basque Country. Make no mistake, French cider is in rude, rude health, with probably more that it could teach English than vice versa. We’re seeing a good few international makers slip onto our shelves at the moment, with the likes of Eden, Eve’s, Brute’s, Brännland and Pomologik earning generally-justified hype. But to my mind the richest potential pickings of the lot are to be found in the country nearest by, and if Brexit and the pandemic haven’t stuffed everything up completely, it’s to France that I’d direct the attentions of any serious cider importer. It may not be perfect, but I’d say it’s closer than anywhere else right now. And its potential for increasing the average British consumer’s perception of cider’s potential quality is immeasurable.
With which happy thought in mind, let’s try a couple, picked solely for being outliers, in their very disparate ways, from what we would consider the French “norm”.
La Cidrerie du Golfe is a Breton cidery, sited (no doubt spectacularly) just 500 metres from the Morbihan coast. Their website, it must be admitted, follows that cherished cidery tradition of being on the , erm, minimalist side, but we learn that they have five hectares of unsprayed traditional orchards from which they make a range of zero-added-sulphite ciders and brandies (in Brittany apple brandy is called Lambig, rather than Calvados). The bottle I’m opening today is one of those which has sat in my rack waiting for the right review angle to rear its head for far too long, but today seems as good as any. It’s a hop infused cider made, from what I can glean, from their classic keeved cider base. What those hops were I can’t begin to tell you, as the website couldn’t begin to tell me.
Hopped cider itself is worth a quick(ish) aside, as there are a handful of examples doing the rounds on the UK cider market, but as far as I can remember we’ve not covered any here, besides Pilton’s Scarlett Sharpe, which is a different thing entirely, and 1785’s, which isn’t available on these shores. They seem, on the whole, to get up the noses of the cider purist (mind you, what doesn’t?) and I think it’s reasonable to say that many of them suffer from being bottled at a lower-than-full strength, since the addition of hops pushes them into Made Wine duty territory, which can get onerous if your creations are above 4% abv. (More details here – and certainly a subject to cover more fully another day).
My hot take is that hops and apples are often found growing together – in the apple’s ancestral home in the Tien Shan mountains and in its modern heartland of Herefordshire, for instance – and if, in tandem, they make a tasty drink, then more power to their elbows and I’ll be a customer. I’ve occasionally had hopped ciders in which I felt that the base cider was fairly average, and I’ve certainly had examples in which the hops overwhelmed everything else, but when they work I like them a lot.
Cidrerie du Golfe’s “Hoops” is, unusually, available in the UK and can be bought from Beer Zoo for £16.90 which if memory serves is where I got mine (it was certainly pre-pandemic, so I’m slightly hazy). I did a bit of digging to see if I could find out what it cost in France, but I came up slightly short, only finding one site which had it listed at €10, but out of stock. So I’ll be evaluating this based on the premium price for which it’s available over here.
La Cidrerie du Golfe Hoops – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Burnished copper. Frothy mousse.
On the nose: There’s hops in that alright. Bright, zingy grapefruit and pine needle. The apple’s bringing up the rear with some depth, and becomes more prominent the more the cider warms up, but in the main this is all super-fresh, light, vivacious, cirusy-hoppy stuff. Very clean and well-defined, I must say. None of the soapiness you occasionally come across in hopped ciders.
In the mouth: Still plenty of hop influence, but the base cider is much more prominent here with good, medium-weight orangey fruit. Some nice ripe tannins too. It’s a wonderfully clean cider – clearly a really excellent base – and it ballasts the drink as those hops buzz about. They’re now expressing in a more herbal form than they did on the nose – there’s even something slightly *cough cough* herbal about it. Off-dry, and the tannins, body, combination of depth and high nots and intensity of flavour balance each other, and the slight sweetness, tremendously.
In a nutshell: Maybe not for the cider purist, but I really liked this. Could drink gallons of it. One of the best hopped ciders I’ve had, if not best full stop.
Domaine Dupont represents a step up in scale. They’re based in Normandy’s Pays d’Auge, where they’ve 30 acres of orchards feeding a hefty range of both Calvados and cider. The website goes into tremendous detail, outlining apple varieties and processes to an incredibly refreshing degree. And the range is a particularly convincing rebuttal to any accusation of sameyness in French cider, with beer-inspired triple fermentations sitting beside oak-aged Reserves, still dessert ciders and more. Their Calvados also spans a huge range of ages, vintages and barrel finishes – as a former whisky writer my eye was particularly caught by Islay Cask finished Calvados, and well-versed rum devotees may be especially interested in their Caroni barrel finish.
We’re sticking to the undistilled today though, and the bottle I have to hand is of their Cuvée Colette, a traditional method cider made (unusually for Normandy) entirely from sharp apple varieties. I’m drinking the 2015, which I gather from Susanna Forbes’ excellent The Cider Insider is a blend of Avrolles and Petit Jaune. The bottle’s back label is almost as detailed as the website itself, describing the soil type on which the apple trees grew, explaining that the cider was initially wild-fermented before its secondary fermentation in bottle with a selected yeast strain, and giving the date of bottling and disgorgement (July 2016 and January 2019 respectively, meaning this has had two and a half years on lees; relatively hefty going by traditional method cider standards).
I bought my bottle from a wonderful Caen shop called La Boite à Calva the weekend of my visit to CidrExpo, and I have in mind it cost me around €15. The 2017 vintage is currently selling from the Domaine Dupont website at €18.54, which puts it at the mid-high end of the price spectrum compared to most traditional methods available in the UK.
Domaine Dupont Cuvée Colette 2015 – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Pale Gold. Fine Mousse.
On the nose: You don’t always taste the effect of lees ageing in traditional method ciders (often they’ve not had very much) but here it’s showing wonderfully in a layer of toasty brioche sitting atop green apple, hyacinth and lime zest. Incredible poise and freshness after six years. Brilliant aromatic intensity.
In the mouth: Gorgeous. So elegant and defined and beguiling and complex. Virtually dry, and acidity gives backbone without being too sharp, mousse lends creaminess of texture and elevates flavours rather than dominating them. The interplay between apple and method is marvellous. Flavours closely follow the nose, though the fruit has enrichened, adding peach and elderflower to the greenness and a thread of slatey smoke weaves through that toasty, biscuity brioche.
In a nutshell: Turns assumptions about French – especially Norman – cider on their head. Traditional method cider from the very top tier.
There’s some seriously good stuff being made in France, folks. This pair prove deliciously that even when makers stray from the well-trodden path they still do so with incredible skill and precision. I am itching to get back over to French cider country again when life is a bit more normal, and I will continue to keep my fingers crossed that a few more of France’s finest make their way across the channel in due course.