How can a drink taste of its place?
The answer, if you speak to many a wine enthusiast, will likely come back in the form of a French term called terroir, which the Oxford Companion to Wine translates as “the total natural environment of any agricultural site”. The particular characteristics of a place, so goes the argument; the soil type, its chemical and (perhaps even more importantly) physical makeup, the aspect of the plot, the direction in which it faces and so on all add up to a sort of natural URL contained within the fruit itself – and by way of the fruit, the drink – leading the interested drinker directly back to that individual plot of land.
I have always been captivated by the idea of terroir; both on a romantic level (I’m a writer, after all) and as an enthusiastic sniffer-sipper of interesting drinks. I’ve tasted enough wine to be entirely persuaded of its existence in that world, even if the concept and the word are too-frequently used to cynically bang the drum for elitism and exclusivism, and I’ve written extensively elsewhere of my conviction that it can reveal itself in the barleyfield too. So it’s hardly a leap to imagine that it can likely manifest itself through cider and perry, even if the research into precisely how it does so is currently minimal to non-existent.
Terroir, to my mind, is virtually common sense. But is it the only way that a place can transfigure itself into liquid in your glass? I don’t think so.
Let’s look back at wine again (I promise I’ll get onto cider properly soon). Put an Australian wine and a French wine in front of me and I’d bet you a reasonable sum I could tell you which was which. In fact I’ve taken exams which, amongst other things, required me to do so. In both cases, the drink’s sensory signature would be, at least in part, the result of its place. The Australian wine (let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, that it’s a Shiraz) would almost certainly be higher in alcohol, richer in body, jammier, possibly more luscious, in the delivery of its fruit. The French Syrah (same grape, different name) would likely contain more savoury notes, perhaps less sweetness, would be a touch lighter in body, a touch higher in acidity, more peppery in the delivery of its spice. Amongst various other things. Is this terroir? Not really, it’s more climate – those differences would likely manifest to some degree or another irrespective of whether the wines were from a single vineyard or blended from plots right across the country. It is a sort of “zooming out” of terroir. A broader stamp of geography. Transcribing this to cider, it’s why bittersweet apples grown in Herefordshire taste recognisable to – and yet recognisably different from – the same bittersweet varieties grown in, for instance, North America.
But we’re still not done with our markers of place. In cider (and perry) the age of the trees from which fruit is harvested can carry huge organoleptic weight. Take the Ross on Wye Thorn tasted here last year. Made from pears picked from 150-year-old trees on a neighbouring farm, it tasted markedly more intense than the Thorn picked from the Johnsons’ own, much younger, pear trees. Again, this in and of itself is nothing to do with terroir, but it certainly distinguished one farm from the other.
Then there’s human geography. In our moments of clunky generalisation we tend to categorise west country cider as tannic, and eastern counties cider as more acid-led in profile. Again, most cider drinkers would feel they could pick one from t’other, even given two glasses with no information about each. But that’s nothing to do with terroir and everything to do with the historical decision to base the constituent apples of Kentish and Sussex orchards on the eating requirements of London. Who is to say that, had they not remained dedicated to bittersweet cider fruit, tannic ciders of the East might not be even more cherished today than those of Somerset or Herefordshire?
As we’ve seen before, even the drinks which are most dedicatedly subject to minimum-intervention practices bear a human stamp. Cider doesn’t happen naturally; it is the result of a series of personal, human decisions. For evidence, look no further than the One Juice project released in May. One base pressing turned, by the hands of five separate makers, into five unmistakeably different ciders. The entire premise of the blind tasting I undertook in the course of that review was that drinks are fundamentally the result of the person behind them as much as (if not more so than) they are the transmogrification of a patch of dirt.
Irrespective of their category, be it whisky, wine or cider, the drinks which I have historically found most personally compelling are those which most clearly fuse this impression of ingredient, place and person. There is an ineffable magic to pouring a glass of something which tells you what it was made from and where and by whom. It is, I imagine, like the additional layers of emotion that come with knowing how an artist felt when they painted something, and why they painted it and who for. Like understanding the techniques the artist chose to utilise as much as appreciating the finished work itself. It is that articulation of person, place and ingredient within the glass, unmuddied by sweeteners or colourings or dilution or excess filtration or fault, that can elevate something, in my mind at least, beyond being “just a drink” into something more profound.
Raison d’Être is the annually produced flagship cider from Ross on Wye Cider & Perry Company. Last year I reviewed the first three vintages – 2016, 2017 and 2018 – alongside an interview with Albert Johnson on the cider’s origin story and original creation. The 2017 featured in my first ever “essential case” and the 2018 succeeded it in my second. Today we’ll find out how the 2019 stacks up.
Like the Raisons before it, it is a blend of Dabinett and Michelin, the two most-planted bittersweets in the three counties and west country; the enduring legacy of Bulmers’ choice to focus their 1970s plantings on these varieties. (Human impact again; flavour through decision). Like virtually every other Ross on Wye it is fermented to dryness and then bottle conditioned with around 5g/l of sugar to induce a light sparkle (for reference, Champagne uses something in the region of 20-25g/l to induce its fizz). As is traditional for Raison d’Être the 2019 has matured partially in ex-whisky casks, some of which contained peated Islay whisky (from Caol Ila, this vintage, for fellow whisky enthusiasts). I find there’s a sad tendency when Raison is discussed for drinkers and commentators to focus on its resultant characteristics of smoke. For my part, and admittedly I’m probably more of a whisky fan than the average cider drinker, I’ve always felt that the fruit holds at least as much of the tiller hand and that, in any case, the impact of smoke decreases significantly as the cider ages. (I’ve been lucky enough to test this theory a few times now, so I’m not just guessing here!) But that’s just a fairly personal aside.
To see how last year’s edition has endured its extra 12 months of ageing and to give the new vintage a direct reference point, today I’ll be tasting Raison d’Être 2019 next to its year-older sibling. 2018, as discussed here several times, was a huge, hot vintage packed with sunshine and perfect for high sugars, big strengths and full-bodied, hefty-tannin ciders. 2019 was a little cooler, a little wetter, a little lower of sugar and higher of acidity. But before even tasting it, 2019 is a special edition of Raison d’Être, as it was the first year in which the Johnsons knew for certain that they would be making this cider (2016 having been released in 2018) and could therefore plan and prepare for it from before the apples had even been harvested. So despite a less fêted cider year, we head towards the glass hoping for something special.
Raison 2019 is due for launch at the Ross Cider Festival the weekend after next, and I dare say will be available from most of the usual suspects almost immediately thereafter. If you can’t possess your soul in patience, the 2018 can still be bought from Fram Ferment, Scrattings, The Cat in the Glass and a number of places besides, all for aroundabout £10 per 750ml bottle.
Ross on Wye Raison d’Être 2018 – review
How I served: Room temperature
Appearance: Burnished gold. Spritz of fizz.
On the nose: Big, rich, pillowy-soft aromas. Over the last year the Dabinett seems to have swelled, such that super-ripe spiced orange now takes the lead, shot through with forest floor and woodsmoke hearth. Dried apple. A touch of leather and dry spices. Has just really knitted together over the last 12 months. Such a deep and comforting nose. Better than ever.
In the mouth: Huge in every sense. Huge body, huge intensity of flavour. Huge tannins too, but they’re velvety-soft, wrapped up in the huge fruit, only emerging on the finish. The extreme juiciness of this vintage remains – all Dabinett upfront; blood orange and savoury notes which intensify on the finish into beach campfire smoke and lanolin and pith. A journey in a glass.
In a nutshell: Has developed superbly in the last year. Comfortably my favourite vintage to date. Would make my all-time top 10 ciders, easily.
Ross on Wye Raison d’Être 2019 – review
How I served: Room temperature
Appearance: A tone lighter. A smidge more fizz, but still not what you’d call pétillant.
On the nose: There’s a clue in the colour. Instantly shares the ‘18’s DNA, but everything’s in a slightly higher key. (Though remember we’re talking in relative terms – this still sits comfortably on the deeper, richer end of cider’s ledger). The orangey notes take on a lighter hue and here are accompanied by nectarine and a brambley, nettley aspect. The thread of smoke is present and correct, and there’s a touch of almost saline seashore here too, almost a touch of hay barn, which very much carries the Caol Ila signature. The Michelin seems to have more to say in this vintage, making itself known with a yellow softness. Fruit and oak really well poised and balanced.
In the mouth: Still wonderfully soft, but that extra touch of sparkle alongside additional brightness of fruit and slightly less fullness of body gives everything a real vibrancy and energy. Big yellow-orange fruit lead, then in comes the balancing savoury forest floor and charred oak earthiness, adding another layer of complexity. Some more of that coastal aspect too before a pithy finish with a distinct Caol Ila-syle inflection of peatsmoke and whisky. At the start of its journey – will keep and improve, but is good to start opening now, for sure.
In a nutshell: Reminds me of the ’17 vintage. Another super Raison, in a vibrant, higher-toned style.
I’d had the chance to try this a couple of times before writing the review, and each time my thought was that it hearkened back to the 2017 – or rather, to the 2017 as it tasted on launch. What I didn’t know until the second time was that Raison’s orchard of origin alternates – the ’16 and ’18 coming mainly from one, the ’17 and ’19 mainly from another. Could this, as much as the differences in vintage, account for my take? Or just confirmation bias? No way of knowing for sure (at the moment, at least) just one of those facts that folk like me (and probably young Chris) find intriguing.
What I love about Raison d’Être is that although there are certainly differences between vintages when you taste them next to each other, when you taste any vintage in isolation you instantly know what it is. And I’m very happy to say that 2019 continues that tradition. If you’ve enjoyed previous iterations, you will certainly love the new vintage. It is what Raison fans want it to be – an immediate organoleptic (sorry Albert) link to the varieties it is made from, the place in which those apples grow and the particular idiosyncratic mindset, the intense beliefs, preferences and convictions of the Ross on Wye cidermakers, that have shaped its making. Sure, those very preferences means it inherently won’t be for everyone – if you don’t like the influence of oak and smoke then it’s likely not going to be up your street. If, like me, you do, then you’ll find a cider in which they add layers of complexity, whilst framing the fruit and the vintage as the stars. I’ll be taking a case, and I dare say topping it up throughout the year.
Raison d’Être has become probably the cider I drink more of than any other. It is certainly the cider whose annual launch I have come to look forward to most. On which basis I can’t pay the 2019 much higher compliment than to say that it’s just what I’d hoped for. Roll on 2020 and the five-vintage vertical …