Thorn is a pear that’s out to make a statement. As a tree it announces itself in the orchard – the first you spot, with its exuberant billowing over the graft mark. As a perry it bursts onto your palate with a mesmerising crash of acidity and tannin and bright, mouthwatering fruit flavour.
“It has all of what Tom Oliver describes as ‘the holy trinity’” says James Marsden of Gregg’s Pit, whose own draught and bottled Thorns groan beneath the weight of their awards. “It’s one of the pears that works as a single variety because it has natural fruit sugar, it has tannin and it has acidity.”
“It’s a pretty special pear”, agrees Albert Johnson of Ross on Wye. “One of the ‘big five’ varieties in our opinion.”
Reverence for Thorn goes back a long way. John Worledge mentions it in his 1676 Vinetum Britannicum and it crops up again in Knight’s Pomona Herefordiensis in 1811. That longevity, comparable to cider’s Foxwhelp, might suggest that over the centuries it has, like Burgundy’s ancient Pinot Noir grape, subtly shifted its character across more than one ‘sport’ or clone. Certainly Charles Martell, writing in the 21st century Pears of Gloucester relates that “Colin Jones of Tawnies Farm, Oxenhall showed the author a Thorn Pear which fruited later than the nominate Thorn in October.”
Whilst these shifts mean that we cannot say with certainty whether our modern Thorn tastes as it would have in the glasses of the 17th century, what seems to have endured is the variety’s characteristic lipsmacking acidity. “It’s high in citric acid,” says Johnson. “There isn’t really another pear that has that same direct, intense acidity.”
Intense and direct are certainly epithets you could apply to the most recent Ross on Wye single variety Thorn bottling. “It whacks you around the chops” says Pommelier Susannah Mansfield of Durham’s Station House and Fram Ferment. “You have another mouthful to see if it happens again … and again … and again. Phenomenal.” In a world increasingly tilting towards big, exciting, arresting flavours, Thorn’s acidity, allied to a rasp of tannin that many bittersharp apples can’t quite match, marks it out amongst its more demure orchard-mates (though this doesn’t endear it to our Chris, who exclusively drinks clarets and Rieslings that are old enough to be his parents, and believes acidity and tannin to be the hallmarks of a hoodlum).
Marsden and Johnson are quick to emphasise the versatility this structural intensity offers. “A great fruit for blending”, is Johnson’s comment, whilst Marsden particularly prizes Thorn’s affinity for elegant, refined traditional method bottlings (more on those later). “It’s the acidity that enables it to work well.”
Part of that acidity is likely attributable to Thorn’s earliness as a ripener. Marsden, Johnson and Tom Oliver are all quick to cite it as one of the first – if not the very first – pear that’s brought in for pressing. “And it’s a use it or lose it pear”, says Marsden. “Once the fruit’s on the ground you have a 24, maybe 36 hour window before it’s gone.” As with all pears, ripeness sits on the edge of a knife, and is absolutely essential to the full expression of Thorn’s unique character, an expression that reaches its zenith when the fruit is harvested from old trees. Ross on Wye’s 2019 came from fruit provided by a neighbouring farm; map records dating back to the 19th century suggest that the trees were planted at least 150 years ago. “You get a higher sugar content and you get better levels of acidity and tannin.” The downside – those older trees tend to ripen even earlier. Come late August and early September Thorn harvesters need to be in constant sprint position.
What’s more, that earliness is creeping ever and ever further forward. “The harvest date is getting earlier,” warns Marsden. “And the acidity on average is getting less acidic, which is a problem. It’s what the French winemakers are finding too.” Acidity is Thorn’s breath of life; the cutting edge of freshness that skewers through a blend, dances across a palate and cuts through a wonderful array of fatty, salty and protein-rich foods. It is what lends finesse to traditional method bottlings and refreshment to blends where other constituents might feel heavy and more sluggish in Thorn’s absence. And it’s worth adding that higher-acid blends and varieties are less susceptible to such ruinous and insidious faults as Mouse, too. Marsden’s meticulous records over the last decade and more show the tangible and irreversible effect that climate change is having in real time on the inimitable, cherished characteristics of a historic perry pear, the loss of which may well come to be keenly felt.
Whether still, sparkling, single variety or blended, this most characterful and vivacious of perry pears is bursting with life and joy and brilliance and flavour. Look out for it – savour it. It’s been on a long journey to reach your glass; it may not be around forever.
On which note, time to fill my glass up too. I’ve three single variety Thorns to get through today, all hailing from the orchards of Herefordshire. First in line is a new Cwm Maddoc 2020 (at the time of writing I believe it’s only on sale at the cidery itself, which was where I bought mine. I dare say it’ll wind up on Cat in the Glass soon enough though, if you can’t make the Herefordshire trip). [Update: now available from Scrattings for £8]. Like all Cwm Maddocs it’s fermented in stainless steel and bottled pét nat.
Secondly, and somewhat ridiculously given I’ve been publishing cider and perry reviews for over a year and a half now, my first writeup of a Bartestree. Dave and Fiona’s creations are pretty well-established as some of the best ciders (and, perhaps particularly, perries) made by anyone, anywhere, but until last year they were another producer whose wares were nigh impossible to find online – mainly because they sold through everything they made quite happily without needing the internet. They’ve since been picked up by Cat in the Glass, which is where I bought today’s Thorn for £9.50 (it’s also available in 375ml at £4.50, which I’ve just realised for the first time to be slightly unusual economics, but there we are. I should mention that Fram Ferment have also brought Bartestree to the digital world, though this Thorn doesn’t appear to be on their website. Mind you, no Thorn is safe around Chris and Susannah, so maybe it just didn’t make the webpage. Although this is my much-belated first Bartestree writeup, the team and their handiwork have appeared in these annals before, since Fiona is a founder and committee member of Cider Women, and spoke to Helen in their interview with the CW committee last October. And Chris reviewed a Hendre Huffcap 2019 of theirs in, erm, no uncertain terms back in June. If I like this Thorn half as much as he enjoyed that one I shall be a jolly happy boy.
Finally, and by some mileage most expensively, comes the 2018 iteration of Gregg’s Pit’s Traditional (champagne) Method Thorn. I liked the 2017 so much last year that it made its way into my Essential Case, and nudged Thorn into position as possibly my favourite perry pear variety bar none. The 2018 has cheated slightly, and includes a small dash (10%-ish) of Moorcroft, another early-ripening pear with a bit more body and tropical fruit. Let’s see how that’s changed things compared to the 2017 purist. I bought my 750ml bottle for £20 from the Cider Salon, where it was sold by the Fine Cider Company’s Felix Nash. It isn’t yet showing on the company’s website yet, but I dare say it’ll be up soon, and if the Herefordians amongst you can’t wait, it’ll be buyable from the cidery directly.
Cwm Maddoc Thorn 2020 Medium-Sweet – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Sparkling lemon-green
On the nose: Pure elderflower nose. The green, zingy citrus is there, the cut grass and gooseberry, but mainly this is a pure elderflower bomb – fresh, cordial; even tonic with that stony mineral spritz. Seems to be at the very end of its conditioning – there’s that whiff of gunflint and struck match, though it blows off very quickly. Lovely and fresh.
In the mouth: Yep, just like the nose. Bright, zigy, ridiculously refreshing and actually neither too sharp nor too sweet. This is a very well-mannered Thorn indeed. And it’s spring in a glass – elderflower, lime, a little riper passion fruit, all brought to life by perfect, lifting, skipping mousse. Perry to make your heart soar – a glassful of joy.
In a nutshell: There’s no way you could love Sauvignon Blanc and not love this. Praying for more sun so I can sit on the grass with a large glass and feel any cares just drift away.
Bartestree Thorn 2020 – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Similar shade and fizz, but hazier
On the nose: Not quite as aromatic as the Cwm maddoc, but still very bright. More citrus than floral here – more lemon’n’lime. The nose of its fermentation hasn’t quite blown of yet – perhaps best left for a few months to be on the safe side – but with aeration that bright, emerald, crystalline pear fruit fully merges. Mineral again.
In the mouth: Acidity here is nippier than Cwm Maddoc’s but still certainly not at all excessive – it’s lovely and limey and refreshing. Daiquiris. Cloudy lemonade. A little pineapple. There’s something of the floral and the leafy green here too, but the citrus is the star. Nice mousse – good mouthfeel.
In a nutshell: Another zingy, hot day refresher – and would be really wonderful with a plate of white fish.
Gregg’s Pit Thorn 2018 Traditional Method – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Pale, green-tinted champagne.
On the nose: Huge aromatics o incredible clarity. Riper – not just than the other two, but than its predecessor vintage. Massive passion fruit beside the lime and lemon jelly, with floral touches decorating the background. Lees contact has enrichened it with a whiff of brioche but the fruit is the centrepiece. Stupendous nose.
In the mouth: You won’t find a cleaner, clearer perry delivery than that. Huge fruits that follow the nose to the letter – both in intensity and in character. Lees weave a beguiling gunsmoke and seashell pathway through it. Mousse is pronounced – being really picky it could do with being a tad less, but it nonetheless adds creaminess to the mouthfeel and doesn’t at all overwhelm the flavours. There’s a wonderful, rich luxuriousness here that Thorn doesn’t often have. Acidity has been brought to heel and tannin is just a trace. Long, long finish.
In a nutshell: Another epic Thorn. Gun to my head I might pick the 2017, but since I don’t have to choose, I won’t. Chris – this might be the Thorn you’re looking for.
If Flakey Bark, spotlighted the other day, is depth and muscle and autumn and thunder, Thorn is light and energy and springtime and lightning, and for all of that I love it just as much. These three offered a wonderful snapshot of the pear – the hallmark elderflower and citrus, the green streaks and the capacity to be both textural and elegant and boisterous and refined at varying turns.
Really ought to have written this piece about four months ago so that readers discovering Thorn for the first time could drink it all through the summer (what summer we had). But get some in your fridge nonetheless, and at the first sign of sunshine, find yourself a sunny spot and treat yourself to a blissful glass of pure, fresh, brilliance.