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The Pear Necessities: Two easy-drinking perries from Burrow Hill and Blue Barrel

Perry must be the most unfortunate drink in the world. I struggle to think of any other beverage that reaches such dazzling heights to so little fanfare. Imagine if the first thing that came to people’s minds when they heard the word “wine” was a comedy sidekick or a fashion brand. Picture a world in which everyone automatically associated all wine with the industrial abomination that is Yellow Tail. This is the wretched predicament in which perry finds itself. If you mention it in conversation, most people think of Kevin and Perry, Fred Perry or Babycham. When I talk about wine and whisky, no-one ever asks me if I mean grape cider or grain brandy, but I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve been asked if I mean ‘pear cider’ when I mention perry. It really is a sad state of affairs when a noble drink suffers such devastating neglect.  

If perry’s slide into social irrelevance dismays us avid enthusiasts, then spare a thought for the producers who put their hearts and souls into making it, only to find that the market for it is nearly non-existent. Many of the finest wines sell for astronomical sums of money and are drunk by billionaires on their yachts and private jets, or in Michelin-starred restaurants with food cooked by the world’s most accomplished chefs. Most of the world’s best perries sell for under £20 per bottle, and quite a few of them are drunk at my kitchen table, accompanied by whatever I happen to find in the fridge. 

There’s nothing that I’d like to see more than a perry revival. It is a glorious, genuinely enthralling drink, which is worthy of far greater attention than it currently receives. It can be like freshly-squeezed lemon juice trickling over wet stones; as lean and high-toned as Petit Chablis, or as lavishly baroque and lusciously exotic as a good Sauternes. It can be as soft and gentle as a newborn lamb, or as abrasive as a cat’s tongue. It contains multitudes, not only because of the sheer array of different flavours that it can express, but because each drop is a microcosm of centuries of history and tradition. It speaks its own language, telling stories of ancient orchards and peculiarly-named varieties, yet its rhythm and cadence will be immediately familiar to lovers of fine white wine. At its best, it can tantalise and scintillate with the generous honeyed sweetness of the finest Vouvray and the tension and minerality of top Mosel Riesling. To loosely plagiarise one of Adam’s memorable phrases, it’s a pear-scented wonder of the world, and I urge you to buy it and drink it.

As a contributor to Cider Review, I will take every opportunity to promote perry and fight for it to finally get the recognition that it so richly deserves. But I have to admit that from my perspective as a consumer, there is at least one advantage to the current state of affairs. Perry is incredibly cheap. When I taste some of the finest examples, I almost have to pinch myself to believe how little I paid for them.There are plenty of good wines that cost less than £20, but finding a truly great one in that price range is often easier said than done. If you can find me an awe-inspiring wine for £10 or less, I’ll be your friend for life. Yet I regularly encounter perries that are complex, delicious, and sometimes downright iconic for that kind of price. If you don’t believe me, then buy yourself a bottle of Tom Oliver’s world-beating keeved perry, which is currently available from the Orchard Explorers Club. I genuinely can’t think of a drink with a better cost to pleasure ratio. If that’s not a reason to buy perry, then I don’t know what is.

Drinking perry can also help to boost your confidence and self-esteem, to the point that you feel honoured and distinguished. I know that some of you will be raising your eyebrows at this claim, but let me explain what I mean. In the wine world, I occasionally encounter a certain kind of older gentleman (they are invariably men), who gives me an incredulous and pitying look when I admit that I haven’t tasted the legendary wine that he is genially discussing. If I have the temerity to point out that a single bottle of the wine in question costs as much as a family car, he will blithely reminisce about how he used to pick it up for £3.50 on sale at the corner shop back in the 1970s, or something to that effect. I don’t find this particularly helpful or endearing. The fact of the matter is that unless I win the lottery or receive an unexpected inheritance from a long-lost relative, I will probably never be able to afford these wines. Most of the time, I’m not particularly bothered about this. There are many excellent wines that have yet to become status symbols for the mogul class, and I am usually very happy to focus my attention on them and leave the trophy wines to the wealthy label-chasers. I know that these days, some wines have become victims of financial speculation and that their exchange value is entirely disconnected from the amount of pleasure that they can bring me. The price of blue-chip Burgundy, for example, often has less to do with what’s in the bottle and more to do with the economics of supply and demand. I don’t say this to disparage Burgundy, which really is the source of some of the world’s finest wines, but the price tag of a Leroy or a Roumier is at least as much about the name on the label as the quality of the wine itself. When it comes to getting bang for my buck, give me a Beaujolais any day of the week.

Having said that, I’d be lying if I pretended that the wine world never made me feel inadequate, and I expect that it has the same effect on anyone who isn’t especially rich. For those of us who don’t have a hedge fund, being in that world can sometimes feel like arriving at a Lamborghini owners’ convention in a clapped-out Ford Escort, or attending a black-tie dinner wearing swimming trunks and flip-flops. Thankfully, my discovery of fine perry has started to cure me of my vinous imposter syndrome. When it comes to playing the game of who has the bigger magnum, I now feel like I have a trump card; a precious secret that gives me one up on the wealthiest wine collectors. They may have tasted the 1945 Mouton Rothschild, the 1961 Hermitage La Chapelle and the 1978 La Tache, but I’ve drunk Eric Bordelet’s Poire Granit, Ross on Wye’s Flakey Bark and Bartestree’s Hendre Huffcap. These perries, which are made from rare pear varieties picked from trees that can outlive all but the very oldest grape vines, deserve to be just as sought-after as the finest wines. Having the opportunity to taste them should be viewed as a priceless privilege. Admittedly, the wine snobs probably don’t see things in that way, and they are undoubtedly less envious of me than I am of them, but that’s only because they have no idea of how ridiculously good perry can really be.

I like to dream that one day, the scarcity of such perries will translate into monetary value. In 20 years’ time, maybe the perry drinkers of today will find themselves in the position of the wine enthusiasts who were able to pick up their First Growths for a measly sum of money, only to discover that they were sitting on a fortune a few decades later. I will then finally be able to lord it over the poor unfortunate souls who didn’t jump on the perry bandwagon before it became absurdly overpriced, including those pesky wine collectors. Revenge, as they say, is sorbitol-sweet.

Sadly, my daydreams don’t move markets and that day may never come. In the meantime, perry remains one of the world’s greatest bargains, and you too can be a member of the self-selected perry elite. Membership is open to anyone with a penchant for delicious perry, and I have even taken the liberty of designing a membership card, which you can print out and fill in at your leisure. If you ever find yourself in a position where a drinks snob makes you feel small and inconsequential, stare them straight in the eye and hand them your fancy black card, before whispering, “have you heard of the perry elite? I’m not sure if they would let you join, but I could always ask.” I guarantee that it will do wonders for your self-confidence, or at least break the ice by giving everyone a good laugh.

There is only one condition for membership of the esteemed ranks of the perry elite: If you want to join, then you’re going to have to drink some perry. And where better to start than with a couple of bottlings that are extremely accessible both in terms of price and for their sheer drinkability? They may not quite reach the highest heights that perry can achieve, but they are reliably well-made, consistently satisfying and extremely moreish, thus providing a baseline that all good perries should aspire to.

The first perry that I’ll be tasting today is the 2019 Colwick Perry from Nottinghamshire’s Blue Barrel Cider. Adam has reviewed three of their ciders in this article, but he kindly left their perry for me to write about. Blue Barrel started out as a community garden project staffed by local volunteers, and profits still go towards running community projects, including educational schemes for young people and support for vulnerable adults. It is, in short, a genuinely ethical company run by genuinely good people, who deserve every success and who would doubtless disapprove of my nefarious plan to become the world’s most unbearable perry elitist. They also make very good ciders and perries. In 2019, their perry, which is a blend of Thorn, Brandy and wild pears, won a Gold Award in the East Midlands CAMRA competition. A 500ml bottle cost me a paltry £3.60 from The Cat in the Glass.

The second perry that I’ll be reviewing is the medium-dry sparkling perry from Somerset’s Burrow Hill, which should require no introduction. Adam’s feature on this producer, which also includes a review of this perry, remains one of the best pieces on Cider Review and you should read it immediately if you haven’t already [Our ‘visit to’ article on Burrow Hill can also be read here – Ed]. This perry is made from a blend of Thorn, Brandy and Hendre Huffcap pears, and costs an unbelievably low £2.60 per 500ml bottle direct from the producer, which is almost a third less than the average price of a pub pint.

Blue Barrel Colwick Perry 2019 – review

How I served: Chilled.

Appearance: Pale straw with greenish glints. When I poured it, I found a few yeast rafts floating in the glass, but in Blue Barrel’s defence, perry does have an uncanny ability to throw a wide range of weird and wonderful deposits, which are entirely harmless. I expect that some consumers might find them off-putting, but I’d rather put up with some sediment than be served a perry that has been filtered to within an inch of its life. 

On the nose: Very light and delicate. The aromas don’t jump out at me and smack me in the nose, but with some diligent sniffing, I get a fair bit of good honey, alongside hints of dandelion and new-mown hay. As the glass warms up in my hand, I detect a little fresh lemon and passionfruit, and the merest suggestion of something herbal – maybe mint or thyme? This is elegant and inviting stuff, if a touch on the understated side. 

In the mouth: Really juicy, vibrant and vivacious. It strikes the perfect textural balance between gently caressing the palate and waking it up with nervy, nearly electric acidity. I get plenty of zesty lemon, some ripe peach and a little passionfruit, with grass clippings hovering in the background. This flavour profile is rather reminiscent of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, but this perry has none of the brashness of that rather obvious style of wine. The flavours are evanescent rather than bold. They fade in and out of my awareness, contributing to the sense of almost ethereal lightness, which constantly invites you back for another mouthful. There is some definite sweetness on the palate, providing an impression of tropical fruit squash, but the finely-chiselled acidity makes this perry feel much more grown-up than any squash could ever be.

In a sense, this is simple fare, but it’s so clean, fresh and well-made that it’s a joy to drink. It is the perry equivalent of what French wine lovers call a vin de soif – a thirst-quenching, light-bodied and eminently gluggable wine. It would be an ideal foil to the heat of a Thai curry, but perhaps the best time for it would be when you’ve really worked up a thirst after some vigorous physical exercise. If I hadn’t been reviewing it, I’d probably have guzzled it at quite an alarming pace, with complete and reckless abandon.

In a nutshell: Some drinks are made for sniffing and sipping, whereas others resist intellectualisation and just demand to be drunk. This perry belongs to the latter category, and it’s all the more joyous and life-affirming for it.

Burrow Hill Medium-Dry Sparkling Perry – review

How I served: Chilled.

Appearance: Pale gold. Lightly sparkling and very clear, with hardly any sediment.

On the nose: Pear in HD. It’s far from complex, but the purity and clarity of the crisp, juicy pear are seriously impressive. It smells more strongly of pear than any pear I’ve ever encountered. I get an impression of honeyed sweetness, accompanied by heady hints of jasmine and elderflower. The overall effect is fresh, clean and precise, without the slightest trace of a fault.

In the mouth: In its own way, this perry is perfect. It is not intensely concentrated and it won’t cause you to go into rhapsodies at the very first sip, but it is nonetheless a masterpiece of balance and poise. Its sorbitol sweetness is underpinned by enough palate-cleansing acidity to prevent it from becoming cloying, yet that acidity never becomes strident or aggressive. I get plump, ripe pear on the palate, some high-quality honey and a little grassiness, and all of these flavours are precisely proportioned, with the pear taking centre stage and its supporting acts nimbly playing their clearly-defined roles. There is a tiny touch of tannin on the finish, but barely any astringency. The texture in the mouth is pillow-soft and conveys an impression of weightlessness. This perry is feather-light and oh-so-drinkable, with the elegance, mellowness and delicate floral aromas of a great Kabinett Riesling from a warm vintage.

In a nutshell: With its silky texture, unchallenging flavours, deft balance and bargain-basement price, this perry is the ultimate crowd-pleaser.

Conclusions

These are the kinds of perries that feel like they are good for your health (note my use of the word “like”; I’m not giving medical advice here). They are totally accessible, they have a revitalising effect on the palate, and I wouldn’t hesitate to serve either of them to just about anyone, including to those people who have never tried perry before. Yet they are also sufficiently well-made to hold the interest of even the most experienced perry enthusiasts.

In my view, it can take a mature palate to find beauty in simplicity. At the beginning of our explorations of beer, wine, cider or perry, we are often drawn to drinks that are relatively accessible and not too challenging to the palate. As our journey of discovery unfolds, we tend to forgo those simple pleasures in favour of drinks that are more intensely flavoured and less ‘easy-drinking’ in style. Maybe we assume that our enjoyment of beverages that are too bitter, acidic, strongly flavoured or simply unusual to appeal to the average consumer marks us out as connoisseurs. I think that this view is a little short-sighted.

In the craft beer world, many drinkers lavish praise on the hoppiest, haziest, juiciest beers imaginable, while scorning lagers as basic and unsophisticated. Yet most beer professionals understand how difficult it is to make a perfectly clean, crisp pilsner and genuinely appreciate the best examples of this style. They know how easy it is to conceal faults beneath a ton of hops. A pilsner has so few ingredients that there’s nothing much to hide behind, and producing a good one is therefore a true test of the brewer’s skill. Similarly, at large-scale wine tastings, the biggest, boldest, most attention-grabbing wines often stand out from the crowd, and it can sometimes seem as if the loudest wine in the room is the most likely to receive critical acclaim. Wines with high levels of concentration and extraction have certainly been known to receive higher scores from critics than their subtler, more elegant counterparts. But in the privacy of their own homes, many wine critics would probably pick lighter and more supple wines to have with their dinners. They understand that many dishes and occasions call for a less showy drink, which complements rather than overpowers the food and the company.

To cut a long story short, I think that mature palates can appreciate relatively understated drinks for their harmony, purity and balance. I also think that we miss out if we overlook these drinks in our quest for the latest ‘wow factor’. Both of the perries that I tasted today were refreshing, exuberant and appetising, with a tension and lift that more than made up for what they lacked in sheer heft. We should enjoy such perries for what they are and be eternally thankful that they grant us easy access to the hallowed halls of the perry elite. After all, this may well be the drinks industry’s most esoteric and exclusive club, and it’s amazing what membership can do for your contentment and self-esteem.

This entry was posted in: Reviews

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Chris Russell-Smith is an avid wine and cider enthusiast. When he isn’t busy writing his PhD in philosophy or tasting wine and cider, he likes to experiment with home brewing. None of his fermented beverages deserves to be reviewed, but he is nonetheless occasionally proud of them.

2 Comments

  1. Mike Shorland says

    Well done Chris. A brilliant read. para 3 is outstanding and should be copied and pasted across the boar

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chris Russell-Smith says

      Thank you so much for your kind comment Mike, I’m really pleased that you enjoyed reading my article. The third paragraph is my favourite one too – it’s my little love letter to the magic of perry!

      Best wishes,

      Chris

      Like

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