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Perrylous adventures in taste: the Thorny question of palate alignment

Editor’s Note. This Thorn was originally reviewed by Adam in an article last year. In the spirit of balance we recommend reading both pieces together.

Drinks writers are an argumentative bunch. We all have our favourite beverages, food pairings and glassware, and we hold firm opinions about producers, production methods and styles. We tend to assume that we have impeccable taste and that those who disagree with us are sadly misguided. We are generally quite fond of the sound of our own voices and enjoy lengthy debates about such arcane topics as the best kind of glass to drink whisky from, what counts as natural wine and whether producer X is better than producer Y. From time to time, these debates give rise to a level of vitriol that is entirely out of proportion to the importance of the topic being discussed. At such moments, the best policy is probably to take a step back, grab a bag of popcorn and have a good laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.

While I can derive a fair bit of amusement from the drinks industry’s minor dramas, I am glad that Adam (AKA The Editor) and I agree on many things. We both think that Ross on Wye’s Raison d’être is one of the UK’s very best ciders, we sing the praises of Eric Bordelet’s perries, and we wrote very similar tasting notes of Barley Wood’s tremendous Tremlett’s Bitter. We’re both sensitive to acetic acid and do our best to avoid encountering it. More importantly, we share a passion for artisanal ciders and perries, and we broadly agree on the direction in which we think that the cider industry should develop. We believe that cider makers need to emphasise technique and terroir to show that they can compete on a level playing field with wine producers, and we wholeheartedly support ambitious, aspirational and environmentally conscious cider making. There is a lot more that unites us than divides us.

Our palates, however, are by no means identical. We are unanimous in our appreciation of some ciders, but we don’t see eye to eye on others. Adam tends to particularly enjoy ciders that have been fermented to complete dryness, whereas I often have more of a penchant for some residual sweetness (although I’m not so keen on added sugar). He has a much greater tolerance than I do for drinks that are simultaneously bone dry and very high in acidity, and I definitely don’t share his fanaticism about Foxwhelp. Most perplexing of all, however, is his intense aversion to cheese. The only way that I can explain this to my satisfaction is by assuming that he experienced some kind of horrific childhood trauma involving cows, which left him so emotionally scarred that he emits blood-curdling screams whenever he encounters a curdled milk product.

All joking aside, it isn’t very surprising or concerning that Adam and I don’t have precisely the same tastes. The world would be a boring place if we were all exactly alike. For one thing, there would be far fewer opportunities to gently tease our friends about their peculiar preferences. I also believe that if people are kept busy arguing about such urgent questions as whether Foxwhelp only belongs in a blend (it does) or whether Cabernet Sauvignon pairs well with sushi (it doesn’t), then they are less likely to pick fights over trivialities like politics and religion. Besides, having heated debates about food and drink is a healthy antidote to excessively deferential attitudes toward supposed authorities on these matters. In my view, it’s much better to have strong opinions about questions of taste than to unthinkingly  adopt someone else’s predilections. We have an inviolable right to our personal preferences, and while we are all entitled to try to persuade others that they should share our firmly-held opinions, no-one should impose their tastes on others by claiming superior expertise. After all, no matter how skilled, knowledgeable and qualified an expert might be, they will never be more familiar with your palate than you are.

There’s nothing that I find more annoying than when some wine writers try to show off their superiority in matters of taste. This arrogance can manifest itself in all sorts of ways, from a haughty and condescending tone to the inopportune use of sexual language. I was recently quite bewildered when I read a review in which the writer described a wine as tasting of  “sexy red berries”. I don’t consider myself particularly prudish and I do understand that drinking fine wine, cider or perry can be a sensual experience, but sexual preference is a very personal thing, so how could this writer presume to know what I may or may not find sexy? I can honestly say that I have never been aroused by any kind of berry, red or otherwise. If you have, then that’s totally fine, but it’s worth being aware that such experiences are not universal and that your readers won’t necessarily relate to them. Don’t even get me started on the prominent wine critic Robert Parker’s description of a wine as “liquefied Viagra”…

Speaking of Robert Parker, I think that his tenure as wine’s ultimate authority figure is a cautionary tale of what can happen when one man’s unshakeable confidence in his own palate is given too much credence by others. Sometimes, it seems as if people in the wine world can be neatly divided into Parker fans and Parker haters, but the truth is that his legacy is far more complex than the strength of feeling about him might suggest. His highly accessible style of communication and 100-point scoring system did a lot to popularise wine, especially in the United States. He wasn’t compromised by financial ties to the wine industry and he did consumers a service by questioning the long-established hierarchies of the wine world. He was quite willing to publicly call out faults in wines that were widely venerated and that other wine writers would never have dreamed of criticising in print. The real problem with Parker is that many of his readers responded to his frankness with unconditional trust, and attributed such infallibility to his palate that he exerted an outsized influence on the wine scene for close to three decades.

Parker didn’t help matters by sometimes presenting his personal preferences as unquestionable truths and conveying the impression that his scores objectively measured the intrinsic qualities of wine. So many wine collectors and enthusiasts bought into this narrative that at the height of his fame, his reviews and scores were received as if they were the Sermon on the Mount. Wines to which he had awarded 100 Parker points sold out in minutes, often for insane amounts of money. No other critic before or since has had a comparable power to move the wine market. The perceived supremacy of Parker’s palate led numerous winemakers to change the styles of their wines to better suit his tastes, resulting in a certain degree of homogeneity in winemaking; an effect that was dubbed “Parkerization” by his critics. While Parker himself had many good qualities, Parkerization obscured geographical differences between wines in favour of a single, ‘international style’ of winemaking. Left unchecked, this process would have resulted in less choice for consumers and would have made the world of wine a much less interesting place.

By the time that I developed a serious interest in wine, Parker’s influence was already waning, but the tendency to view leading wine critics as authority figures had not entirely dissipated. I have to admit that when I began my vinous voyage of discovery, I treated their pronouncements as sacrosanct and paid far too much attention to their scores. I soon realised, however, that different critics had different preferences, and that some of those preferences aligned much better with my tastes than others. Parker often gave high scores to extremely full-bodied, concentrated and extracted wines, which I frequently found unpleasantly overripe and over-oaked. The problem wasn’t a lack of expertise or tasting skill on his part – he undoubtedly knows a lot more about wine than I do, but rather that his tastes didn’t really match up with mine. Once I understood this, his reviews became much more useful to me than they were before. When Parker approvingly described a wine as “unctuous”, “sexy” and “hedonistic”, I knew that I’d probably find it jammy and overblown, and that I’d do well to steer clear of it.

When Parker retired, no single wine critic inherited his throne. Instead, we were left with a plurality of different voices, each with their own tastes and areas of expertise. This state of affairs is great for wine lovers, who can pick and choose who to read on the basis of their interests and preferences. If you are a fan of the big, rich and ripe wines that Parker favoured, then Jeff Leve’s Bordeaux reviews will point you in the right direction. If your tastes are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Parker’s, then Alice Feiring and Isabelle Legeron have probably got you covered. Between these two poles, there are countless wine writers with a wide range of opinions, many of whom specialise in particular regions and grape varieties.

The cider scene does not yet have such a wide diversity of prominent voices and distinct specialisms. The number of cider writers is vanishingly small compared to the number of wine writers, and no cider critic writes solely about a single apple variety or the ciders of a single region. We are all inevitably generalists, trying our best to maintain sufficient objectivity to do justice to the multitude of styles in the cider world. I think that on the whole, we do a reasonably good job of this, but the truth is that no-one who writes about cider enjoys every style equally. It’s therefore important that we clearly communicate our preferences to our readers. Being open and honest about what we like and dislike allows them to more accurately determine the extent to which their palates align with ours. Besides, if we’re reviewing styles of cider and perry that we don’t enjoy very much, our readers deserve to be adequately forewarned that they’re going to have to contend with a rather ill-tempered critic. If you present me with a lineup of off-dry French perries, my palate will be infinitely grateful and will probably respond to your kindness by being on its A-game. But if you expect me to compare twenty young single-variety Foxwhelp ciders, my tastebuds will be at their most tetchy and cantankerous. It’s clearly much better for all concerned if Adam reviews the Foxwhelp.

I’m well aware that to some self-proclaimed “Foxwhelpians”, my disdain for young Foxwhelp will be simply incomprehensible. To other cider enthusiasts, it will seem entirely self-evident. As a reader of our reviews, the important thing is to be aware of our respective preferences and to take them into account when you decide what to buy. When I first started reading Adam’s reviews, I wasn’t aware of our differences in taste and didn’t take them into consideration when buying new ciders and perries. For quite some time, I loved every cider and perry that he recommended, which led me to believe that our palates were perfectly aligned. When he penned a glowing review of Ross on Wye’s 2019 Thorn Pet-Nat perry, I therefore rushed out and bought a trio of bottles. By this point, I was already a massive fan of Ross on Wye and an obsessive perry enthusiast, and Adam’s ringing endorsement was the icing on the cake. Buying a few bottles felt like a no-brainer. Imagine my surprise when I took my first sip and the searing acidity sent me running to the sink for a glass of water. When I had finally regained my composure, I wrote a tasting note and compared it to Adam’s. I include them both below, to demonstrate how our feelings about this perry were diametrically opposed.

Ross on Wye Thorn 2019 – Adam’s review (May 2020)

Colour: Very pale gold.

On the nose: That slight funk of fermentation has all but dissipated entirely, leaving bright pear, blossom and pronounced elderflower in its wake. A touch of grated lime zest, but this nose remains deceptively soft and gentle and delicate and docile, with no hint of what’s coming.

In the mouth: Wham! A double punch of that yellow, lemony, sherbety acidity and super fine-grained, gum-sticking rasp of tannin, more developed now than in the previous bottle. So crystal-clear and precise and defined, with a steel skewer of stoney minerality. Just the lightest, lightest touch of sparkle buttressing the medium body. Elderflower and green nettle notes buzz around plumper notes of pear and dessert grape. There’s the lightest touch of sweetness, but amidst the tannin and acidity and ripeness of fruit it presents as the best part of bone dry. It remains utterly pulsing with life.

Ross on Wye Thorn 2019 – Chris’s review

Appearance: Golden straw with good clarity and a fine, Champagne-like mousse that dissipates fairly quickly, leaving the barest touch of a sparkle.

On the nose: This possibly has the most autolytic and reductive nose of any cider or perry that I’ve encountered.  Yeast, sulphur and gunflint overlay some subtle hints of preserved lemon and elderflower. If I were blindfolded, I could quite possibly fool myself into thinking that this was a particularly austere grower Champagne made in the ‘Brut Nature’ or ‘Zero Dosage’ style.

On the palate: Ouch! This has very high acidity and tannin. I know that those with a penchant for Foxwhelp and the like would find it lip-smackingly appetising, but the acid level is just too elevated for my tastes. I get some citrus notes, some yeastiness, a little elderflower and a fair bit of astringency, but the acidity is so piercing that it distracts me from the flavour profile. I think that this perry has a lot of potential – it is obviously well-made and has no obvious faults besides youthful reduction, but that it requires quite some time for the acidity to settle down and become integrated with the tannin and the fruit. When it has aged sufficiently, it is likely to occupy a similar place on the flavour spectrum as a lot of low-dosage grower Champagnes, and would doubtless appeal to those who enjoy that crisp, dry and acid-driven style of sparkling wine. At present, I find it painfully young, but I’d be interested to revisit it in a few years and suspect that I will enjoy it a lot more then.

Editor’s note 2.0. Since we’re showing a range of opinions on this perry, below is a screengrab of the results of a poll taken at the May ‘perry special’ edition of Manchester Cider Club, in which the Ross on Wye Thorn 2019 squared off against Newton Court’s exceptional Black Mountain and an outstanding bottle from France’s Pacory.

Adam and I clearly came to very different conclusions. He loved this perry, but it really wasn’t to my taste. So which one of us was right and which one was wrong? In my view, that’s not a very useful question. It’s worth pointing out that we largely identified the same textures and flavours in the perry. When it comes to determining its objective properties, our tasting notes are not far apart. We both described it as high in acidity and tannin, and we detected the same citrus flavours and elderflower aromas. Adam’s “very pale gold” is my “golden straw”, and my “autolytic” and “reductive” notes are his “slight funk of fermentation” (wait, did I just catch Adam using the F-word? [I was younger then – Ed.]). We only significantly diverge when it comes to our subjective impressions. It’s at this point that his “wham!” becomes my “ouch!”

It should also be noted that we were drinking from different bottles and that bottle variation is a very real phenomenon. I strongly suspect that the perry in my bottle was still going through secondary fermentation, whereas the perry in Adam’s bottle was rather more resolved. I haven’t opened another bottle of Ross on Wye’s 2019 Thorn since I wrote my tasting note a few months ago, because I concluded that it required long aging to become palatable for me, but it’s quite possible that if I tried another bottle today, I’d enjoy it a fair bit more than my first one.

Ultimately, however, there’s no escaping the fact that this perry was just too acidic and tannic to be my cup of tea. In retrospect, I realise that I would have known that in advance if I had paid more attention to Adam’s tasting note rather than allowing myself to be carried away by his obvious enthusiasm. All of the warning signs were there, and it’s my own fault that I failed to read between the lines and realise that this perry isn’t really in my wheelhouse. These days, I am more familiar with Adam’s preferences and how they differ from mine, which allows me to make better buying decisions on the basis of his reviews. I know that when he calls a cider or perry “zesty”, I’m likely to find it a bit sharp, and that if he uses words like “skewer” and “pulsing”, it’s probably going to make me curl up in a ball and have a little cry. I expect that on his part, he knows that if I describe a cider as having “sufficient acidity”, he will find the acidity rather insufficient, and that my medium-dry is pretty close to his medium-sweet.

Incidentally, I don’t think that the good folks at Ross on Wye deserve any blame for my not liking this perry. I’m entirely responsible for making the wrong purchase for my tastes. Ross on Wye produces a truly astounding range of single variety ciders and perries and I’m convinced that everyone can find one that they truly love. However,  this doesn’t mean that you will equally enjoy every single one of their products. It’s quite possible to be enamoured with their Raison d’être and not so keen on their Thorn (or vice-versa), because these two drinks could hardly be more different. Upon tasting Ross on Wye’s 2019 Thorn, some of you will agree with Adam’s impressions and some of you will wish that you had spent your money on Raison d’être instead. Both parties will be equally right as far as their own palates are concerned. There is, after all, no accounting for taste.

To conclude, tasting Ross on Wye’s Thorn was not a particularly pleasant experience for me, but it was a memorably instructive one. It reminded me that we should be confident in our own palates and never assume that someone else entirely shares our tastes. It also reinforced my view that we shouldn’t defer to someone else’s preferences just because they’re more knowledgeable and experienced than us. Having said that, I do think that it’s a good idea to taste widely and occasionally revisit drinks that we didn’t especially enjoy when we first tried them. Some drinks are acquired tastes and our preferences have a tendency to change over time. In 10 years’ time, I might find Ross on Wye’s 2019 Thorn as spellbinding as Adam does, either because my tastes have made a U-turn, or because it will have reached a sufficient stage of maturity for me to find it pleasing. In the meantime, I will keep in mind the lesson that it taught me: There is no ultimate arbiter of taste and none of our reviews are purely objective. Cider and perry writing doesn’t need a Parker-like authority figure telling us what we should and shouldn’t enjoy. It needs a wide variety of voices that passionately disagree with each other on questions of taste, but that are equally passionate in their shared love for these exciting and enthralling drinks. As Cider Review continues to grow and develop, I hope that it attracts a greater number of such voices. With more impassioned people advocating for the styles and producers that inspire them, cider and perry writing might just become as richly diverse and fascinatingly multifaceted as its vinous counterpart.

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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.

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