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On Gammyoulands and the point of orchards

Wander out of Broome Farm, down the precipitous, bumper-shredding hill that leads to Wellsbrook Lane and turn right. Carry on along the road, beneath the vaulting green nave of high, spindly, leaf-latticed branches and cross over the eponymous brook. To your right a scrubby patch of marsh envelopes the stream’s meander, patrolled occasionally by cows. To your left, tucked missably in a corner, is a skeletal portacabin and the ungated opening of Gammyoulands Orchard.

When cider writers talk about orchards and their importance, there is a tendency to focus on aesthetics, environment and on the wonderful capacity orchards have to allow our souls to breathe. It’s something that both of my colleagues, James and Chris, remarked on extensively in their wonderful articles, which you should read if you haven’t already. Chris’s impassioned plea for the saving of our traditional orchards places a particularly poetic emphasis on their calming beauty, on the diversity of their inhabitant flora and fauna and indeed on the mesmerising breadth of apple varieties that such orchards often boast. It is easy, reading his evocative prose, to conjure in your minds eye the places that have captivated the tellers of tales from China to Greece and from Eden to Narnia for as long as tales have been told.

Measured by these aesthetic standards, Gammyoulands barely registers. It isn’t even the most attractive orchard at Ross on Wye; the perry orchard is far more visually striking, and the view is much better from the Harry Masters’. Talking of views, the likes of Artistraw and Welsh Mountain and Cwm Maddoc bury Gammyoulands and all boast far more diversity in the varieties of trees to which they are home. You’ll find plenty of orchards far older or in which the trees are wider-spaced and more individually beautiful. If you are looking for the orchard in which to picnic or simply wander with the family and take in the air, Gammyoulands can be virtually disregarded. It is, visually speaking, as orchards go, a singularly unremarkable proposition. And it is possibly my favourite orchard in the world. Including (whisper it, please) the one in which I got engaged.

All of this isn’t to say that Gammyoulands doesn’t have an atmosphere of its own. It is one of those orchards that enclose you, its branches virtually a single canopy, the orchard itself hemmed by ferns and hedges on three sides and by a line of tall trees at the bottom. Where the orchards across the road all bleed into each other and are never far from the gentle bustle of the farm, the pub, the road, Gammyoulands; tucked away, separate, is a stiller, calmer, somehow more-haunting proposition. Old, gnarled, close ranked apple trees climb up a south-east facing slope just steep enough for you to feel it in your legs as you walk. At the top, beyond the bosky hedgerow and the scruff of bracken, fields of agricultural miscellania stretch into the distance. At the bottom, the orchard’s russet clay soil falls away into a low ditch, the brook and, in the southwest corner, a duck pond.

Gammyoulands was planted in 1978 to supply Bulmer’s with fruit, its two varieties – Dabinett and Michelin – a legacy of the apples the then-still-family-owned company predominantly used at the time. If the orchard was replanted for the same purpose today the trees might be Gilly, Scrumptious or some other low-tannin variety. Instead Gammyoulands fruit is now harvested by the Johnsons for their own dry bittersweet ciders. And not just any dry bittersweet ciders; in the years that end in an even number, Gammyoulands makes Raison d’Être.

In the two years since I began these articles I have almost certainly written about and drunk Raison d’Être more than any other individual cider. Different vintages have featured in both of my annual “essential cases” to date, and although there might be a small handful of ciders that I feel edge it as a one-off, if I were pressed to name a cider I’d consider “my favourite” – my any-day, any-mood, old-friend, go-to first choice – it would probably be Raison.

Last year, reviewing the initial three vintages, I was lucky enough to get an interview with Albert Johnson which went into tremendous detail on Raison’s inception, varieties, ageing and characteristics. What I hadn’t realised at the time, and didn’t until I remarked to Albert this year that the 2019 Raison reminded me of the 2017, was that its fruit, for the most part, came from annually alternating orchards. The trees to the south west of the farm, just off the path that leads to the Yew Tree Inn, made 2017 and 2019; Gammyoulands was behind ’16 and ’18, the vintages that – if I had to choose – I would pick as my personal favourites.

The abiding joy of cider outside the macro, from-concentrate sphere is its inconsistency – its variability. In many cases that variability is unmissably obvious; two ciders made from completely different apples are never going to taste the same, for instance, nor two ciders made in different methods or to different levels of sweetness, or which have been fermented in active oak versus inert plastic or stainless steel.

Where Raison d’Être engages me on an intellectual level – aside from my basic love for it as a drink that hits my personal preferences – is in allowing me to pull at the smaller threads of inconsistency that straggle from an ostensibly consistent brief. Like Little Pomona’s Old Man and the Bee, and perhaps a few other ciders I can name off the top of my head, it is made annually from the same specific combination of varieties grown on the same farm, turned into cider in the same particular way and then advertised as such. Always wild-fermented, always dry, always bottle conditioned and always partially fermented in oak casks of which a portion have always previously held peated Islay whisky.

The net result is that you will taste any vintage of the cider in isolation and likely think “yes, that’s Raison d’Être” – likely why so many people anticipate its annual release so eagerly. The surprise and joy, when you taste separate vintages next to each other, as I’m lucky enough to have done on a few occasions, is in discovering – even allowing for the additional changes brought on by varying degrees of maturity – just how distinct each bottling has actually been. It is a pleasure that has long been celebrated by wine drinkers, whose world affords an almost limitless supply of potential verticals, as well as by beer drinkers, through such expressions as Orval and Fuller’s Vintage Ale.

The origins of some of those differences are easy enough to comprehend. Firstly, the proportion of Dabinett and Michelin has not been identical throughout Raison’s history. Since the 2017 vintage hadn’t been planned before the success of the 2016, the Johnsons had to scramble for whatever oak-aged Dabinett and Michelin they had left, and the percentage of Dabinett in the 2017’s makeup is accordingly lower. It will come as no surprise, in a country where weather-watching is such a rich mine for national conversation, that vintage itself plays a significant role. 2018, as we’ve written umpteen times on this site, was a year blessed with intense sunshine and enormous ripeness; an ideal vintage for the fleshy orange generosity of Dabinett. 2019, a leaner year, called for more careful selection and blending. Of course part of the skill of cidermaking is in creating higher quality in more challenging vintages, but differences in character and expression will always remain, however subtle, and are always, to my mind, to be celebrated.

Naturally there will also be differences in the particular way wild yeasts go about their work, in the individual imprints of different batches of barrels and so on and so forth. But surely, surely, there is also variability to be found between the two different orchards of Raison’s origin, notwithstanding their almost-immediate proximity to one another? To my mind and palate, there has always, for example, seemed to be an enhanced softness, roundness, forthcomingness of fruit to the even-vintage Raisons; a firmer, more cerebral quality to the odd. Is it not possible that these perceptible differences have sprung, quite literally, from the place in which their apples grew?

I can’t go any further without acknowledging an enormous degree of confirmation bias to what is, at best, an enthusiast’s back-of-a-napkin pondering. My professional background is in wine and I am steeped in the world of vineyard comparison. Much of my early fascination came from tasting wines made from the same grape varieties grown in different places; over a decade later I remain captivated by just how different such wines can be, whether their grapes have been grown in opposite hemispheres or on opposite sides of a fence. Such comparisons, picking apart often-stark variances on the same theme, cast an enduring and compelling spell and are a large part of the reason that, despite all of its obvious problems, I remain a fascinated wine lover and participant in the industry today. So of course I want to do the same thing in cider. Of course I want place, orchard, terroir to reveal itself in my tasting. To make a difference in my glass. To matter.

And certainly, if I apply the known parameters of wine grape growing to the orchards of Ross on Wye, I can see elements that further entrench me in my theories. The Gammyoulands slope is steeper than that of the other Dabinett orchard, and faces south east, rather than south west. The rows of trees are planted from north to south rather than from east to west, so the sun shines on both sides of each one as it passes over them. The very existence of the duck pond in the south west corner – and of the drop-off into the Wells Brook that the ditch at the bottom of Gammyoulands facilitates – is testament to the orchard’s excellent drainage.  

Gammyoulands is the orchard at the top.

If Gammyoulands was a vineyard I’d feel a degree more confidence in my hypothesis. But apple trees are not vines, and I’d be wary of clutching too firmly to vinicultural understandings as a basis for what is, at most, an orchard-centric hunch. What’s more, it’s not a hunch based on what our more mathematically-literate readers might describe as a “statistically significant” sample. Only two vintages of Raison exist from each orchard, of which 2018 was notably ripe in the UK, 2019 was notably not and 2017 provided a plethora of ciders from other Herefordshire producers which have convinced me of a theme of elegant structure to the vintage, potentially consistent with the ‘firmness’ I attested to above. It will take many more years and Raison verticals before I could assert with any confidence a clear and consistent differentiation between the output of Gammyoulands and the output of the orchard at the south of the farm. To make any concrete pronouncements on their character, for the time being, would be to invite the future laughter of God.

But, and it is an important but, a bold, underlined and italicised but, that isn’t to say that those differences don’t exist, nor that the comparison of character across individual orchards is simply the fanciful frivolousness of eccentric romantics like me.

Aside from its merit as an interesting theoretical and gustatory exercise, there is a financial and reputational benefit to the identification of orchards by their character and, crucially, by the quality of cider their fruit is able to make – not just the yield their trees are able to produce. It is a matter of record that the price of apples for cider is scandalously low, particularly by comparison to grapes for wine, even in the UK where the latter is so much less of a quantitative concern than the former.

An increased recognition of the orchards whose cider fruit was of exceptional quality would naturally cultivate increased demand for the fruit from those orchards and an associated increase in the prices growers were able to charge for their apples. Highlighting those orchards might also, eventually, have the knock-on effect of creating similar interest in and reverence for them to that which is currently afforded to individual producers. At present, consumer focus as far as orchards are concerned – even among the most clued-up and enthusiastic consumers – is entirely on the varieties of apples and, to a much lesser degree (we are very seldom given this information), the ages of the trees. We might also care about whether the orchards are “traditional” or “bush”, but again this specification is generally offered piecemeal and seldom comes with any explanation of the benefits to the drinker.

There is obvious precedent for the consideration of orchard quality, and it comes again from the world of wine. Vineyards have been considered and compared to such an extent that they now include the most valuable agricultural land in the world, with significant (often eye-watering) premiums commanded by those broadly understood by drinkers to yield the best fruit. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t want ciders (or perries) to ascend into the varying eschelons of elitism, exclusivism and general snobbery that so often mar the world of wine. But let me put it like this: no one is going to be bulldozing Le Montrachet to make way for a train line or office block any time this century.

I once read an interview with Little Pomona’s James Forbes somewhere describing his thoughts on first encountering the Little Pomona Home Orchard. James’s background in wine is far longer and more illustrious than mine is, and his direct vineyard experience immeasurably greater. In the interview his comment was that he experienced, walking into the Home Orchard, the same energy as he had when walking into a vineyard whose wine he knew to be great. The same almost-tangible feeling that here was a patch of land capable of growing fruit that would make good drinks. When he spoke to the farmer who planted the land, he got the same response: “I thought it would make good cider”.

It’s easy to just dismiss all this as wishy-washy sentiment. Not least because James has an obvious commercial interest in attesting his orchard to be of good quality. But I’ve never made drinks; never had a stake in a particular vineyard or orchard being good or not, and I know what he means. There is a sense that you get from certain patches of land; a visual demonstration of its physical attributes, in the case of the hill of Hermitage or the gravels of Pauillac, and an admittedly-less-defensible feeling that only comes from having walked through enough orchards and vineyards and tasted enough of their output. That energy. That sense. It is striking, looking at the Home Orchard, below, how closely it matches Gammyoulands in the alignment of its rows and the direction and steepness of its slope. (Gammyoulands is probably a little steeper, off the top of my head). It’s a very different orchard; smaller, wider-spaced, younger trees and, I dare say, different soil, but there are similarities nonetheless and those similarities are worth our care and thought. Orchards are worth our care and thought.

It was at the top of the slope, looking back through the phalanx of Dabinett and Michelin, that I realised I loved Gammyoulands and could put my finger on why. Not despite its apparently functional and unglamourous aesthetic, but precisely because of it. Orchards give off their haunted, lonely, abandoned feeling because they are not natural places; not sun-pierced woodland or darkening forest, but a place that humans have made and which require humans for relevance. They may exist within nature and be built of nature, but they themselves are expressly not nature, they are deliberate human constructions made for a particular point and purpose. Orchards don’t exist to be beautiful or to increase our biodiversity; they are no more accidental than a barleyfield; the walks and woodpeckers, picnics and panoramas are incidental, if wonderful and welcomed, by-products of their real reason for being.

These places, these magnificent places, aren’t special for being the poetic playgrounds of dryads and nymphs, they are special because of what they make; because of what people can make out of them. You can’t eat Dabinett and Michelin apples, or at least not for pleasure. Apple orchards like Gammyoulands exist for one purpose and one purpose only; locked in their roots and branches is the soul and essence of the drink we love. All are different, all possess characters entirely their own and some of them may be great.

If Gammyoulands grew grapes it would be gated and signposted and visited and studied and talked about with reverence as a patch of land that incubated greatness. And just because it doesn’t grow grapes, but apples, doesn’t mean that its greatness isn’t there; isn’t imbued in the cider born from its soil and slope and wood; doesn’t deserve the same awe and wonder.

So when you next drink Raison d’Être, think about Broome Farm and the Johnsons; think about time and care and casks and conditioning. But think too, as you sip, of trees planted deliberately, in a specific place for a specific purpose. In the ripe, fleshy depths of your drink’s aromatics, feel the south-eastern sun warming your face, see the long, straight files of weathered trunks marching north to south and the dip at the bottom that spills into the brook. Hear the whispering grasses, squash the rusty clay soil beneath your boots, take another sip, and settle down in your mind’s eye on the slope of Gammyoulands.

Gammyoulands being planted in 1978/79
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In addition to my writing and editing on Cider Review I contribute to other drinks sites and magazines including Graftwood, JancisRobinson.com, Full Juice, Distilled and Burum Collective. I share my home with several hundred bottles, one geophysicist and a small fluffy belligerent called Nutmeg. @CiderReviewAdam on Twitter and Instagram.

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