In this most blessed of times to be a cider drinker there are dozens and dozens of cideries the availability of whose wares fills my heart with gladness.
I was recently asked by a fellow drinks writer making forays into perry how easy I found it to get hold of the drink from where I live in Reading. To which my answer was: easier than ever before. An under-commented-upon aspect of the modern cider and perry revolution – in fact probably its chiefest facilitator – has been the rise of the broad-range, mix-your-own, online cider retailer.
Those of us who’ve been around the scene for more than four or five years can remember the days when there wasn’t a Scrattings, a Cat in the Glass, a Fram Ferment. The Fine Cider Company existed, and did sterling work, but catered predominantly to restaurants at the time and had, in any case, a deliberately slim range. Getting hold of a broad selection of the bottles available required you to either live close to the area in which they were made or to do far more legwork than is the case today. We owe those pioneering retailers, and distributors like Re:Stalk, a tremendous debt of gratitude.
But there are still plenty of makers slipping through the cracks, and a small handful which I have been especially keen to see made more generally available. And one of the foremost among those has been Leicestershire’s Charnwood.
I think it’s very telling that within minutes of The Cat in the Glass posting a selection of Charnwood Ciders on twitter, James was posting enthusiastic gifs and I was filling my online shopping cart. There are really only a couple of cideries which I think would have provoked that kind of reaction. But Charnwood ciders are often special. I remember, in one of the very earliest bottle shares I ever did with James, sitting outside the barns at Ross on Wye, tasting in company for one of the first times since Lockdown 1.0, opening all sorts of specially-chosen things and both of us remarking on how brilliantly the Charnwoods James had brought and introduced me to were showing amongst even the most vaunted of bottled company. I have wanted to be able to buy them more easily ever since.
I’ve written on the nature of preference before, and it’s certainly fair to say that Charnwood ticks a lot of our favourite boxes here on Cider Review. Full juice, vintage-labelled, varieties listed. They tend to be dry and their carbonation (bottle conditioning) tends to be moderate and to work sympathetically with the various textures on show. They’re also, at £3.95 per 500ml bottle, tremendously good value. So yes, I bought the lot from Cat in the Glass straight away, and shuffled my planned content around for the month so I could review them here asap. That’s a sort of hype that you can’t buy – the inside-tip nod from someone like James; enthusiasm, real enthusiasm, specifically about what’s in the bottle. (Charnwood’s labels, it must be admitted, are not the world’s most eye-catching).
Anyway. Promise on the label isn’t a guarantee of delivery in the glass, so let’s save any plaudits until the conclusions. I couldn’t possibly hope to tell you more about Rob Clough’s operation, nor his micropub, the Mash & Press, than is available in Laura Hadland’s wonderful piece on Pellicle here. Suffice it to say that Rob is one of a growing number of excellent East Midlands producers, including – but certainly not limited to – Nottinghamshire (and now Cambridgeshire’s) Blue Barrel and Melton Mowbray’s Cidentro. I’m particularly inspired by Rob’s dedication to planting his own orchards in a number of varieties, both classic West Country as well as eastern counties.
Let’s see what we make of them.
Charnwood Cocky Fox 2019 Season – review
(Medium – all the subsequent ciders are dry – single variety Cox)
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Pale straw, medium fizz
On the nose: High-toned Spring countryside aromatics. Daisies, blossom, nettles, soft apple. Almost quite Asti-esque. A little hay and sherbet. Simple but clean and fresh.
In the mouth: A lightly candied sweetness, though this sits on the drier end of medium and zesty green acidity balances everything well. Green apples and pears, white grape, icing sugar and more florals. Light bodied. Clean, clear.
In a nutshell: Light, springtime stuff. Simple, but in a very tasty way. Good rendition of the variety
How I served: Medium-chilled
Appearance: Hazy gold. Barely any fizz. More or less none, in fact.
On the nose: Quite an unusual nose, given the apples, and certainly different to previous Ellis-Foxwhelp blends I’ve had both from Rob and from others. A touch musty and yeasty. A little sulphur. The Foxwhelp aromatics aren’t really firing, though yellow lemony tones emerge with time and swirling. I’m not sure this has conditioned, or certainly not fully.
In the mouth: Well the acidity is certainly firing. Even by Foxwhelp standards it’s hugely sharp, though some body and tannin from the Ellis calm things down a tiny bit. All yellow citrus – the redder characteristics of Foxwhelp don’t really emerge. Quite juicy, and the mustiness of the nose hasn’t intruded here. Overall though this is what I’d class as an “acid bomb” and – am I really saying this? A bit too much for me.
In a nutshell: Not my favourite Foxwhelp – at the most extreme end of the apple’s sharpness. Worth noting that I think this bottle hasn’t conditioned properly though, so mileage may vary across the batch.
How I served: Lightly-chilled
Appearance: Rubbed brass. Light fizz.
On the nose: Riper in its fruit. Red apple. Almost bruised apple. Blood orange. Ripe peach. But there’s also a savoury, outdoorsy tone – leather and bark. Almost a slight meatiness. A husky, burly sort of a nose.
In the mouth: Very firm texture – shows its youth with hard, pithy tannins. A good zing of acidity too. Some big orange fruit. Strawberry and red apples skins wrestle with those woody tannins and a tang of copper pennies and pith. Reminds me of the Smith Hayne Dry from a couple of weeks back in that there’s a really good cider here, but it wants a bit of time in the bottle still for the tannins to resolve and the fruit to come further forward.
In a nutshell: Buy it, but hide it away for a year. A textural, coarse but complex blend full of promise.
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Hazy gold, light fizz.
On the nose: A bit reductive, certainly initially, as Somerset Redstreak often seems to be. Just a bit of meaty sulphur and cheese ahead of the juicier apple tones and light yellow tropical fruit. Big hay aromas as well. Once the reductiveness has receded it’s very fresh and rather juicy.
In the mouth: Really reminiscent of Ross on Wye deliveries here – it has the juicy yellow apple and the light pineapple of the apple, alongside a big whack of fresh hay, but it’s the slatey-mineral undertones and the lightly bittering pithy finish (rather reminiscent of a sort of malic IPA actually) that really take me to the unoaked single varieties of Peterstow. Medium bodied and surprisingly tannic – in that pithy way – for Somerset Redstreak. Almost SRS trying to do a Harry Masters’ Jersey impression, ever so slightly. Like this a lot.
In a nutshell: A textural, juicy Somerset Redstreak. Give it a few minutes and swirling in the glass to open up.
(N.B. Only time I’ve encountered this apple outside Ross on Wye)
How I served: Room temperature
Appearance: Hazy new pennies. Light fizz
On the nose: A deep and very juicy nose – like really good apple juice in some ways actually – if not the most intense in its aromatics. Apple skins. Nutmeg. A warming, comforting, sweetly-spiced nose redolent of autumn.
In the mouth: Ripe and rounded and juicy with a nice medium body and tannins that just add a light grip rather than an insistent gnash. A lovely, easy-going cider whose flavours follow its nose to the letter. Deep apple, dried citrus and sweet spice. Totally clean. Not the longest finish in the world, but that’s nitpicking. This is very nice.
In a nutshell: An easy recommendation for bittersweet fans and perfect for this time of year. Great to see a really rare apple on such tasty form.
Charnwood Dabinett 2019 Season – review
How I served: Room temperature.
Appearance: Rich copper. Light fizz.
On the nose: Oooh yes. That’s the stuff. Dabinett at its most voluptuously orangey. Almost orange marmalade it’s so rich and ripe. Vanilla, sweet spice, gingerbread – no, ginger cake – and flutters almost of old Armagnac. There’s even a really nice cured meat – perhaps biltong – savouriness. But mainly that gloriously rich, ripe, indulgent and almost exotic orangey tone.
In the mouth: Again I say oooh yes. That is instantly right up there with the all-time best single variety Dabinett I’ve ever tried. Glorious in the ripeness of its orange, the fullness of its body, the velvety lusciousness of its texture. Marmalade. Mature botrytised dessert wine – but dry. Peach, clove. A bit of black tea tannin. Utterly impeccable in its rich, ripe, spotless juiciness. As good as unoaked single variety Dabinett gets, in my experience.
In a nutshell: Buy all you can. Easily the best single variety Dabinett I’ve had from this vintage. If you wat to know what quintessential Dabinett tastes like at its most indulgent, try this.
Charnwood Major 2019 Season – review
How I served: Room temperature.
Appearance: Similar to the Dabinett. A tone lighter.
On the nose: I am increasingly coming to see Major as a sort of more visceral cousin to Dabinett, and that’s backed up here. Shares a lot of the deep, juicy, fleshy orange tones, but where the Dabinett went exotic and marmaladey, this also takes in the rind and the pith and adds a mineral, petrichor almost earthy edge and a bit of peppery spice. Savoury to the Dabinett’s sweet. Again a lovely, lovely, complex nose that sings beautifully of its apple of origin.
In the mouth: Yep, stretching a wine metaphor this is Syrah to the Dabinett’s Shiraz. Big juicy orange and peach, just a touch leaner than the Dabinett and with that pronounced mineral spicy edge. Major of this age often has a big pithy-phenolic finish, but the voluptuousness and the juicy ripeness of this bottling balances that out nicely.
In a nutshell: Absolutely superb Major, with those textural qualities that would make it a world class pork match. Again – buy all you can.
Firstly, it’s a very rare privilege to be able to line up a large number of (mostly) single variety bottled dry ciders from a producer that isn’t Ross on Wye. So even before the organoleptic merits of the individual bottlings this was an especially fascinating tasting and one which I would encourage anyone who is interested in the flavours of specific variety ciders to reproduce.
But apart from that intellectual merit, there are some absolutely world class ciders here. The last two, for me, are comfortably my picks of the crop – two ciders that can sit in the company of the best made anywhere by anyone. Caroline tasted through them all right after I did (with gratifyingly similar tasting notes) and whilst we agreed on pretty much everything, we struggled to pick our favourite out of the Dabinett and the Major. I leaned slightly towards the former, and Caroline was a little more in the latter’s camp, but we wavered back and forth considerably. The fundamental take-home is that I wish I’d bought more, and will do so imminently if any are left.
A funny postscript – I had completely forgotten that I’d previously reviewed the 2018 Dabinett from Charnwood here. Having spotted it in the excel document I nerdishly keep of everything I’ve reviewed I dug up my tasting note and found much of it remarkably similar to that which I’ve written for the 2019 today. Interestingly though, whilst 99 times out of 100 2018 trumps 2019 as a vintage, here we have the exception that proves the rule. Where the 2018 (though superb) felt perhaps a little bloated with markedly intense tannins, this 2019 has retained all of its aromatic character and fullness of body whilst preserving a freshness that elevates all of its gorgeous aromatics and a more velvety and well-integrated tannin structure. Anyway – just a rather niche aside of predominantly personal interest! – buy either one, if you find them.
Really liked the Balls Bittersweet, Caroline rated Cocky Fox her third favourite, the Stoke Red needs time but will be brilliant for it (it’s already very good) and although there’s some reductiveness to the nose the Somerset Redstreak also has a huge amount to commend it, especially on the palate. It was only the 75% Foxwhelp that left me personally cold (who’d have predicted that?) and, as mentioned, I think that can be partially attributed to this particular bottle’s issues with conditioning. In the past this blend from Charnwood has been fantastic.
The main take home is that if you enjoy dry cider and are interested in the particular flavours of varieties, Charnwood is a cidery that demands your attention. The best cidery in the East Midlands? Yes, I think so.
Links to buy each of the ciders reviewed above are in their respective titles. As always, these are simply for the convenience of our readers, and Cider Review receives no commission for posting them.