No particular angle today. No, I’ve no rant about transparency, scattergun musings on terroir or wades into the various mires of dilution, faults or the definition of natural. Simply four ciders from a producer I like very much and who deserve to be on your radar if they aren’t already.
Yes, Barley Wood Orchard are a veritable jewel in the crown of British producers in general and Somerset producers in particular. I’ve enthused about a handful of Isy and Mike’s creations in the past, without ever really shining a spotlight on them as a whole cidery, and even our Chris had glowing things to say about their Tremlett’s Bitter.
I picked up three of the four I’m tasting today when I was visiting Barley Wood for an article I’m writing for another publication, which is only worth mentioning because three of the below haven’t been released for general sale yet, which is why they’re not going to be linked. So yes, those three are samples, might as well admit that here straight away, but I’d hope we’ve done enough reviews on this site now that you won’t hold the freebies against us, or at least will know that such generosities don’t affect the editorial or the tasting notes beyond whatever intangible little nuggets of serotonin they plant in our heads. Besides, as a previous editor once commented, freebies or not we’re all affected by our own little flickerings of bias one way or another when we encounter a brand – it might be a cidery that was the first place to turn us onto great cider, or that we had a bad experience with a faulty product from someone once or twice, or that we really like their labels, or that they post engagingly on social media or have an adorable pet.
All sorts of things shape our experiences and preferences and preconceptions, which is why we’re humans and not machines, and if you don’t accept that then you might as well stop ticking those little internet boxes that say “I’m not a robot”. All we can do – especially as reviewers who try to review things critically (by which I mean with critique, not just by yelling) is acknowledge where these subconscious biases might creep in, be transparent when they arrive in the form of a sample, remember that we write for consumer not maker and compile our writeup as accurately as we can.
One further aside before we plunge in. Barley Wood, for those who haven’t encountered them before, is a Somerset producer – a West Country maker. This being the case, you might presume that the quartet in front of me will be characterised by tannins, because that is what we are often told identifies such ciders. But if we look at the names on the bottles – Ashmead, Browns, Porters Perfection, Kingston Black – we notice that all four are made (or predominantly made – the Ashmead is a blend) from apples either wholly or partially characterised by acidity. Granted, Porter’s Perfection and Kingston Black are bittersharps, so we might expect at least an element of tannin, but we certainly wouldn’t expect tannins to be their defining feature.
Cider, even in a place as small as the UK, contains multitudes. If we expect all Eastern Counties ciders to be “acid-led” we will be mightily surprised when we encounter, for instance, the Egremont Russet. If we expect the West to be tannin-only, we won’t have a clue what to do with Foxwhelp. This isn’t anything new or revelatory – there have always been “acid driven” ciders in the west just as there have always been handfuls of bittersweets growing in the east, as James showed in his recent tasting of BEARDspoon’s Dab of Disco. Of course generalisations here and there can be very useful – and, this being the internet and the 21st century, perhaps the best we can hope for – but given that within the “bittersweet” category alone there are such disparities of flavour (you’re not going to mistake a Major for a Michelin, for instance, or a Yarlington Mill for a Somerset Redstreak) I really do think that the whole notion of “style” as a signpost to flavour is significantly flawed. If the four bottles I’m about to taste were just marked “west country” or even “sharp” and “bittersharp” I wouldn’t have the first clue what they were going to taste like and the odds of a surprise – be it pleasant or otherwise – would be that much higher.
So a reminder – not that you need it, being a wise and wonderful Cider Review reader – that our best bet remains (in my opinion – bias again!) to consider our ciders in terms of their varieties and their method, accompanied, in the case of those responsible for labelling, by a few useful tasting cues for the many folk who won’t have previously encountered words like ‘Dabinett’. And if we are going to generalise – and we probably should, and need to – perhaps we should be generalising by flavour, rather than by rough structural parameters. With my wine hat on I wouldn’t recommend Bordeaux purely on the basis of being “tannin led”, nor point to the whites of Alsace on the merits purely of acidity, and with my cider hat on I think we can aspire to a little less reductivity too.
Anyway. I promised I wasn’t going to give you a rant and now I’ve given you two. [We knew you would – Ed] All four ciders below are, I believe, cold-racked, so we anticipate an element of natural sweetness, and were bottled before fermentation had concluded, so we also expect a touch of natural sparkle. I bought the Ashmead for £8.50 from Scrattings and it’s also available through Cork and Crown, who I have only just noticed now deliver nationwide, which is an excellent development indeed. The other three you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled and wait for.
Barley Wood Orchard Ashmead 2020 – review
How I served: Medium-chilled
Appearance: Brilliant Gold. Bright mousse.
On the nose: Fresh and fragrant, but with a lovely floral, honeyed depth that almost evokes certain perries – Brandy Pear, for instance – as much as it does cider. Tangerine. Red and yellow apple skins. It’s a lovely thing, in a delicate and poised way.
In the mouth: Gorgeous delivery. Measured acidity and light, brisk tannins come together in a refreshing crunch that evokes certain ciders of France’s Pays d’Othe (James reviewed one here, for reference). Light sweetness, medium body and a joyous mousse that deliciously springboards the vivacious orange and yellow fruit. Whistle-clean, textural, fresh and aromatic.
In a nutshell: A brilliant piece of blending, with the Ashmead’s Kernel clear at the core. Lovely, lovely cider.
Barley Wood Orchard Browns – review
How I served: Medium-chilled
Appearance: Bright copper. Barely any fizz.
On the nose: Deep by single variety Browns standards. Almost luscious. Apple pomace, toffee apple. Citrus in both a dried and a deep, fleshy way. A saline trace of leesiness and an almost aldehyde, almondy tone that’s not a million miles off En Rama sherry. This certainly isn’t Browns as I usually know it.
In the mouth: Bright Browns acidity (sharpest of today’s quartet) is tempered by that unusual depth of flavour which follows the nose so precisely that I don’t see much point listing additional notes! Sweetness is balances and the finish is long. This is, in many ways, a most unusual Browns – at times it feels almost the cidery marriage of orange wine and En Rama Fino – almost Amontillado.
In a nutshell: A deep, wild take on Browns which may well polarise but is certainly worth a try.
Barley Wood Orchard Porters Perfection – review
(N.B. Porters Perfection is a native Somerset bittersharp that we last saw in isolation in this review of Hecks all the way back in April last year.)
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Hazy burnished gold. Medium mousse.
On the nose: Big, rich, dried leaves, red apple skins, orange rinds and general autumnal tones. Proper ‘walk in the woods’ cider. A very light – and I mean teensy-weensy – trace of sulphur; that light meatiness. But mainly a deep, rumbustious noseful of ripe autumn.
In the mouth: Big delivery. Deep, rich apple – juice, flesh and dried – full body and big, luscious tannins balanced by fresh acidity and nice sweetness. Huge ripe fruit here – big orangey tones alongside that red apple, even moving into strawberries. No sign of the nose’s wisp of sulphur. A juice bomb offset by some dusky, woody, dried-leaf tannin.
In a nutshell: A big, beautiful, robust, autumnal cider. Recommended. Caroline’s pick of this quartet.
Barley Wood Orchard Kingston Black – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Rich, coppery gold. Light fizz.
On the nose: Is there an apple with a better aroma than a really good Kingston Black? Maybe only one or two. This is up with my favourite Kingston Black noses ever – pure peaches and apricots and passion fruit – even a touch of lychee – as ripe and tropical and downright decadent as it comes. Billows from the glass. A joy to nose.
In the mouth: Delivery matches that standard. Gentle of acid and tannin, full of body and as luscious of fruit as the nose was. All the notes above, plus boiled tropical sweets, peach yoghurt and blood orange. Sweetness again is moderate and beautifully balanced. A light, refreshing, orange-rind pithiness to the finish.
In a nutshell: If last week’s Charnwood was archetypal Dabinett, this is the blueprint for great unoaked KB. Buy, buy, buy.
A cracking and tremendously varied flight of ciders. We’ve reviewed a lot of Kingston Blacks on this site – a whole bunch here, a load more here and one or two others besides. I can’t think of more than two or three that rank with today’s. My pick of a very good flight, and essential buying when it is released. (I believe it’ll be before Christmas, but with only 200 bottles to go round, you’ll need to keep a good eye out).
Ashmead’s my second favourite, I think, though I could just as easily have said Porters Perfection, which was Caroline’s top pick. I liked the Browns, though it is, admittedly, rather unusual. A must-try for fans of the wilder side of wine though, and to be clear I’m not using that as a euphemism for “faulty” – it isn’t. Just unusual.
Excellent stuff. Excellent cidery.