From time to time, usually when I’m talking about cider with someone who is interested in wine, I am asked the question “can cider mature?”
By this they mean: do the flavours cider have the capacity to develop after bottling such that they become different to and perhaps even better than they were at the point of being committed to glass? Or, more pertinently: if I stash this bottle away under my stairs and come back to it after a few years, will I discover that magic has happened?
The answer to this question is quite complex.
Let’s stick with wine for the time being. In this world, the concept of maturation; of aged wine; is so famous that even those completely unconcerned by the existence of fermented grape are likely to have encountered it. Indeed its fame (along with a judicious dab of canny marketing) has given rise to the popular misapprehension that all wine can age; that, in the immortal words of Black Books: “the older the wine is, the gooder it is”.
This is far from the case.
Fair enough, if I am drinking a Bordeaux from a particularly well-located and prestigious estate (you’re paying, incidentally) I will likely enjoy it more if it has had a few years, possibly over a decade, in bottle beforehand. Similarly a Riesling, especially a sweeter Riesling, from a very good vineyard in Germany, may reward years of the patience which I neither possess nor can afford with depths, developments and complexities of flavour well beyond those which would have been apparent at the time of bottling.
But these, on the whole, tend to be the exception, rather than the rule. The vast, vast majority of wines are best drunk within a year or two of vintage — the younger and fresher the better. New Zealand Sauvignon, for instance, is happiest when it has as much spring in its step, as much zing and zest and life as possible. Bright, fruity reds, crisp, large-glass-by-the-sea whites, most (but by no means all) rosé. These are bottles to gladden the heart of the impatient drinker. Open them with (responsible) abandon — they will never be better than today.
A wine’s capacity to mature is dependent on the concentration of phenolics, acids and sugars present in its grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance, the key grape in most Bordeaux made on the so-called ‘left bank’ and some of the longest-lived of all, has incredibly thick skins, packed with phenols, particularly tannins. In youth, this can make the wines seem coarse and astringent. But given time in bottle, these compounds slowly break down – soften – whilst acting as a natural preservative. Thus the wine is both protected from the effects of micro-oxidation whilst able to literally change the composition of its flavours.
This isn’t to say that all Cabernets are able to mature. The ‘ageability’ of wine can be affected by several things; if a wine is heavily filtered, those large-molecule phenols and tannins will be stripped from the liquid, removing its youthful astringency but simultaneously robbing it of the capacity to slowly develop over time. What’s more, sugar ripeness and phenolic ripeness do not take place at the same rate. In a very hot climate, a Cabernet grape might attain full sugar ripeness and be harvested long before those complex phenolics have developed. Again, easier-drinking in its youth, but without the capacity to improve for years and years in bottle.
Finally, there is the way in which a bottled wine’s lifespan might be shortened by the conditions in which it is kept. Cellars, for those lucky (wealthy) enough to have them, are ideal, providing exactly the right cool, dark conditions for the slow process of molecular breakdown. Conversely, storing a bottle in the sunlight, or in a hot kitchen, will almost literally boil the wine, rendering it undrinkable in next to no time. An under-stairs cupboard or similar cool and shady space will do perfectly well for those of us yet to chance upon a winning lottery ticket.
Enough about wine and the fickleness of maturation, I think. Back to cider, and the question of whether it can behave similarly.
Historically, certain commentators have stated fairly bluntly in one place or another that no, cider can’t mature, that it should be drunk up as quickly as possible, that it doesn’t possess the phenolic contents or alcohol levels of wine and that attempts at ageing are futile.
But this feels far too general. Just as the ageability of wines is dictated by grape, by growing conditions and by the actions of the maker, so cider’s capacity to mature can’t be reduced to a binary ‘it can’ or ‘It can’t’.
In the course of writing our reviews we have encountered a traditional method cider that was sixteen at the time of drinking. There have been ice ciders with more than a decade behind them (and which could both have been left for easily another decade and still been delicious), an eight-year-old dry Dabinett that was still going strong and many other examples besides. I recently attended Little Pomona’s ‘Fire and Flame’ vintage vertical of the first five iterations of their Art of Darkness bottling (2017 and 2018 editions both reviewed here). Every one but the earliest, 2015, still tasted so close to its original bottled condition that James Forbes seemed almost put out! All had years of development still left in the tank, especially the immortal 2017 #1 which is, of course, the greatest Art of Darkness of all time.
However, just as in wine, the majority of cider is not intended for keeping back. There is finite mileage to starting a Strongbow cellar. Discovery, I am convinced, is an apple for drinking as early as you can, whilst its bright, zesty fruit is at its most joyous. The likes of Jonagold, Katja, Reinette d’Obry probably ditto. But if your cider is packed with burly tannin, phenolic full-body and/or rasping acidity, squirrel a bit away. If you can bear to wait.
In January last year I was given a reminder of the importance of (occasional) patience. I had interviewed Eleanor Leger of Eden Cider in Vermont (possibly my all-time favourite interview in these pages) and rounded out the article with reviews of a selection of Eden ciders. As standard with Eden, all were very good (one was, and remains, the best cider that I have ever tried) but one of which Eleanor was especially proud – Siren Song 2019 – didn’t quite resonate with me as I had hoped. Perfectly good, very happy to have tried it, but not quite possessed of the mind-altering brilliance which had marked the Eden Cellar Series bottlings which had landed in the UK back in the summer of 2019.
Shortly after the review was published, Eleanor got back in touch. She thanked me for the article, and for what I’d said about her ciders, but wanted to raise a point about Siren Song which she felt I had overlooked. She pointed out that the ciders I had raved about – Goodwood and King in the North especially – had enjoyed at least a few years of ageing before I had opened them. Their flavours had been brushed with that magical decay of maturation; had opened and broadened and softened and were all the more alluring for it.
Eleanor was confident that Siren Song, given due time, would scale the same heights as those ciders and offer the same complexities derived of patient development. She wanted to prove it to me and so she proposed an experiment. How would I feel, she asked, about tucking away four bottles of Siren Song 2019 and opening one every year to see how its flavours progressed?
How do you think I felt?
The bottles arrived shortly afterwards and have been stored in the darkest, coolest nook of the flat, whilst I’ve sat on my hands and attempted to forget that they’re there. Today, at last, a little over a year later, it’s time to broach the first.
Since it’s over a year since I last tasted Siren Song, my memories of its flavours are inevitably not going to be exact. I have a rough picture, and I can refer to my old tasting note, but since time travel eludes me there’s no way to directly and precisely compare Siren Song 2019 as drunk in January 2021 with the same vintage drunk in June 2022. So as companion tasting notes, and in the hope of uncovering more immediately the effects of maturation in cider, I also have two vintages – 2019 and 2016 – of Eden’s Guinevere’s Pearls.
James recently reviewed the 2019 here in a broader article on Eden. In brief, Guinevere’s Pearls (in both vintages) is a single variety Northern Spy from Jessika Yates’ orchard in Vermont, partially cryo-concentrated by the state’s natural cold. Its fermentation is arrested at a very meaty 11% and 30 g/l residual sugar and it is aged in French oak for six months. The 2016 sold out years ago I’m afraid, but Cider is Wine seem to have some of the 2019 left.
Siren Song 2019, in case you didn’t read the previous article, is a blend of apples (see label below) including several tannic varieties, bottled with a little residual sweetness. Again, Cider is Wine have a few bottles left. Let’s start with that one.
Eden Siren Song 2019 – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Bright Gold, but certainly a tone deeper than my picture of last year’s. Steady mousse.
On the nose: A ripe, rosy apple aroma giving way to juicy melon. Where last year’s florals were white flowers, here they are a touch deeper and more exotic. Everything feels in line with my comments from last year, aroma-wise, but a few notes down the scale. Fuller. Deeper.
In the mouth: Fresh, ripe and definitively more intense in its overt character of fruit than it was 17 months ago. Everything’s a little more open and expressive. A zing of lemon adds life to big red apple, light tropical fruit, more melon and even a reddish raspberry tinge. Nice integration of tannins whilst the mousse has dialled back a bit which again gives the fruit more room. Just a smidge off-dry.
In a nutshell: Sense there’s even further to go – still super fresh – but an evolution, an unfurling, has taken place here. Unquestionably more developed than it was.
Eden Guinevere’s Pearls 2019 – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Same as Siren Song but a tone deeper again. Similar mousse level.
On the nose: Huge yellow nose. Sicilian lemonade, vanilla, pie apple. Really big and ripe but trilling with high-toned freshness too. Fresh mango, banana. Already nearly three years old, but it noses much younger.
In the mouth: Big delivery too. Fruit intensity and body keep the alcohol in check, whilst a rasp of yellow acidity balances out the sweetness. The mousse is judged just right. Pure apple, yuzu, a touch of apricot and again a little banana. Just a flicker of spice from the French oak, but this is all about that fruit really. Epic balance for something so big – like watching a rhino trapeze.
In a nutshell: Proper gourmand cider – one for a good, rich meal. Choc-full of character now, but will age a treat I’d wager. Let’s find out below …
Eden Guinevere’s Pearls 2016 – review
How I served: Lightly chilled
Appearance: Much deeper. Burnished gold. Almost copper.
On the nose: Decadent. That deep, dried apple so often reminiscent of good ice cider has crept in with honey, sultana, vanilla and buttered toast. We’re definitely into the tertiary stage of development here – so many of the classic hallmarks of maturity – and yet the fruit is still so pure and vibrant and fresh. Fig. Cherry. So much going on.
In the mouth: Glorious, glorious delivery. The purity of that acidity – all fizzy strawberry laces and dark cherry – just slices through the huge body and unctuous fruit, providing the perfect foil to the sweetness. All the notes from the nose are present and correct, plus oak spice, cinnamon, more honey and sharp apple sauce.
In a nutshell: Obscenely complex, utterly phenomenal. What a variety. What a cider.
I have no fresh superlatives for Eden, so I’m not going to strain for any. If you’re a cider lover and not paying attention to what these folk are making, it’s very much your loss.
On maturity, whilst I can’t directly compare the Siren Song I drank 17 months ago with my experience today, my memories are clear enough to know it has taken a definitive step forward. It’s by no means at the end of its journey, but it has begun evolving splendidly, and I can’t wait to see how the next three years of development pan out.
Especially if they shape up anything like Guinevere’s Pearls 2016 has. Whilst the 2019 is delicious and instantly evoked memories of my reaction to the 2016 vintage when I first tried it three years ago, the way the flavours of that older vintage have blossomed is nothing short of breathtaking. A stunning unfurling that makes the case for ageing good cider far more comprehensively than I ever could.
Cider is not a black-and-white, binary drink. It can’t be summed up in sentence-long generalisations and we’re the poorer if we even try. These three Edens reminded me of that, and the Siren Song in particular serves as an always-useful spur to full consideration of ciders I review, and to the indisputable merits of judicious patience.
Thanks Eleanor – same again next year. Or, rather, a little bit different.
As stated above, the bottle of Siren Song 2019 was sent to us on behalf of Eden Ciders. This doesn’t affect our editorial control or assessment. But you knew that already.