It’s very easy to mythologise blending, isn’t it?
The picture is compelling. The cidermaker amidst their vats and barrels. The nose in a million. The high-definition three-dimensional picture composed in their brain. The alchemy of fermented liquid fusion. The cider gold brought forth from base lead.
Shockingly, the real picture is far more complex than that.
At its most basic, anyone can blend. It is as simple as pouring one liquid into another. I know a manager of an excellent whisky distillery (not the one I work for, I hasten to add) who encourages guests on blending experiences not to be shy, but to (his words) bosh the various samples on offer together. “There’s not enough boshing around in whisky,” he told me. It is possibly my all-time-favourite drinks industry quote.
Boshing things together is within all of our capacities, and provided with the opportunity to taste those components which we are boshing together beforehand, we are unlikely to make too great a mess of things. Or at least unlikely to create something which displeases our personal palate. And of course the more components at our disposal, and the more attempts we are allowed to bosh them together with, the more successful our boshing is likely to be. Given the full fermented contents of Ross on Wye’s barns, and a brief of boshing myself a cider that I liked (a brief I am open to any time, incidentally) I’m almost entirely certain that I could bosh together something reasonably tasty. (I shall now declare a moratorium on any variant of the word ‘bosh’ for the remainder of this article).
For most professional cidermakers though, the brief is obviously rather more complicated than “make one single cider”. Sure, they could cherry-pick their most compatible casks and produce something world class, but what about the rest of the stock in their barn? Thus blending becomes, in very real terms, a stock management question. Only selecting the best barrels – the honey casks – isn’t an option. What to do with the more ordinary, perhaps the slightly off-balanced, or the good, honest but not individually spectacular? It all needs selling somehow. Building that mental picture of the totality of one’s stock, and from it curating a wide range of excellent ciders, is arguably the hardest skill in the world of blending. And of course the more apples you press, the harder that job becomes.
The challenges of blending can be tackled in a number of different ways. In our interview with Tom Oliver of over two years ago he described his annual bottle fermented cider as “a blend we can do at pressing”; an understanding of the fruit that takes significant time to establish. The pre-press blending works with certain apples which either ripen at the same time, or can be kept off the tree, but is naturally far trickier with pear varieties whose ripening window requires pressing as soon after harvest as possible.
The practicalities continue. To ensure that cider is exposed to as little oxygen as possible, filling vessels to their brims is of paramount importance. But what to do if, say, you have pressed two-and-a-half IBCs worth of Dabinett and don’t have anything smaller to store the half in? Let it oxidise? Throw the spare liquid away? Or blend in something else you have to hand? Obviously the answer will always be the latter. Similarly, if harvesting from a multi-variety orchard whose trees are not sufficiently mature to produce a full container’s worth on their own, blending will be imposed upon the cidermaker either immediately before or immediately after pressing.
And what if blending for a larger cidery, with the brief of putting something together at significant scale and which achieves consistency with an established profile? Those of us at the most interested end of cider are often quick to dismiss the output of the macro producers, but I absolutely guarantee you that none of us, taken unpracticed into the Weston’s laboratories, could produce a batch of Stowford Press that tastes within touching distance of what the consumer is used to on tap at the pub. Blending, at what may seem to us like the quotidian level, is in fact a skill of mind-bending proportion.
Blends are everywhere in cider, and there often seem to be as many ways of approaching blending, and motives behind blending, as there are blended ciders. For many years the party line ran that blends were inherently superior to ciders bottled as single varieties. It has been a joy to see that mentality challenged and, often, put to the sword over the last five years or so, as our collective consensus on what constitutes “good” or “better” has evolved. Show me the blended cider with the thrilling intensity of unvarnished Foxwhelp, or the rose-tinted freshness of unadorned Discovery, for instance. The likes of Yarlington Mill or Dabinett will never be as voluptuous of texture, married to another apple, as they are when presented singly, and for all that Nightingale’s Satakieli was a blending masterpiece, the single variety Egremont Russet range that Little Pomona have cultivated over the last couple of vintages captures my heart every bit as completely, given the right meal, season, feeling or occasion. “Are blends better than single varieties?” is now, I hope, a question that can be consigned to the dusty annals of historic twitter debate. “What is the right cider for this particular moment?” is a far more important thing to ponder.
At its most considered, blending is the layering of varieties (or barrels, or vintages) such that their qualities will be accentuated, their deficiencies supported and augmented and any more-challenging elements rendered a positive rather than a distraction. As an enthusiast, as a drinker fascinated by the flavours, textures and attributes of individual apple varieties, the blends that often interest me most are those in which I can see the individual contributions of each apple and how they have elevated the blend into something greater than the sum of its parts. A classic example would be the keg-conditioned blend of Major, Somerset Redstreak and Foxwhelp that Ross on Wye produced around 2020. The Somerset Redstreak lent a rounded fruitiness to the cider’s middle, whilst the Major added a tannic grip. The former, individually, might have lacked structure and body, whilst the latter, on its own, could perhaps have come across as astringent on the finish. In tandem, and lifted by the bright zing of Foxwhelp, it was one of my all-time-favourite keg conditioned ciders; the perfect drink for late summer at the pub.
So when it comes to blending, there are various ways to split the atom. (Or perhaps, given the subject, ‘to put the atom together’). It depends entirely on the motivation, on the resource and on the type of cider the maker is looking to create.
Which brings us to the trio before me today, all from the aforementioned Ross on Wye who, given we have now reviewed some 56 of their ciders and perries in these pages (a few of them more than once) probably don’t need much introduction.
Our three new ciders look to investigate the results of marrying the two extremities of cider’s textural spectrum – high tannin and high acid – via a pair of apple varieties. The high tannin apple, Ashton Bitter, is the common denominator, whilst the identity of the sharp varies from bottle to bottle – Newton Wonder, Reinette d’Obry and Bramley respectively.
To quote the labels: “in October 2020 we experimented by pressing three barrels of Ashton Bitter each co-fermented with a different sharp apple variety. This trio showcases the importance of apple choices; how even an apple as powerful and astringent as Ashton Bitter will perform different dances with different partners. Each bottle is similar but ultimately unique; each difference subtle and delicate. The joy of pure juice cidermaking is that we work in these tiny degrees of variance and it gives us limitless possibility.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Aston Bitter isn’t a variety that I can remember appearing on Cider Review at all – or at least not in a starring role. Like Ellis Bitter and Tremlett’s Bitter, it belongs to a group of apples so distinct in their tannin and astringency that the characteristic forms part of its name. The other part of its name derives from the Long Ashton Research Centre in Somerset, now closed, where the apple was originally raised by a Mr G.T. Spinks, intriguingly from a cross between Dabinett and bittersharp Stoke Red.
Since we’ve been low in our Ashton Bitter coverage I thought I ought to reach out to Albert Johnson for a description of the variety, and he kindly responded with the following:
“It’s a curious apple as it blossoms very late in the year but is ripe around the beginning to middle of October, and I often wonder if that short growing window is why is doesn’t quite have the body of a Dabinett. The tannins are very prominent but if you press it at perfect ripeness then you can drink it quite quickly – we just tasted an IBC of it yesterday that we were blown away by.”
“At the same time obviously it’s a variety that keeps well. It’s always been a favourite on the farm as it is versatile like that – it’s a bit like the Foxwhelp of bittersweets. The main drawback of Ashton Bitter is that the growing habit of the tree causes it to shade itself a lot. When perfectly ripe it looks like orange and yellow fire, but when it’s shaded it can stay green and never fully ripen. A proper pruning regime can make all the difference but it’s very hard to maintain and hard to decide what to prune as the tree is so compact.”
“On the whole Ashton Bitter is great though, and it’s a very reliable cropper.”
Regarding the sharps, whilst Bramley is an apple that I imagine you all know fairly well, the other two are a little less commonplace. We have to reach all the way back to pre-pandemic for the last time I tasted Reinette d’Obry in these annals (indeed it was way back in the Malt days) whilst Newton Wonder I have only knowingly encountered as a whopping grapefruit-sized thing pulled off a tree somewhere in darkest Thornbury and then baked into a pudding of surpassing deliciousness by the lovely folk of Little Pomona.
So I tackle today’s ciders in relative ignorance, but with one final thought before I start pouring, which is that I don’t anticipate any of these ciders being particularly full-bodied. This is not a complaint, mind; simply an observation on the nature of these apples.
I’ve noticed a tendency online for high-tannin ciders to be automatically classed as full-bodied, but I don’t personally believe that to be the case. Indeed more often than not, the coarsest of tannins are displayed precisely because the body of the cider is not full enough to entirely balance them. The likes of Chisel and Harry Masters’ Jersey, Tremlett’s, Ellis and, indeed, Ashton Bitter do not, on the whole, share the ripe, full texture of, say, Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Egremont Russet or Sherrington Norman.
Why does this matter? On the one hand it doesn’t. Full body is not a requisite characteristic for great cider – just look at the love I’ve slathered on Foxwhelp, Discovery, Harry Masters’-based bottles in the past. But it is important, when tasting, and particularly when commenting on, ciders, to consider the attributes of the constituent apples and how they are likely to manifest. It isn’t uncommon to see remarks like “this is too sharp” of something Foxwhelp-driven, or “needs more body” of a cider whose apples are simply not designed to provide it.
Not all ciders are designed to be or taste the same, and that is the greatest joy of the plethora of apples from which they are made. I would argue that it is incumbent on cider enthusiasts, retailers, advocates to learn the characteristics of apples so that we approach bottlings with our expectations appropriately calibrated and help new drinkers to do the same. Thinking in wine terms, we wouldn’t open a Sauvignon Blanc and complain about its lack of tannin, nor would we reach for a Merlot were we in need of something crisp and refreshing. I would hope that we can afford the varieties and blends of cider apples and perry pears the same level of consideration.
On which note, to the tasting glasses. I can’t see these grouped as a trio on any retail websites (a shame, I think, but then I don’t have to list them) but Scrattings have them individually for £7.50 a pop whilst The Cat in the Glass show them at the bottom of this link’s page for £8.95 each. As is usually the case with bottled Ross on Wye, these ciders are all dry and have been lightly bottle conditioned. In the usual spirit of disclosure I was given the whole set as free samples.
Ross on Wye Ashton Bitter & Newton Wonder 2020 – review (6.6%)
How I served: Room temperature
Appearance: Mid-gold with a little rush of fizz
On the nose: Right on the earthy, slatey, warm-hay end of cider noses, this. Skins and piths rather than a juice bomb – redolent of the autumn outdoors. There’s a warming spice here too though, almost a light cure. Surprising depth and richness. Just a little touch of barnyard, which may be the conditioning still talking.
In the mouth: Medium-bodied, as expected, the jangle of sharp wrestling with the grate of tannin and being comprehensively outmuscled – this cider does get rather coarse in the tail. Serve with protein. A nice, fruity middle though with mirabelle plums and citrus oils. Just a little pith-heavy at the death, though given the youth and the apple varieties, that’s rather to be expected. No evidence of the barnyard character from the nose.
In a nutshell: A wild textural ride for sure, but there’s a very nice cider here that wants a bit of time or some robust food to sink its tannic teeth into.
Ross on Wye Ashton Bitter & Reinette d’Obry (7%)
How I served: Room temperature
Appearance: As above.
On the nose: More aromatic than the last. Still has that skins and petrichor sense, but where the Newton Wonder crept towards the barnyard, this is a walk in the woods. Forest floor, earth, even bark. Some pink grapefruit and citrus pith. A cerebral, compelling nose to unpick at length.
In the mouth: Bigger-boned than the Newton Wonder blend, which allows the fruit character greater expression. Seville oranges and white grapefruit. More petrichor and bark. Ginseng. Those coarse Ashton Bitter tannins do crash in at the death – bring that protein-rich food back! – but there’s a huge amount of juicy, complex, textural fun to be had here.
In a nutshell: My pick of the trio, just.
Ross on Wye Ashton Bitter & Bramley (5.9%)
How I served: Room temperature
Appearance: One pantone shade lighter.
On the nose: The softest, greenest nose so far. Green apple skins, nettles and dried limes dancing around that core of skins and earth and bark and baked apple that by this point we can probably say is my perception of 2020 Ross Ashton Bitte’s signature. Grasslands after rain. These are very evocative noses.
In the mouth: Perhaps my palate has adjusted now, but the tannins here feel less ferocious in the finish. There’s more green apple acid present too (though this is still a tannin-forward cider). More citrus, as I suppose you’d expect from Bramley, though the body is accordingly less full than its two peers. Lots of freshness – you could certainly squirrel this away for a few years. A third dose of steak or rich bean stew if you’re opening now.
In a nutshell: The little sibling of the trio. Lighter, juicier, fresher and with slightly less of a tannic snarl.
Ashton Bitter is certainly well named – there’s a lot of very grippy tannin here which, given this cider’s youth, occasionally knocks on the door of astringent. In wine terms, at least texturally, I’m thinking perhaps of some of the more intense red varieties of Piedmont, or, perhaps more appropriately, some of the burlier Carignans of southern France. It means business, and it wants food and time. That is simply who this apple is.
The addition of the sharps, however, has upped the juiciness of the Ashton Bitter significantly, and made the trio a gorgeous sparring partner for good white meat. We had them with turkey thigh, and I’m not sure we could have done better. These are intense, visceral ciders, redolent of the outdoors and packed with character that will particularly appeal to the tannin-hunters among you.
As blends, all three showcase their dominant apple whilst, through the variation of the sharps, offering slightly different looks in each case. As an experiment, I highly recommend buying all three and opening them together to best appreciate their individual nuances. (You might then like to do what I did and create a blend of all three with a bit of judicious, unscientific boshing*.)
Experiment aside though, these blends merit your custom on base quality alone. I think I’ve made it clear by now that these are, in my opinion, best served with food, and that they have the structural properties and phenolic richness to reward a couple of years of patience. But they are well worth your time and hard-earned.
A fascinating trio. A spotlight on the Ashton Bitter apple as well as a lesson in the intricacies of blending. Hats off, as ever, to the folk at Ross on Wye. Well boshed chaps**.