No long preamble today, no three-thousand-word hot take. Just a quick and dirty set of companion reviews to the interview Chalkdown’s Piotr gave us last week.
Also, the weather has been ruthless, the flat is a muggy sauna, the cat is wilting and giving me judgemental looks and I want nothing more than a cold, fresh, clean zingy glassful of bubbles. So traditional method cider fits the bill perfectly.
We’ve a trio of champagne methods to taste today, all from unspecified blends of culinary apples, mainly led by Cox’s and Egremont Russet. Our first is the relative baby of the group, a 2018 vintage made from fruit pressed by Gospel Green before being vinified (ciderified?) by Chalkdown. Unusually, this bottling had a dosage of ice cider rather than the usual liqueur d’expedition of a sort of sugar syrup. A 750ml bottle costs £14.50 from Chalkdown’s website, or £79 for a case of six. In the spirit of transparency my bottle was a free sample, though as usual I’ll be reviewing it as though I’d spent my own hard-earned pennies, as I did with the others.
The second two bottles both hail from the 2014 vintage, which we learned from Piotr last week was a hot year which he balanced by adding more acid fruit (Bramleys) to the blend. Though Cox’s and Russets are still the primary constituents. Our first sample is his standard Chalkdown from that vintage, aged on its lees for around 18 months before being disgorged. Our second is his Extra Lees Aged, which enjoyed a whopping six years of lees ageing before disgorgement – an astonishing length of time by traditional method cider standards.
The standard 2014 has sat in my rack for a good few years now, and appears to be sold out online. The Extra Lees Aged is still available on the Chalkdown website for £19.50 a bottle, though only 1000 were made to begin with, and Piotr suggested that you’d need to get your skates on if you wanted to pick one up.
Chalkdown 2018, 8.4% – review
How I served: Straight from the fridge
Appearance: Very pale gold. Sprightly mousse.
On the nose: Crisp, clean, clear and very bright aromatics. Green apple, blossom. Salt dough. This is more floral than I remember previous Chalkdowns being – I wonder whether that’s the impact of the Gospel Green blend, which does usually tend in that direction. Some lees impact for sure, but for my money this currently sits in more ‘malic Prosecco’ territory aromawise. Orchard fruits and flowers, and very nice they are too.Incredibly delicate and fresh for something already four years old.
In the mouth: Really delicious. Again utterly without fault – spotlessly clean, full of fresh green fruit and hedgerow flowers, light honey, sourdough crust and orange blossom. The mouthfeel is beautiful – the mousse utterly creamy, amplifying body, freshness and fruit flavour without being at all intrusive or distracting.
In a nutshell: A fresh, elegant, fruity delight of a cider. The frivolous face of traditional method.
Chalkdown 2014, 8.3% – review
How I served: Straight from the fridge
Appearance: Still gold, but several tones richer. Old gold. Less vivacious mousse. Steadier.
On the nose: Beautiful, rich, developed notes of brioche, croissant, baked apple. Almost tarte tatin. Lemon wine gums. An amazing freshness too though which completely belies the age, and an almost saline seashell note.
In the mouth: Delicious, rich depths yet with stunning clarity and definition. Sliced apples both fresh and dried. Almost apple chutney. Fresh straw, almonds, dried citrus peel. Pineapple sweets. A delicious toastiness. The depth, freshness and precision of the apple fruit is mesmerising. Both apple and method are beautifully showcased. Again the fizz complements creaminess and texture adding a delightful little lift of lemon sherbet to boot.
In a nutshell: Beautiful, complex, developed champagne method cider. A benchmark of the style.
Chalkdown 2014 Extra Lees Aged, 8.3% – review
How I served: Straight from the fridge:
Appearance: A tone lighter
On the nose: Still rich, but utterly unbelievably fresh nose. How is this eight years old?? As you’d expect there’s more lees influence – more dough and brioche; even shortbread biscuit. The fruit character is dazzlingly fresh – green apple slices, apricot skin, that thread of almond and saline minerality. Beguiling, pristine, complex, ethereal.
In the mouth: If anyone tells you cider can’t age, give them a glass of this. Or rather don’t, because they don’t deserve it. So much verve and brightness to the apple and Sicilian lemon fruit. There’s a whack of toasty sourdough, salt-baked mineral leesiness. Seashell, light toasted nuttiness. A little lime marmalade, a touch of riper apricot. Just so poised and bright and layered and sophisticated. Will continue to age for years to come (I guarantee this will be drinking deliciously in the 2030s) but is mesmerising already.
In a nutshell: Such an advert for the category. Imagine having the vision to create this.
Chris has written about cidermakers as foxes and hedgehogs in the past – those who do a range of things versus those who zero in on one particular style.
By my reckoning Chalkdown make a compelling argument to be the single best ‘hedgehog’ cidermaker in the country; a specialist in their niche of perhaps unmatched excellence.
This was an absolutely fascinating tasting, both from the perspective of seeing the ageing patterns of Chalkdown’s ciders as well as the way that different lees ageing affects flavour. Whilst my favourite for current drinking is the standard 2014 (how I wish I had a few bottles left), the Extra Lees Aged is a masterpiece which I would urge anyone to stash away for a few years if you can bear to wait. I cannot believe how well it has retained its freshness: as a demonstration of the preservative qualities of lees it really is essential drinking for any cider wonk. Not to mention it’s also one of the best ciders you’re likely to try. The 2018, similarly, is beautiful already but deserves as much time as you can give it.
Aside from their quality and complexity, all evince themes of purity, clarity and definition. Sometimes it seems as though such adjectives as ‘wildness’ and, yes,‘ funk’, dominate the conversation of characteristics people like to see in their ciders. This tasting was a welcome reminder that the virtues of cleanliness and faultlessness are perfectly compatible with interest, complexity, depth and profundity. These Chalkdowns simply ooze professionalism, care and finesse, and I love them for it. I would buy them all again in a heartbeat.
I’m so pleased to have finally been able to give this cidery airtime on Cider Review. The website would almost certainly not exist without Chalkdown, and what a joy to revisit the ciders and find them on such good form.
I may have had traditional method ciders that are as good (one or two at most) but I can’t think of any I’ve had that are better. If Chalkdown isn’t on your radar already I suggest you put it there posthaste.