Here’s a cheering thought – goodness knows we could do with one: the prevalence of single variety ciders available to buy online is now so significant that it’s hard to keep track of favourites.
It’s pretty well-documented in these pages that I love Foxwhelp and Yarlington Mill, with Dabinett possibly now completing my top three. But hold on, what about some of those mesmerising Kingston Blacks, all sinewy texture and exotic tropical fruit? Or Discovery, so vivid in its beaming, bright red berries and citrusy crunch? And I mustn’t forget my more-recent love affair with Major: all the boom and bombastic orange of Dabinett, but with its own idiosyncratic growl of tannin on the end.
I could go on – the waxy yellow fruits and earthy tones of Harry Masters’, the plump apple and juicy calypso vibes of Somerset Redstreak, the jellied fruit and inimitable savoury edge of Brown Snout. But you get the picture. There is not only so much choice of flavour and style, but, critically, so much choice even to those of us who do not live in a traditional cider region, that I simply do not have to pick a favourite. Whatever my mood or food or simply inclination might be, there’s an apple for that. And with the debate around whether or not cookers and eaters can make as good a cider as western bittersweets and bittersharps gradually ebbing redundantly away, my life has never been so richly spiced with variety.
So much so that one of the very best apples of all can go almost, if not overlooked, then underwritten.
We have covered Egremont Russet in the past. Indeed a spotlight on the variety, with three tasters from Nightingale-née-Gibbet Oak, was the second article James wrote back when we used to inhabit a whisky website. But, other than one sole example (more on which later) I haven’t reviewed any single variety Egremont here before myself. And yet it is unquestionably an apple which I would rank in the very top pomological tier, so far as its cidermaking capacity goes, and one which I probably drink at home as often as I do any other variety.
So, given James’ piece is now a venerable two year old, I thought I’d be on safe territory revisiting Egremont.
Egremont Russet is just one of a handful of apples which fit into the Russet family, last seen in these pages via a pair of Golden Russets from Eve’s. They derive their name from a skin abnormality which, rather than a glossy green or red, displays as a rough, parchmenty brown. Huge numbers of apple and pear varieties can russet to a certain degree, but a few varieties such as Egremont and Golden are so uniformly covered by it that they are either categorised as a ‘russet’ apple or display the very term in their suffix. (An example of a russet apple which doesn’t bear the moniker in its name would be Ashmead’s Kernel, notorious on this website for being behind probably the best cider, to my mind, that I have ever tasted).
Not surprisingly, in an increasingly visually-led society, this roughness of texture and seeming discolouration is far from sought after by consumers. Russeted apples are certainly not flavour of the month at supermarkets, even though Egremont itself is the third most planted tree in the UK’s collective orchard, behind only Bramley and Cox’s Orange Pippin. Their history of being mocked for their appearance is a long one, too – russets were once termed leathercoats, and were referenced as such by Shakespeare.
Yet this parchmenty texture has a few tricks up its sleeve, as we will see. And, in any case, the wise and wonderful readers of Cider Review are far more interested in how an apple tastes when fermented than how it looks as a piece of fruit.
In the past couple of years, perhaps the most vocal champion of this Sussex-originated variety has been, paradoxically, a maker in the heart of Herefordshire, Little Pomona. Egremont Russet, with no tannin and strictly medium acidity, is possibly the ultimate agincourt salute to the land of bittersweets and bittersharps. As James wrote in his previous piece, it slips through the cracks of the Long Ashton categorisation system, offering perhaps the most compelling case for ditching it altogether and discussing individual apples in terms of flavour instead. What’s more, of all the apples currently being discussed, Egremont Russet is probably the one for which I see the terms ‘winey’ and ‘wine-like’ most frequently deployed. So an eastern variety being utilised in the west making a cider described as like wine. Curiouser and curiouser.
To unravel these paradoxes and properly get under the leathery skin of this singular single variety, I thought I’d give Little Pomona’s James Forbes a ring with a handful of questions. He was good enough to pick up the phone, and our conversation is transcribed below.
CR: Easy one first – tell me about Egremont Russet as an apple and why you like it?
James: Basically I like it because it is an apple that as a raw piece of fruit looks very nice for a start – it’s an attractive apple with its kind of sunset-flushed cheeks. But it tastes brilliant. It’s a brilliant eating apple that has this incredible complexity of flavour but also great depth of flavour which I think is really important when we’re looking at cider. And it has high sugars – very high sugars – but at the same time great acid. And you get both of that when you bite into one. So it’s a very, very complex, but supremely well-balanced apple where everything seems to match. When you press the apples and you’re looking at the numbers coming off the press you think “well this is just perfect”. You’ve got this incredible tasting juice. Quite viscous and very rich and fully-flavoured. You’ve got brix somewhere around 16 to 17 and you’ve got ph around 3.5. You couldn’t make it up – it’s perfect. The other interesting thing, I think, is that a lot of the flavours in the raw fruit survive fermentation; so the nutty quality and a lot of the spiciness, the herby, fennel-y thing that the apple actually has. They all survive fermentation, which is unusual in an apple, because a lot of the flavours in the fruits we use don’t really survive fermentation, apart from acid and tannins. A bit like Discovery in that sense where a lot of the aromatics come through fermentation.
CR: Does the russeting itself do anything particular, do you think?
James: It does. Russeting, in a technical sense, is porous, so the apples lose moisture essentially as they go through the ripening process, and everything gets concentrated. And the longer you store them the more that will happen. And actually because of the russeting they store really well – their skins are quite thick, and they’re resistant to bruising and things like that. So they’ll keep quite well in good conditions, so you can ripen them off the tree a bit as well.
CR: So the russeting in a way is like the physical element of what botrytis does in Sauternes and other botrytised sweet wines – that water evaporation?
James: Yeah, without rot! Absolutely.
CR: How did you end up with all these Egremonts, these typically Eastern Counties varieties, when you’re over in Herefordshire?
James: Well it wasn’t intentional! But we’re restlessly experimental. Because we’re outsiders, so we’re not carrying the ball and chain of history around with us, so we can do what we want. But the inspiration did come from the east, obviously. It was Nightingale’s Songbird No.1, which I thought was a really interesting cider. And that gave me enough confidence in the apple that I thought we could do something with this if we could find some. So we did. And the results have always been something we really liked.
CR: Where are your Egremonts actually from?
James: We have two sources, and possibly three this year. Just over the border, in Worcestershire, and also in Herefordshire itself, near Hereford. And we may get some from Dragon Orchard this year as well. So we’ll have two Herefordshire and one Worcestershire. But if we’d known all this before we planted any trees on the farm we’d have definitely planted Egremont Russet.
CR: It seems to be a very versatile and adaptable apple. Just looking at the bottles I have in front of me here I’ve got different barrels, I’ve got still, I’ve got sparkling in a couple of different methods. Where’s that versatility coming from – do you see it as a particularly versatile fruit?
James: Definitely. It seems to be that it has this natural balance, so that gives you a headstart if you want to do something with it as a single variety. It takes oak really well; it seems to take on the good influences of the barrel whilst maintaining its own personality. You’ve said it before – it’s a bit like Chardonnay in that sense, it takes on influence really well. And of course Chardonnay’s made in all different styles too. I think its natural balance is what helps it.
CR: The ones I’ve got in front of me at the moment are single varieties, but you’ve also used it as a blending component. What do you see as its role in a blend – what does it bring?
James: It brings its distinct personality. It’ll add weight to a blend, because it tends to be somewhere over 8%, so it adds lots of flesh and body to a cider. We use it predominantly in Table Cider as a kind of balancing tool to reduce acid really, because of its weight and additional fruit profile. But we’ve used it elsewhere too.
CR: The barrels you’ve used, both vintages, have been ex-Cognac casks and former white wine barriques. Why those?
James: We use a lot of those barrels – they’re amongst the best barrels we have and Egremont’s amongst the best fruit we have, so that’s why we chose them. Those barrels work with cider as far as I’m concerned, and Egremont just does what you’d expect in a Chardonnay barrel! It takes on the influence of the oak really well and it just seems to accentuate the fruitiness, whereas the Cognac barrels seem to bring out extra layers of aromatics – intensify the aromatics a lot – as well as adding some perfume to the palate as well. We haven’t tried it in other barrels and that’s probably because we’re moving away from other barrels as our preference. For example we haven’t put it in any red wine casks. Why? We could have done – just intuitively it didn’t feel like a perfect match. In my head Egremont Russet is a white wine, if you see what I mean. Putting it in a red wine barrel didn’t make sense to me.
CR: That leads quite nicely to my next question. You’ve mentioned Chardonnay earlier and certainly on some of the label tasting notes and in conversations we’ve had you’ve called it ‘winey’ or ‘wine like’. What do you mean by that?
James: Well the old books talk about cider being vinous, and I think that means that the alcohol’s higher, that it’s a bit fleshier, a bit more textural than a lot of ciders that are not necessarily born of tannin or pure barrel. And they just feel very like wine. The acid levels are very similar to white wine, and the lack of tannins. People talk about Egremont Russet having tannin and I don’t really see it. So in all these different senses it feels like wine and it’s approaching a winey sort of level of alcohol – especially modern-day, lower alcohol wines. But it’s that flesh. There’s something texturally about it that feels quite vinous.
CR: Earlier you mentioned Nightingale’s Songbird No.1 as an inspiration, which I think was a 2016. And Sam’s always talked about Egremont as something that ages pretty well. What’s your take there – and are you keeping any back to age?
James: Definitely keeping some back – probably not as much as we should have, because we keep drinking it. That’s the truth of it! But people always want to buy it, which is great. But I think, again, as I’ve said so many times you’ll be getting bored, it’s balanced. It’s a balanced apple. So it has that requisite acid and fruit structure that should allow it to age pretty well. I mean no one really knows how well cider ages. But to me it feels as though we should be capable of ageing bottles really well.
CR: The bottles I have in front of me are a mix of 2019 and 2020. Briefly, how were they as vintages generally, in your opinion, and particularly for Egremont?
James: I think 2019 was a difficult vintage, as you know and have written about. But Egremont ripened really before the rains came, so in that sense I think it escaped the ravages of the 2019 harvest. Because we picked them in September and it didn’t start raining until the 26th September. So the fruit we got then was really ripe and really beautiful, so we were very happy with it. And 2020, well, just a great vintage. Most of the fruit we got was great, Egremont was really good. But yeah, I think the earliness of the apple really saved it in 2019.
CR: So it’s actually a fairly early ripener then?
James: Yeah, sort of mid-late September depending on the season.
CR: That’s ideal. Especially that it’s able to get that much sugar by such an early point of the harvest. So Egremont is just one of the many many Russet apples – are you working with any others?
James: We’re always interested in interesting apples so I would never say no, but we’ve never seen any other russeted apples growing in the quantities we need. I don’t know any other growers growing them apart from maybe Dragon Orchard do some Herefordshire Russet, which might be interesting, but not in big quantities. When we experiment we tend to need at least a tonne of something. But if anyone out there has got a great Russet we’ll have it!
CR: Lastly, your newest Russet – Wading In – tell me all about that one.
James: The fruit was really lovely, and we pressed it into tank as we do with almost everything. Some we moved into white Burgundy barrels, some into Cognac, but one tank we just really liked so we made the decision to leave it actually on its gross lees. Which is not normal, but it was tasting so well that we really wanted to do that. And at one point it was tasting really, really good, and we wanted to try and preserve that pristine fruit that it had without using any sulphites. We’d actually frozen some of the apples as well – so we kind of cryo-conditioned it as well, but at a very low level. Just to give it a layer of carbon dioxide to protect it. So that was it. So in a way it’s a little miracle of nature – it just developed extraordinarily well in tank. It’s pretty luscious, gorgeous I think, and the feedback so far has been pretty good. So we’ll probably never do it again! The only real decision we took in that process was to leave it on the gross lees, and I think that had a real effect.
Many thanks indeed to James for that enthusiastic breakdown of all things Egremonty. All that remains is to properly dig into the apple via five single variety Egremont Russets bottled by Little Pomona over the last couple of years.
In the sparkling corner we have Wading In, described above, from the 2020 vintage, as well as Col Fondo 2019, previously reviewed here but revisited both to give Wading In an appropriate sparring partner and to test my hunch of November 2020 that this was a cider which would develop nicely. Both, I believe, were aged in tank, before being bottled with a slight natural sparkle. The Col Fondo also did a minor amount of time in unspecified barrels – likely a mixture of Cognac and white Burgundy, but I’m guessing.
Then representing the stills, we have a trio which do very much what they say on the tin. Egremont Russet En Barrique 2020 being a 2020 Egremont aged in white Burgundy barriques, and Egremont Russet Cognac Barrels 2019 and 2020 being … well I’m not going to spell it out for you.
Wading In, En Barrique 2020 and Cognac Barrels 2020 are all available from the Little Pomona Web Shop, at £15, £14 and £14 respectively. The Cat in the Glass have Col Fondo at £13.50, whilst a very quick google didn’t yield a source for the Cognac Barrels 2019. True completionists will note that I am short of the 2019 En Barrique and therefore my comprehensive tasting of Little Pomona single variety Egremonts is thwarted, but them’s the breaks and we’ll muscle through as best we can. As is customary with Little Pomona, all are dry, and all clock in at 8.4% abv other than Wading In, which hits a much more delicate 8.3.
Little Pomona Wading In 2020 – review
How I served: Cold, as directed by label
Appearance: Hazy lemon’n’lime. Very light spritz of fizz.
On the nose: A very vivid nose for Egremont. Citrus, but broad rather than sharp and laser-focussed and lean. Yuzu, pineapple. Almost a little Fino sherry – the green apple and light almond/nut skin combo, perhaps? Marzipan. Nettles. It’s a complex thing.
In the mouth: Really racy and lively, and – again – vivid palate. Buoyed by that touch of playful mousse the body feels lighter than some Egremonts, though still full-bodied in the scheme of cider, but the flavours of sourmix, almost Daiquiri!, tempered by light almond, fresh herbs and hints of sea minerals are intense and electric. Probably as vibrant as Egremont gets.
In a nutshell: A racy, citrusy, vivacious glassful. Egremont’s summer look.
Little Pomona Col Fondo 2019 – review
How I served: Somewhere between cool and cold. Half an hour out of the fridge.
Appearance: Lightly hazy sparkling En Rama Manzanilla.
On the nose: Markedly different – both to Wading In and to how I remember it tasting in 2020. The fruit has broadened, but rather than citrus now offers green apple, kiwi, ripe peach. It has retained the white flower florality too, and whilst the savoury, nutty element is there, of greater influence is the bready, doughy note of the lees. Opens hugely in the glass. Complex.
In the mouth: Big, full delivery that follows the nose incredibly closely, yet adds a big, buttery, toasty brioche note on top. The fruits again have broadened, though remain in a green direction, with impressive freshness – I could have left this for another couple of years.
In a nutshell: A lovely fusion of apple and method, gracefully transforming as it matures.
Little Pomona Egremont Russet Cognac Barrels 2019 – review
How I served: Cool, not cold.
Appearance: Fresh-squeezed lemon. Still.
On the nose: That is a beauty. Honeyed, buttered toast, sun-warmed flowers. Poached pears and ripe apple slices. A freshwater pool, apricots off the tree, a scattered handful of chopped notes. Big, perfumed, aromatic, exotic, complex. Fruitiness and savouriness, freshness and ripeness all in a beautiful medley.
In the mouth: Just the most lovely delivery. At once full-bodied, almost velvety in its texture, yet poised and fresh. Dry, yet almost luscious. Stone fruits, green apples, more honey and a distinct creaminess. Brioche, almonds and lime peel. Just so elegant and refined, yet full in the expressiveness of its flavour.
In a nutshell: Whilst its flavours are entirely its own, I do not believe you could like white Burgundy and not like this. In fact the Burgundiest of the lot, despite being Cognac cask!
Little Pomona Egremont Russet En Barrique 2020 – review
How I served: Cool, not cold.
Appearance: Light gold, lightly hazy. Still.
On the nose: Exotically perfumed again, but outside the apple notes, which are a bit riper and yellower, in a rather different way to the 2019 Cognac. Lime marmalade. Lemon skin. Almost quince. A little fresh oak spice – cloves perhaps. Apple sauce. Heather honey, toasted brioche. Another complex cracker of a nose.
In the mouth: Beautiful. Superb clarity of flavour and structure. Acid balances the big body to perfection and the flavours present themselves in crisp definition. Honey-lemon. Samphire. Almond and fresh, ripe apple. Wildflowers. A touch of thyme. A little toast from the barrels. Everything is so pure and clear and concentrated and well-structured. More evidence in flavour of 2020.
In a nutshell: High definition fusion of apple and cask. Gorgeous, but will richly reward patience I reckon.
Little Pomona Egremont Russet Cognac Barrels 2020 – review
How I served: Cool, not cold.
Appearance: Running out of lemon juice variants now… Still.
On the nose: Ripest of the lot. The fruits seem juicier, fleshier. Red berries, canteloupe, tangerine, even a little orange oil. A touch of leather, and the savouriness carries with it a touch of that old cognac rancio – just a flutter of game jus and truffle. A little French oak clove spice, a little marzipan. And all that waxy yellow apple. This is a nose to lose yourself in. Divine.
In the mouth: A rabbit warren of a palate. Do I follow the fresh seam of ripe apple, honeydew, lime, samphire and seashore, the deep, ripe notes of Victoria plum, orange and guava or the oak-blushed clove spice, leather and toasted almond? How about the spellbinding, buttery malolactic finish? Again so taut, so clear and fresh and pure in flavour but with all that signature Egremont body, stunning 2020 structure and astonishing depth for something so young. Good lord.
In a nutshell: An Egremont Russet for the ages. Take all you can get.
I drink and review a lot of Little Pomona, but every year there seems to be one flight after which I need a little lie down. In 2020 it was the Art of Darkness 2017 trio; a study in red fruit, spice and the crackling acidity and vibrancy of Ellis Bitter-aided Foxwhelp. Last year it was this trio of big, booming, orangey bittersweets. This year it might just be these magnificent Egremont Russets. The stills, in particular, are simply breathtaking. Buy any that you encounter.
As James notes, above, when you read the old seventeenth century texts on cider, there is a tendency for the best to be compared to wine or directly described as ‘vinous’ – no doubt in part because, what with no end of continental wars, cider was often drafted in as a wine surrogate.
In truth there are very few ciders whose flavours, textures and styles cleave all that closely to those of wine; hardly surprising, given they are made from different fruits. But these Egremont Russets, whilst possessed of stunning characteristics that are entirely cider and entirely their own, unquestionably reach out across the bibulous void to brush fingertips with vinous cousins. Something in the weight, the texture, as James says, but there is a distinctive echo in the flavours too, particularly in the still bottlings. Simply put, I would present these ciders to any lover of white Burgundy and would be almost certain that they would love them. If I have to pick a favourite, it’s the Cognac Barrels 2020, maybe (though the aromatics of the ’19 are something else). But as with all such spectacular flights I’m just grateful I had a chance to taste each one.
As to Egremont Russet, I don’t need any further convincing that here is one of the world’s great varieties for cider. Distinctive, complex, elegant, textural, versatile and packed with personality. I’m not sure you can ask much more of an apple than that.
Another great write up Adam, thank you! I had the pleasure of trying the En Barrique 2020 and Cognac Barrels 2020 recently and was very impressed with both. The Cognac Barrels in particular was a definite favourite.
I’d really like to see a Little Pomona Egremont Russet in a rum cask.
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