I write this as a youthful, impetuous, green-around-the-ears 31-year-old, but when you read it I shall be a venerable, wise and worldly 32. Today, 22nd August, is my birthday. I am ageing. My tannins are falling out of suspension, my colour is starting to fade and my body is certainly softening. Though I do hope that I haven’t quite reached my peak.
And, since it is my birthday, by now-annual tradition, I get to review the new vintage of what is probably my favourite cider, Ross on Wye’s Raison d’Être. Funnily enough, it is also Albert Johnson’s birthday today, although that is far less important, as he is three years younger than I am and therefore just bandwagoning on my celebration.
Even if it wasn’t historically a favourite of mine though, Raison d’Être (‘Raison’ to its friends, and henceforth in this article to save endlessly typing the circumflex) would be an appropriate cider with which to mark the passing of my years. Because Raison is one of very few ‘flagship’ ciders, like Little Pomona’s Old Man and the Bee and possibly Eve’s Albee Hill and Welsh Mountain’s Prospect Orchard, which fully embrace the paradoxical brief of change within consistency and consistency despite change: of deploying the same farm and apple varieties and style and maturation choices year on year, creating a cider that is recognisably itself, whilst leaning into the natural inconsistencies of vintage and of fruit quality. Resulting in a cider we could theoretically taste in both its youngest and oldest form, remark on how different they are to each other, and yet understand both as entirely Raison.
In January 2016, when the trees that would ripen the first vintage of Raison stood in silent, leafless rows down the turfy, solemn slopes of Gammyoulands and the grassy expanse of the lower Dabinett orchard, I moved to Reading. I had never been before. It was an escape really; an attempt at a fresh start. A new job whose chiefest merit was that it was not the old job, a new room in a new houseshare with new housemates who I desperately hoped, this time, would not turn out to be identity fraudsters. A new environment for a last – unsuccessful – gasp at sealing the fissures that had emerged in a four-year relationship. A place where I knew no one, where no one knew me and where, occupied with blogging about whisky, and struggling with unresolved grief that then still had the freshness of only 18 months wear, I largely stagnated in my room, visiting London on sporadic weekends, widening the relationship’s existent cracks and wondering when, if ever, things would change.
I am writing this today, in 2022, in the front room of the first house I have ever owned. It’s a little place on a street that has its own particular character of bustle and neighbours whose helpfulness I still can’t quite believe. The floorboards downstairs are a little wormy, the floorboards in the attic don’t exist yet, Caroline’s not fond of the wallpaper upstairs, there’s a funny smell when we turn on the electricity for the shower and I’m not sure we’ll sort the garden without TNT, but it is my own, I am phenomenally lucky to have it, and I love it.
Change is something which we sometimes talk of, and which I often think of, in terms of uncertainty and fear. And unquestionably, since January 2016, there has been so much change that has been divisive, exhausting, terrifying, ruinous and perhaps irreparable. It is startling to think of what has happened in the world in the time since I moved to Reading and since the first vintage of Raison began the slow, slow ripening journey that led to its first release in September 2018.
But amidst the huge, sweeping changes; the sort of changes against which we feel scared and powerless, we perhaps sometimes overlook our own smaller, day-to-day changes which, drip by drip, amount to the people we suddenly discover ourselves to have become.
Raison 2016 exists as it does because of every tiny step; every single seemingly-trivial or insignificant alteration that has affected the journey of its Dabinett and Michelin apples from the tree to the press to the barrel to the bottle and finally to your glass. Its flavours are compact of every pruned branch, every hour that the sun was covered by a cloud, every day that it rained. They exist through the hour that the apples were harvested and the moment that the Johnsons chose to press them. They are the day they were racked into oak barrels, the sort of oak that had been felled so that the cooperage could make those casks and the liquid that matured in them before they held cider. They are all of these decisions and fluctuations and changes and random flukes combined, and without any one of them your cider would taste different today.
In 2017 the apple trees went again. Raison still didn’t exist at this point; was still a year and a half from being presented to the world. But the world revolved in its ignorance nonetheless, the Dabinett and Michelin budded and blossomed and set and ripened and fell and every Herefordshire day, every Peterstow day, every day for every Broome Farm Orchard was a little bit different to its equivalent day in 2016, and though the apples were still the same varieties, and the trees were the same trees planted in the same earth, harvested by the same hands, their time was different, the clouds raced across the sun in a slightly different way, and the light shone more on some trees and less on others, and the rainwater fell at different times, and trickled down the slopes in slightly different patterns, and the birds made their nests in slightly different trees and pecked at slightly different apples, and the mistletoe grew in slightly different clumps, and the apples fell on a slightly different week and were pressed on a slightly different day and went into slightly different barrels made from slightly different trees and which had held slightly different liquids for a slightly different length of time. And when it came to bottling, it was a slightly different blend of slightly different Dabinett and slightly different Michelin, and a slightly different Raison that was still, nonetheless, Raison; acknowledged as such, accepted as such, and loved as such – every bit as much for being slightly different as for being recognisably the same.
In 2018 it happened again. The world turned, the sun blazed; the warmest, brightest, ripest year in recent memory. Somewhere in Lincolnshire my co-editor, James, wrote his first piece on cider. Somewhere in Reading I wrote mine. Albert worked his first full year at Ross on Wye cidery; the first vintage of Raison was presented to the world. And still those same trees grew those same varieties in those subtly, subtly different ways, and through hot Augusts and dry Septembers the 2018 vintage of Raison emerged, still Raison, but the biggest, burliest, richest Raison yet.
Four years later it is 2022, and so very, very much has changed. In the world, in cider, at Ross on Wye. But the Dabinett and Michelin trees are still there (though DNA analysis has shown that what we thought was Michelin is really an apple called Bisquet) and amidst, perhaps despite, the burn of climate breakdown temperatures, the heat-cracked earth, the apple crops dumped ahead of time, the prayed-for showers of rain and the lurking, growing menace of tree-killing fireblight they are making another vintage of Raison, day by day, change by change, and in two years we will see how those changes have shaped the vintage’s cider, we will pore over the little differences that have made it distinct from all of its predecessors, and we will celebrate it, I have no doubt, as Raison d’Être.
Today I have the 2020 in my glass, the fifth and latest bottled edition of Ross on Wye’s flagship. And this year the changes are probably the biggest they have been in the history of Raison. For the first year ever, the dominant apple in the blend is not Dabinett, but is Bisquet – the artist formerly known as Michelin. Bisquet is a very different apple to Dabinett; lighter in its body, lower in its tannin, yellower in its fruit. But in 2020 it grew better and more evenly than Dabinett, and emerged more compellingly from casks, so the Johnsons have given it the lead.
Does this make it too different a cider? Too divergent from its original premise? Others may have their own opinions, but prior to tasting it my instinct is “no”. In the wine region of Bordeaux, wines are blends of particular varieties precisely to mitigate for one performing better than another in any given vintage, and precisely to allow each vintage’s blend to be tailored to the varieties that have ripened best. This doesn’t change the name on the wine’s label, nor, generally, does it prevent the drinker from recognising it as that châteaux’s wine. Closer to home, the blend for Little Pomona’s Old Man and the Bee has fluctuated markedly over the vintages, from the 87% Harry Masters’ Jersey of 2017 to the Dabinett-led richness of the 2018. Still the same varieties and orchard, still recognisably the same DNA, still Old Man and the Bee. A changed person, but the same Old Man nonetheless.
But we’ll only really see if that DNA is still there by tasting it. As ever, Raison d’Être is a blend of Bisquet and Dabinett apples, grown on Broome Farm, fermented to dryness, partially in oak casks, and bottle-conditioned for the lightest sparkle with around 5 g/l of priming sugar. It won’t be on sale until the Ross festival opens on 2nd September this year, but once it is, expect it to cost £10 and be available more or less anywhere that sells aspirational cider.
In order to properly trace the Raison DNA, and to track those little changes that have brought it from 2016 to today, I’ve also retasted all five bottled vintages of Raison d’Être. Full notes are available below only for the 2020; I just dashed off rougher thoughts on the current state of old vintages – though you can see my previous Raison articles here and here for complete notes on how I felt different vintages tasted at the time of release. The 2016 and 2017 are long-since sold out, however both the 2018 and 2019 are available through the likes of Cat in the Glass, Scrattings, Fram Ferment and others.
Ross on Wye Raison d’Être 2020 – review
How I served: Room temperature
Appearance: “Bittersweet cider is what the name of this colour is.” Albert Johnson. (Medium coppery gold with a light spritz – Adam)
On the nose: The thing about Raison is that in isolation you always know it, but next to each other each vintage is totally distinct. None more so than this. By far the most delicate nose to date and where others at this stage of their life have shown orange and char and smoke, this is waxy yellow apple skins, nettles, exotic wilting petals and a wisp of cooking meat. The smoke is the tiniest, tiniest faraway wisp – barely registers by comparison to its predecessors at the point of their release.
In the mouth: A hugely juicy Raison, that juiciness heightened by a comparatively medium body, lower tannin, delicate fizz and markedly less direct oak influence than its predecessors. The most fruit-forward young Raison ever. Apricot, peach skin, those late season waxy yellow apples, with the signature Ross-on-Wye-in-general-Raison-in-particular nettles and forest floor and very light smoke. Complex, compelling stuff that showcases better than any previous vintage what Bisquet brings to the blend, whilst allowing the Dabinett and oak their own quieter voices too.
In a nutshell: It’s Raison. Not as you know it; juicier, lighter, yellow rather than orange, smoke almost banished, but recognisably Ross, recognisably Raison, and distinctly wonderful.
Ross on Wye Raison d’Être 2019 – update
How I served: Room temperature
Tasting note: Has blossomed in the last year. Fuller, riper, fleshier and with a big fresh orange note that looms over the woodsmoke and forest floor. Tannins still super ripe. A grower of a vintage and with a very bright future still ahead of it.
Ross on Wye Raison d’Être 2018 – update
How I served: Room temperature
Tasting note: Has done that classic Raison thing – though, really, that classic “any drink aged in oak” thing – where the oak and smoke all but disappear into the liquid over time to create something more harmonious and seamless. What’s left is just the hugest, ripest ode to fleshy orange Dabinett just fringed with vanilla and oak. Smoke returns on the finish. Still massively concentrated. The biggest, richest Raison ever and likely, in time, to prove the best of this quintet. Years of development ahead.
Ross on Wye Raison d’Être 2017 – update
How I served: Room temperature
Tasting note: Again, the overt smokiness is gone, until the finish, and the fruit is darker and jellied. Almost wine gummy. But this, significantly, is the first bottle of the flight showing tertiary development, with a stunning layer of leather and dark chocolate. Pretty close to fully developed I’d say. By no means in danger, but worth drinking up fairly soon if you have a bottle left.
Ross on Wye Raison d’Être 2016 – update
How I served: Room temperature
Tasting note: Sultanas and baking spices and Christmas cake nose – totally sublime. Same on the palate, but huge orange juiciness and sponge cake. Smoke totally integrated now – barely registers. Decadent stuff. My favourite for current drinking – so complex and complete – yet the structure is still there and it feels as though it has a longer life left than the 2017.
I could not, six and a half years ago, have foreseen the changes that took me from where I was then to who I am now. Somehow enormous, life-changing things have happened, but it feels as though they have happened not all of a sudden, but in incremental day-to-day nudges, most of which barely registered at the time. The sun has shone, the clouds have skulled back and forth across the sky and somehow I have lived in Reading longer than anywhere else since I left home, I have married someone I didn’t know when the 2017 Raison harvest came in, I have stopped writing about whisky as a hobby and started writing about it as a career, and cider has become a larger part of my life than I would ever have expected or believed.
So much, and so much more besides, so very many changes; so many new directions that would have felt, six and a half years ago, like the sort of things that would happen to someone else. And in a sense they have; the me of 2016 would likely have been of no interest to the person I now hope to live with forever, couldn’t have thought of houses, would never have been offered the job I started in March and barely knew the first thing about cider.
But in all the ways that amount most meaningfully to the person I actually am, I still feel much as I did when I first came to Reading. Hair starting to move backwards a touch perhaps, lines in the forehead a little deeper, eyes perhaps that bit more tired, but still basically me, as I was. My voice still sounds like me, and if my written voice has shifted over the years I can still trace it on those rare occasions I risk a backward glance. I’m still friends with most of the same people, and for most of the same reasons as before, and when I see those who now live further away I can see the little ways they’ve all changed, but they still look and feel and talk like the friends I always knew. And I wonder sometimes if they think the same things about me.
Raison d’Être 2020 is not a copy of Raison d’Être 2016. Indeed, and I have already said this to Albert, it is probably as far as a drink can organoleptically depart from its origins whilst still being identifiably part of the same lineage. But when I took a first sip, though I noticed the differences, what popped into my head first was “yes, that’s Raison”. And when it comes to this cider in particular, that’s really all I’m asking for. I will be buying it all through the year, and if your tastes sit anywhere close to mine, I think that you should too.
In any case, it isn’t as if the 2016 tastes as it did four years ago when Raison was first presented to the world. A cider’s life doesn’t end when the apple is plucked from the tree, nor when the liquid is committed to bottle. It goes on, step by step, day by day, softening in its acidity and tannin, absorbing its oak, colour shifting as large particles fall glacially out of suspension, as it succumbs to the slow, ineffable, glorious magic of time’s decay.
I love Raison for so many reasons, but for that paradox most of all. For its consistency despite change. For its change within consistency. For the microscopic steps that construct each individual vintage, and the trembling, weaving deviations of those same steps that make every vintage unique. For the subtle different journeys that each one is now taking in bottle, and the different expressions that emerge every time I open one.
Most of all, for taking all those steps and all those journeys, yet remaining, still, every time, Raison d’Être. For reminding me that we are all taking little steps that perhaps we cannot see, but which may yet lead to something magical. That the days of heavy rainfall or when clouds cover the sun, the pests, the heartache and the mistletoe all add up to the character of a vintage, and that even if one vintage isn’t quite like another, I will still be myself at the end of it. And that with any luck there will still be a next vintage in which to go again.
Thanks very much to Albert for providing the sample of the 2020, as well as, for full disclosure, the 2019 and 2018 that we tasted in this flight.