How do we decide which wines, ciders or perries are better than others? According to one widely-held view, our rankings of particular drinks or fruit varieties are simply expressions of personal preference: When I claim that Ross on Wye’s Raison D’Être is a better cider than Kopparberg Mixed Fruit, or that Dabinett is a better cider apple than Golden Delicious, I am merely reporting my subjective experiences of taste. As expressions of my individual predilections, these claims can neither be right nor wrong, but rather have the same epistemic status as other purely subjective statements of preference, such as “I like cheese” or “I don’t like Coldplay”. De gustibus non est disputandum: There’s no accounting for taste.
I think that this view is overly simplistic. While I accept that judgements of taste are not statements of fact, I don’t believe that they are only expressions of personal preference. They are always made within a wider social context, which significantly shapes and informs them. In the drinks industry, producers, writers, critics and consumers constitute a community of judgement, in which individual judgements of taste and the standards against which they are made can be debated and critiqued. As informed consumers sit down and discuss which bottles, producers and varieties they particularly enjoy, they begin to identify significant points of agreement. Over the course of centuries, widely shared hierarchies and classifications have emerged from these discussions, which converge in the direction of a broad but imperfect consensus.
Given that we all have different preferences, this consensus can sometimes display a surprising breadth and degree of continuity. In the wine world, for example, the best grape varieties are very widely agreed upon, and our belief in their superior quality has largely stood the test of time. This consensus is not absolute, and different wine lovers will certainly have different favourites, but the grape varieties that form part of the select group known as the ‘noble’ grapes, which was established at a time when the nobility ruled supreme, retain their lofty reputations in our rather more democratic era. Today’s avid wine enthusiasts generally agree that Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Riesling are some of the greatest white grape varieties on the planet, and that Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo are some of the greatest red varieties. If you put a group of experienced wine lovers in a room and ask them to name the best grape varieties, the chances are that these grapes will stand at the forefront of the discussion, and that few of the 10,000 or so other varieties that currently exist will receive much consideration. Someone might try to prove their advanced geek status by rambling on about the amazing Aligoté that they had the other night, but no-one will take them very seriously and the conversation will soon return to whether Chardonnay is better than Riesling, and if Nebbiolo can compete with Pinot Noir.
While the shared judgements of taste reached by communities of judgement can be extremely long-lasting, they are not entirely fixed or static. Grape varieties do go in and out of fashion, and our consensuses about matters of taste are based on shared aesthetic sensibilities, which tend to change over time and are never immune to criticism. No contemporary wine critic would agree with the view that wine should always be served watered-down, which was taken to be a self-evident truth by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. In more recent times, novel aesthetic sensibilities have challenged some of the fine wine scene’s established orthodoxies. The natural wine movement has introduced new philosophies and wine styles into the wine industry, which has started to move away from valuing power and concentration above all else, towards an aesthetic that privileges elegance and subtlety. At the level of the mass-market, Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc seem to have reached the peak of popularity, partly displacing previous best-sellers such as Merlot and Pinot Grigio. While the fine wine world’s consensus about the very greatest grape varieties may exhibit a high degree of continuity, a broader examination of the wine industry therefore demonstrates that there are multiple consensuses across different market segments, which can shift in extremely dynamic ways.
Over the course of our history, cider has been much less widely discussed than wine, and there is therefore less of a clear or global consensus about the best cider apples than there is about the best wine grapes. However, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that there is no such consensus at all. A great many apple varieties fly under our collective radars, but some have stood the test of time as capable of producing well-balanced and complex ciders. At least in the UK, it would be surprising if Kingston Black, Yarlington Mill or Dabinett didn’t make most cider aficionados’ top ten list. The consensus would look quite different in France, Spain or Germany, but each of these cider regions has its own list of highly esteemed varieties. Since the cider scene’s consensus about the best cider apples is less firmly established and more localised than the wine scene’s consensus about the best wine grapes, it is also significantly more dynamic. The relative lack of an entrenched body of opinion means that there are more opportunities for producers to convince us that varieties that we have hitherto overlooked are worthy of our consideration. I think that writers and consumers also have a greater power to shape the emerging consensus than in the rather more conservative world of fine wine.
However, perhaps the least well-established and most dynamic consensus in the whole of the drinks industry concerns which pear varieties produce the best perry. This consensus is so underdeveloped that it barely exists at all. Ask almost any group of drinks enthusiasts about the best perry pear varieties, and you’ll be confronted with a sea of blank faces. In Normandy, Plant de Blanc would probably get a mention, but I suspect that most UK perry consumers would be entirely incapable of even hazarding an answer to this question. To be honest, I know that I can’t answer it with any degree of certainty, and I’m one of the perishingly small number of people who are sufficiently obsessed with perry to regularly write about it. I’m a big fan of Hendre Huffcap and Oldfield and not so keen on Thorn, but these are merely my personal preferences rather than any real measure of quality. (I can admire the structure of Thorn, I just can’t bring myself to fall in love with its flavour profile). There is so little clear consensus about the best pear varieties that writing about their qualities and deficiencies sometimes feels like starting with a blank slate, which is something that I find both exhilarating and daunting.
It would, however, be a mistake to think that no consensus about the best perry pears has ever existed. The authors of the historical Pomonas, which constitute repositories of forgotten knowledge about fruit varieties, had very definite opinions about the best and worst perry pears. Moreover, those opinions were quite widely shared. One such widespread belief was that Blakeney Red (currently Britain’s most widely-planted perry pear) produces an inferior perry. No historical writer that I can think of is complimentary about it. In their 1876 Herefordshire Pomona, Hogg and Bull were especially unequivocal in their disapproval for this variety, describing it as “abominable trash and fit only for the most ordinary purposes when nothing better can be got”. This is somewhat surprising to me, because I find Blakeney Red’s pillowy-soft and gently honeyed character highly enjoyable and consider it a crowd-pleasing kind of pear, if perhaps lacking in the complexity that characterises the very greatest varieties. Besides, Tom Oliver and Ross on Wye have both produced particularly good single-variety Blakeney Red perries, and these producers are far too quality conscious to be using “abominable trash”. A plausible explanation for Blakeney Red’s historically poor reputation is that it is highly sensitive to where it is grown and produces low quality perry when planted on less suitable sites, but it’s also possible that our tastes have simply changed with the passage of time.
Another widely-held opinion, at least in the 17th Century, was that the mysterious Turgovian pear produced exceptional perry. Barry wrote an excellent article about this variety last year, which you should definitely read (and which I’m shamelessly borrowing from here). In 1678, John Worlidge described the Turgovian pear as capable of “the most superlative perry the world produces”. His high opinion of this variety was shared by a number of his contemporaries, most notably John Evelyn. Unfortunately, the quest for this elusive variety is still ongoing. The search has been narrowed down to three confusingly similarly-named varieties (Thurgauerbirne, Thurgauer and Thurgauer Weinbirne), but DNA analysis will be required to establish whether any of these varieties share the same DNA profile as a perry pear variety already being grown in England, which would undoubtedly be known by yet another name. It strikes me that the work of a pear detective is rather disorienting and possibly never done!
Anyway, I’ll leave the detective work to Barry and the scientists, who are much better qualified to carry it out than I am. For the moment, suffice it to say that the Turgovian pear remains the stuff of legend. There is, however, another pear variety that stands in contention for the title of Greatest Perry Pear of All Time, and which has the distinction of an exalted reputation that has outlasted even that of the Turgovian pear. In 1679, Daniel Colwall’s An Account of Perry and Cider out of Glocestershire (sic) was published as part of John Evelyn’s Pomona. With meticulous attention to detail, Colwall described a particular pear variety from Gloucestershire, which was already known to produce especially good perry:
“About Taynton, Five Miles beyond Glocester, is a mixt sort of land, partly Clay, a Marle, and Crash, as they call it there, on all which sorts of land, there is much Fruit growing, both for the Table and for Cider: But it is Pears it most abounds in, of which the best sort, is that they name the Squosh-Pear, which makes the best Perry in those Parts.”
This “squosh-pear” from Taynton is the variety that unsurprisingly came to be known as Taynton Squash, and Colwall’s description of it as a superior perry pear prefigures every other historical reference to it. In fact, it seems that the reputation of this variety only grew and spread over time. By the 18th Century, single-variety Taynton Squash perry was being sold at high prices in London. In his 1811 Pomona Herefordiensis, Thomas Andrew Knight wrote that in a good vintage, it “affords a much finer liquor than any other pear”, clearly indicating that it belongs to the first rank of perry pears. Fast-forward to 1876, and Hogg and Bull described Taynton Squash as the finest perry pear of all, writing that “it affords a Perry of the greatest excellence with a sweet rich distinctive flavour, peculiarly its own”, which makes it “the first and the best” perry pear.
The historical consensus that Taynton Squash produces excellent perry therefore seems pretty much unanimous. But can this variety appeal to our modern sensibilities? There are a couple of stumbling blocks in the path of the perry enthusiast seeking to answer this question. Firstly, there’s the problem of Taynton Squash’s genetic identity. In the 1990s, Charles Martell and Ray Williams were able to distinguish between two distinct cultivars that were previously both known as Taynton Squash, which they named Early Taynton Squash and Late Taynton Squash, respectively. It is not entirely clear which of these two varieties the authors of the historical Pomonas were referring to when they lavished such effusive praise on Taynton Squash. Just to add some further confusion to the mix, there is also a third variety, now generally known as Arlingham Squash, which has “Old Taynton Squash” as one of its synonyms. According to the National Perry Pear Centre, this variety might well be the “squosh-pear” described by Colwall and Evelyn.
Secondly, even if we set aside the question as to the genetic identity of the historical Taynton Squash, all three of these varieties are relatively rare and seldom made into single-variety perries. As far as I’m aware, only three British producers (Monnow Valley, Rob’s and Bartestree) have made a single-variety perry labelled as Taynton Squash in recent years. Getting my hands on one of these bottlings has therefore become something of a personal quest for the Holy Grail of perry. I have never managed to acquire a bottle of Rob’s version, which is not widely distributed, but I did have the opportunity to buy a bottle of Monnow Valley’s 2019 Early Taynton Squash last year. While I am usually a fan of Monnow Valley’s perries, Adam’s review rather put me off this bottling, because I have a strong aversion to even trace amounts of acetic acid. I therefore passed up on this opportunity, in the hope that another, less volatile expression would soon rear its head. Recently, I was lucky enough to find just what I was looking for from The Cat in the Glass; a bottle of Bartestree’s 2021 Taynton Squash perry. I’m not sure whether this bottling is made from Early or Late Taynton Squash, but I am nonetheless excited that my first taste of a single-variety Taynton Squash perry will come by way of Bartestree. In my opinion, Dave and Fiona Matthews produce some of the best perries in Herefordshire, which rank alongside those made by Tom Oliver, Little Pomona and Ross on Wye, even though Bartestree remains far less well-known than these three superstars.
At the time of writing, a 750ml bottle of Bartestree’s Taynton Squash will set you back an extremely reasonable £10 from The Cat in the Glass. I strongly recommend that you buy some if you want to experience an unrepeatable taste of history!
Bartestree, Taynton Squash, 2021: 6.8% – review
How I served: Lightly chilled.
Appearance: Hazy pale straw, with moderate carbonation and a finely-beaded mousse.
On the nose: Intensely aromatic, with the concentrated fragrance of sun-kissed apricots, Cantaloupe melons and mangoes, all slathered in sticky Manuka honey. The fulsome fruit is suffused with various sappy resins, and garnished with a sprinkle of powdery flower pollen and strips of coarse pear skin. I also get light herbal touches; just the merest suggestions of eucalyptus and mint. Tinges of passion fruit intermittently waft from the glass as it slowly warms in my hand. Beneath the heady fruit-forward aromas lies a deep, slatey minerality, which constitutes a dark background that serves to bring the fruit into sharper relief. The level of aromatic complexity is extremely high, but the nose is well-rounded and integrated, with the seemingly disparate scents melding seamlessly into a harmonious and inviting whole.
In the mouth: Some drinks seduce you with their elegant finesse, whereas others leave you awestruck at their richness and potency. This perry is a quintessential power puncher. It is bursting with tropical fruit and coats the mouth with its luscious, fleshy texture, yet it is more than just a hedonistic fruit-bomb. The penetrating minerality, tingly tannins, elevated glycerol and concentrated dry extract combine to form an almost impenetrably Baroque structure, which is quite breathtakingly elaborate. There is just a touch of sorbitol sweetness, but it is so strongly accentuated by the ripeness and density of the fruit that the perry seems sweeter than it actually is, without ever becoming flabby or cloying. It feels inappropriate to refer to this perry’s finish given its almost everlasting persistence on the palate, but I’m left with an abiding impression of perfectly ripe mango, a tangy citric acidity and a gentle scrape of cat’s tongue tannins.
In a nutshell: A blockbuster of a perry, which is truly monumental in its weight, depth and persistence. While it is already extremely impressive in its youth, it has enough stuffing to continue to mature and improve, probably for decades. I can only imagine how truly astounding it would have been to our 18th Century ancestors, who were unlikely to have ever had the opportunity to taste a mango or a passion fruit!
There aren’t many producers that make single-variety perries with the clarity and definition of Bartestree’s, and this bottle stayed true to form by displaying a totally singular set of qualities, unlike those of any other perry that I’ve tasted. If the delicate styles of perry derived from such pears as the Huffcaps and Oldfield are comparable to the crystalline Kabinett Rieslings of the Mosel, then this Taynton Squash perry is reminiscent of the opulent and ostentatious Smaragd Rieslings of Austria’s Wachau region. It is extremely impressive in its sheer power and concentration, but I have to admit that it sometimes verges on becoming overwhelming. Does its unremitting intensity maybe come at the cost of a slight loss of refinement and, dare I say it, drinkability? This perry is by no means unbalanced, but it achieves its sense of harmony by dialling everything up to eleven. A small glass is a thing of wonder, but I’m not sure that I could finish the bottle in a single sitting. It is perhaps best slowly sipped with the kind of rapt attention that we would devote to admiring a rare and powerful force of nature, while contemplating the long and storied history of Taynton Squash.
I should probably conclude by addressing the question of whether Taynton Squash deserves its historical reputation as one of the greatest perry pears. Will a future consensus about the hierarchy of pear varieties cement or overturn its historical prestige? It’s impossible for me to even begin to provide a firm answer to these questions on the basis of a single data point, but my very provisional sense is that Taynton Squash is one of the most distinguished perry pears, yet also unlikely to become my favourite variety. The perry that I tasted today scores exceptionally highly for its power, concentration and complexity, but my personal tastes tend more in the direction of the suppleness, elegance and filigree textures of the featherweight styles of perry. Having said that, I hugely admire Bartestree’s Taynton Squash for its striking and unique character, and I can easily understand why our perry-drinking ancestors were so enraptured by this variety. When all’s said and done, this is truly a drink for the ages, and one that I’ll never forget.