Today, class, we’re going to be talking about sherry.
Yes, that’s right, it’s one of our omnibibulous posts; a direct comparison between cider and wine, which I know always raises a few hackles. The ‘is it’, ‘isn’t it’ debate is too tired and too boring to wade into again really; suffice it to say that my understanding of cider and perry is a million times better for my understanding of wine, and that whilst the fruit and the liquid may be entirely their own thing and rightly celebrated as such, the DNA of much of their growth and production is so close that it would be hilarious folly to ignore the link and the opportunities for mutual theft of intellectual property that it offers.
And it is theft of wine’s intellectual property, or in gentler terms, borrowing of wine’s ideas, that I want to talk about today.
Whether or not you are a fan of dry sherry (for what it’s worth I wax and wane) the process of its conception is truly remarkable. Setting aside a handful of rarities, very little of it is vintage dated. Instead it undergoes a process of long, complex, fractional blending in a system known as a solera.
The idea of a solera is to deploy a huge number of casks, arranged in tiers called criaderas, with the end goal of a product which will be both consistent bottling-on-bottling and more complex than a single vintage.
It works like this. Imagine our criaderas as levels in a sort of inverted pyramid, at the bottom of which is a large single vat called a solera. Imagine all the barrels across all of our criaderas are full — or at least as full as they are ever intended to be, and that the solera, from which we bottle our sherry, is full too.
The ‘game’ as it were, is to never let either the solera or any of the criaderas dip in their fill level. So let’s say we arbitrarily fill 10,000 bottles from our solera. Pretend that’s a quarter of the solera’s capacity. We can’t let the solera stay partially empty, so we refill it with liquid from the ‘bottom’ criadera. That criadera needs topping up, so we refill it with liquid from the criadera above. And so on and so on until we reach the top criadera, into which we pour brand new wine — sobretabla.
As this process continues, the wine in the lower criaderas becomes increasingly old and increasingly complex. In theory, by never fully emptying either our solera or the criaderas above it, if our solera system lasts 100 years, there should still be minute quantities of the original sherry, now a century old, still sloshing around inside it.
This system might break a more fragile wine; too much oxygen exposure, too much time. But sherry — be it Oloroso, fortified to 17 or 18% abv, brawny enough to withstand the ravages of oxygen, or Fino, 15% but biologically protected from oxygen by a layer of antioxidative yeast called flor — blossoms within it. Every sherry bodega has their own solera system, some with literally dozens of criaderas in their makeup. And thus, broadly speaking, is the bulk of one of the world’s great, oft-maligned fortified wines produced.
Solera systems are not unique to sherry. They exist within Madeira, I have encountered them in whisky, and I have heard of their use in beer, though I couldn’t tell you what for. (I bet it’s something Belgian). But until today I had never come across one in cider.
To be fair, if anyone in cider was going to build a solera, I’d have put my quid on it being Little Pomona. Susanna and James are both from the wine trade, and dry sherry is one of the mere six to ten drinks categories that I have heard James assert emphatically to definitely be the best in the world.
Whilst I long for the day when Little Pomona release something fortified (Pommeau is another of James’ definite best drinks in the world) their solera is designed for something else: Foxwhelp.
Susanna and James have waxed lyrical about Foxwhelp for as long as I’ve known them. ‘It really is the favourite — the Riesling of the apple world’, was Susanna’s comment when I interviewed them for an article on Jancis Robinson’s website. One memorable early quote from James was ‘if Messi is the first name on the Barcelona teamsheet, Foxwhelp is the first variety planted in the orchard’. And whilst the Messi reference may not have aged particularly well, it’s Little Pomona’s opinion (shared by this author) that Foxwhelp does.
Historical anecdote is very much on our side. In the 19th century Foxwhelp aged up to 40 years was being written up as the party piece of many a Herefordshire cidermaker, and that it was the variety put aside for special friends and occasions. For well over two hundred years it sold at a higher price than any other cider; Chris, in his otherwise excellent piece on the legendary Taynton Squash pear, neglected to mention that Foxwhelp was written of by the same people, Hogg and Bull, as being even more expensive and highly-rated.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century and a somewhat narrower view of the apple is occasionally taken. Whilst Foxwhelp, perhaps more than any other apple, has developed something of a cult following, eulogised by the likes of Cath Potter, Susannah Mansfield and Lily Waite and selling generally faster on keg than any other of Ross on Wye’s single varieties, it is far from universally approved of.
The modern dissent — at least so far as single variety Foxwhelp or Foxwhelp-dominant blends are concerned — centres entirely around Foxwhelp’s admittedly pronounced acidity. So yes, hands in the air, I talk about preference on this website constantly and I might as well acknowledge that I have a pretty sharp tooth. I eat the lime wedges I get in G&Ts more often than not, happily drank the neat lemon juice mum gave me to drink when I was a toddler and my favourite white grape is Riesling. I recently discovered that the country whose coffee I seem to enjoy most — Ethiopia’s — is the most acidic in that drinks category too.
Foxwhelp is unquestionably on the sharp end of sharp. There’s a reason makers in other parts of the country refer to the likes of Bramley, James Grieve, Redlove as ‘our answer to Foxwhelp’ and not the other way round. But I have always felt — and have written for over two years now — that the derision of Foxwhelp on the basis of its acidity invariably overlooks the remarkable and singular qualities this apple possesses.
No other variety has Foxwhelp’s aromatics, for instance; that mesmerising, electric red swathe of wild strawberries and apple skins and blood orange. They don’t have its definition, its concentration, its laser-like precision and crystal-clarity of aroma and delivery. They don’t have its finish, they don’t have its vibrancy and life.
And I’d bet a good amount of money that no other apple has Foxwhelp’s capacity to age.
Unprovable historical references to forty-year-old Foxwhelp aside, there isn’t much evidence I can produce to defend this theory. But a drink’s capacity to age is determined in no small part by concentration of flavour compounds and pronounced acidity, and with Foxwhelp I feel we are in very safe territory here. Throughout history it has been referenced as the apple that can take extra racking, can take extra time in barrel; its intensity and toughness beyond that of its rivals. At the recent vertical tasting of Art of Darkness vintages, the 2017 #1 was virtually as I remembered it from two and a half years ago; that same force of character and definition barely shifted, whilst others were already drifting well into maturity.
It is that force of character; that assumed capacity to withstand the ravages of age and micro-oxidation, that has influenced Little Pomona’s decision to make it the focal point of their solera system. As they wrote on instagram after completing their solera-building: ‘if any variety can work in this method, with its elevated acid levels, soft tannins and abundance of fruit, it’s got to be Foxwhelp. Time will tell.’
An initial 2000 litres of Foxwhelp from the 2017, 2018 and 2019 vintages, along with smaller quantities of different apple varieties, was filled into casks of various types across the Little Pomona solera. A year and a bit later, admittedly not terribly long by sherry standards, we have our first opportunity to gauge how effective the system has been via two blends taken from across the solera.
Unlike their counterparts in Jerez, however, Little Pomona are distinctly not interested in total consistency between bottlings — at least for these initial releases. Rather these two bottlings seem to be an initial foray into the possibility for fractional blending across vintages that the varying criaderas allow.
Dubbed ‘Sum of the Parts’, ‘Act 1’ is a particularly complicated blend: 58% Foxwhelp split equally between 2019 and 2020 fruit, augmented by 28% Browns, 17.5% Ellis Bitter, 12% Egremont Russet, 3.5% Dabinett and 3% Chisel Jersey (the latter apples all from the 2020 harvest), drawn from six barrels across the system. Act 2, on the other hand, is quite different: a mighty 81% Foxwhelp and 19% Ellis Bitter, of which 66% was 2017 and the remainder from 2019.
Since James didn’t tell me the breakdowns of the blends before I had written my tasting notes, the below is a record of my un-informed take, and no doubt reads as such. 330 bottles of each were filled, due to cost £15 apiece, and are available from Little Pomona’s web shop here. The two I worked from were samples kindly provided by Little Pomona.
Little Pomona Sum of the Parts Act 1 – review
How I served: ‘Pretty cool’ – James always gives me precise instructions on temperature
Appearance: Clear mid-gold. Still
On the nose: Really pure, elegant, crystalline aromas of ripe lemon and a light red blush of cherries and fizzy strawberry laces. Lightly spiced oak – like fragrant woods – crystallised orange rind and seashore herbs. Savoury nut skin and a little melon. Guessing there’s a bit of Egremont in here too? A haunting, persistent, complex and ethereal aroma. Definitely ‘Foxwhelp plus’.
In the mouth: Breathtaking delivery. Manages to be both clear and bright and chiselled in its definition whilst simultaneously broad, textural and complex. Acidity is bright, but certainly not pronounced, and alongside a flutter of beautifully-integrated tannin carries flavours of yellow and riper orange citrus, fresh herbs, sandalwood, nut skin and orchard fruit leading to that redder, telltale brush of strawberry. A sense of somehow rockpool-esque minerality throughout (I spent a lot of time peering into them as a kid, so I feel entitled to this extra-pretentious note). Sublime elegance and balance.
In a nutshell: If this is what fractional blending gets you I’m all for it. World class cider.
Little Pomona Sum of the Parts Act 2 – review
How I served: ‘Just cool’ – James again. (Incidentally, more cider labels should offer this guidance)
Appearance: Deep rose gold. Still.
On the nose: On first smelling this I made a sound along the lines of ‘awwwww’. Caroline immediately called from the other room ‘I want it – you should just write that as your review’. Friends, the spirit of Art of Darkness 2017 #1 is risen – it is risen indeed, hallelujah. Ruby red Foxwhelp aromatics fused with, surely, those same glorious Ornellaia barrels; ripe wild strawberries, dark cherries, cassis, dried pink grapefruit, tempered by the almost rancio, light truffle character of development, a touch of savoury oak, dusky dried herbs, caramel, vanilla and clove. The aromatic potential of this most aromatic of varieties unfurled in full peackock-tail magnificence.
In the mouth: See Act 1 for the elegance, balance, precision, texture and breadth of delivery. See the nose, above, for the sheer complexity of flavour and technical excellence on show here. Pristine, vivid fresh red fruit alongside waxy red apple skins, dried raspberries, strawberries and pink grapefruit – even a little pink lemonade, all seamlessly entwined with rich French oak spices, game jus, cloves and that fleeting, elusive hint of truffle. Flavours shimmer and shift the more I try to grasp them. Acidity again is bright, but wholly proportionate to body and flavour, and is breathtakingly elegant. Finish lasts forever.
In a nutshell: Haven’t been this engrossed by a cider all year. Phenomenal.
On second thoughts, I was wrong, Foxwhelp is rubbish, don’t buy these, nothing to see here, move along.
Have they gone?
On a serious note, and accepting my own personal preferences, both of these ciders would be in my personal top five or ten of those I’ve tried in 2022 so far. Act 2 is possibly in the top one, and the only bottle that might be discreetly coughing at that assertion is the Brut Zero from the same cidery, whose varietal and vintage makeup shares virtually the same DNA. At least I’m consistent.
Don’t get me wrong — I love Foxwhelp young, fresh, unvarnished and bristling with energy, but there is something deeply profound to the way that the Forbeses are attempting to coax it to its fullest, most eloquent expression.
If these releases augur the start of their solera journey, I can’t wait to see where it ends up. Even if they represent the pinnacle of the experiment, what a truly dazzling pinnacle it is.
Thanks to Little Pomona for providing bottles and photos. As ever on CR, all opinions and editorial control remain the author’s own.