It seemed to happen overnight. No — less — over an evening. At half six or thereabouts I sweltered my way across Reading to rehearsal; three hours later, after a string of balmy nights, I shivered all the way home.
The seasons are changing. Shorts stowed for another year, jumpers put on out of course in the morning. The air has the clarity of Autumn; that little nibble on your face when you open the door, the soft winter-grey of the overcast sky, that teasing waft of faraway smoke.
It is the time of year when I am glad not to be a cidermaker and especially delighted that others are, as twitter and instagram bubble over with picking and pressing and grumbling and fruit shots and mutterings about brix and gorgeous orchards in full plumage. The Foxwhelps, the Thorns, the Discoveries, Speckbirne and Moorcroft are in; the bigger, burlier bittersweets still eaking out the last few rays of the vintage’s sun. That hot, horrendous summer is revealing itself through astronomic brix — almost 1.070 specific gravity reported in the Foxwhelps from one maker — if the same holds true for the richest varieties; the Egremonts, Dabinetts and so on, they’ll far outstrip the 8.4% abv so arbitrarily assigned as cider’s maximum permitted volume in the U.K.
Paradoxically, the busiest time of year for cidermakers is the same time that many drinkers abandon cider until the sun and the swallows return next spring. Certainly in the United Kingdom, where the lagerification installed by fifty years of brewery influence, and particularly the over-ice Magners effect of 2006 still hold such sway over national perception, there is an idea that cider is crisp and fizzy and cold and frivolous and perfect for summer and no good whatsoever at any other point.
A shame, because far from being a one-note wonder, cider’s diversity of flavour and style has a tune suited perfectly to every season. Think of bittersweet apples; dark, spicy Yarlington, the enveloping ripe orange hug of Dabinett, the autumnal tones of Harry Masters’ Jersey to name but three. Think of the deep, soulful oaken brushes of cask-aged cider, of the voluptuous, warming ripeness of a good keeve.
Then there are the foods we eat at this time of year, and the ciders and perries in which they find a perfect foil. Dry Egremont Russet is a perfect match for roast chicken, for instance, whilst any number of the perrymakers we spoke to in our recent spotlight series attested to the brilliance of certain perries as a marriage to spicier food. Plenty of champagne corks are popped over the festive season (though God knows whether that’ll be the case this year; there certainly seems precious little to celebrate at the moment) — why should those corks not have stoppered traditional method cider and perry at half the price?
But few ciders are as beautifully built for a chillier time of year as Pommeau.
Pedants might argue that Pommeau isn’t a cider at all. By the letter of the law it’s a mistelle; a blend of unfermented apple juice with distilled apple spirit. Personally I sit on the side of a comment I heard at Burrow Hill once; that cider is the sum total of the apple orchard’s bounty. In which case Pommeau certainly qualifies.
And I love it. It is one of my favourite things in the world. Rich, deep, booming with dark fruit flavour and often a gorgeous baritone of oak. Spicy, warming, unctuous and textural; a winter drink par excellence, yet, wonderfully, just as good served chilled in summertime with a slice of orange (a combination for which I have to thank Mathilde, who so brilliantly opened up the world of Pommeau to me in this interview a couple of years back).
Strictly speaking, Pommeau is a legally-protected term used in Normandy, Brittany and Maine, where the drink must be made to certain specifications defined by respective appellations. And it is from this area in north-west France that the overwhelming majority of the world’s apple mistelle originates. But as we’ve seen, certain adventurous cideries around the world have also taken to blending juice with spirit. Somerset’s Burrow Hill, for instance, make the gorgeous Somerset Pomona and Kingston Black Apple Aperitif. Zapian’s Sagardoz Goxoa was so delicious I included it in my Essential Case of 2020 and still think about it constantly.
And now I’ve found another one. In fact, I have found four.
Back in April, on my visit to the Finger Lakes, I was lucky enough to visit South Hill Cider and be shown around by owner and lead cidermaker Steve Selin. All sorts of things caught my eye and palate, but nothing was quite as intriguing to see as a series of four single variety Pommeaux (their word, not mine – sorry Normandy), three of which were made from classic English bittersweets.
Very generously, and in the name of full disclosure, Steve let me have a bottle of each one, and they sat in my jumble of boxes as I waited impatiently for the right moment to open them. That moment finally arrived the day before the opening of Ross on Wye’s Festival, when I sat down with Caroline, Albert and Ben of the much-missed CiderVoice to taste them side by side.
Each one is a blend of the juice of its apple with barrel-aged spirit from the same variety. They cost $32 for a 375ml bottle, and are available to our American readers directly from the South Hill website. It must be admitted that this is a significant premium on the cost of a standard French Pommeau, which are relatively easy to find, even in the UK, at about £24 for 700ml, but Steve’s creations are not only significantly smaller-batch than most of their French counterparts, but as single varieties are also especially rare and interesting. Whether that justifies you spending the extra dollars we’ll only find out through tasting them. So let’s do just that.
South Hill Golden Russet Pommeau – review
How I served: Barn temperature.
Appearance: True gold. Still.
On the nose: Massively aromatic. Heady, exotic, floral. Huge honey, apple syrup, buttercups and golden syrup. Some high-toned notes of melon jam (or what I imagine such a thing would smell like). Golden by name…
In the mouth: Almost mead-like – honey, fragrant flowers, a little yellow acidity and then every shade of melon, from canteloupe to honeydew. The fresh, crisp face of mistelle; this speaks so intensely of Golden Russet, it’s remarkable. The most successful high-toned mistelle I can remember trying. Big alcohol, but the voluptuous body holds it just about in check.
In a nutshell: Mistelle writ summertime. A voluptuous fruitbasket. Albert’s pick of the bunch.
South Hill Dabinett Pommeau – review
How I served: Barn temperature
Appearance: Rich chestnut. Still.
On the nose: Deep, lignin, caramel, burned orange — but all about the juice. Red apples, skins and dried. Fruitcake and light clove. Don’t know if I’d peg it as Dabinett blind, but an utterly wonderful aroma.
In the mouth: Hello Christmas. A deep, rich, warming hug of caramelised apples, cloves, liquorice, glacé cherries, and moist fruitcake studded with apple. Again just so pure and fresh and precise in the communication of its flavour, but unbelievably juicy and deep too. A little tannic grip, but less impact of alcohol than in the Golden Russet.
In a nutshell: Stunning apple-driven mistelle. Bottled Christmas. Caroline’s pick. Possibly mine as well.
South Hill Harry Masters’ Jersey Pommeau – review
How I served: Barn temperature.
Appearance: Same as the Dabinett.
On the nose: Super spicy. Goes in a distinct brandy direction – lignin, clove, black pepper, spiced apple. Absolutely the mistelle for Calvados drinkers. Very full on. Actually almost Armagnac-esque at times as the spice of the variety meets the spice of the oak. A real sense of burned orange floating on top of a rye-based Manhattan. (The only acceptable form of Manhattan – don’t @ me, as the kids say).
In the mouth: The follow through is identical. It makes me think of Christingle; deep orange studded with spices and cloves, a hint of burning candle wax. Rye whisky, but with some apple juiciness (and actually I pick up apple notes in quite a lot of rye whisky anyway). Big, forward character. Less fulsome and perhaps less cohesive than the Dabinett, but it hits its notes (and a lot of my personal preferences) with absolute clarity).
In a nutshell: The dark, spicy winter warmer. Also a malic answer to Manhattan. Vies with the Dabinett for my No.1.
South Hill Chisel Jersey Pommeau – review
How I served: Barn temperature.
Appearance: A shade lighter than the Dabinett and HMJ. Still.
On the nose: Gosh! A unique aroma! Some of the caramel apple of the last two, but where the HMJ was spicy, this has the medicinal phenols so typical of Chisel Jersey — and thrown into sharp relief. Germoline and medicine cabinet, almost à la Laphroaig single malt, in a certain sense, minus the smoke. Huge apple skins and green rum agricole. Pure sugar cane juice. Savoury and sweet notes of equal immensity and thus find a truly idiosyncratic harmony. A wonderful riot.
In the mouth: Really textural. Some dark spice – wood cabinet, aniseed, liquorice. Dark apple juice and more of those complex medicinal phenols. Waxiness and a bit of jammy red fruit. As with all of these bottlings, spotless in the purity and definition and delivery of its flavour.
In a nutshell: Incredibly complex, contemplative Pommeau but which occupies an extreme and idiosyncratic point on the flavour spectrum.
Some importer really needs to add South Hill to Eden and Eve’s in the category of ‘American ciders available in the UK’. The stuff Steve is making is imaginative and beautifully executed and he deserves an international audience.
I absolutely adored all four of these mistelles. It seemed remarkable, in the depths of south Herefordshire, to be drinking a trio of West Country bittersweets made into fortified apple juice by a maker across the Atlantic, but it was one of my favourite cider experiences of the year. Each of the four showed me a completely new inflection of Mistelle; distinct from, but comfortably equal in quality to, those I’ve tasted from the drink’s French heartland.
I’m a little torn as to my favourite. My head says Dabinett, but my heart says that I adore the spice and Rye-cum-Armagnac energy of the HMJ. Then again I can absolutely see where Albert’s coming from; that the ripe, tropical vibrancy of the Golden Russet was not only the most distinct of the quartet, but would also be the one to reach for as a lazy summer glassful. And the Chisel Jersey, whilst probably the Marmite bottling of the group, had a phenolic idiosyncrasy that (perhaps as an Islay whisky lover, though obviously the flavours are very different) I personally found both arresting and delicious. It was a real privilege to try all four, and I was very glad to be able to share them not only with that first night’s drinking companions, but with other friends and makers throughout the Festival weekend. If you are based in America, I can certainly recommend any of them as being well worth the splash.
Cider is an all-year-round drink, and this quartet served as a fascinating reminder of that. Here’s to happily sipping our way through the winter and autumn ahead.
Pingback: Cider Review’s review of the year: 2022 | Cider Review