To be a wine enthusiast is to be fascinated by tracking small differences. We are endlessly intrigued by the variations that exist between different production methods, vintages and vineyards. The more that we learn about wine, the smaller and more specific those differences tend to become. When we first embark on our journeys of vinous exploration, we tend to paint with broad brush strokes. Perhaps we perceive that the wines made from one grape variety taste different to those made from another variety, or that wines from different regions are noticeably distinct. But as time goes on and our understanding of wine deepens, the distinctions that we draw become increasingly fine-grained. We start to understand that different production methods can yield very different wines from the same grape variety, and we gradually become more aware of the geographical differences that exist within particular wine regions, as well as those between them. Eventually, we might well reach the stage at which the differences between individual portions of a single vineyard start to seem worthy of our consideration. Wine geekery is perpetual movement towards ever-finer distinctions.
Unsurprisingly, those in the business of making and selling wine are especially likely to display this wonkish devotion to detecting small differences. Many members of the wine trade love nothing more than to discuss vintage variations, production methods and classification systems. In this respect, they drastically differ from the average wine consumer. When you spend a large proportion of your life thinking about wine, it can be easy to forget that most wine drinkers are not wine geeks, and that they probably find the obsessive focus on small differences excessively punctilious and pedantic. Most wine drinkers don’t particularly care how long their wine spent in an oak barrel before being bottled, let alone whether that barrel was made from French or American oak. They definitely don’t want to hear about how grapes grown on limestone soils develop distinct organoleptic properties from those grown on clay. While some of us can happily geek out for hours over the minutiae of wine production, most people just want a nice glass of wine with their dinner and to be left well alone by over-enthusiastic wine nerds.
While I am a self-professed wine nerd, I can easily accept that many non-nerds have no desire to discuss the endless variations to be found in wine. I reserve the right not to show any interest in stamp collecting or trainspotting, so I can’t reasonably expect other people to share my nerdy preoccupations. But I have to admit that I find it harder to understand why so many wine drinkers prefer not to encounter those variations in the first place. A large proportion of consumers value consistency above all else. They buy a small range of wines over and over again, and expect them to taste more or less the same every time that they drink them. They certainly wouldn’t be happy if the plush, fruit-forward Malbec that they buy every week became significantly lighter-bodied and more austere. Informing them that this change was caused by the growing conditions in a cool and wet vintage is unlikely to persuade them to embrace it. This demographic’s wine-buying mantra is “I buy what I like and I stick to it”. For these consumers, any significant variation from certain relatively fixed and homogeneous styles of wine is positively unwelcome: It’s better to play it safe than to have an unpleasant surprise.
In order to appeal to this market segment, wine producers have to set aside their penchant for variation and create wines that taste much the same in each and every vintage. Achieving this level of consistency is no easy feat. After all, wine is agricultural produce that is affected by a wide range of environmental factors, so grapes of a particular variety grown in a particular vineyard will not produce exactly the same wine from one year to the next. Winemakers therefore blend grapes from different varieties and vineyards in order to achieve a consistent flavour profile. Albert Johnson’s famous dictum that “the point of a blend is to showcase qualities of varieties and hide their deficiencies” is undoubtedly true from the perspective of an artisanal producer seeking to achieve the highest possible quality, but from a more narrowly commercial perspective, the primary purpose of blending is to ensure consistency.
This quest for consistency is the key to understanding certain styles of wine. For example, so-called ‘non-vintage’ Champagnes are multi-vintage blends made from several different grape varieties, picked from multiple vineyard sites. The non-vintage expressions made by Grand Marques such as Bollinger and Taittinger are designed to minimise the effects of vintage variation, achieve a consistent level of quality and faithfully express a ‘house style’, so that customers know exactly what they can expect when they open a bottle. In the Champagne market, consistency is king: Non-vintage Champagne accounts for the vast majority of production in the region. But while wine nerds constitute a relatively small percentage of the Champagne market compared to more casual buyers, there are nonetheless quite a few of them, and they tend to spend significantly more on wine than the average non-nerd. In order to appeal to these enthusiasts, Champagne houses also release bottlings that are intended to showcase greater variation and specificity than their non-vintage bottlings. Vintage Champagnes, which are typically sold at higher price points than non-vintage expressions, are the products of a single year’s grape harvest. Many Champagne producers also make special cuvées from individual vineyards and grape varieties, which are sold in quite limited quantities.
If you were wondering why I have taken this rather lengthy detour through the world of wine and the segmentation of the Champagne market in what was supposed to be an article on perry, it’s because I think that they point in the direction of an interesting business model for artisanal cider and perry producers to consider. In some respects, the conditions in the cider and perry market are similar to those in the wine market. Cider nerds care about exactly the same kinds of small differences as wine nerds: We tend to seek out ciders and perries that authentically express a sense of place, the characteristics of a particular vintage and the fruit varieties from which they were made. But much as wine nerds only constitute a relatively small proportion of the wine market, we only form a very small niche in the larger cider and perry market, which largely values consistency over natural variation.
Those of us who advocate for cider and perry have a lot of work left to do if we want more customers to care about the variations that exist between different vintages, production methods, regions and orchards. The wine market is much more mature and stratified: There are many more critics and writers promoting wine, and many more consumers who take a keen interest in it. Yet there are limits to what even the most skilled, enthusiastic and well-funded advocacy can achieve, and it is worth bearing in mind that most wine drinkers do not become serious wine buffs. I think that we can hence safely conclude that although the cider market has enormous potential for overall growth and greater segmentation, the majority of cider drinkers will never be converted to geekdom, no matter how hard we try. While we might sometimes wish that all cider and perry was single-vintage, single-variety or single-orchard, as well as being unadulterated and clearly labelled, there will probably always be a market for sweetened, force-carbonated, filtered blends of unspecified fruit varieties from unspecified locations. Much as it might annoy us when a cider label just states that a cider is ‘medium’ and makes no mention of places or apple varieties, the fact of the matter is that all that most drinkers want from cider is a sweet, fizzy, appley-tasting drink with a moderate alcohol content. Relatively homogeneous blends are therefore not going away anytime soon, and I think that we should acknowledge that it is possible to produce them honestly and with a focus on quality. They can be full-juice rather than made from concentrate, and they don’t have to contain artificial additives. Most importantly, producers can be transparent about the fact that they are sweetened, pasteurised, force-carbonated and filtered.
In fact, some of the UK’s finest producers make blends of this sort, and are perfectly open about how they make them. Tom Oliver is rightly famed for his impressive range of ciders and perries that showcase particular varieties and production methods, but he also makes Guilty Pleasure; a blended, sweetened, force-carbonated cider, which is meant to be easily quaffable rather than complex and contemplative. Similarly, alongside a mesmerising array of single-variety ciders and perries, Ross on Wye produces Birdbarker, which is a medium, blended cider designed for everyday drinking. I tend to think of these kinds of blends as ‘gateway ciders’, which can appeal to non-nerds who are used to fairly straightforward-tasting and sweetened products, but which are nonetheless sufficiently well-made for nerds to enjoy quaffing when they put down their notebooks at the end of a day’s tasting. After all, some drinks are just meant to be drunk, rather than analysed and dissected.
However, while Tom Oliver and Ross on Wye do make these concessions to the non-nerd market, it seems pretty clear to me that the vast majority of their output is aimed at those of us who actively seek out ciders and perries with an authentic sense of time and place. Neither of these producers has a ‘mass-market’ or ‘entry-level’ core bottling that plays an equivalent role to the Champagne houses’ non-vintage expressions. Tom Oliver produces some perennial favourites, but there are too many of them for any one to really stand out as a core bottling. And the closest thing that Ross on Wye has to a core bottling is Raison D’être, which is a wonkish and non-commercial tasting cider par excellence!
If we want to find cider and perry producers that are employing the Champagne business model of releasing highly consistent core bottlings in larger quantities and more variable limited editions in smaller quantities, we will hence have to turn our attention elsewhere. In my opinion, Gloucestershire’s Bushel & Peck provides an excellent example of this model. They produce a core range of three ciders and one perry, each of which aims to achieve a clearly defined flavour profile, which remains fairly consistent year on year. ‘Fresh & Crisp’ is a medium-dry cider made from a blend of surplus eating apples gathered from local gardens. It is intended to be acid-driven and low in tannin. ‘Rich & Mellow’ is also medium-dry, but made from more tannic West Country cider apples (mainly Yarlington Mill, Dabinett and Brown’s, but also some Sweet Alford and Bulmer’s Norman). ‘Slow & Easy’ is a medium cider made from a blend of the apples used to make ‘Fresh & Crisp’ and those that go into ‘Rich and Mellow’, thus achieving a balance between tannin and acid. ‘Smooth & Subtle’ is Bushel & Peck’s core perry, which is described as medium-dry and produced from an unspecified blend of perry pears from several old, unsprayed orchards in Gloucestershire. This is made in an accessible and easy-drinking style.
As well as their core range, Bushel & Peck produce quite a few limited edition ciders and perries that are aimed at enthusiasts and made in relatively small quantities. These bottlings are typically wild-fermented and bottled dry, and seek to showcase specific varieties or particular terroirs. I have enjoyed several of Bushel & Peck’s limited edition ciders in the past, including their ‘Fourfer’ (a single-variety Tremlett’s Bitter, which I reviewed here) and their single-village ‘Chedworth Gold’. However, I have yet to taste any of their perries, so I’m excited to try the 2019 bottling of ‘Smooth & Subtle’, followed by their 2019 limited edition ‘Pathfinder’. This is a still, dry, wild-fermented perry, which is a mysterious blend of three unspecified early season perry pear varieties from a single traditional orchard located on the border between Gloucestershire and Worcestershire.
At the time of writing, ‘Pathfinder’ is available from The Cat in the Glass for the incredibly reasonable price of £7.50 per 750ml bottle, while a 500ml bottle of ‘Smooth & Subtle’ cost me a ridiculously cheap £3.60. Bushel & Peck’s ciders and perries are also available from their own webshop.
Bushel & Peck, Smooth & Subtle, 2019: 6% – review
How I served: Lightly chilled.
Appearance: Pale gold, with a soft sparkle. Very clear, with just a thin dusting of yeast sediment at the bottom of the bottle.
On the nose: Light, sweet and inviting, with ripe, juicy dessert pears, pear slices in syrup and a dollop of creamy lemon curd. There’s a hint of butteriness in the background, which reminds me of freshly-baked croissants. Not a particularly concentrated or complex nose, but attractive and well-balanced nonetheless.
In the mouth: The term ‘medium-dry’ always causes me concern, because a lot of producers seem to use it to mean anything less than tooth-meltingly sweet. However, this perry has the considerable virtue of not being overly sweetened or feeling excessively manipulated. It is just off-dry, with zesty acidity, a gentle brush of chalky tannins and the merest touch of salinity on the finish. The flavours are significantly less ripe and dessert-like than suggested by the nose, and call to mind freshly-squeezed lemon juice, mildly astringent pear skins and a splash of bitter lemon. After twenty minutes out of the fridge, buttery pastry begins to take centre stage, complemented by a soft and creamy texture that is quite reminiscent of oaked California Chardonnay, although this very much remains a lighter-bodied, less extracted and more easy-going kind of drink. To my mind, the creamy texture and buttery flavours suggest malolactic fermentation, but I doubt that this perry has actually undergone MLF, which is a risky procedure to apply to perry due to its tendency to convert citric acid to acetic acid. There is certainly no trace of volatility here; the perry remains clean, precise and fundamentally well-made from start to finish.
In a nutshell: I hate the word ‘smooth’ as a descriptor, because it strikes me as so unhelpfully vague, but I’ll make an allowance for it here. This perry really is Smooth & Subtle both by name and by nature: It’s an appetising mouthful of lemony, soft and creamy goodness, with very wide appeal (especially to fans of oaked Chardonnay looking for a lighter alternative).
Bushel & Peck, Pathfinder, 2019: 5.5% – review.
How I served: Lightly chilled.
Appearance: Pale straw, with a touch of flaky sediment. Completely still.
On the nose: Significantly more complex than the ‘Smooth & Subtle’. Lemon and pear skins give way to fulsome aromas of ripe stone fruit and sweet meadow flowers, while vanillins, lactones and a spirit-like note conspire to give the impression that this has come from a Bourbon barrel. The overall effect is rich and slightly exotic. Unfortunately, I can also detect some pear drops, a little acetone and the tell-tale prickle of acetic acid. These are not very pronounced and many people would remain entirely unbothered by them, but I find the touch of volatility somewhat distracting from the otherwise inviting nose.
In the mouth: Almost bone-dry and totally still, with a decidedly velvety texture, sappy tannins and the gentle abrasiveness of rough pear skins on the finish. I get warm preserved lemon, a little leatheriness and the creamy vanilla and subtle spice of American oak, before being surprised by the most pronounced note of dried apricot that I’ve ever encountered in a perry (it really does taste exactly like chewing on a dried apricot straight from the packet). The acidity is medium in intensity and nicely counterbalances the richness, but it veers in the direction of volatility as the glass warms in my hand. Again, this is not overly prominent, but it is just enough to be intrusive, at least for my palate.
In a nutshell: There is a lot to like about this perry, but I can’t quite fall in love with it. The intense apricot flavour, creamy texture and Bourbon-barrel richness are extremely appetising, but the acetic component, mild as it is, just isn’t really to my taste. However, I can imagine that those who are less sensitive to volatility could easily become enamoured with this perry, which almost reminds me of a dry, botrytised Chardonnay.
Bushel & Peck market their perry as “England’s native wine”, and I can entirely see why they would choose to describe it in this way. Like a Champagne house, they appear to have a distinctive ‘house style’ of perry, which carries across from the core bottling to the limited edition. I don’t know for certain if they are using oak barrels in which to ferment or mature their perries, but I’d be astounded to hear that they aren’t. Their perries are distinguished by their low levels of carbonation (the ‘Pathfinder’ has none at all), their relative dryness, their rich and creamy textures and their oaky finishes. I find them strongly reminiscent of still, oaked white wines, and feel certain that they would appeal to plenty of wine lovers.
The ‘Smooth & Subtle’ does exactly what I want from a core bottling. It is extremely well-made and interesting enough to appeal to enthusiasts, while remaining highly accessible and easy to drink. It would make an excellent pairing for a simple roast chicken. To my mind, it belongs to the same category as Blue Barrel’s Colwick Perry and Burrow Hill’s Medium-Dry Sparkling Perry (both of which I reviewed here), although it is drier and more Chardonnay-like than either of these bottlings.
The ‘Pathfinder’ was a little bit of a disappointment, because it had the potential to be the richer and more complex of the duo, but was let down by a slightly volatile edge. I suspect that it was exposed to just a touch too much oxygen at some point in the production process. This is an unavoidable risk of maturing perry in oak, because perry is incredibly susceptible to oxidation and oak barrels are slightly porous. When perry is successfully oak-aged, the results can be outstanding, but it’s not easy to keep things sufficiently airtight to avoid the encroachment of volatility. I’d describe ‘Pathfinder’ as very nearly successful, but not entirely flawless in this respect.
Notwithstanding these minor niggles, I think that overall, Bushel & Peck are doing an excellent job of applying the Champagne business model to their cider and perry production. Their core range is both highly consistent and appeals to a very wide range of tastes, while their limited editions exhibit more than enough complexity and interest to entice us cider and perry nerds. At present, these bottlings tend to fly under the radar compared to those produced by some of the bigger names in the craft cider scene, but I expect that to change in the fullness of time. With high-quality offerings, national distribution through The Cat in the Glass and the ability to appeal to both the mainstream craft cider market and serious cider and perry enthusiasts, the future looks bright for Bushel & Peck. In my view, it’s worth considering whether the future of the cider scene might also be that much brighter if more producers adopted the Champagne model of market segmentation.