Apple varieties don’t last forever. I was recently reading a passage from Luckwill and Pollard’s ‘Perry Pears’ which remarked on the longevity of pear varieties compared to their malic cousins. Read your way back in time and you will find such folk as Thomas Knight commenting on this, that or the other apple variety being at or towards the likely end of its working life.
One of the more celebrated historic apples is the Redstreak propagated in the 17th Century by Viscount Scudamore. These days a few Redstreaks are still in use — Somerset Redstreak being probably the most famous — but if anyone tells you that they’re using Scudamore’s, regard them with your healthiest dose of skepticism.
Tastes change, fashions change, and trees are not immortal. The many and lengthy fallow periods of cider’s popularity, combined with the relative lifespan of the apple tree versus the pear goes some way to explaining why so many old varieties are now lost or critically rare. It is always special, for instance, to drink a Hagloe Crab, knowing how few trees are still left standing, and to think of cider from this same variety being drunk nearly four hundred years ago.
Which makes Foxwhelp all the more remarkable still.
Foxwhelp is not simply a fellow veteran of at least the 17th century. It has, throughout its entire known history, been venerated at the highest level by folk who knew their ciders. Three hundred years ago we find Hugh Stafford reporting on it being sold for the same price as a barrel of French wine. Earlier than that the likes of John Beale were reporting on its quality, its strength and — tellingly — its ageability.
150 years later Hogg and Bull take up the mantle. Foxwhelp is not only rated as the pride of Herefordshire cidermakers, fabled to last up to three or four decades of ageing, but is once again proven in the terms of hard currency to be valued well beyond its peers. For pretty stark comparison, Dr Bull records that ‘best quality cider’ was sold in 1885 at 8-12 shillings per dozen bottles. Five years earlier, in 1880, he reports a Mr Mason’s Foxwhelp selling at auction for 30 shillings a dozen. Not only more than two to three times as much as its ‘best’ rivals, but two shillings a dozen more than even the legendary Taynton Squash perry.
What’s important to note is that these historical examples weren’t versions of Foxwhelp blended with other apples, but were the pure, full-throttle, unadulterated Real McCoy. The London customers of the 18th Century would have been buying barrels for their own private cellars, or bringing bottles to be filled directly by the vintners. The Herefordian writers of the late 19th Century are very careful to distinguish their single varieties from their blends. (It’s an interesting side-note that single variety cider from the most highly-rated varieties seems to have held historic primacy among our cider-loving forbears; an intriguing contrast to the attitude sometimes taken towards single variety cider versus blends today.)
In the year of Grace 2022, opinion on Foxwhelp is rather more divided. Foxwhelp is an apple with very high natural acidity and a pronounced intensity of flavour. Even the maker of two of today’s bottlings has been fairly critical of it in the past outside of its undisputed brilliance in a blend. I’ve twice heard that at a prominent cider competition a few years ago, one of the judges sniffed a glass, pronounced “Foxwhelp” and poured the drink away instantly, followed by all fellow judges, none of whom had so much as smelled it yet. Foxwhelp, perhaps — or at least young, unoaked Foxwhelp (a seldom-made distinction) — may not be a drink for everyone, or even for as broad a field as the likes of Dabinett or Egremont Russett. But does that make it an apple of lesser quality, indeed of lesser quality as a single variety? I’m not so sure.
It’s very possible, I think, that the very aspect of Foxwhelp which turns some modern drinkers off is the key to its historic pre-eminence. Conditions of hygiene and storage in the 18th century were nothing like their modern equivalents. The barrels described by Hugh Stafford were likely inconsistent in their fill level, and doubtless, for the most part, bottled on an ‘as and when needed’ basis. The ardours of transport and oxygen probably took a significant toll on much of the cider that left Herefordshire at the time, and the preservative properties of Foxwhelp’s strength and acidity no doubt went some way to moderating the cider’s quality and freshness when compared to less-protected varieties.
As recently as 1898, Charles Cooke writes that out of any 20-30 hogsheads of cider, the contents of 2-3 might be good, a few more indifferent and most of them bad. There was a great deal of ignorance concerning the importance of cleanliness in the cideries of the time, and Foxwhelp’s particular characteristics must have armed it more against the worst of bacterial spoilage.
But as far as the modern picture goes, I think writing off Foxwhelp as ‘too acidic’, or implying that Foxwhelp fans are acid-obsessed eccentrics with niche palates and preferences is a little simplistic. I’ve written recently on the mitigating effects of time and barrel ageing on the more pronounced sharpnesses of Foxwhelp; after all, most people wouldn’t drink the best Rieslings, Nebbiolos or Bordeaux within a year or two of their vintage either; but this too misses an important point. Why shouldn’t Foxwhelp be drunk at its youngest, freshest, most vibrant and poised and cracklingly electric? Why shouldn’t those aspects be precisely what have compelled drinkers for hundreds of years and continue to compel them today? Why should that be considered weird?
Within the broad spectrum of gastronomy, the narrower spectrum of drinks and the still-narrower spectrum of cider there is certainly a degree of consensus on preference and on what constitutes ‘desireable’. Considering wine for the moment, as Chris has previously pointed out, the likes of Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc and before them Merlot and Pinot Grigio, enjoy wild international popularity. But consensus is not rigid, and nor is it one singular thing. Wine has a long history of filleting itself into relatively well-defined segments of drinkers and buyers, most of whom are interested in entirely different flavours and characteristics and for entirely different reasons. From investors to enthusiasts to casual consumers and natural wine lovers there is space, beneath wine’s broad umbrella, for a huge range of varying consensuses, preferences and flavours. Heretical as it all-too-often seems to suggest, there is also room to flit from one to the other, and to spread one’s own tastes and drinking right across the spectrum; personally I always find the polarisation around natural wine to be dismaying and unnecessary, for instance.
It’s also worth noting that the handed down set of principles as to what constitutes ‘balanced,’ ‘mainstream,’ ‘proper,’ and so on generally comes from a heavily Euro-centric perspective. Considering things which sit on what one palate might consider an ‘extreme’ end of the gastronomic perspective, there is a huge gulf between the person who considers something extremely spicy to be outrageous, or who eats it as a form of ‘look at me’ masochism compared to the person who eats it simply because it is an everyday part of handed-down cuisine and cultural fabric. I have never been there, but I was struck, when watching Samin Nosrat’s ‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’, by the integral role that pronounced acidity plays in the food of the Yucatán. Of all four episodes that was the one which made me feel hungriest.
Greatness and quality are not synonymous with ubiquitous popularity. Tastes and preferences are not only varied from person to person, but are influenced by geography both cultural and physical. Using one example, the often-polarising peated whiskies of Islay and elsewhere enjoy particular popularity in northern Europe, but this doesn’t preclude them from being enjoyed by people to the south and across the world. What’s more, polarising peat might be, just as cask strength whisky isn’t to everyone’s taste, but show me the cidery that wouldn’t happily swap sales figures with, for example, Laphroaig. Similarly, the nature of a softer, unpeated, minimum-strength Speyside might tend in a more crowd-pleasing direction, but could be dismissed by certain drinkers as underpowered, faint and wispish. The universe of flavour we inhabit is nuanced, slippery, endlessly fascinating and probably beyond definition.
All of which is to say that I will happily continue to drink mature, oak-aged, mellowed Foxwhelp as well as its piercing, bristling, unoaked new vintage counterpart, just as I’ll continue to drink soft, rich, rounded bittersweets at wholly different times and for wholly different reasons. It’s why I’ll drink cask strength Islay, Domfront Poiré, Pinot Noir, Weissbier and cane juice Rum and love them just the same. I’ll celebrate each one for its unique stitch in the tapestry of gastronomy, and what’s more I dare say a good few people would, will and already do celebrate them all with me. The world of flavour is too big, too messy and too fascinating to start chiselling it into any sort of self-imposed order. And as far as Foxwhelp’s concerned, you don’t have your praises sung for conceivably longer than Cabernet Sauvignon has been grown in Bordeaux by being a bit average or niche.
On which note: to the bottles. Four to taste, from three Herefordshire producers, none of whom need much introduction. Two from Oliver’s, the Cuckhorn Orchard 2019 and the Great Parton Orchard 2020, a 2019 from Ross on Wye and a 2021 from Bartestree. All are dry and none to the best of my knowledge are aged in oak. So, vintage and terroir differences notwithstanding, a good fair look at what modern Foxwhelp has to say for itself. The Cuckhorn Orchard might prove tricky to find, but the Great Parton 750ml is available from Cork and Cask for £8.95 and from The Cat in the Glass for the same price. Cat in the Glass also have the Ross on Wye 500ml for a frankly silly £3.20 and a 750ml of the Bartestree for £10. My own Bartestree was a 375ml which I bought at the Ross on Wye Festival, but the cider is exactly the same.
Oliver’s Cuckhorn Farm Single Orchard Foxwhelp 2019 – review
How I served: Chilled, out of the fridge half an hour.
Appearance: Hazy peach. Still. Rather a lot of surprisingly clumpy sediment – stand upright before opening. If I didn’t know better I’d wonder if there was a drop of perry involved.
On the nose: Beautiful clear, pure, defined Foxwhelp aromatics. Rather delicate initially but crescendoing constantly in the glass. Definitely the red-blushed face of Foxwhelp; pink grapefruit, sherbet, rose petals, fresh strawberry. Strawberry Daiquiris and lemon zest. Still very youthful despite being three years old – this is all about the primary fruit character – but stunning finesse and clarity.
In the mouth: Jingly-jangly upfront Foxwhelp acidity naturally – sit this one out Chris – but underscoring pristine, ripe, pink-tinted fruit, all berries and pink-red grapefruit and citrus. Intense, bright, concentrated, poised and pulsing with flavour in stunning definition. A nice little grip of tannin there too. Full, vibrant, and at the very start of its life.
In a nutshell: Foxwhelp au naturel in beautiful blushed form. Too young and sharp for some palates currently perhaps, but this will age beautifully for a long, long time.
Oliver’s Great Parton Farm Single Orchard Foxwhelp 2020 – review
How I served: As above.
Appearance: Hazy gold. Still. Similar level and character of sediment.
On the nose: Bright, fresh, whistle-clean, though perhaps not quite as expressive and full as the Cuckhorn. Takes a more yellow-green direction in the communication of its aromas. Lemon’n’lime. Kiwi. Tangerine skin. A little blossom and slatey minerality. Apple skins. Still a stunning nose.
In the mouth: Delivery again is as precise, clean, bright, focussed and intense as only this apple can be. Very sharp of course, and hugely concentrated in its flavours. Definitely in the extremity of its youth so far – keedp back if you can. Full, sinewy, almost waxy texture in the integration of its tannins. Red apple skins, lemon, citron, gooseberry and white grapefruit. Pronounced minerality.
In a nutshell: Technically beautiful, though perhaps a notch down on the Cuckhorn. Nonetheless a stunning expression of Foxwhelp which is at the very, very start of its life. Hugely concentrated – drink from 2025 onwards to allow it to unfurl a little.
Ross on Wye Foxwhelp 2019 (Batch E7) – review
How I served: As above.
Appearance: Rich clear gold. Very light fizz.
On the nose: I drank the Great Parton thinking ‘this feels quite Ross-ish’, so this is an interesting comparison. I wasn’t too far off, but the aromas here are deeper, more intense and earthy. Big red apple skins and flesh – the most overtly ‘apple’ tasting so far – a touch of wild strawberry, cranberry and a little deeper orange skin then that pronounced Ross slateyness. Again so clear and ripe and high-definition.
In the mouth: Very full, ripe arrival. The spritz of bottle conditioning adds to the piercing acidity though this is quite full-bodied and a little less sharp than the Great Parton. Imagine, if you can, a red lemon! Still very apple forward with sour red cherry, wild strawberry. Underneath it all that earthy-slateyness so typical of Ross adding weight and depth and brawn.
In a nutshell: A pretty classic Ross Foxwhelp. The deeper, heftier face of the apple, whilst still very typical of the variety. Long full life ahead, sharp fans only for current drinking blah blah broken record.
Bartestree Foxwhelp 2021 – review
How I served: As above.
Appearance: Clear gold. Lighter and fizzier than the Ross.
On the nose: Ooh now. Almost a tropical/apricot inflection here, very exotic-flower floral. The Foxwhelp greatest hits are here too; strawberry, red apple, citrus, but that riper, juicy, exotic tone is dominant and very beguiling. All the standard Foxwhelp adjectives on brightness, precision, clarity etc.
In the mouth: Follows through on the palate too. The least sharp so far (though acidity remains pronounced) and there’s a certain creaminess by comparison to the others – an almost fruit-yoghurt note – that has me wondering about malolactic. Again there’s an intertwangling of red fruit and apricot which is truly engrossing and unique in my experience of this apple. Never had a Foxwhelp quite like it, though the classic notes are here too. A very tiny touch of sweetness or is that just the ripeness of the fruit? Will age for sure, but in terms of current drinking is possibly the ‘easiest’ of the bunch.
In a nutshell: A very singular Foxwhelp with an exotic flourish. I suspect outstanding fruit selection. A must-try for fellow Foxwhelp fans.
It is neither controversial nor new to suggest that young Foxwhelp isn’t for everyone. If it falls within your wheelhouse of preference then possibly nothing else can scratch quite the same itch, and you should certainly buy and drink all of the above if you can.
The Ross is a classic, the Bartestree is delicious and idiosyncratic and the Olivers offer fascinating comparisons and inch-perfect capturing of two different faces of the fruit. After writing my notes I asked Tom for a few details and learned that the Great Parton orchard is not only some way away from Cuckhorn, but that the Cuckhorn trees are around 50 years old, compared to the 15 year olds of Great Parton. I suspect this may be behind the fuller, redder, more developed nature of the Cuckhorn as much as any considerations of terroir. Though I’ve a hunch, not lessened by these very similarly-made and similarly-old unoaked Foxwhelps, that this variety is especially responsive to terroir. Who knows?
The more Foxwhelp I drink — and I probably drink more than the average person — the more convinced I feel that historical wisdom is correct, and that this apple has the capacity to age magnificently.
If Barolo or Große Gewächs Rheingau Riesling were only ever drunk within a year or two of vintage, most people probably wouldn’t think terribly much of either. Acidity and astringency would dominate their characteristics and the drinks would be considered niche interests at best.
I am biased, of course. I have always loved Foxwhelp, and acidic food and drinks fall into my personal set of tastes. But I do occasionally feel that Foxwhelp is misrepresented, sometimes by powerful voices within cider, in a way that could be considered damaging and unhelpful. Certainly it’s right and proper to observe the high acidity of untamed young Foxwhelp, but to dismiss it as a single variety altogether on that basis is a school of thought that I feel could do with evolution. There is a vocal and growing base of drinkers who cherish the variety specifically because of that attribute. And anyone who drinks wine or aged spirits knows of the transformative powers of maturation; powers that have been remarked upon by Foxwhelp drinkers for as long as Foxwhelp has been drunk.
It remains my belief that we currently live in the best of times to be cider drinkers. As our shared knowledge expands, it is exciting to imagine that our thinking around varieties and styles will gradually become a little more three-dimensional. Who knows what flavours we will then begin to unlock?