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Five Smith Hayne ciders and a word on vintage

My favourite time of the year to be part of cider twitter is virtually at an end; the joyous three-month riot of colour and activity that accompanies the long, long apple and pear harvest. The pictures of welly boots, green aprons, beaming buckets of ruby-red spheres and nectar flowing from the press are gradually disappearing, the latest apples are mostly off the trees, the ‘last press of the year’ posts all but wrapped up.

It is at this point that cidermakers get their first real look at how the vintage has panned out. There’s still a long race to run; though the earliest fruit has had a good couple of months’ fermentation by now, we’re still only in the juice stage for the most part. We’ll have a better idea once the yeasts have had a chance to really work their transformative magic.

There are, however, a couple of early-doors headlines about 2022. Keeving, for those who practice it, is going to have been a pig this year. Our unseasonably warm Autumn — I don’t know about you, but I’ve really only started feeling a proper nip in the air the last couple of weeks or so — has put a kibosh on the cold temperatures that a proper keeve requires. Tom Oliver is just one of the makers I’ve spoken to who has expressed dismay at the prospects for 2022 keeves.

On a more all-encompassing note, the real 2022 headline is: POWER. I’ve lost count of the pictures I’ve seen on twitter and facebook and instagram of hydrometers clocking in at eye-watering specific gravities. Foxwhelps knocking on the door of 1.070. Perries threatening to go beyond 8.4% if left to their own devices. Egremont Russets off the charts and potentially capable of strengths well into double figures.

Make no mistake, 2022 is going to be a vintage characterised by huge, voluptuous, high alcohol, high sugar, full-bodied ciders; a legacy of those appallingly scorching weeks in July and August, augmented by relatively little rainfall until we got into October. If what you prize in a cider is richness, body and heft, it’s likely to be a vintage for you. It’s too early to say for the time being, but the comparisons I immediately draw in my head when I think of such things are to the 2018 vintage, another year in which mightiness, brawn and mouthfilling fruit were the hallmarks.

All of which sounds like jolly good stuff, and certainly you’ll find any number of cidermakers extolling the virtues of 2018 with no argument from me. It was, unquestionably, a brilliant vintage. For big, mouthfilling, indulgent, bittersweet ciders.

But size and strength and sugar levels do not necessarily run in directly parallel lines to quality. To take an example from the wine world, the 2003 vintage of Bordeaux was famous for its ripe enormousness. Blockbuster alcohols, super-rich dark fruits; like 2022 in western England the legacy of a scorcher of a summer.

2003 is not, however, generally hailed among classic Bordeaux vintages. Indeed that very hugeness and ripeness was held, by and large, as excessive. As jammy and unbalanced. Where certain critics greeted the wines with dizzyingly high scores and unequivocal praise, the majority felt that the structure and complexity of the wines had been compromised by a surfeit of overblown fruit. 2003 is certainly not considered today in the same terms as, say, 2005, 2009 or 2010.

When it comes to balanced ripeness, sugar is not the only game in town. It is, after all, responsible in the main only for alcohol levels and mouthfeel. Certainly an unripe, low-sugar year would seem dilute and weedy, but flavour, for the most part, is dictated by phenolics and acids and tannins, and their ripening patterns are not necessarily identical to those of the fruit’s sugars. 

Acidity, in particular, is a difficult element to balance in an especially hot year. Broadly speaking, as a piece of fruit ripens, as its sugar levels rise, its levels of acidity fall accordingly. This is why French wines made in difficult vintages tend to seem tart and a little astringent, for instance, and why styles and grapes that suit higher components of acidity — champagne, Riesling and so on — tend to be found further north. 

In cider terms the problem this presents is that certain great bittersweet varieties are on the low side in terms of acidity to begin with. Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Bisquet and Harry Masters’ Jersey are just four that struggle for the crisp, refreshing edge and structural cleanness that a streak of zesty acidity bequeaths at the best of times. It is the absence of acidity that can cause a drink to feel heavy, jammy and unbalanced, not to mention the additional dangers of mouse and other bacterial infection that an excessively high ph can bring with it.

As much as I do hold 2018 to have been an exceptional year, producing ciders of extraordinary quality, my own personal feeling is that the best 2017s are a nose ahead — at least to my palate. Whilst not generally as rumbustious as those of their following vintage, the greatest 2017s show an astonishing balance of phenolic structure, acidity, clarity of flavour, with more than enough weight of alcohols and sugars to boot. Looking back down my list of all-time favourites, it’s interesting how often a ‘2017’ pops up, particularly among ciders from Herefordshire. 

A vintage that I am becoming increasingly convinced was a sort of ‘sibling year’ to 2017 was 2020. Then, again, there was more than enough sunlight and warmth for generosity of sugar ripeness, but at a level which allowed acid and tannin structure to retain a firm hand on the reins. Around the summer of 2021 I emailed several cidermakers, trying to get a handle on how the 2020 vintage was behaving, and the overriding theme was that structural quality. In the last year or so 2020 has been the predominant available year for vintage-based ciders and perries on shelves, allowing me to taste widely for myself, and the more I have tried, the more certain I have been of its quality. 

Of course, as much as one can reach generalisations on vintages by tasting across the board, individual vintages will express themselves differently from variety to variety, orchard to orchard and maker to maker. The generosity of 2018 suited Ross on Wye’s preferred style — big, bold, oak-aged bittersweets — perfectly, for instance, which is probably why 2018 is the Raison d’Être vintage which I think will ultimately prove itself the best to date. And even in a particularly poor vintage, such as 2019, brilliant ciders and perries can be and were made by makers who took enough care with fruit selection. Witness the delicious keeved perries from Tom Oliver that year, for example, or the fantastic Prospect Orchard 2019 from Welsh Mountain.

So where vintage examination becomes particularly interesting is in the drilling down to the year-on-year differences found in particular expressions from particular makers and, especially, from different orchards. This is the joy of tasting a vertical of the likes of Eve’s Albee Hill, Bordelet’s Poiré Granit, Little Pomona’s Old Man & the Bee. Discovering the ways that vintage has shaped someone’s expression of particular fruit from particular place.

Which makes today’s offering a particularly interesting prospect.

I have been a fan of Smith Hayne for a long while now. Indeed I think they’re one of the best makers in the country, and it has been a delight to see them gradually gain the recognition that their quality deserves. Though they’re perhaps still not as fêted as they could be, they’re no longer as under the radar as they were even two years ago, when I first wrote about them. What’s more, during that time they have doubled down on their already-impressive transparency and broadened their repertoire of ciders to boot.

Smith Hayne takes its name from the orchard Will and Anna harvest in, an old, 12-acre Taunton Cider Company orchard planted in an L-shape around their farm buildings. Situated just at the point before the soil turns to Devon’s famous red clay (shared by southern Herefordshire, incidentally) the 2,000 dwarf rootstock trees burrow into shale and sandstone instead. 

Though the cuvées vary year on year according to what has grown well, all of Will and Anna’s ciders come from this orchard. And despite those small differences in the blends, their range is designed, more or less, to show a through-line year on year. Their Vintage Cider, characterised by a green spot, a medium, naturally sparkling, slightly lighter style (by Devonian standards), for instance, and their Méthode Traditionnelle, with a yellow spot. As of the 2019 vintage they added a purple spot bottling, dedicated to the later-harvested apples. But perhaps most interesting, to those interested in Vintage, is their Reserve, made from the pick of the year’s crop, and denoted with a pink spot. Or, in the very best years, given a red spot and the label ‘Special Reserve’. 

I absolutely love that Will and Anna have chosen to distinguish their Reserve and Special Reserve according to their analysis of a vintage’s quality. To my mind this signifies a quantum leap in the perception of cider as a natural, vintage product influenced by the fluctuation of the seasons. What’s more, it encourages us to celebrate and remember those vintages when stars aligned and sunshine was bottled. As far as I was concerned, their 2018 more than merited its red spot — a sumptuous, gorgeous cider that I loved so much I included it in my year-end ‘Essential Case’ for 2020. To this day it is probably my favourite cider that Smith Hayne has produced.

2019, being a rather more difficult year, produced a pink spot Reserve which, whilst tasty, self-evidently didn’t quite hit the gilded heights of its predecessor. But in 2020 Will deemed his fruit good enough for a return of the red spot.

‘I thought 2020 was a lovely year in terms of balance,’ he told me in an email. ‘The tannins were distinctive but not too much, all the apples did well. For us Tremletts did especially well. I thought the Red blend was very well balanced and was particularly good in tank when it seemed to have a scintillating dimension. In bottle it seems sweeter and could be a little sharper that being said whenever we show our ciders it is always the most popular.’ 

Somehow a quick taste of the vintage’s produce at the Cider Salon in July is my only experience so far of Smith Hayne’s 2020 output. And whilst I thought they were showing deliciously, I’ve long since learned that crowded tastings of the Salon’s nature never offer more than the sketchiest impression of a cider’s real quality. So I’m delighted today to be able to offer a fuller assessment.

I’ve the Green Spot ‘Vintage’ (£11.95 from Cat in the Glass), the Yellow Spot ‘Méthode Traditionnelle (£14.50) and the Red Spot Special Reserve (£14.95) in front of me today. And, as a bit of a curiosity, a bit of a comparison and a bit of a ‘first look’ at Smith Hayne’s 2021 vintage, I also have two ‘single varieties’ — a Harry Masters’ Jersey (£13.50) and a Yarlington Mill (£13.50), both keeved. ‘Single varieties’ in inverted commas, as both feature 20% Browns apple as well as their respective eponymous bittersweets.

Smith Hayne Vintage 2020 – review

How I served: cellar temperature (translated as ‘my dining room but it’s very cold at the moment)

Appearance: Hazy sunset orange, vibrant mousse

On the nose: Very Devonian-apple in its earthy, nettley, savoury, slatey, apple skins and waxiness overtone; a lot of Tremlett’s influence here. A little reductive sulphur it must be said, but a good bit of orangey-peachiness too. Complex, broad aromatics, if slightly smudged. 

In the mouth: Beautiful balance here; straight away that splendid 2020 structure — firm without being coarse, juicy without being jammy or overripe, crisp and refreshing without being thin or too sharp. Fruitier than the nose — a basket of apricots and mandarins, lots of stone fruit. Some sweetness, but balanced well by structure. There’s some of the wax and nettle and meatiness savoury tone, but it’s very much second fiddle to the fruit.

In a nutshell: A rough edge or two to the nose, but a lovely palate and a good demonstration of the vintage.

Smith Hayne Special Reserve 2020 – review

How I served: As above.

Appearance: Copper pennies; well-behaved, frothy mousse.

On the nose: Magnificently juicy and so of the current season! The dried fruit and toffee apple richness of a good keeve meets the sweet spice – clove and ginger – of Yarlington Mill and the beaming oranges of Dabinett. Whistle-clean, pure, generous and luxuriating in its fruit. Superb nose — and still young and fresh.

In the mouth: What a delivery. The two ripest, broadest and juiciest of bittersweets in full, beautiful baritone. Yarlington takes the lead; all rich spiced apple, ginger, lignin and chocolate orange, with sun-blushed Dabinett adding soft, voluptuous fruit. Doesn’t drink as sweet as you’d thing, thanks to impeccable, integrated tannins and just a flutter of fresh acidity. So, so good.

In a nutshell: Pure, rich, ripe, clever, balanced and complex. Special indeed. Buy.

Smith Hayne Méthode Traditionnelle 2020 – review

How I served: As above (for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t go colder if drinking now)

Appearance: Clear burnished gold. Bright mousse.

On the nose: Very aromatic. Citrus — orange and yellow — but in a firm, spicy, almost woody sort of way. Bergamot. Orange oil. Polished furniture. Slatey. If a nose can be thought of as ‘firm’, this is that nose. Orange bitters. A little lees influence and toastiness. Apple skins. Pith. Complex and cerebral and very concentrated.

In the mouth: Dry, firm, bright, concentrated and vivid delivery. This is very young. Again those oily, pithy, bright bergamot and citron notes. A bitterness, though in a refreshing way. Lignin and resin. Ginseng and a flutter of peppercorn. Dried grapefruit. More tannin than the average Traditional Method, but with a lovely brightness. This will age beautifully, and should probably be allowed to.

In a nutshell: A vivid, complex and gastronomic traditional method cider, faithful to its place. Young, firm and at the start of its life. Drink from 2025 or with robust food.

Smith Hayne Harry Masters’ Jersey 2021 – review

How I served: As above

Appearance: Mid-gold, bright mousse.

On the nose: Medium intensity. Sweet and savoury and yellow of hue. Has very much captured the soul of HMJ — honeysuckle, apricot, straw, meatiness, even very light cheese rind. Pineapple — tinned — for juiciness and a bit of soft florality. Very alluring, if not quite as exuberant as the last two aromas.

In the mouth: Bigger in flavour here, with a very soft — pillowy-soft — delivery. Extremely friendly and yellow-fruit-juicy for young HMJ. Just a little nibble of tannin behind all that plush, ripe fruit. Sweetest yet, though it’s just about balanced, and there’s a nice little zip of acidity from the Browns, keeping this fresh. This is a ripe, summery medley of apricot and pineapple that is simply bursting with sunshine.

In a nutshell: HMJ at its juiciest and most easy-going. A delicious, uncomplicated fruit basket that wants large glasses and early drinking.

Smith Hayne Yarlington Mill 2021 – review

How I served: As above.

Appearance: Rich bronze. Similar mousse.

On the nose: My God I love Yarlington Mill and my God this is a good rendition of it. Utterly clear, clean, pure aromas. Deep, booming baked apple and blood orange and clove and cinnamon and French oak (though I don’t believe this was oaked — just reminiscent smells) and ginger and dark chocolate and dried orange and all things rich and Christmassy. Outstanding clarity and definition.

In the mouth: Sticks the landing. A delivery to match. Complex, pure and beautiful iteration of Yarlington. That crackling French oak-esque spice medley of cloves, nutmeg, liquorice, black tea leaves, that dried and deep orange augmented here by the redness of dried strawberries and rosy apple skins, that indulgent richness and huge breadth. Note perfect, whistle clean and each flavour is delivered with high-definition clarity. Beautiful, integrated tannins and a lovely freshness. Sweetness is perfectly balanced and really only medium. Will keep if you can bear to wait but drinks beautifully now with or without food.

In a nutshell: Glorious. All that’s best of Yarlington Mill. Another definite buy.

Conclusions

And that’s why Smith Hayne is always one of my flights of the year — whatever the vintage. But for a slightly off-kilter nose on the Vintage, this would be five out of five for nailed-on ‘buy nows’. The Special Reserve and the Yarlington Mill were my favourites, and I spent the rest of the evening with Caroline trying to choose which was my top pick, to no success. But the HMJ is a pure fruit-basket of joy, and the Méthode Traditionnelle, whilst still very much at the start of its journey, is going to evolve fantastically.

Which, actually, is a reasonable point to make regarding the 2020 vintage. Whilst they’re not exact comparisons of course, and whilst I know that too many wine analogies get eyes rolling in these parts, the characters of 2018 and 2020 for west-English cider bear comparison with 2018 and 2020 in Bordeaux. 2009 was a full, fleshy, deeper and richer year, 2010 showing a bit more structure. Despite their differences, both are hailed as two of the all-time greats, and I think that offers a useful guide to evaluating 2018 and 2020. 

Where 2018 was forward in its charms, a more overtly rich and juicy season, 2020 was a year whose ciders, perhaps, will reward longer ageing as those structural components gradually break down over the slow seasons, unravelling layers of additional complexity. The Méthode Traditionnelle evinces this perfectly — packed with flavour, but with so much concentration and organoleptic scaffolding. It wants patience. It wants time to breathe. And it will pay you back handsomely. 

As for 2021, the signs look and taste promising, and I would love to hear thoughts on the year from any maker who cares to share them. In the meantime, all eyes on the ’22 pressings, as they gradually ferment, and all eyes especially on Smith Hayne, who continue to be one of the best producers available to us here in the UK. Honestly, if they’re not on your radar yet, I’m not sure quite what more encouragement I can give you!

This entry was posted in: Reviews

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In addition to my writing and editing with Cider Review I lead frequent talks and tastings and contribute to other drinks sites and magazines including jancisrobinson.com, Pellicle, Full Juice, Distilled and Burum Collective. @adamhwells on Instagram, @Adam_HWells on twitter.

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