Historic perceptions of what constitutes a ‘good’ perry pear do not always tally with my own admittedly subjective preferences. In the Herefordshire Pomona of the late 19th Century, Hogg & Bull dismissed Blakeney Red as ‘abominable trash’, albeit Luckwill & Pollard’s Perry Pears of 1963 suggests that this verdict was based on Blakeney’s high degree of terroir sensitivity, and that away from the wet Severn floodlands it did pretty well. Either way, whilst Blakeney has never quite been my favourite, it certainly has a tasty juicy-fruitiness and a plump body that offers a great deal to commend it as a bolsterer of a blend or an easy sipper in its own right — abominable trash is definitely coming on a bit strong.
More recently Flakey Bark came in for rough treatment — this time by Luckwill and Pollard themselves, who dismissed it as ‘average’ — a feeling I certainly don’t share. Thorn and Butt were only rated ‘average to good’, whilst Yellow Huffcap — which I’m generally a fan of, but have yet to be sent into real paeans by — was ranked ‘consistently excellent. Taynton Squash, as Chris has excellently recorded , spent the better part of 350 years being celebrated as the perry pear ne plus ultra, yet although I’ve had a few perfectly decent bottlings, I’ve still to taste one that truly knocked my socks off. It takes all sorts, as they say.
The old chestnut of personal preference aside, it’s clear when you scratch the surface of pomological record that actually there’s been a fair bit written down the years on the various qualities of different perry pears. From the Wolfsbirnbaum first written of in the Western Palatinate in 1357, to Barry’s Turgovian Pear that ‘yields the most superlative perry the world produces’, to the Barland pear that even the pigs wouldn’t eat and modern Domfront’s ever-lauded Plant de Blanc, opinions on great (or at least particular) varieties have always been presented.
Which makes it even more maddening that there is no real recorded roadmap as to how they actually taste.
Take Oldfield, for instance, the subject of today’s article. Common historical consensus has it down as a very good pear for perry. Hogg & Bull reserve special praise for it, and although Luckwill & Pollard offer some reservations over its susceptibility to canker, they acknowledge that it has been of high repute as a variety. Most recently of all, Tom Oliver cited it as his ‘desert island pear’ in our interview of 2020:
‘I just think it’s a wonderful single varietal perry and it has bags of character and it also is very good whether you want to drink it still, draught or bottle conditioned or bottle ferment. It really is a real proper all-rounder but it’s not just an everyday all-rounder. It’s got all the character you want; it’s got some acidity, it’s got the fruit, it’s got a really good aromatic quality to it and that persists through to the finished perry as well. It just really is a goodie!’
That all sounds great — and if Tom of all people cites a pear as his number one that’s good enough for me — yet I’m still left wondering what it actually tastes like.
It’s fair to say that there isn’t a huge amount of discussion around the individual flavours of perry pears — or cider apples. In the first instance there are comparatively few opportunities to taste individual varieties side by side, compared to those enjoyed by wine lovers, and in the second there are vanishingly few of us interested in doing so in the first place.
Does this really matter? In one sense, no. Taste is inherently personal, as we’ve discussed on probably far too many occasions here. The notes I pick up on a given drink may match your own quite closely, but are unlikely to be identical, built as they are from our differing lived experiences and the foodstuffs with which we are individually most familiar. Luckwill & Pollard offer insight into the acidic and tannic properties, as does Tom, and both share their take on the variety’s quality.
Yet I still think that flavour, even discussed in general terms, is a crucial tool when it comes to opening this enigmatic world up to a newer audience. My first role in the drinks industry was on the shop floor of a Majestic, and my day to day job involved a huge number of interactions with people who felt (usually wrongly) that they didn’t know a great deal about wine, but who could certainly talk about flavours they did and didn’t enjoy. ‘Thorn’, ‘Moorcroft’ and ‘Hendre Huffcap’ are alien to the vast, vast majority of drinkers, but I can talk to them about their vivid green fruit and elderflower, their tropical vibrancy and their perfumed apricot tones, and all of a sudden the discussion is more open. If I am speaking to a wine lover then in Thorn’s case I can compare it to Sauvignon Blanc, albeit a rather more tannic one; Hendre Huffcap recalls, certain Loire Chenins or perhaps even the Viogniers of further south. Considering flavour offers us ways in.
But some pears, it’s fair to say, are tricky. For all the Flakey Bark I drink, and all the times I have tried to chisel its flavours into the neatness of summary, for the most part a truly satisfactory description still eludes me. Gin, which you would think from the name would be the easiest to describe of all, can be a similarly slippery character to pin down, and whilst Butt, to me, always has the distinctive topnote of natural gas, much of the rest of its identity floats ever out of reach.
Perhaps the bizarrest element of my failure to capture the individual identity of Oldfield, even in my head, is that it isn’t a pear with which I’m entirely unfamiliar. True, we’ve only reviewed two to date on Cider Review, but I have fond memories of a 2019 from Hecks, a sweet half-bottle from Tom himself, and especially a 2017 from Cwm Maddoc which took top honours at the Big Apple’s Cider and Perry Trials, to name but a few. And still I’m left grasping for any firm notion of the pear’s identity. Looking back through the two old notes there is a roughish theme of minerality and greenery, with pronounced florality mentioned in the Bartestree 2020, but I still can’t conjure it into organoleptic shape on my mind’s palate.
Perhaps I’ve simply not been paying enough attention. So let’s try and fix that with a varietal side-by-side.
First up is a 2021 from frequent Oldfieldistas Cwm Maddoc, whose 2019 was one of the previous Oldfields to feature on this site. I’ve not much to say about Cwm Maddoc that I haven’t already gushed somewhere or other in these digital annals, but there aren’t many perrymakers I’d trust more implicitly to bottle a note-perfect example of any given pear. Second is another particular favourite maker of mine — Castle Wood Press. Rob’s produce being impossible to find online has necessitated a dip into the dwindling Ross Festival stash, but he is another whose perries are always a special occasion in and of themselves. Should you want to conduct an Oldfield experiment of your own, Cwm Maddoc’s is available at Cork & Crown for £11 per 750ml bottle.
Cwm Maddoc Oldfield 2021 – review
How I served: Mid-chilled.
Appearance: Straw gold, with barely-perceptible mousse.
On the nose: You see, this is half the reason no one talks about what varieties taste and smell like — because how on earth do I describe this? Ok, here goes: it’s certainly herbal; dried pine needles, hawthorn, herbs de provence. But then there’s the suggestion of the wet fronds in rockpools, the scent of drying water on sea cliffs. And that all sounds rather austere, which this isn’t, because enswirling it all is a rich depth of pear syrup. Of heather honey — in fact there’s a flutter of heather full stop. Lime jelly. Even some sweet flaky pastry. Enthralling, aromatic. With every sniff a new note blows in and the last flutters teasingly out of reach. Perry, man.
In the mouth: Full-bodied delivery. Medium-sweet with no great acidity to speak of, but a little ballast of well integrated tannin. A small spritz of bubbles. (Look at me falling in line with the ‘structure only’ gang!) Ok, flavours then, and really they follow the nose in their enigmatic, belligerent, beguiling perry other-ness. At once herbal and mineral and honeyed and juicy and savoury and syruped. As clean and clear and delicate yet defined in its fruit as Cwm Maddoc invariably is.
In a nutshell: A compelling, complex journey of a perry. Wonderfully made.
Castle Wood Press Oldfield 2020 – review
How I served: As above
Appearance: Paler. Lemon-green. Bright mousse
On the nose: It’s just one of those pears that defies the term ‘fruity’ and reminds you that fermentation is rather about the transformation of a fruit’s flavours into something different and more. This has the herbal greenery of Gin pear, the wet slate mineral tang of Butt and some of the rough pear skin of Flakey Bark. There is lime skin and lime leaf, there is cardamom pod and savoury spice. There’s the clarity of woodland after spring rain. It’s evocative and elemental. Crystal clear and yet shifting. It feels somehow more complex than most single varieties, as though it is several of them at once. Cerebral aromas that reach out wraith-like at you, demanding attention and lengthening your tasting note…
In the mouth: Full bodied, all but dry, with beautifully-integrated tannin. Spotlessly clean again, with impeccably-judged mousse and flavours that are somehow both near-chiselled in their crystalline clarity, yet constantly melding seamlessly into the next. The greens of rained-on woodland, of nettle and lime rind, the remembrance of sea shore and slate and petrichor. Again not much acid, yet the structure is beautiful, mouthfeel is defined and fruit feels crisp and fresh.
In a nutshell: An enthralling, impeccably-composed perry. Mesmerising evocation of a truly idiosyncratic pear.
Two samples is hardly a deep pool from which to draw any meaningful conclusion, however absolute my trust is in these two excellent producers to conjure a faithful interpretation of the pear. (Both carry my hearty recommendation, in case that wasn’t obvious from the above).
I’m still not entirely sure I have that say-it-on-a-postage-stamp instant mental impression of Oldfield in the same way I do for some other pear varieties, not to mention many apples and any number of wine grapes. Caroline commented that it felt like a lot of different perries all at once, and I tend to agree — there are elements here which nod in their way towards almost all the different inflectionss of Three Counties perry. Albert Johnson has called Oldfield ‘twisty-turny’ before, and perhaps this is what he means. It is challenging, in the most positive sense. A variety to conjure with. Themes of greenery, of minerality, of the evocation of woodland more or less tack in the same direction as the Oldfields tasted here before, but I find myself left unable to narrow it down to a single ‘that’s Oldfield’ characteristic.
But you know what? Perhaps that is the point. For all that perry is cider’s orchard-mate and is often aligned with wine in the expression of its flavours and styles, it is a very different drink to either, with a very different personality and fruit which often behaves in a very different way. That I haven’t been able to contain the flavours of Oldfield within the confines of an easy-reading snippet ought to be, far from frustrating, a cause to celebrate the complexities and idiosyncrasies that its fermented fruit is able to conjure.
Perry pears offer flavours and textures that are not only different to the ingredients of any other drink, but which have the capacity to challenge that which I have felt myself to understand about drinks full stop. No other drink can dovetail delicacy of flavour with intensity of tannic structure; no other fruits, I feel, offers so many inherent flavours which deviate so far or so engrossingly from tastes I identify as ‘fruity’. I’ve been lucky to try many wines that are commonly thought of as ‘mineral’ in inflection, from Mosel Rieslings to Chablis to the whites of the Loire Valley — yet none of them evoke earth and woodland and shore and stone as some perries do. That these Oldfields can manage that whilst retaining ripeness, juiciness and approachability is a little miracle — what’s more it is one that I feel is almost exclusively exploited in the Three Counties.
For all my well-documented love of Domfront and Mostviertel, for all that the flavours of perry do often naturally tack in a not-dissimilar direction to certain wines, and for all that I feel the long-documented links between these two drinks are to be celebrated and examined, there can be a tendency in some cultures to almost manipulate perries such that they cleave closer to their vinous cousins. A feeling, perhaps, that too much perry oddity would be off-putting to the wine drinker; an attempt to dress perry up in a way deemed to be a little smarter and more sophisticated.
Whilst it is both a strength and a weakness that the Three Counties has seen the least historic wine culture influence of any major perry region, it is this separateness, I think, that has allowed perry’s more distinctive individualities to flourish. Pears with the near-belligerent idiosyncrasy of Butt and Flakey Bark exist in France and Austria, but perhaps because they don’t conform to wine’s understood norms of texture and flavour they are seldom allowed to be their unvarnished selves. France boasts perry pear varieties by the hundred, yet only one — Plant de Blanc — is given regular voice. Whilst Austrian perries are so often pushed in the same stylistic direction as the country’s (fabulous) Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings.
It is when I drink perries like these Oldfields that I remember most distinctly how special the perries of the Three Counties are and how lucky I am to have fallen, almost unwittingly, down the unique rabbit hole of perry. For all the condescension and generalisation, for all that it is criminally overlooked and undervalued, there are flavours and textures here which are remarkable, compelling and beguiling; which linger with you long, long after drinking, and which belong to no other drink. A whole new bright horizon of flavours, unwritten and underdiscussed; a map that has barely been explored and which we have the glorious opportunity to fill in for ourselves. My picture of what Oldfield truly tastes like may only be partially finished. But what a joy and privilege it is to try and paint it.
Another excellent exploration of perry – I guess you’ve had perry on your mind these past few months of writing.
Drinking through the Haselberger mixed case I was also struck as to how wine-like they are. It made sense when I read in Jolicoeur’s book how they are made: apparently pasteurization of the juice pre-ferment and filtering are common. It’s a nice, if not very challenging drink. But I completely agree that Austrians have sacrificed some of the unique flavors of perry in pursuit of a broader appeal.
Thanks so much as ever for commenting.
It’s an interesting one re Mostviertel. I read that bit in Claude’s book too, but understood it as ‘common if not universal practice’. I’ve fired off a few emails to dig a little deeper – will keep you updated!
As I wrote in the regional spotlight I did, I definitely think there’s a degree of cautiousness in Austrian perry. A touch more fining, filtration and pasteurisation than might allow the pears to show the fullness of their character.
At the same time, I understand what’s bred that approach. I was chatting to Barry last night about the disappearance of perry in Germany given he’s talked about a good number of people making it for personal consumption back in the day. His anecdotal evidence suggests that a huge amount of what was made was quite heavily acetic/faulty generally, and from what I’ve understood the same had very much become the case in Mostviertel around the ’80s. Under those circumstances, and at a time long before there was any semblence of craft/rethink movement I think it was both quite brave and quite forward-thinking of producers to say ‘this isn’t good enough, we can do better’, and establish a baseline of cleanliness such that the worst anyone could say of the perry would be ‘a bit too clean’.
Whilst I strongly disagree with Natalia that acetic is an inherent characteristic of English perry – that’s simply not the case – I remember that at least part of this impression was formed from the bag-in-box offerings at Manchester Beer/Cider festival a few years back. Although that festival has come on leaps and bounds, the Great British Beer Festival last year featured not only a raft of acetic ciders and perries — but a few BiBs that were actively advertised as infected by mouse. (I couldn’t believe my eyes – they displayed a mouse symbol on them and were selling them nonetheless!)
Not wanting to labour the point, whilst British perry as a whole is certainly improving and I’d rank the best as highly as anything from anywhere else, as recently as a few years ago, buying one without prior context for the producer could be an absolute minefield, and one that I dare say did some reputational damage to the drink which we are now left trying to repair.
TL;DR – I’m glad and excited that some Austrian producers are starting to say ‘actually, we don’t necessarily need to be this cautious’ and make steps towards taking the stabilisers off as it were, and I think the next few years will prove really exciting. But I don’t dismiss the work they put in to establish a higher baseline of quality from which to build. I think ‘sacrifice’, in the context, is a pretty tough word.
Thanks so much as ever for reading and for posting such a thought-provoking comment. Sorry for the usual rambling response!
P.S. That comment button has been one of the banes of my life on CR! Every time I think it’s fixed… This is what comes of running a website without any technical know-how. Cheers for flagging – I’ll get someone more equipped to take a look at it.
Thanks for the in-depth response. You know we enjoy your ramblings. 🙂
On a side note: the comment button is rendering white on white in my browser. I had to hunt around to find it. Maybe you can modify your CSS to fix that.