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A sense of place: tasting terroir with Little Pomona

So anyway, there I am in Bromyard, tucked into the clean, bright airiness of the Little Pomona taproom. I’m surrounded by the cream of the Three Counties cider scene; makers, growers, a ciderologist, all well-wrapped against the morning’s cold. Crowding the taproom barrel-tops are glasses full of orange-gold, seven apiece, and ream-ettes of paperwork packed with facts and figures and names and details. On the crest of the ridge across the valley the last icing sugar snow is clinging on, sheltered from the sun. And it’s land and weather we’re here to talk about. Or rather, it’s terroir.

Terroir is defined by the Oxford Companion to Wine as ‘the total natural environment of any [agricultural] site’ — a sentence for which, by now, I should probably have some kind of loyalty card. So yes, actually, before we go any further, a few quick disclaimers. I believe, absolutely, in the role that terroir can (and does) play in shaping the character of a plant and of the drink that plant subsequently produces. I’ve written about it with regards to wine, where it is well established and understood (if still argued about), I’ve covered it as it has become increasingly discussed within spirits, and indeed I’ve ended up working as content wrangler for a pair of distilleries which place terroir at the heart of what they do. I am, you might say, biased.

But terroir — the idea that the three-dimensional impact of soil, site and micro-climate governs the sugar and phenolic ripening of a plant’s crop, and plays a fundamental role in its overall character and quality — is nothing terribly complicated, nor terribly new. Gardeners understand it fundamentally; it’s why they’ll plant this rose bush here and trim that tree there, maximising sunlight, avoiding colder, boggier spots. Nothing odd or hifalutin.

As regards wine, the concept that certain vineyards lend themselves particularly to certain grapes, or impart especially distinctive characteristics, is virtually as old as wine itself. The Egyptians had a tiered system; wine from good vineyards would be labelled nfr, very good vineyards nfr nfr, and the real, showstopping, buried-with-a-pharaoh-worthy stuff nfr nfr nfr. Thousands of years later, as Chris noted in his recent epic, Cistercian monks in Burgundy would follow suit to the point that every inch of the Côte d’Or — as well as many a French wine region besides — has been mapped out, scrutinised, trialled with various different varieties and sports, and ultimately rated and ranked (and then argued over again).  

The discussion of terroir as it pertains to cider and perry has historically been rather more muted. But it would be a mistake to believe that it has never been a feature of discourse around the drink. They are, after all, close cousins to wine — the fermentations of a plant’s ripened crop. One of the earliest recorded mentions of perry comes to us from Palladius, who wrote in his Opus agriculturae of the fourth century AD that ‘a stony pear will change its flavour if it is grafted into generous land’. Over a thousand years later, in 1664 Dr John Beale said of the Three Counties: ‘He that would treat exactly of Cider and Perry, must lay his foundation so deep as to begin with the Soyl… neither will the Cider of Bromyard and Ledbury equal that of Ham lacy, and Kings-Capell, in the same small County of Hereford.’ 

In more recent history, the Blakeney Red pear, now the most planted perry pear in the UK, offers a striking example of the difference that terroir can make. In the late 19th century pomologists Hogg and Bull rather rudely described it as ‘abominable trash’. Yet eighty years later Luckwill and Pollard suggested that this assessment was the result of pear trees planted in the wrong place. Writing in ‘Perry Pears’ they remark: ‘quality can be influenced within fairly wide limits by external factors of soil, climate and orchard management. An outstanding example of this is the pear Blakeney Red. When grown on the flood lands bordering the Severn this variety yields a perry of poor quality … yet on higher ground in the Forest of Dean the same variety can give an excellent perry’.

Modern terroir devotees include Autumn and Ezra at Eve’s Cidery, whose mission statement reads: ‘The primary impulse behind our cider making is to find an answer to the question: Can you taste a place?’ Antoine Marois of the eponymous Domaine in Normandy’s Cambremert is similarly intrigued, naming his cuvées after their orchards of origin, and enthusing about the differences that he finds in each terroir.

But it’s fair to say that very little research, certainly in modern history, has gone into establishing exactly what difference various terroirs make to the character of cider. What’s more, it’s equally fair to say that many cidermakers simply aren’t terribly bothered. I’ve certainly heard makers question whether cider really ‘needs’ terroir, when it has apple varieties. Although single variety ciders are increasingly common, they represent the tiniest speck beside the quantity of single variety, single vineyard wine. Ciders are far more likely to be multi-variety cuvées, and even in the (again comparatively rare) instance where their fruit all originated from one orchard, the blend is often of dozens of varieties, many affected by biennialism, and will therefore change markedly from vintage to vintage, far more so than comparable vineyard expressions, where there is a greater level of monoculture. Surely, say terroir’s detractors within cider, the flavours are likely to be predominantly variety-driven, rendering terroir relatively unimportant? 

In his excellent ‘Modern British Cider’, Gabe Cook acknowledges that the growth of apples and pears is affected by their natural environment, but explicitly states that he doesn’t feel terroir to be as important to cider as to wine. And, casting an eye over the array of ciders and perries available to the modern British drinker, you can see his point. By and large they are sold based on producer, method, varieties and whether or not they contain adjuncts. Land often only features in the context of ‘we picked this fruit from an orchard’.

All things considered, it’s probably not surprising that it was James, Susanna and Laurence at Little Pomona who said: ‘well, shall we have a look at what difference terroir does make?’ All three come from a background in wine; writing, retailing, promoting and making, and as such are steeped in the discourse around grape terroir. It would be natural enough for them to take an interest in how it might pertain to apples and pears, and their curiosity was sharpened by a vintage-on-vintage phenomenon they found themselves experiencing in the two orchards they are closest to: Brook House Farm, where their cidery is based, and their own Home Orchard in Bromyard. Fruit from the former always had, by their mileage, a certain saltiness, whilst the latter always seemed to reveal a particularly ‘yellow, floral’ inflection.

Since they pick, or buy, fruit from a vast range of orchards around Herefordshire, they devised an experiment. Dabinett, the UK’s most common cider apple, was separately harvested from seven different orchards around the county during the 2022 vintage. Each orchard’s harvest was treated separately but identically at the cidery; pressed pneumatically and then fermented by wild ambient yeasts in inert plastic IBCs. After a few months and a single racking they drew samples off into large glass carboys and put out a call to those interested to come and taste all six side by side.

The objective of the tasting, as laid out in the sheets provided, was to ascertain the following:

1. Are there specific identifiable traits to be found in these ciders?

2. Can they be linked to certain orchards or site-specific characteristics?

3. Is there a relationship between land management and cider profile?

4. What are the implications for any perceived differences between the ciders and their associated orchards?

5. Can this exploration be expanded on into the future and how?

In each instance we were given details pertaining to the orchard site — elevation, aspect, slope gradient, bedrock geology, soil and soil composition. We were also furnished with management specifics — date of site establishment, rootstocks, planting density, pruning type and frequency, fertiliser use, pesticide regime, previous and co-existent land use and harvest method. Finally the cider’s raw data — receival and pressing dates, yield, brix, pH, racking and ‘bottling’ dates.

A particularly refreshing and important element of the tasting was that the relevant grower for each expression was present to talk about their orchard, history and methods. For understandable reasons the profiles of orchardists are far lower than those of makers; indeed I can’t remember a previous tasting at which a grower who was not also the maker was invited to speak. Yet, irrespective of your thoughts on terroir, it is by highlighting the people and practices behind a cider’s fruit that we are reminded that cider is agricultural produce, that orchards are working, income-generating farms and that well-grown, high-quality apples and pears deserve far higher valuation than they receive. If cider apple and perry pear trees are being grubbed up by the hundred — and they are — it is because they are not seen as profitable or worthwhile growing, a point generally overlooked by those who express varying levels of frustration at cider’s current prices. Amplifying the voices of the people behind our cider’s fruit is a crucial element of joining up the conversation around the drink, and I’m very grateful to Little Pomona for giving them a platform, and to the growers who took the time to speak to us.

The first two ciders, from Stephen Ware’s Throne Farm in Weobley and Norman & Anne Stanier’s Dragon Orchard further south-east in Putley had, on paper, the most similar statistics. Ph within 0.04 of each other, pressed a day apart, yield only 2% different — and the only two of the day whose fermentation had finished. Yet flavour-wise they were poles apart. Throne Farm’s was pithy, firm, lean, with some orange and mango fruit, but mainly a structural creature at this point in its life, becoming more angular the more I back-referenced it against its peers. By contrast, Dragon Orchard’s was fatter, riper, deeper and fuller-bodied. I’ve had a couple of Dragon Orchard Dabinetts from Little Pomona before, and this immediately conjured familiar flavours.

Townsend Farm, tended by Jamie Hall and Malcolm Townsend, had the highest brix of the day, and it showed through chalky tannins wrapped in the fleshiest, most super-ripe body. Indeed, to my taste, it might conceivably be a little too ripe; there was less structure and freshness here, less complexity and orange fruit flavour, rather there were leathery, slightly animal characteristics. It struck me that a combination of Townsend and Throne Farms might arrive at roughly the happy medium of Dragon Orchard.

Having picked Dabinett for the cider I made with Little Pomona for my wedding in Will Kirby’s Brook House Farm I was worried about inherent bias, so I was relieved when others expressed particular admiration for it. Whilst still fermenting, it had the plushest fruit and the best balance of fruit and structure of the flight so far, with an apricot-and-orange bouquet that reminded me of the bottle I’d contributed to. Although it had impressive depth there was a lovely freshness of acid, a twist of high-toned florality and that telltale savoury salinity James had remarked upon at the start of the tasting. I loved it.

The Home Orchard was fascinating to taste, having recently made my way through a vintage vertical of its signature expression, The Old Man and the Bee. Denuded of Harry Masters’ Jersey and Foxwhelp, I was amazed how much of what I consider ‘classic Old Man and the Bee character’ remained. Notably yellow fruit, rather than orange, a pronounced ‘waxy’ character and an immense concentration. Very structural, but where Throne Farm’s expressed as a little lean, this was bristling with tight, clenched, firm fruit. I imagine this would prove the longest-lived of the seven, as well as the Dabinett that would take longest to enter its prime drinking window in the first place. As a side by side with Brook House it made for a particularly fascinating comparison.

Haig Orchards, owned by Robin Haig, was the furthest south of the bunch, virtually the other end of the county to the Home Orchard, all the way down in Much Dewchurch. As vibrant, fruit-forward and balanced as the Brook House Farm, this had rather less body than Dragon Orchard, Brook House or Townsend, and where each of those three showed varying levels and expressions of savouriness or spice, this was distinguished by being almost entirely about pure orange fruit. A crowdpleaser — and the favourite with some of those cidermakers present who tend towards sweeter keeves and cold-racks in their own bottlings, it was a sun-filled joy, if perhaps a touch less complex and likely long-lived than some of the others.

Our last taster, from Kris & Jean Dunn-Bardo of Yarcle, was the most idiosyncratic of the lot, and indeed a look at the incredibly dark colour had some of us wondering whether it had either oxidised, or somehow been a different apple in the first place. Yet a taste brought forth all the flavours of Dabinett, albeit in a deeper, darker way, such that I jokingly wrote ‘Dabinett Ripasso’ as part of my note. This was packed with spiced orange, with special inflection on cloves and possibly even a touch of higher-toned menthol. Christmassy almost, but with real clarity and purity. An anomaly amidst the others, for sure, but a delight to taste in and of itself.

Discussion was lively throughout. James Marsden of Gregg’s Pit was particularly keen to know about the wild yeast strains — whether those from fruit and orchard were dominant, or whether the ambient yeast inside the cidery took the lead. James was also able to share a graph of his own orchard’s Thorn Pear harvest dates, tracking the increasing earliness and lowering acidity as global temperatures rise and sugar ripening quickens. There was considerable debate around the various methods of orchard management; from the conventional treatments deployed by Brook House Farm to the organic practices of the Home Orchard and Yarcle. We also raised the question of tree age; it’s well-documented that significantly old vines produce fewer grapes but with increases in flavour intensity, and my own tastings of cider and perry (notably the 2019 Ross on Wye Thorn and the Golden Russets from Eve’s) suggest that these drinks follow a similar pattern.

But the question that stayed with me as I drove back home afterwards was one posed not as a provocation, but as a thought experiment, for argument’s sake. What do we do with this? Does it matter? Is this what people are interested in? Fundamentally, does terroir need to be a part of the cider conversation?

There’s no question, to my mind, that there were clear differences between each of the seven ciders we tasted that day at Little Pomona. Not tiny little picked nits, but striking idiosyncrasies distinguishing each one from the other. Can I ascribe those differences solely to terroir? No I can’t. In the first instance, six orchards from one vintage doesn’t comprise a statistically significant sample base. I’d need to try the same orchards, possibly more orchards, and over a number of years before any sort of patterns began to emerge. Whilst I was struck by how recognisable Dragon Orchard, Brook House Farm and the Home Orchards seemed to me, I’m basing that solely on experience, feeling, and (I hope) a reasonably and fairly practiced palate, rather than anything scientifically conclusive. 

Besides which, I strongly suspect that age of tree plays a key role in intensity, planting density and rootstock will have their own impacts, and I know from my work in wine and whisky that farming practices also make significant contributions to flavour. 

But isn’t that a wonderful thing? Isn’t that precisely where wonder and fascination should come from? Isn’t it marvellous that so many variables are at play here? That we can inquire about the impact of farming practices and whether we can improve a crop and a terroir by the organic approach? Isn’t it brilliant that we can look at what rootstocks have to show when it comes to flavour, and not just yield? Isn’t it brilliant that great cider is compact not of one sole thing, but of apple and tree and land, of the vintage that brings them into confluence and the human hand that coaxes from them a unique, bottled record?

I don’t imagine terribly many people will be interested in the impact of terroir on apple trees. Come to that, most people aren’t interested in the impact of terroir on wine grapes. Most people buy their regular bottle of Malbec or Sauvignon or Rioja or Bordeaux, or whatever it might be, and they don’t give a damn about the soil of the vineyard, or whether it’s on a slope, or whether it rained in August, or grew 100 metres above sea level. Much as it may grieve me to say, fewer people still are bothered by the terroir of barley or of sugar cane.

But just as there are myriad ciders made from myriad fruits by myriad people, harvested from myriad trees grown in myriad ways, so the modern cider consumer is not one single entity, but is a many headed creature whose breadth of interest now encompasses everything from a pint of Strongbow or bottle of Kopparberg to a dry, single-orchard 750ml, a complex keeve or the evocation of a treasured, rare variety of pear. Why should we wish to limit cider’s scope of enquiry and fascination, when there is a chance for this most-derided of drinks to be shown the same level of interest and respect as the most lauded of its peers? This isn’t a zero sum game; inquisitiveness around terroir in one cider doesn’t devalue the half-pint from keg or box at the pub any more than wondering about the impact of land prevents us from also being curious about the particular flavours that individual apples bring to an expression. There is so, so much left to be discussed and discovered around cider, and isn’t it exciting that we get to be the ones having those discussions, making those discoveries? Isn’t it exciting that we are building fresh entryways through which new drinkers can explore this magnificent and long-mysterious category?

As for terroir — well, as a much better whisky writer than me once wrote, ’it’s there if you let it be there, and it isn’t if you don’t. But killing something will not allow you to claim that it did not exist’. If you’re not particularly bothered by its existence one way or another, you certainly don’t have to be. But I, for one, am immensely grateful to Little Pomona for creating such a compelling starting point to a fresh line of conversation. There is no doubt in my mind that the impact of terroir has the potential to be distinctly felt in cider, where the producer is interested in showing it, and that our world can be more complex and interesting as a result.

My wise friend Rachel recently suggested to me that ‘terroir is an acknowledgement and celebration of people’, and whilst I think that is true, I feel that it is also the opposite; a human celebration and acknowledgement of the land. Of its potential and promise. Of its worth and its shape. Of its remarkable, irreplaceable idiosyncrasy and its slow irreversible shift in the hardening hands of the elements. Of the ridges that catch the sun and the rock that the rain runs off. Of the deep marshland where the ground sits soft and cold and waterlogged, and the warm, dry gravels beside it. Of the step at the bottom of Gammyoulands Orchard where the air on your face suddenly cools and darkens and dampens, and the Dabinett side of the Home Orchard where the hard ground tells you you’re over the quarry. Fundamentally it takes cider back to the orchard, and the land, and to my mind that can only be something worthwhile.

After all, all cider is farming, and isn’t terroir how all farming began? With men and women, long ago, in from the rocky passes, dense forests and sun-bleached plains, finding the spots of land where crops might grow well and settling down to grow them. And then growing them again the next year, in different ways and different spots, and learning where they might grow better.

Huge thanks to the team at Little Pomona for putting on this fascinating tasting. Also to Edina Cseterki for the pictures included in this article.

NB The talk and tasting described in this piece will be reprised at this year’s CraftCon in April. Tickets here (not a commission link – just something we’re very happy to support).

This entry was posted in: Features, Uncategorized


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.


  1. Mike Shorland says

    Wow. That’s a brilliant piece. I wonder how other makers can add to the research. Do slow fermentations (low nitrogen) represent differently ?


    • Cheers Mike. I think there’s definitely space for other makers to contribute – I think in part it comes down to putting as much focus on orchard as on maker in terms of the presentation/labels/marketing etc – whereas cider’s model follows beer more often than not, in placing maker and method far, far above tree/orchard.

      Re your last question, I’d argue that the fermentations themselves are part of the representation – of a low nitrogen site. It’s certainly something we see at Waterford, that low-nitrogen farms/barley harvests show different behaviour and flavours in the distillery.

      Thanks as ever for reading and commenting.



  2. Pingback: Bittersweet or bust: a big ol’ bunch from Ross on Wye | Cider Review

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