Normandy, France is well known across the Atlantic for its World War II history with the US storming of the beach on D-Day, its memorial at the American cemetery of Omaha Beach and the grace of the nearby historic Bayeux Cathedral. But it’s also a French region rich in local products – the Tripe of Caen, Camembert, inarguably the freshest butter and cream in France, and especially Calvados.
Calvados is a Lower-Normandy department, small by its size but large by its taste! It is here that apples are fermented to make cider and its famous apple brandy, which it has been doing for five centuries.
It had its biggest boom at the end of the 19th century because of the phylloxera crisis, which devastated French and European vineyards, but left other fruits in tact. Suddenly, much attention was paid to the brandy that has been made since the dawn of night on Norman farms.
50% of its production of 18 000hl (6,4 millions of 70cl bottles) is exported to Eastern European countries, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and many others.
More than 200 apple varieties are used in Calvados with a spectrum of flavor components – sweet, acidic, bitter and bitter-sweet. The bitter and bitter-sweet categories must comprise 70% of the mix, with 30% of sweet and acidic to obtain the ideal balance. Pears are also permitted as part of the sweet component, and add their own nuance to the brandy.
The method of distillation varies between the subregions. Prior to the official 1984 AOC recognition of the region, there were ten distinct Calvados districts. Now it is broken down by three sub-appellations, which define their ingredients and production methods.
- AOC Calvados – covering the majority of apple and pear production. Distilled once in a single column still, with a minimum two years of aging in oak casks.
- AOC Domfontais – a minimum 30% pear from designated growing areas are used. Distilled once in a single column still with a minimum three years of oak aging.
- AOC Calvados Pays d’Auge – considered the highest quality sources and production methods. Double-distillation is allowed in each region, but only Pays d’Auge is required to double-distill in a Charentais pot still, the same type of still used for Cognac. Cider must be fermented a minimum of six weeks, and once distilled, aged a minimum two years in oak casks.
As with Cognac and Armagnac, Calvados is sometimes aged in new oak, and sometimes in previously used barrels. Sometimes it is a blend of Calvados that were given different oak treatments. Others are aged in as many as three different casks, starting with new oak and then used barrels, some of which were used many times over. All of this depends on the producer. The oak treatments impart certain flavor characteristics to the Calvados, with newer oak providing the most oaky flavors and tannins, and used casks toning them down.
Calvados aging in barrels, photo by SÃ¸ren Hugger MÃ¸ller
Fine , Trois étoiles, Trois pommes or V.S : oak barrel aged for a minimum 2 years
Vieux or Reserve: oak barrel aged for minimum 3 years.
V.O., Vieille Reserve, or V.S.O.P: oak barrel aged for minimum 4 years
Extra, X.O, Napoléon, Hors d’âges, Très Vieille Réserve or Très Vieux: oak barrel aged for minimum 6 years
Though it can be consumed in different ways, the balloon glass is the ideal vessel for full enjoyment of its rich complexity. But Calvados is also versatile In coffee, with apple sorbet for the “Trou Normand” (between two dishes during a meal), as an apertif on the rocks or in cocktails. It matches perfectly with cheeses and chocolate and is part of the composition of severals classic flambée recipes, including crêpes.
A few great producers to look out for: Pere Magloire, Domaine de Montreuil, Domain Coeur de Lion Christian Drouin and Adrien Camut.