Do you like apples?
Calvados is back. Well, ‘back’ is perhaps putting it a little strongly – it’s debatable whether there was ever a time when calvados was the apple (sorry) of the bar world’s eye – but there’s definitely something going on. Rather than sourcing one unconsidered bottle, destined for a life of gathering dust, bartenders are now paying attention, and restaurants may have a number of calvados options on the back bar covering different styles: Coupette in Bethnal Green boasts an impressive range and features a calvados of the month. It is no surprise that the definitive apple brandy is finding its way onto more and more cocktail menus throughout the country.
A short history of the Calvados region and its brandy
Cider making has a long history in France, dating back at least to the Romans. In the 13th century it became the drink of choice for the lower classes in the Normandy region, and by the 14th century cider sales in the North were greater than wine. The first record we have of the distillation of cider is from 1553, when a nobleman called Gilles de Gouberville recorded the process of making eaux-de-vie in his diary.
During the 19th century, calvados and cider became very popular in Paris, partly due to the phylloxera crisis crippling the wine trade. ‘Café/Calva’ became a favourite with the working man and is a tradition that continues to this day.
Calvados Pays d’Auge was granted AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) status in 1942, along with 10 regions granted the looser AOR (appellation d’origine réglementée). These 10 were incorporated into the general AOC Calvados in 1984; the third and final AOC was added in 1997: AOC Calvados Domfrontais.
A castle and its apples
Built in the early 16th century, the Château du Breuil is classified as an historical monument, reflecting the typical Pays d’Auge architecture. The two half-timbered towers of the castle are from the 16th century; the central part is from the 17th century. In 1954, Philippe Bizouard bought the castle to set up his own distillery and created the Calvados Château du Breuil.
Château du Breuil has around 22000 apple trees within two orchards (42 hectares) in the Pays d’Auge region, and also works with farmers from the neighbouring towns. The higher rainfall in the region combined with the shallow soil provide perfect growing conditions for apple trees. It takes around 27kg of apples to make one litre of calvados; each tree produces 50-200kg each harvest (depending on the age of the tree, the rootstock and a number of other factors!)
Harvesting takes place in October and November, with up to 40 varieties of apple arriving at the Château to be pressed. The blend between these varieties is the first step to creating the unique flavour profile of the ciders. Fermentation is 100% natural and takes at least 6 weeks (the legal minimum is 3 weeks), yielding a 4.5% cider.
Distillation begins in the winter in Château du Breuil’s two copper pot stills. For Calvados Pays d’Auge the stills may be heated with a steam coil or naked flame; Château du Breuil uses flame. The first distillation produces les petites eaux at 28%, which are then returned to the still for the bonne chauffe, when the eaux-de-vie exits the still at 71% ABV, ready for its long slumber in oak that will yield the finished calvados.
The young spirit is put into 350 litre barrels, firstly in new wood for two months, during which time the spirit takes tannin and colour, before being transferred to older casks for maturation. Unusually (for calvados at least), Château de Breuil also have some cask finishes, where the spirit spends an extra few months in a sherry or sweet wine cask, adding extra layers of complexity.
The Three Appellations of Calvados
AOC Calvados (approximately 71% of production)
- Geographical area in Normandy: the Calvados department and some parts of Mayenne, Sarthe and Oise
- No distillation method specified, but most is column stills (to a maximum ABV of 72%)
- Made of apples and/or pears (permitted varieties are specified in the AOC)
- Minimum two years’ old
AOC Calvados Pays d’Auge (approximately 28% of production)
- Geographical area mostly in the Calvados department, on clay and chalk slopes
- Must be double-distilled in pot stills with a maximum size of 30hl, to a maximum ABV of 72% (similar to Cognac)
- Made of apples (with a maximum of 30% pears permitted)
- Minimum two years’ old
AOC Domfrontais (approximately 1% of production)
- Geographical area in the Orne, Manche and Mayenne departments
- Must be single distilled in column stills heated with naked flame, to a maximum ABV of 72% (similar to Armagnac)
- Made of apples and pears (with a minimum of 30% pears)
- Minimum three years’ old
For all the appellations the whole process must be carried out in the geographical area: harvest, fermentation, distillation and ageing.
Ages on the Label
VS, ‘trois étoiles’ or ‘trois pommes’ – 2 years’ minimum
‘Vieux’ or ‘reserve’ – 3 years’ minimum
V.S.O.P, VO or ‘vieille réserve’ – 4 years’ minimum
X.O, ‘hors d’age’, ‘très vieille réserve’, ‘très vieux, ‘extra’, ‘Napoléon’ – 6 years’ minimum
by Yves Calabre (Amathus Brand Sales Manager – Rums & French Agency Spirits)