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Calvados, a Brandy from Normandy, France
What is Calvados?
Calvados is a French brandy from the limited and controlled region of Normandy, where the temperate, maritime climate has long been optimal for fruit orchards.
Calvados is stricktly distilled from cider and / or perry, and aged in French oak barrels for at least 2 years. The delimited region has 3 crus with differing production regulations and requirements fruit.
All Pays d’Auge Calvados is made from 100% apples, while at least 30% pears is required in Domfront. To maintain the influence of the pear, all orchards in the Domfront reigon are planted with a minimum of 15% pears and after 16 years this legal minimum jumps up to 25%.
History of Calvados, French Brandy from Normandy
Legend gives the name calvados an Iberian connection; apparently a galleon of the armada, el Calvador or el Salvador, wrecked on the Normandy coast in 1588, and thus the region was named.
An old record suggests distillation of cider in the region on March 28th, 1553 but whether this was a new or existing practice remains unclear.
Nonetheless, by 1600 a co-operative of distillers existed in the region. With time, the name calvados and distilled cider became synonymous. In the 1870s, its fame was aided by the European arrival of the dreaded louse phylloxera vastatrix, which temporarily wiped out wine production. Overnight the demand for cider and apple brandy sky rocketed and this lasted until World War I when the government requisitioned the region’s alcohol to be used in the manufacture of arms.
In 1942 the French appellation authority, INAO, recognised AC Calvados, which included eleven sub-regions. Four years later, Calvados du Pays d’Auge was given its own AC status, and the other ten sub-regions where designated AOC Calvados. In 1997 Calvados du Domfrontais became an AC in its own right.
The Calvados Region of Normandy, France
The Calvados region’s soil types are clearly defined and these differences determine the geographical division and the regulations which govern whether apples or pears are planted.
The softer soils of the Pays d’Auge are more suited to the shallow roots of apple trees, whilw the harder soils of Domfront are more conducive to the strong deep roots of pear trees.
The general appellation covers everything that falls outside of the two.
Calvados: The AOC Calvados area includes all of the Calvados, Manche, and Orne départements and parts of Eure, Mayenne, Sarthe, and Eure-et-Loir.
Calvados Pays d’Auge: To the east, of the region with marl, marly chalk, limestone, flint and clay soils.
Calvados Domfrontais: Located to the south-west, an area of sandstone, granite, chalk and clay.
What is Calvados made from?
Calvados is made from apples and / or pears; both of which are members of the rose family. The apples and pears used for making Calvados brandy are not eating varieties; being very small, highly aromatic, very acidic and optimal for distillation purposes.
Calvados requires a broad palette of aromas and tastes to produce a balanced and complex spirit. For this reason, up to 48 different kinds of apples are allowed to be used, classified into four groups:
- bitter (e.g. Kermerien)
- bitter-sweet (e.g. Mettais)
- acidic (e.g. Rambault)
- sweet (e.g. Binet Rouge)
All Calvados brandy must contain at least 70% bitter and bitter-sweet varieties and at least 30% acidic varieties. Because Pears are usually sweeter, they bring discernible differences to Calvados contributing to the production of more feminine, elegant brandies with fragrance and bouquet.
Maturation of Calvados
A brief initial maturation occurs in new oak casks, either Limousin or Tronçais, with a subsequent transfer to old Norman oak casks.
Norman oak, being an extremely dry wood, it doesn't contribute much character to the spirit, when old.
On the other hand, Norman oak gives way to a gentle evaporation and concentration of the French Calvados brandy.
Calvados Vintage Years
In Calvados the vintage means the year of distillation as opposed to that of the harvest.
Harvesting can occur between September and January with subsequent fermentation taking up to a year.
This, in turn, might be followed by a further year, given the cider is properly aged.
How Calvados is Made
The harvest takes place between September and January, after which the fruit is left to rest, breathe, desiccate and ripen for three to four weeks. When the fruits are at their aromatic peak they are pressed and fermented.
Flavors are found in and around the skins, not in the pulp; pressing slowly at low pressure yields a juice with the best character. Fermentation is a relatively slow process due to the low pH of the juice and the relative cool climate at that time of year.
After about a month the ferment will have attained the minimum 4.5% ABV required by law before distillation may take place. In the Pays d’Auge AC law decrees fermentation must also last a minimum of six weeks. Generally, however, fermentation takes about three months, resulting in a cider between 5–6% ABV with well-developed esters.
Some producers actually ferment their juice for up to a year, then rack the resulting ciders, siphoning off the decomposed yeasts, and subsequently give it some oak ageing prior to distillation.
Chaptalisation, the addition of sugar to boost alcohol levels, is not permitted and volatile acidity must be lower than 2.5 grams per liter. Distillation generally takes place before 30th June and the spirits age is tracked from 1st July of each year. Alcoholic distillation works on the basis that alcohol, with a boiling point of 78.3 ˚C, is more volatile than water and thus when an alcoholic wash is heated the alcohol vaporises first.
All the congeners, the elements in alcohol that give a spirit its aromas and flavours, have different boiling points and as the vapours rise they are condensed and collected at different moments. Hence, an even heat is critical; too hot and everything piles over together preventing proper selection, too low and a dilute, somewhat bitter distillate will emerge.
In the Pays d’Auge a double distillation in pot stills with a capacity not exceeding 3,000 liters is mandatory. The stills must be made from copper, which has a catalytic rather than a creative input, is an excellent and even conductor of heat, does not corrode with acid exposure, and neutralises any negative acidic effects from cider / perry as well as any naturally occurring sulphurous elements in the vapours.
These stills must be heated by a naked flame; today gas is generally used as it offers controllability. The first distillation gives a petite eau between 28–30% ABV with the second distillation producing a bonne chauffe of 60–78% ABV.
Outside the Pays d’Auge single continuous distillation is normally used. The still consists of two or more linked columns. The cider is warmed and the vapours cooled by a simple heat exchange. Initially cider flows from the condenser into the top of the boiler where it trickles down through perforated plates. as it flows down, the cider also interacts with alcoholic vapours passing up and thus the vapours strip character from the cider on their way to the condenser where they are trapped and either collected or discarded according to the style desired.
Understanding Calvados Label Language and Terms
Relevant AOC or cru
Age Designations: As with all appellations, the stated age must be that of the youngest constituent part of the blend.
3 stars: Minimum 2 years; except in Domfront where it is 3 years
vieux / réserve: Minimum 3 years
vieille réserve / VSOP: Minimum 4 years
Hors d’Âge / Âge inconnu: Minimum 6 years
extra / xo / Napoléon: Minimum 6 years
single vintage year / age statement