Spirits / Calvados
What Is Calvados?
Calvados is a pear and apple-based brandy from the northern part of France along the English Channel in the Normandy region. With a history dating back nearly 500 years, the region has a long tradition of distilling their ciders into delicious and complex spirits. While not as well known as Cognac or Armagnac, Calvados holds a dear place in the hearts of many spirits lovers.
To create calvados, apples and pears are collected from the ground during the autumn and pressed into juice. The unclarified juice is then fermented into a cider with between 6% and 8% alcohol. This cider is then passed through a still, where a 70% alcohol will eventually emerge. This clear spirit then goes into barrel, where it picks up color and additional aromas and flavors. It can be sold after its 3rd birthday but is often aged for much longer.
There are three appellations in Calvados: Calvados Pays d'Auge Contrôlée, Appellation Calvados Contrôlée and Appellation Calvados Domfrontais Contrôlée.
Calvados Pays d'Auge Contrôlée
The Pays d' Auge was established in 1942. Apples dominate in this appellation, and most calvados in the region is made with only apples. Calvados from the Pays d' Auge must be distilled twice, a process that sets it apart from the other appellations.
One of our highly respected Pays d’Auge producers, Calvados Adrien Camut, has one of the most renowned collections of old Calvados around, all from their 25 different types of apples grown on 115 acres. The other one, Domaine du Manoir de Montreuil, is run by the Giard family, one of the grand old names in the entire Calvados region.
Appellation Calvados Contrôlée
At one point, the expansive area now known as Appellation Calvados Contrôlée was divided into regulated regions, spread all across Normandy and spilling across the borders of several neighboring departments. These regulated regions were grouped together in the 1980’s. The soils vary widely from region to region. Most producers use only apples in their cider and the majority distill their cider once in a column still.
The Huard family, who own Calvados Michel Huard, have lived on the Le Pertyer property in the Suisse-Normand (Appellation Calvados Contrôlée) for five generations, and it is considered to be the benchmark producer in this appellation.
Appellation Calvados Domfrontais Contrôlée
This appellation, established in 1997, surrounds the town of Domfront-in-the-Orne, from which it takes its name. Using at least 30% pears in their distillate is obligatory in the Domfrontais, although it is common for some producers to use 70% or 80% in their ciders. Distillation takes place once in a column still as is done in Appellation Calvados Contrôlée.
Calvados Lemorton is run by the family’s 5th generation. Their 3.6-hectare Domfrontais property is planted with both apple and pear trees; the latter's influence is dominant; for every three apples in their Calvados, there are approximately seven pears.
Normandy Soils in Calvados Region
As it takes 2 hours to traverse the Calvados appellations in a car from north to south and 4 hours to drive from east to west, it should be evident that the soils vary greatly across the region. Soil perhaps plays less of a role with distilled spirits than it does for table wines. This is because spirits begin with a base matter that is converted into alcohol and distilled before aging in oak for an extensive period. All of these factors have an important effect on the finished product.
But soil does play a role on a tree's growth as well as with an apple's acidity level and pH. There are several soil types in the Cognac region:
The Pays d'Auge has high quantities of flint (silex) in addition to clay, and this stony soil makes the tree suffer, with many of the nutrients going to the developing fruit rather than the tree's wood.
On the contrary, the Suisse Normande (located in the AOC Calvados region) has a lot of silty clay with some stone mixed in, and apples tend to have more acidity and a bit less sugar, which often leads to a more elegant spirit with purer apple flavor.
The Domfrontais region has more schist and granite-based soil in which pear trees thrive.
The Fruit of Calvados: Apples and Pears
Unlike Armagnac and Cognac, which are made from grapes, Calvados is derived from apples, pears, or a combination of both.
It's estimated that 800 varieties of apples exist in Normandy and about a hundred varieties can be commonly found there. Unlike table varieties we find on grocers’ shelves, the varieties used for the cider that will be distilled are small and fall into 4 major categories:
video: Oscar Beckmann photos: Michael Housewright
Pears are also used for Calvados, specifically in the Domfrontais region. There are over 200 varieties of pears used for pear cider or poiré and about 30 are commonly found throughout the Norman orchards nowadays. Pear trees have a deeper root system than apples. They thrive on the deep clay and granite soils of the Domfrontais. Although pears can be found in other regions of Normandy, many of these are on dwarf rootstock and used more for the emerging poiré category rather than for distillation.
Calvados Fruit Trees
in Southeastern Normandy near Coquerelle two types of rootstock exist in Normandy that affect the size of the trees and the density in which one can plant the orchard:
Standard Rootstock Trees, grown on standard rootstock, reach about 30 feet in height and are generally planted 10 meters apart from each other. They normally don't give much useable fruit until about their 20th birthday.
Dwarf Rootstock Trees, grown on dwarf rootstock, can be planted at much higher density and begin giving useable fruit by a tree's 3rd or 4th birthday.
Trees on dwarf rootstock often see chemical treatments, while those on standard rootstock do not usually need treatments with synthetic chemicals. Many of the trees used in dwarf orchards produce apples that will eventually make their way into bottled cider, while many on standard rootstock are ancient varieties with a solid track record for producing quality spirits.
Calvados Distillation and Aging
Distillation is the transformation of a base alcohol into a spirit with higher alcohol through heating to the boiling point. This time-consuming distillation process takes place in batches. Calvados distillation takes place in a copper still. Two types of stills are used in the region.
Pot stills are used in the Pays d'Auge. The stills vary in size so that anywhere between 400 and 2,500 liters of cider can be distilled at a time. With distillation in a pot still, more of the impurities of the exiting spirit—especially the heads and tails—can be removed, leading to what most will agree is a purer spirit, although with less initial aroma.
The great majority of Calvados producers convert their cider into spirit in a column still. These are sometimes solidified with brick and mortar, but usually pass from farm to farm attached to a chassis and pulled by a tractor. Cider enters the column still and is heated, then rises through a series of copper plates, gently increasing in alcohol as each plate is passed. The vapors are then cooled so that they convert back to liquid form. This is the same process we see in Armagnac distillation. Armagnac stills, however, tend to have 7 or 8 plates and the spirit often exits at 52% alcohol. A Calvados still often has 15 plates, and the exiting spirit flows out at 70% alcohol.
While small amounts of heads and tails can be manually removed, more esters and acids remain in a spirit distilled once. On the other hand, aromas can be more forthcoming with a calvados distilled in a column still. A column still also has the advantage of being much faster and less expensive.
Once the spirit exits the still, it goes into oak casks where it will pick up color, tannin, and notes of vanilla, caramel, toffee, and spice. During this aging period, it will also be reduced in alcohol with the addition of water so that it nears its final release strength of 80 to 84 proof. While in cask, the alcohol begins to mellow while the flavors move from floral and fresh to more concentrated and condensed. Additional aromas of honey, toffee, and nuts might also arise adding to the complexity of a well-aged spirit.
Large Calvados Producers vs. Small Calvados Producers
There are approximately 200 producers in Normandy who bottle and sell their Calvados. Some sell a few dozen bottles a year, while others sell thousands of cases.
Small agricultural producers are often farmers, who make part of their income through cider and calvados and the other half through dairy farming. They grow their own apples on land that they own, press their juice, ferment their cider, distill their product, and age it on their property.
Large-scale producers may or may not own apple orchards and can also supplement their own production with calvados that they did not make themselves. Rather than producing their spirits on a bucolic property, large producers often produce in immense warehouses bordered by large parking lots. The large producers are normally more interested in blending, using various techniques to create a consistent taste a domestic and international clientele demands.
Calvados has traditionally been drunk after a meal, partially because of its digestive qualities. And while it is highly enjoyable to have a snifter after a meal (perhaps in another room and in a comfortable chair), Calvados can be enjoyed under many different circumstances. Popular nowadays are cocktails made with Calvados, while the spirit is also used in many culinary preparations. What's more, a glass of Calvados is fantastic in everyday situations, like while watching Netflix or Monday Night Football, or working on the computer at night.
Books on Calvados