As Calvados enjoys a revival among London's spirit drinkers, STEPHEN BROOK investigates the favourite drink of Normandy.
There are not many compensations for a Normandy winter. But one of them is to stroll across a snow-covered farmyard in apple-growing country and prise open the distillery door. You are immediately overcome by the marvellous aroma of ripe apples and the heat from the fires roaring beneath the stills. Then you scamper back across the courtyard to the farm to taste the final product, mellowed by years of wood-ageing.
The production process of calvados does not differ greatly from that of other spirits, such as cognac or grappa. But whereas those are derived from wine or its by-products, calvados is a fruit spirit, although it differs from those of Alsace or Austria by being aged in barrels, which gives it more complexity. In the first half of the 20th century, calvados was an artisanal product made by farmers for personal and local consumption. In the 19th century, some workers’ rations were as high as 10 litres a day: a ration, one hopes, to be shared among friends and family! A few producers still have stocks of ancient calvados, but these old spirits were often marred by being aged in poor-quality barrels. Quality control is much higher today.The production process begins in the orchards of Normandy. During autumn, at the larger distilleries, farmers deliver tractorloads of apples and tip them into large bins, where they are washed and dispatched to the presses. In some regions it’s permitted to use a proportion of pears as well. The apples are transformed into cider, which is then distilled some weeks or months later. It takes 22 litres of cider to produce one litre of calvados. There are a number of different zones of production, each with its own typicality. The newly fashionable Domfront region traditionally uses more pears than the others, but a storm in 1999 destroyed half the pear trees; and since apples generate more income than pears, those trees are unlikely to be replanted. The most prestigious region is the Pays d’Auge, where the cider is double-distilled to give a rounder, sweeter spirit more suitable for long ageing than a calvados made by continuous distillation.
Calvados comes in a range of styles. Young calvados is becoming increasingly popular in Europe as an aperitif, but British aficionados prefer the older, aged styles that are comparable to good cognac. Unfortunately the labelling regulations do not make the style apparent, though it’s a safe assumption that the more costly the product, the older it is likely to be. Calvados labelled ‘three stars’ or ‘Fine’ need average no more than two years of age. Vieux or Réserve need be no more than three years old; and VO, VSOP, and Vieille Réserve around four years. Even bottles with such impressive labels as XO, Napoléon and Hors d’Age are only legally required to be six years old, though they are often closer to 15 years old. A handful of producers release vintage-dated calvados, but there is little discernible difference between vintages, especially after the spirit has been ageing in casks for decades.
Like cognac, calvados is struggling to survive. Fewer people are drinking spirits. The producers keep trying to devise new styles of consumption – drinking lighter styles as an aperitif, which is popular in Germany, or in chilled cocktails perhaps. But that would be a waste of a high-quality spirit. On the upside, some producers report healthy, even growing, sales, and there is certainly a revival among some of the artisanal producers, especially in the Pays d’Auge. It’s easy to be converted to the pleasures of calvados in the tasting rooms of these smaller producers, where the heady appley aromas infuse the atmosphere. The large distilleries that dominate the industry often produce decent, straightforward calvados at an attractive price, but their products generally lack character and personality.
Brothers Pierre and Philippe Huet of Cambremer are the fifth generation of the family to produce cider from their own orchards, which are planted with 30 varieties of apple. ‘We age the cider until May before starting distillation,’ explains Pierre. ‘In my grandfather’s day it was customary to age it for two years, but that would be too costly today. Whenever we start, we must ensure that distillation is completed by July, as the law requires.’Pierre produces a full range of styles, including a big fruity spirit called ‘Tradition’ which has proved very popular in Paris and Japan. His less expensive Vieille Réserve is delicious, a nine-year spirit with moderate fruitiness, and a lean, elegant finish. At the top of the range are bottlings such as Cordon d’Or, which contains spirit that is over 35 years old, but after such long wood-ageing, the appley elements become dominated by the wood, giving a smoky character to the calvados.
Christian Drouin, under the brand name Coeur de Lion, is the great specialist in vintage calvados from the Pays d’Auge, selling bottles dating back to the 1950s. He also offers a wonderful Cuvée 800, which blends 22 vintages, the oldest being 60 years of age. These are expensive spirits, as about 3% of the spirit evaporates from the barrel each year, but the cheaper end of the range, such as the fresh, supple Réserve and the powerfully fruity Hors d’Age, are excellent too. ‘I don’t use new oak casks,’ says Drouin, ‘as I don’t want my Calvados to be tannic. My barrels come usually from Jerez or the port lodges, and some are over 100 years old. It takes about 10 years in barrel for the spirit to lose its aggressivity.’
The other great name in calvados is Pierre Groult, whose 15- and 25-year-olds are superlative; these are spirits with great concentration and length. Lemorton is another name to conjure with, as he has an unrivalled range of very old calvados. Clos d’Orval is less well known but produces excellent calvados. Among the large producers, Boulard, Busnel, Gilbert (the sweet, mellow VSOP Pays d’Auge is very good) and Père Malgoire offer decently made, consistent fruity styles at a fair price. But for great calvados, seek out the best of the 60 artisanal producers.
Calvados is enjoying a revival in London’s top restaurants. At La Tante Claire, sommelier Laurent Nicolas offers six calvados, mostly from Lemorton and Drouin. At Pétrus, they have found that customers order calvados in preference to cognac or armagnac, and they can offer a superb range from Groult and Lemorton. At the Connaught it is vintage calvados from Drouin that finds most favour, even at daunting prices such as £35 for the 1950 and £55 for the 1939. This does suggest that in the world of rare spirits, calvados can more than hold its own, and that the future for this fine drink may, at least in Britain, lie at the top end of the market rather than with cheaper and less characterful bottlings.
Stephen Brook is a contributing editor to Decanter.
Written by STEPHEN BROOK