What is Calvados?
There is a special little section of France that is completely covered with orchards. For over 500 years, apples and pears from these orchards have been fermented to make cider, which is then distilled into a famous brandy or eau de vie de cidre called Calvados. This is the only non-grape brandy in the world that is considered to be every bit as great as the world’s best and most famous grape brandies, Cognac and Armagnac.
The basic process works like this: fruit is harvested and pressed into a juice that is fermented into a dry cider. It is then distilled into eau de vie. After aging for a minimum of two years in oak casks, it can be sold as Calvados. Usually, the aging process goes on for several years beyond the minimum aging requirements.
Where is Calvados from?
While brandy can be produced anywhere in the world, Calvados can only be produced in the Normandy region of France. Many factors help put it head and shoulders above other brandies, and it all starts with terroir and the agricultural heritage of the people the Lower-Normandy region.
Normandy had its biggest boom at the end of the 19th century after the phylloxera crisis obliterated the vineyards in France and Europe, but left other fruits unharmed. Suddenly, this little known brandy and the area that had already been making it since basically forever were thrust centerstage .
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, production methods and flavor profile. The method of distillation varies between the subregions.
How is Calvados made?
Calvados producers use more than 200 varieties of apples, making for a wide range of possible flavor components. It is not unusual for for a producer to use 100 specific apple varieties in a single batch of Calvados. The apple varieties used are either sweet, acidic, bitter or bitter-sweet . The bitter and bitter-sweet categories must comprise 70% of the blend, while the other 30% makes use of the sweet and acidic category in order to achieve proper balance. Pears are also used, which add their own flavors, aromas and nuances to the brandy blend.
Like Cognac and Armagnac, Calvados is sometimes aged in new oak, and often former sherry and port casks. Sometimes a blend of Calvados that were given different oak treatments are used. 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.
Since 1942, Calvados has been governed by appellation contrôlée regulations just like french wines. Each appellation has unique and distinguishing characteristics.The three appellations for Calvados are:
AOC Calvados – This AOC covers the majority of the apple and pear production used. The cider is distilled once in a single column still then aged for a minimum of two years in oak casks.
AOC Domfontais – A minimum of 30% pear from designated growing areas from this AOC are used. The cider is also distilled once in a single column still then aged for a minimum of three years in oak.
AOC Calvados Pays d’Auge – Is considered to be the highest quality growing area and production method. The cider must be fermented a minimum of six weeks, and after distilling, the spirit must be aged a minimum two years in oak casks. Double-distillation is allowed to be used in each region, but only Pays d’Auge is required to be double-distilled in Charentais pot stills—better known as traditional alembic pot stills—the same type of still used for the production of Cognac. Distilling this way gives the spirit complexity of flavor and allows the spirit to be aged longer and the finish is smoother.
Fermier Calvados (not an AOC but still cool and worth mentioning)—farm produced, or growers’ Calvados, these are quality-minded producers both inside and outside the Pays d’Auge with farms that grew and looked after the apples that make the product; this was the traditional form of production but it is now uncommon.
Calvados Aging Terms:
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
That's Calvados in a nutshell, thanks for reading. I'll leave you with my favorite quote about brandy:
"So, after three days of incessant brandy-drinking, he had burned out the youth from his blood, he had achieved this kindled state of oneness with all the world, which is the end of youth's most passionate desire." --D.H. Lawrence
Distilled Spirit Manager
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