Saturday, February 4, 2017

Calvados – The Most Famous Apple Brandy in the World. Calvados on French Menus.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman

A Calvados snifter.
A Calvados shot glass is also acceptable.
Calvados is the department in Normandy that gave its name to three different AOC/AOP Calvados apple brandies. This is the only non-grape brandy that is considered, and I do not disagree, to be on a par with the world’s most famous grape brandies, Cognac and Armagnac. 

The beginning.
An old cider press.

The term Calvados covers three very different AOC/AOP apple brandies.  The names may confuse as apart from the three Calvados AOC/AOP apple brandies there is the Normandy administrative department of Calvados and a Calvados IGP wine. Calvados brandy, one or other of the three types, is produced in nearly all parts of Normandy.  Of interest to some, like me, who wonder at the changes wrought by politicians, one of the results of the French revolution border changes is that a small amount of Calvados is also made outside Calvados in the region of the Pays de la Loire.

N.B. The regions of Haute-Normandie, upper Normandie, and Bass Normandie, lower Normandy, ceased to exist on 1-1-2015 when the two regions were combined into a single region called Normandie.  In this manner, France hopes to save administrative costs. For details on this and other newly created French super regions click here.
All these three brandies use names for age groups in a similar manner to Cognac and blended Armagnac along with each producer’s own declarations of age.
The three AOC/AOP Calvados brandies:
Calvados  AOC/AOP

Calvados  AOC/AOP - The first and the most well-known Calvados is produced in nearly all the departments of Normandy from North to South and accounts for some 70% of Calvados production.

Calvados casks aging
Photograph courtesy of Søren Hugger Møller
Calvados Pays d'Auge AOC/AOP

Calvados Pays d'Auge AOC –  The second most well-known Calvados is made in the old Normandy region of Pays d'Auge, and that includes parts of the departments of Calvados, Orne and Eure.

Calvados Domfrontais AOC/AOP –

Calvados Domfrontais AOC - The third Calvados and the last to be awarded an AOC/AOP. This Calvados has a unique and distinctive taste being an apple brandy made with at least 30% pear cider, or rather a pear eau-de-vie and that provides for a very different taste.  It is mostly produced in the departments of Orne, Manche, and Mayenne. Calvados Domfrontais AOC requires aging for a minimum of three-years of in oak barrels and represents only 1% of the total production of Calvados.

Blending Calvados.
The cellar master of each Calvados producer must work to allow each blended brandy to have a distinctive taste that can be repeated year after year, as with a different taste in every bottle the customers would not be returning.
All the three types of Calvados AOC are 40% alcohol brandies and made from cider or Perrier that is distilled to become an apple brandy and then aged for at least two years in oak barrels. (Domfrontais three years).  Most Calvadoses are now distilled twice as that allows for a smoother taste in even the youngest products.
The ages of blended Calvados.
The age on the label of blended Calvadoses uses letters and words that refer to the youngest brandy in the blend. Even if 1% of a younger eau-de-vie is included it dooms the blend to that lower age group; that is all bottle may show.  High-quality calvados often includes eau-de-vies that are much older than that indicated by the label; nevertheless, in the same manner as all blended Calvadoses, the label may only show the youngest brandy in the blend.
The ages of Calvados on the label.

Fine - Fine Calvados, Trois Étoiles - Three Stars ***, and Trois Pommes, the pictures of three apples - These indicate the youngest Calvados in a blend, and they will have been matured for at least two years in oak barrels. My advice when these are on the wine-list is to pass on them if you can pay for a one or two-step upgrade.  It is worthwhile to get at least a Vieux or preferably a V.S.O.P. Calvados; they will be much smoother and richer than the younger brandies.

Vieux, Old, or Réserve, Reserved - These names on the label indicates brandies that been barrel aged for at least three years

A VSOP and an XO Calvados.

 V.O. Very Old, Vieille Réserve,  Old Réserve,  V.S.O.P. Very Superior Old Pale - These brandies will have been barrel aged for at least three years.

Extra, Napoléon, XO,  Extra Old, Hors d'Age, To old to determine or Age Inconnu, Age unknown These Calvadoses are at least six years old, but are often sold with descriptions that indicate they are older.  There is no official standard for a Calvados over 6 years old and any markings indicating that they are 20 years old etc. have no legal meaning. The producer’s interest in protecting his or her reputation is considered enough of a guarantee that he or she only makes a product whose age is accepted by his or her competitors.
Millesimes – Vintages.
A Calvados vintage, much like that of a wine, indicates that the Calvados comes from a single year of harvest; that is a year that was exceptionally good  and from the same distillation, the one whose year is specified on the label. When this happens, the label carries that year, or rather the year the brandy was distilled. However, a vintage for Calvados, again like that of a wine does not indicate how long the brandy was in oak barrels. I was in a Cider, Pommeau and Calvados shop in Normandy where the sales assistant was trying to sell me a bottle of twenty-year-old Calvados. It may well have been twenty years old but Calvados, once bottled, does not improve much, and the label did not indicate how long the brandy had been in wood.  I chose another bottle from a well-known producer that showed it was had spent ten 10 years maturing in oak barrels.  Look carefully for the year of bottling on the label.  That year less the year of the distillation tells the real age of the brandy.

Other Calvados names
Other names such as Special Reserve, Age d'Or, Golden Age, etc. are the producers’ creations and have no legal meaning. These names are added to the official grades at the owner’s choosing and are personal decisions. Any difference in cost for added words on the label will require your own decision and your credit card. 

A Trou Normand

A Trou Normand is a small drink of Calvados taken between courses during a very long meal, often now served as a sorbet. The idea is that the Calvados will reawaken the digestive juices.

Calvados Fermier

Another name that will be on some labels and does have a real meaning is Calvados Fermier.  Calvados Fermier, farm produced Calvados, means that the farm that grew the apples also made the product; this was the traditional form of production. While it is nice to know that the producer also grew and looked after the apples and made his or her own Calvados those words still say nothing about the age.

Aging Calvados.
Calvados on French Menus: 

Terrine de Sanglier au Calvados – A pate of wild boar flavored with Calvados. The pate will have come from a farmed wild boar; a real wild boar would have been noted as sanglier sauvage.
Travers de Porc Grillé Sauce au Miel et au Calvados- Grilled pork spare ribs served with a sauce of honey and Calvados.

Tarte Tatin Flambée au Calvados, Crème Épaisse Fermière Tarte Tatin flambéed with Calvados and served with a thick 30% cream.

A Calvados apple orchard and visitors at dusk.
Rognons de Veau aux Pommes – Veal kidneys prepared with Calvados and served with slices of apple.

Pomme Aux Amandes Tuile Croustillante Au Chantilly - Calvados apple and almond tile shaped biscuits served with Chantilly cream. Tuiles are thin flat, tile-like cookies often including almonds.
Éventail de Magret de Canard - Sauce au Calvados et Pommes Fruit Caramélisées – Thin slices of duck breast laid out in the shape of a fan and served with a Calvados sauce, and caramelized fruits.

Filet Mignon Sauce Calvados et ses Légumes – A pork fillet, the tenderloin, served with a Calvados sauce and vegetables. A filet Mignon in France is not a USA filet Mignon.  The French created the word, and the USA changed its usage.  A French filet mignon without any other indication will be a cut from a pork filet.

Apple and Calvados Trifle
The amateurs, the lovers, of Calvados
Be careful in Normandy if you meet up with the local lovers of Calvados, they will honor their favorite by spending hours carefully explaining all the various attributes; they will fill you with legends and glasses of Calvados while carrying on non-stop.  You will be in for a long evening; you will be told why each of these Norman apple brandies is far more complex and far more unique creations than the famous wine brandies of Armagnac and Cognac.  Even if you do not fall asleep at the table, these same knowledgeable individuals will drink you under it.

The different Calvados growing regions.
Photograph courtesy of Pininterest.
Normandy (and Brittany and part of the Pays de Loire) has many cider producers that also produce Pommeau. Pommeau is a light 16-18% alcohol apéritif made with apple juice and a young apple brandy. In Normandy, the most famous is the Pommeau de Normandie  AOC/AOP.  The Norman and Brittany and Pay de Loire Pommeaus will await another post. For an introduction to the ciders of France click here.

The origin of the word brandy.
The Dutch were among the most influential wine traders in the Old and New Worlds, and they were the first serious buyers of the wines from the area now called Cognac. When the Dutch brought the wines from the area that would become Cognac, they transported them, in barrels, to Holland.  Unfortunately, back in Holland, they found these wines did not travel well and would not sell as wine. To safeguard their investment, the Dutch distilled these not so brilliant wines into liquor; the result was an excellent liquor.  The Dutch called this liquor brandewijn, meaning burnt wine. Brandewijn was the word that would become brandy.
The Dutch realized that distilling the wines where they were made would save lots of space on their ships. The Calvados producers need 27 kg of apples or 20 liters of cider to obtain 1 liter of Calvados. Distilling the liquor in the area before shipping was a crucial decision. In the first case it saved the Dutch shipping costs, and in the second instance, this allowed the French to see that this was a growing business.  The French copied the Dutch and opened their own distilleries; then they came up with a second distillation that is still used today; that second distillation allows for a smoother liquor.
Calvados wines.
Calvados  PGI  wines are reds, rose, and white wines produced in the department of Calvados, These the Calvados are the most northerly PGI vineyards in France.
The other joys of Normandie
Normandy is home to much more than Calvados. From Normandy comes some of France's most famous cheeses including Camembert AOP, Pavé d’Auge AOP, Livarot AOP, Pont l’Evêque AOP, Neufchatel AOP and Brillat-Savarin among others. Also from Normandy comes some of France's best butter including Beurre d'Isigny AOC/AOP and the best Crème Fraiche AOP.   Dining in Normandy also includes some of France best veal, sea fish, seafood, and lamb.

Calvados and the Second World War.
Calvados is also a department, an administrative district, for part of Normandy and it is home to Omaha Beach; here the Allies first landed on June 6, 1944. From here and other beaches in Normandie named Gold, Juno, Utah, and Sword they began the long and bloody trek that finally brought WWII in Europe to a close and ended the horror that was Nazi Germany.

WWII Landings at Calvados
Photograph courtesy of PhotosNormandie
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Bryan G. Newman

Behind the French Menu
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