Although calvados can be dated back to Napoleonic times when it was used both as an anaesthetic and antiseptic in Napoleon’s navy, most calvados is relatively modern. However, you can still buy rare calvados which dates from the first half of the twentieth century. Calvados is made from a cidre which is produced from the apple orchards in Normandy. Apples are not generally acidic enough to start the distillation and so most firms also combine a small quantity of an acidic pear known as a Perry Pear. It is for this reason that most young calvados carry a distinctive pear drop aroma but this will start to mellow after 10 or 12 years and provide a richer apple flavour. Calvados distilled before 1960 are considered as very rare and can therefore attract quite high prices.
How to make Calvados
It is common practice with most calvados producers to put the age of the spirit in the bottle on the label, but it is not a requirement and can be confusing. Some producers put the minimum age, but older calvados may be in the bottle.
Vintages can also be used but whilst it normally refers to the year of distillation it can also refer to the year of the apple harvest. Some of the generic terms as used in the cognac industry are also used but they mainly refer to very young spirits; for example VO or VSOP refers to a spirit aged for a minimum of 4 years, whilst XO or Extra refers to one of 6 years. Where a vintage is shown it refers to the year of distillation. Terms such as Tradition, Vieux, Vieille Reserve, Cordon Or, Cordon Argent or even Hors d’Age also add to the confusion.
The indication of alcohol is also required in France and shows the percentage by volume of alcohol. The term “Non Reduit” (not reduced), can sometimes be seen on the label (it is refreshing that at least in Calvados they can admit that their spirit is in most cases required to be reduced). The traditional calvados bottle is rather dumpy with a long neck and rather like the other great brandies has been traditionally green or even black in colour, thus preventing sight of the liquid inside. Some special shape bottles and a range of more modern designs are now commonly available - Chateau du Breuil is easily recognised for it’s phallic like neck, but some taller bottles are also available and a range of carafes also seem to be finding their way onto the market. Regrettably label design has never been exciting and remains firmly in the hands of the traditionalist.
All we can add at this point is to open a bottle this Christmas and enjoy. It’s an exceptionally fine spirit!
Most of the flavours in the calvados comes from the skins of the apples rather than the pulp. The equipment required for making the cider comprises of a grater tank, a press and a vat called a “belleron”.
In the press house the apples are washed, selected and then crushed or grated. The pulp is left to stand for a few hours in a vat to macerate. This softens the skins and extracts the tannins and aromas and at the same time oxidises, changing the colour of the pulp. The pulp is then pressed and the solids, known as the marc is separated and sometimes sold as feed for the farm animals. Usually the juice from quality fruit is pressed once and the output will not exceed 65% of the weight, however it is possible to produce up to 90% by wetting the marc and re-pressing and providing a juice of lower concentration. The traditional press is made of wooden trays with linen stacked one on top of the other and pressed from the top but more modern methods employ cylindrical presses similar to those used for making cognac. It provides a juice that is both hygienic and retaining the colour and flavours of the apples.
Fermentation of the cider for distillation is continued until crisp and dry unlike that used for drinking and referred to as “cider bouche”. The fermentation takes place in large oak barrels which have thinner walls than barrels for ageing and the cider ferments on its lees, the yeasty sediment for six to eight weeks before taking it out of its lees. Some quality producers can keep it in the barrels for anything up to a year. The minimum strength of the cider for distillation is 4.5% but most producers will ferment it to 5, 6 or even 7%. Ciders for drinking are stored in open vats where the pectin in the apple will clear most of the impurities.
The harvest of apples starts around the beginning of October and continues through to nearly Christmas since apples, unlike grapes ripen at different times and are also harvested at different stages of ripeness. Indeed one producer uses fallen apples which have a greater sugar and reduced water content thus making a sweeter cidre.
The apples and pears are defined cider varieties and must be grown in the appellation zone. The amount of pears used varies between the areas but cannot exceed on third unless the calvados comes from Domfrontais. Perhaps the most important area of control is the style of orchard and the quantity of apples allowed to be used. Two types are common: 1 “Haut-tige” (high stem or high branch) planted pasture style 10 metres apart and with a density of 70 – 180 trees per hectare (40 trees minimum for pears). The yield should not exceed 20 tonnes of apples per hectare and the first harvest must wait untilo the seventh year from planting. 2 “Basse–tige” (low stem or low branch). This is the tighter modern planting style with a density of 400 – 750 trees per hectare and the harvest must wait until the third year of planting, the output from these trees is around 40 tonnes per ha. The quality, transportation and storage are all regulated by authorities. The traditional high stem trees are at their best around 18 years from planting whilst the low stem trees take only about 8 years to be at full maturity.
Most producers will use a range of bitter and bittersweet apples and the flavours can influence the calvados although the pears will affect the flavour in the first 10 years providing a pear drop effect on the palate but which gradually decreases as the calvados matures developing a richer and deeper quality and thus masking the pungent pear aroma and taste.