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  • The history of Calvados – Apples, pears and legends

    The apple is probably one of the oldest fruits known to man and belongs to the rose family probably easier to see by studying the rose like flower of the tree. It is believed that the ancestors of the apple originated from a tree still found wild in Kazakhstan between the Caspian and the Black Sea. The Pear belongs to the same family as the apple, the ancestor of the cider pear is the “poirasse”, found in the wild forests in the west of France. The lush valleys of Seine and Eure were home to some of the first humans, the Cro-Magnons, they ate wild apples and pears and preserved them in slices by drying them in the sun. The early writings of the Egyptians, Babylonians and Chinese talk of the gardens of Ramses II and the gardens of the Nile were planted with apples. The Romans planted many varieties recorded by agronomists like Cato Pliny and Palladius who lived in the third century BC and it is said that the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was the apple and symbolised as the fruit of love, beauty and health. The term “apple of our eye” is used when referring to someone we prize or love.

    The exact origin of pressing fruit and fermenting the juice is not certain. Historians believe that the Egyptian and Byzantine civilisations made a sort of cider in the times before Christ and other civilisations had developed a form of alcoholic beverage from the simplicity of the spontaneous fermentation. The ingredients are of course simple, liquids with sugar from the fruits, grains or honey, natural yeast and air, a combination which can often occur together where quantities of fruits and their juice are stored. The areas of Normandy, Basque Provinces and the southern part of England have a tradition of making cider. The Celts and Gallic tribes are known to have cultivated wild apple trees, maintaining them in the forests and considering them as sacred. In 56 BC Caesar’s Roman legions fought their way north through France and eventually invaded Britain. With the Romans came major developments, Christianity and the opening of major new trade routes and in the centuries that followed orchards including apple trees and vines were appropriated by monasteries all over Normandy and Europe. Stabon, a Greek historian, describes the abundance of apple trees in Gaul, an area of Normandy but also mentions the “phitarra”, in the Basque regions – a beverage made by boiling sliced apples with honey.

  • The history of calvados – Introduction

    Throughout history apples have been closely related to Normandy, the large section of coast facing north across the English Chanel stretching from Cherbourg in the west to Rouen in the east and encompassing five departments, Manche, Calvados, Orne, Eure and Seine Maritime covering thousands of square kilometres. Of course the area is famous for its coast and the pastures and farmlands like the Bocage with its gentle hills and hedgerows. The coastal Cliffs of Etretat and further along towards the peninsulas of Manche and Cotentin are of course the famous areas of the D Day landings, where the sea has carved out small coves among the granite cliffs. Gigantic tides sometimes reaching several metres high give way to wonderful sea foods and in particular oysters.

    The soil unlike that of the Cognacaise is rich and fertile, the humid climate and rainfall is relatively predictable. It is a land of food in particular cheese, cream and butter and is sometimes referred to as the Paris Larder. It is the land of the Camembert, the famous soft cheese but many other rich foods such as meats and fruits are grown in abundance and shipped throughout the world from the ports along the coast such as Le Havre, Cherbourg and some of the smaller ports Deauville, Honfleur and Caen. But of course it is the cidres and the distilled Cidre of Calvados that the region is most famous for that is produced from the many varieties of apples and pears grown in the orchards seen along the roads as you drive south from the ports.

    The department of Calvados is situated in the middle of Normandy and includes the towns of Cambremer, Lisieux, Livarot and Pont l’Eveque. The green hills and valleys of the main Calvados region, the Pays d’Auge is the finest region for what many Normans will call the healthiest of the French brandies for no other reason than it is made from apples, deemed healthy by the Normans who have lived off the land and its rich pickings for centuries. It is a land of history with the footprints of great names such as William the Conqueror, Joan of Arc, Monet and Marcel Proust. It is the land of the Normans, perhaps the most closely related to the English and where many of our ancestors have crossed the Channel and set up over the centuries.  Over the coming months we will explore the land, the history and product.

  • The Good & Great Cognac Houses- Augier Frere

    It is probably appropriate that in looking at the finest and great cognac houses that we should start with what is claimed to be the oldest cognac firm, that of Augier Freres & Co, established in 1643.

    However, all that can be said with any certainty was that an Augier was already in business in the 1680’s. Another house called Ransons was said to have been in dispute with Augier over a brandy monopoly in 1604 but Ranson, later to become Ransons Delamain had worked with Augier in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Other early names included Richard, Guérinet, Brunet and Lallemand, a relation of the early Martells.

    Two members of the Augier family, Emile and Philppe appear in the records but their early history is unclear. What is rather less clear though is the passage of Augier through time. They appear to have moved from buyers to Negoçiant's and traded cognacs to and from Ireland, Holland and Germany but as the passage of time passed, they became involved with other cognac houses initially with Briand and eventually they were sold to Seagram in 1966 .

    Martell bought Seagram in 1987 who had bought out the Firino Martell family stake and had also acquired the firm of Jules Robin. By the end of the 20th Century Seagram’s Martell was failing badly and Seagram decided to sell off it’s drinks portfolio to Pernod Ricard, who placed Martell in their luxury goods markets and since then the firm has expanded.

    Regrettably Augier exists in name only today and bottles bearing the name have gained in value. The Augier cognacs were all distilled in traditional Charentais stills and were aged naturally making them of good quality. Many of the grapes came from the Champagnes and Borderies. Very few bottles still remain today, but a bottle of 1820 was recently sold at auction for about £4000.

  • The Good & Great Cognac Houses - Camus

    The Good & Great Cognac Houses

    Camus is said to be Cognacs fifth largest producer  and the biggest still in the hands of an individual family. Nearly 90% of all it’s sales are outside France and much goes to the duty free markets.

    The firm was founded in 1863 by a consortium of growers headed by Jean-Baptist Camus who added his name to that of the group before his death in 1898. Camus depended largely on sales to Russia during the 19th century and was the exclusive supplier to the Tsar where sales were in barrels. The Russian revolution put a stop to all that and the firm had to refocus on bottle sales to restaurants. Michel Camus, the grandson of the founder built the firm up after he took over in 1934 at the tender age of 23 but after the war the firm was in a bad way and sales dropped considerably.

    However, in the 1960’s the firm was approached by two young Americans who wanted to sell their cognacs to the duty free markets at airports. The Americans found it difficult to obtain credit and M Camus was the only Cognaçais who offered to help. The firm was called Duty Free Shoppers (DFS), who now control more than half of all the duty free sales at the worlds airports and as a result of  M Camus’s early support have stayed loyal to Camus ever since. Michel Camus rebuilt the trade with the Russians, they did a deal to market exclusively a Russian vodka in France and their sales have gradually increased.

    The family still own 125 hectares of vine at Château d’Uffaut at Bonneuil in Grande Champagne. The domain produces only about 6% of the firms needs and the rest has to be brought in from other producers. The firm has never been cash rich and hold very little stock themselves. Today the firm is run by the 5th generation son, Cyril Camus who became marketing director in 1998 and president in 2004.

  • The Good & Great Cognac Houses - Chateau de Beaulon

    Certainly not one of the biggest houses, but this delightful chateau which is situated close to the Gironde has to be one of the prettiest and certainly one of the best, albeit in a part of the Charente not associated with fine cognacs. The firm which is situated at Saint-Dizant-du-Gua sits on a particularly fine strata of chalk which allows the vine roots to penetrate deep.

    Beaulon claims to have records dating back to 1712 when references to grape distillation appear but the Chateau is even older dating from 1480 in the reign of King Louis XI, the de Beaulon family moved in, in 1510. Between 1543 and 1574 the estate belonged to François Beaulon counsel to Henry II who of course was married to Eleanor of Aquataine. The history is indeed magnificent.

    Tradition is very much part of the splendour of the Chateau for the grape varieties also include Folle Blanche and Colombard for their cognacs, the Folle being the pre-phylloxera variety used extensively before the plague. The estate extends to 90 hectares (220 acres), but some is planted with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot for red Pineau des Charente and  Sémillons and Sauvignon for white Pineau for which the firm has won many awards.

    The estate is now owned by Christian Thomas whose green credentials are noted as cognacs most ecological distiller. He uses only fish meal as fertiliser and has recently installed large purification tanks but perhaps most importantly M Thomas is most emphatic that they never use additives of any sort. The firm, has progressed a long way over the centuries and is now regarded as one of the finest producers in Fins Bois. Indeed the small sector of land that this cognac house occupies is hotly contested since ecology of the area is said to be of higher quality than the Borderies to the north of Cognac.

    Cognacs for sale by Chateau de Beaulon

  • The Good & Great Cognac Houses - Croizet

    The firm was founded in 1805 and probably has one of the most intriguing histories of all the old houses. The Croizet family have been growing grapes since the 17th century and has always been important. Léon Croizet was awarded the Legion d’Honneur for the part he played in helping to replant the vineyards after the Phylloxera. He went to America and found resistant root stock onto which all modern cognac vines are now grafted. In 1892 a Mlle Croizet married a M Eymard (the reserve des Héritiers still carries the wedding photograph), the firm was run by Eymards  from that date until recently when it was bought by a Russian Oligarch.

    The firm has around 150 hectares of vineyard mostly based in Grande Champagne but it did have some vineyards which it sold in the Borderies. It produced some of the loveliest cognacs tasted, unfortunately they were sold to develop more in the top cru. What perhaps is the most impressive aspect of  the firm is their collection of old pre-phylloxera cognacs which at one time was greater than 4000 bottles, many dating from around 1858. One of their great cognacs was the 1928 which was produced from the greatly favoured corner of Fins Bois just north of their headquarters in St Même-les-Carrières an area which several of their cognacs were based upon but not owned by the the firm. Indeed it requires to buy in nearly half of its eaux de vie from other producers.

    It is said that the French authorities were so impressed with the firms bookkeeping that they were allowed to sell some of their cognacs as coming from specific vintages. This unfortunately was only good in the mid 20th century since by the 1990’s the paperwork for a large consignment of cognac sent to Russia went missing and resulted in a big fine of millions of euro’s.

  • The Good & Great Cognac House - Chateau Montifaud

    Perhaps this is one of cognac’s little gems or maybe just lucky to have found a slice of land that is both ideal for their needs and of sufficient size to make adequate wines for their needs. The Vallet family who run this rather modern looking Chateau are now in their sixth generation, the vineyard was created by Augustin Vallet in 1837 and over the years he has been succeeded by Pierre, Maurice, Louis and Michel. In 2000 Laurent Vallet has joined his father as the sixth generation to run this fine house.

    The firm is situated in Petite Champagne d’Archiac and currently has about 75 hectares of vine which makes on current production permits around 700 hectolitres of pure spirit or around 170,000 bottles of cognac every year. Their style is lighter than others around the area and they use a small percentage of both Colombard and Folle Blanche in with the Ugni Blanc. The firm distil on the lees and this together with the added fruitiness of the Colombard grapes creates a fruity style reminiscent of Apricots.

    Perhaps though, the most interesting thing about this firm is that although they are firmly situated in Petite Champagne, they also have a small vineyard which is in Grande Champagne and is used almost exclusively for the production of a ten year old cognac of a most magical style and showing extremely soft and well balanced properties.

    The family tradition is that when a new family member comes into the business a quantity of cognac from that year is laid aside for future generations and stocks of old cognacs in their cellars still date from 1920. Montifaud’s production is modern and control of SO2 is good thus preventing oxidation of the wines after crushing. They use no additives and ageing is natural with a percentage of their vintage cognacs being aged in Tronçais oak barrels.

  • Did you know? Distillation

    Distillation is essentially a physical rather than a chemical action and is in effect the concentration of a wine mixture or fermented fruit or grain. It is a means of separating the constituents of a liquid mixture by partial vaporisation of the mixture and the separate recovery of the vapour and the alcoholic residue. In the case of making brandy, the grapes must conform to strict standards, mainly to control their quality and defects since both are concentrated in the distillation. The grapes used to make fine brandy have to combine both acidity and fruitiness but in cheaper distillations such as pomace brandy the pips and skins are also used. The main quality required is for the wines to be “clean”, the term generally implies free from sulphur dioxide which can occur if the grapes are left too long before crushing. The principle of distillation is simplicity itself, the process is designed to remove the alcohol which boils at 78.3°C and other impurities in the wine from the water which is the bulk of the liquid and then capturing the alcohol separately. The alcoholic steam rises to the head of the still before condensing through a series of pipes back to a liquid.

  • Pineau des Charentes is back in Fashion in the search for exclusive summer drinks.

    Pineau des Charentes has always been the drink which everybody likes but nobody can ever remember how to buy. Almost without exception, people who taste the rich and fruity drink for the first time are totally hooked on it and swear they will buy more at the first opportunity. So where are the orders? A good question, it seems that having tasted the first bottle potential customers lose contact from where they found out about it and then forget all about it.

    This year Brandy Classics are introducing a new Vintage 1995 Pineau des Charentes in 50cl bottles. It is a real find since it was matured in Chateau Y’quem casks  and apart from being totally unique, it is positively delicious. There are of course other Pineau’s from the wonderful Chateau de Beaulon and naturally the 5 y.o. is our top seller in both white and red. The white can be used in the summer cocktail Pineau Royale, Served on ice it is a combination of 50% of each white Pineau and fizzy mineral water, lemon juice and a few shots of cognac, magic for the garden! Other must haves include the fabulous Cassagnoles White Armagnac, an ideal mixer with a strong pruney taste, probably a challenge for all the mixologists in our midst. Whatever the drinks, we have them in stock, awaiting your call for a bit of summer adventure.

  • The Good & Great Cognac Houses - Delamain

    Delamain is one of the oldest cognac houses, it’s history dates back to around 1759 when James Delamain returned from Ireland. The family had emigrated there in 1625 in the suite of Henrietta Maria, the sister of the French King Louis XIII and wife of Charles I.

    Three years after his return he joined his father in law, Isaac Ranson, perhaps one of the most famous names in 18th century negoçiant's. La Rochelle was widely regarded by foreigners around 1700 as the port where brandies were shipped and the Ransons were believed to be trading around 1700 but were involved in a famous brandy dispute in 1604. After James Delamain returned from Ireland, Isaac Ranson gave James the Paris business which effectively safeguarded him from the Irish recession in the early 1760’s. The firm became known as Ranson & Delamain and were almost certainly the biggest shippers at the time and were associated with other famous names such as Augier, Richard, Guérinet, Brunet and Riget.

    In the early 19th century the Delamains cousins, the Roullets entered the business and it became known as Roullet & Delamain, a name which existed for more than a hundred years. By 1920 the firm reverted back to just Delamain and remains a family firm: mothers and grandmothers of the directors Alain Braastard and Patrick Peyrelongue were nêe Delamain. The firm is now managed by Alain’s son Charles is situated on the Charente at Jarnac and supplies quite oaky cognacs from its attractive cellars.

    Many of the cognacs it supplies are quite pale in colour and giving rise to the best known brand, Pale and Dry. Today, and for commercial reasons most of their more modern cognacs contain sugar syrup and caramel but some of their early vintages are regarded by many as traditional English cognacs.

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