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  • Serious shortage of aged Cognacs

    BNIC Statistics for March 2010 have revealed that stocks of old cognacs used by the big houses has dropped to one of the lowest levels ever, with only 2.9% of 4 and 5 year old stocks available for blending and 1.8% of stocks over 6 years old. In comparison, new cognacs, which are up to 1 year old are 64.4%

    This indicates that blended cognacs such as VS and VSOP from the big houses will require to be even younger to meet the increasing demands of consumers, especially in America where sales, particularly those of Hennessey have increased and are now better than the pre-recession 2008 level. China, Hong Kong and Taiwan have all increased their purchases considerably over the last 12 months.

  • How to make Calvados – Label, Bottles, Age and Presentation.

    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!

  • How to make Calvados – Making the Cider

    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.

  • How to make Calvados – Viticulture, the fruit for the cidre.

    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.

  • The history of Calvados – Post-war

    Of all the areas of France affected by the war, Normandy suffered the most . The neglecting of the farms and orchard were miner to the mass destruction and devastation of houses, factories and transport not to mention the death of civilians and famine in the area. Huge support was poured into the area by the allies and the region returned to a relatively rapid industrial recovery. In 1949 there were 29 larger cider houses and distilleries in the Pays d’Auge but even into 1950 the alcohol required by the government for munitions was more than 50% of that produced. However by 1953 the governments need had declined and a political decision was made to cut down on production and concentrate on quality. By 1956 the government stopped supporting the calvados industry and combined with land redistribution and rural depopulation resulted in the decline of traditional farmhouse production. There was little will to produce quality products, partly as a result of bad decisions having been made concerning varieties, distillation and ageing including State decisions to dig up and replant varieties. However, in the Pays d’Auge the tradition remains quite strong and the area produces more than a third of the apples in Lower Normandy.

    Modern agriculture has changed the Pays d’Auge from the 1980’s with the replacement of the “haut-tiges”, (high stem), trees with low stem orchards which are more productive and provide a faster return on the investment at the expense in some cases of quality. In most cases these are used for cider production. Significantly though some familial orchards still plant the high stem trees where quality is still part of the family calvados tradition thus maintaining the quality calvados from the region and in 1984 the remake of the appellation system agreed to provide guarantees to the quality of the calvados and all the companies were obliged to follow the appellation rules to guarantee a level of quality of both the calvados and Pommeau, the little known sweet aperitif made from the distilled eau de vie and cidre which when served cold is not dissimilar to the Pineau from Cognac and Flox from Armagnac regions.

  • The history of Calvados – World War 2

    The German occupation of Normandy was centred around the town of Caen in the north. They set up a sort of control centre called a “Kommandantur” in the Town Hall, which was able to make systematic requisitions of alcohols produced in France. However the system bypassed cognac and armagnac as they were “Labels of Origin” – even in wartime one needs a good drink! However the calvados image was not good and in an effort to improve it and to withdraw the regionally produced calvados from the requisitions, it became recognised with an appellation d’origine in 1942. The industry was protected and effectively became the third great brandy of France from that point.

    The system created three types of appellation. Firstly there was calvados from the Pays d’Auge or Calvados d’appellation controlee Pays d’Auge made of apples from controlled orchards in Pays d’Auge. Then came the second type being AOR which came from ten selected areas, the best known being calvados du Domfrontais followed by calvados du Peche, calvados du Merlerault, calvados du Cotentin, calvados de l’Avranchin, calvados du Pays de la Risle, calvados du Pays de Bray, calvados du Montainais, and calvados du Pays du Merlerault. All of these areas were combined into one appellation in 1984  known as AOC. There was however a third type for the remaining brandy and cider production from other areas which also included Brittany called the Eaux de Vie de Cidre Réglementée (cider brandy from regulated and controlled origin).

    The war had a serious effect on Normandy, especially the cider and calvados producing area. Apart from the damage caused by bombing and shelling of the towns (especially Caen), the orchards became neglected. The importance of the orchards fades into oblivion when compared to the huge military operations such as Overlord and the huge loss of life in the area. Despite the horrors of war veterans witnessed pleasant encounters with the locals who dug up barrels and bottles which had been hidden from the Germans to share with the troops. Some went through the rest of the campaign with two canteens, one for water, the other for wounds.

  • The history of Calvados – 20th Century War and Peace.

    By the turn of the 20th century calvados production had increased from 56,300 hl in 1882 to well over 300,000hl in 1900. The area of Pays d’Auge was established as the major producing territory.  Most of the cider production remained where the orchards were but several cider factories settled in larger cities. Practically every canton had a distillery making a total of around 50 at the beginning of the 20th century and rising to 70 in 1914. The quality was enhanced with new techniques such as centrifugation and filtration which was controlled by regulations. Many merchants bought calvados at the farms and sold it to traders and shippers at the ports. In the country, travelling stills moving from farm to farm were common. Names like Paulette, Desbouillons and Toutin were known and had several stills on the move.

    The First World War brought to an end to the good times for calvados. The orchards were a long way from the war zones but the government requisitioned all the apples and cider to make the alcohol for the armament industry. Even though a lot of alcohol was made, the development in the farms and the quality of the cider and brandy came to a halt.

    The war spread the word of calvados. In the shell holes and trenches soldiers from all over France and from other countries as well fought their common enemy. Occasionally they got some respite and foods and drinks were passed around. For the first time in their lives soldiers got to taste the Normandy speciality and those lucky enough to survive took the acquired taste home with them. For the cider industry the war was bad as the soldiers had developed a taste for stronger drinks like wine and brandy in the trenches and after the war years the cider and calvados industry failed to address their markets needs, wines had started to take the lion’s share of the local market.  The guaranteed income generated by the sales of apples to the government had made most producers content. In 1923, parallel to the industrial production efforts, one Baron Leroy who was president of the National institute of Labels of  Origin created a label of origin for the cider and calvados industry which was to become the industry standard in the next great war.

  • The history of Calvados – The Golden age of Distillation.

    During the eighteenth century, industrialisation had started and people had started to take jobs in the towns and in 1831 an Irishman, A Coffey designed a still that revolutionised the making of quality spirits. The “columnstill” or Coffeystill consisted of columns with a series of vapourisation chambers stacked one on top of the other. The difference from the Alembic still was dramatic as the columnstill could produce a continuous never ending flow. The French author Rousel, specified that a good part of the production of cider and brandy was intended for the navy and ships which left for fishing cod in Newfoundland. The rural population was in decline but the towns were growing and the coffee culture were opening bars and bistros to serve the nearby factories where coffee calva was served to promote the working class comfort. To the majority of the French working class these cafés became far more than places to eat and drink, they were an escape from the hard working life and places where ideas could be exchanged.

    During the nineteenth century, the interest for natural science grew and the local worthies became fascinated by apples orchards and cider. Much was written on the subjects and a man called Odolon-Desnos listed hundreds of varieties of apples and pears in his book published in 1829 Traité de la Culture des Pommiers et des Poiriers et de la Fabrication du cidre et du Poiré. The first pomological association was created in Rouen in 1852 and expanded in 1883 to Saint Lo with l’Association Pomologique de l’Ouest and in 15 years included the whole of France in l’Association Française Pomologique.

    The big break for calvados was still to come and came with the help of a small louse named phylloxera vastatrix which around 1874 had started to chew the vine roots in Europe. It knocked out the competition from wine and wine brandies and suddenly calvados and cider became in high demand. The following years became the “Belle Epoque” or beautiful days. In Normandy hardly any vines were replanted and the market for cider and calvados would never be better. To meet demand the orchards almost quadrupled in thirty years from 4 million hectares in 1870 to 14 million hectares in 1900 and in 1889 Fabienne Cosset concluded that cider had replaced wine in Paris.

  • The history of Calvados – Fiscal Restraints and Natural Growth

    Louis XIV, often known as the Sun King, expanded the French colonies allowing trade to develop. Art and literature increased greatly but for many of his people these were bad times, due largely to wars, poverty and crippling levies and taxes. A further difficulty was to make life even harder in the seventeenth century in that Europe experienced severe climate changes, a period that was to become known as the little Ice Age.

    In Normandy wine producers suffered greatly and most pulled up their vines which had died due to the severe frosts and disease. This proved to be a natural advantage to the cider producers since the apple trees were not affected by the extreme cold. Brandy had started to become big business - but a man called Colbert, who was finance director for Louis XIV, decided that the State would like a slice of the action. He believed that the richness of a country is in the richness of its reserves in cash.  Two large ordinances in 1681 and 1687 imposed taxes and rigid controls on both production and sales of several kinds of products. Luckily for the wine brandies, the cider brandies were prohibited except where the production took place in Brittany, Maine and Normandy. The prohibition lasted until the French Revolution and gave cognac a head start in the domestic and export markets that calvados never regained.

    In the beginning of the eighteenth century the state set up nurseries and showed its interest in Normandy’s orchards, even encouraging competitions to stimulate the cider apple varieties. In 1758, the Canon of Caen, Charles Gabriel Porée made the first methodical classification of apples according to their flowering and harvesting periods. The majority of abbeys and convents had orchards and a press and produced ciders and cider brandies. Despite the Norman nobles and higher middle class who had prospered, the parliament in Rouen failed to set out its case against the prohibition regulations. In the eighteenth century, many of the French lived like villains and inspired by the Sun King kept a decadent lifestyle. The Revolution caused prices of food to rise rapidly and the Revolutionary Government promulgated “Tableaux de Maximum or the law of the maximum price but was abolished a year later due to the fight against inflation.

  • The history of Calvados – The Middle Ages

    France and particularly Normandy was ravaged by battles and desolation from the mid fourteenth century right through to the nineteenth century. The Black Death killed millions of people and the climate was turning colder. Farmers were ruined and people had to carefully store their food for the winter months, but apples provided the perfect food. Different varieties would fruit at different times, they could be dried and better still, ciders were made and stored.  At the beginning of this period there were more than three hundred varieties of apples.

    The port of Cherbourg became important and was a regular trading post for traders who travelled from Spain and further afield to the ports around the English and Dutch coasts. Spices, perfumes, timber and even dried meats were regularly traded with the fishermen and farmers in return for food and cider to help the sailors on their way with their cargoes. It soon became clear that different varieties of apple provided ciders of different colours and flavours which became classified by the apple name and producer.

    One of the pioneers of the industry was a man from the Basque Provinces, Guillaume d’Ursus. He brought new grafts of apples that were rich in tannin and acid, ideal for fermentation and together with Marin Onfrey, another pioneer, worked with Julien Le Paulmier, known as the Father of Cider Pomology, to make the area of Cotentin the cradle of the cider evolution.

    Le Paulmier wrote in the sixteenth century the treaty De Vino and Pomaco (Treaty of wine and cider). The book describes in detail around eighty varieties of apple and the techniques for pressing. He also pointed out that Cotentin “have the best soil for making excellent ciders while those produced in Pays d’Auge are potent and vigorous, but very often dense and badly clarified”, a reference to apples from the Domfrontais area or cru rather than the better known today, Pays d’Auge. Le Palmier had a great influence on the people, not least because he was the Kings physician, he praised the medical properties of apples. The health aspect combined with improved flavours made the ciders increasingly more popular and even the King was greatly impressed. Indeed Le Paulmier was probably the most influential name in the early history of calvados and beliefs in the medicinal benefits of the drink are still upheld today.

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