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  • 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.

  • The history of Calvados – Apples to Cidre

    We see apples today as very much part of our stable diet and thousands of varieties are available in the shops. In all probability these varieties have developed from the basic fruits cultivated by the Romans. Agronomists who lived in the third century BC talk of seven varieties and Pliny in the first century AD talks of 36 varieties. However many different apples there were, cross fertilisation has developed and greatly improved the fruits over the years into a fruit we enjoy to eat. Of course all this is fine if that is what we are going to do, simply eat the apples and indeed even turning them into a cider as we know it produces an agreeable mildly sweet drink which will ferment into an alcoholic beverage in a relatively short space of time.

    But that is no good for making calvados where distillation is required to reduce the cidre to a spirit and a level of acidity, usually undesirable in apple varieties grown for eating is used. Indeed so undesirable was this phenomenon that any apples found with this characteristic were sidelined for the sweeter and more pleasant eating fruits. Help was however at hand in the pear of which some varieties are known to have a higher level of acidity but even these were preferred sweeter and the Gallo-Roman Palladius tells us how the Romans prepared pear wines which they enjoyed with their cooking, there is mention in the Gourmand Apicius of a recipe of diced pork and Matien apples. There are still a few apples in existence which have a relatively high acidic value and indeed there is still at least one AOC calvados which is claimed to be made from only apples. The flavour is not one which is easily enjoyed, lacking in depth and complexity and it is easy to see how modern distillates have created greater depth of style and flavour.

    It was during the thirteenth century that the skills of press and crushing techniques were enhanced. Around Caen people drank cider but the first drink was ale or wines, however cider was regarded as a better drink than water. In addition cider was sold as “cider” yet suspicious names like Succus Malorium (malus is latin for apple), “succus pomis”, “pomatium”, and “piratium”. These reminded people of potions rather than a refreshing drink but little by little the term “cidre” would start to find its way back into the language until by the Renaissance it had become the word most used for the beverage.

  • 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.

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