Apotheosis of the Apple

Apotheosis of the Apple

We all experience epiphanies—moments of revelation that stay with us throughout our lives. Nobody who has read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man can forget young Stephen’s epiphany when he sees a girl wading on the beach and realizes that his destiny is to be an artist. It was, Joyce wrote, “a day of dappled seaborne clouds”.

On just such a dappled day I enjoyed a less momentous but still memorable epiphany on the island of Mont-St-Michel, off the Normandy coast. My children and I had climbed to the summit of the “mont” to visit the ancient abbey. All around us cheerful vacationers were sitting at sidewalk cafés enjoying galettes—Normandy’s version of crêpes—and some were pouring drinks from champagne-style bottles. It was, of course, cider. Crisp, cool and fruity, the drink was a revelation, an epiphany! In my student days cheap cider was a popular if astringent mindbender, but this was different. It was sophisticated. Young champagne has notes of apples, and this cider had notes of young champagne. No wonder they put it into champagne bottles. Best of all it was low enough in alcohol to allow more than one thirst-quenching glass.

I was converted. I became a Normandy cider apostle, and it is still a favorite summer drink. But then I had a second epiphany. In a now-forgotten bar in Paris I was extolling the virtues of French cider when somebody said, “well, if you like cider then you’ll like this because it is the very essence of cider.” And he (or maybe it was she) poured two glasses from a bottle proclaiming itself Calvados—named for the département in Normandy where it’s made from local cider. Hitherto I had tasted the distilled products of grape and grain, but again, this was different: the quintessence of cider, the apotheosis of apples, a sinuous, sensuous spirit hovering, like fruit on a tree, somewhere between heaven and earth.

Paradise redeemed

Hyperbole? I must confess that as I write these words I am sipping a lovely old Calvados, which may be influencing my prose. But to quote Field Marshal Montgomery, who landed on D-Day, liberating Normandy’s orchards and France, in that order:  “Time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted.” This article necessitated reconnaissance (try saying that after a few drinks), a re-familiarization with the subject matter. The result? After much research I can confidently claim that, although an apple may share the blame for Paradise lost, apples are doing their best, through Calvados, to seek redemption.

But not any old apples. To make great cider—and by extension good Calvados—you need special apples with names like Alouette, Amère à Longue Queue, Fleur de Juin and Peau de Vache Musquée. These are tight little specimens not much bigger than crab apples, with rosy cheeks like Manet’s barmaid at the Folies Bergère, and are often too tart to be eaten except by the cows grazing in Normandy’s orchards.

Normandy allegedly boasts some 800 different varieties of apple, but in practice some 50 specially grown varieties predominate, classified by cider makers into four types: douce (sweet), amère (bitter), douce-amère (bittersweet) and pommes acides (acidic or sharp). Each brings something to the party, ensuring that the resulting ciders have enough body (thanks to the tannins of the pommes amères), the correct balance, and the necessary liveliness or zing (merci, pommes acides).

Cider apples—and pears, which are also used for cider and Calvados in the Domfrontais area—are harvested in the fall, pulped and then pressed for juice, a process known as pilage or brassage. The juice is fermented to produce cider—or, in the case of pears, perry (poiré)—with an alcohol level of 3% to 7% depending on whether it is brut (driest and strongest), demi-sec (semisweet) or doux (sweetest and lowest in alcohol). Much of it is bottled immediately and sold as cidre bouché (literally corked cider), with further fermentation in the bottle giving it a fizzy mousse when opened.

Selected brut ciders are distilled to make a clear apple brandy, or eau de vie, with an alcoholic strength of around 70%. Like whisky and the grape brandies Cognac and Armagnac, this apple spirit is aged in oak barrels from which it absorbs tannin, wood sugars and other compounds (non-flavonoid phenolics like vanillin, if you really want to know), adding subtle flavors to the raw eau de vie and helping to tame its youthful aggressiveness.

Cider house rules

Just as French wine must obey strict regulations to earn an appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), quite a few rules govern Calvados production. Normandy’s apple trees must respect a certain planting density, depending on whether they are “haute tige” (high-stem) trees whose branches begin at a minimum height of 5.25 feet, or “basse tige” (low-stem) bushes whose branches can start lower. At least half the apples used in a pressing intended for Calvados must come from old-fashioned high-stem trees. Yields are also limited—fewer, tastier apples on the tree mean better quality cider/Calvados.

These rules give producers major headaches that have nothing to do with their Calva consumption, largely because apple trees are subject to the phenomenon of l’alternance: one year a tree groans with fruit, followed by a poor year as the tree rests and gears up for the next blockbuster harvest. But good year or bad, it takes roughly 22 lbs of cider apples to make one bottle of young Calva.

The many rules also go way beyond the orchards. Today cider distillation takes place mainly in so-called continuous or column stills (alambics à colonne), perfected by Irishman Aeneas Coffey in the 1830s. It is the most economical way to convert cider into eau de vie and most Calvados producers—usually small farmers—depend on ambulatory stills that tour the countryside over the winter. Not so the producers in the traditional Pays d’Auge region, said to make the best Calva. To earn the prestigious Pays d’Auge appellation they must double-distill their cider in onion-shaped pot stills like those in Cognac, a process claimed to confer greater finesse.

Once distilled, the eau de vie must spend at least two years in oak casks. Oak aging improves the taste and the look of the distillate, with oxidation imparting an amber color much as a peeled apple will turn brown. The color deepens with age to produce the honeyed hues prized by Calva lovers. The youngest Calvados (usually two to three years old) will sport three apples or three stars on the label, or may be called Fine. Next is Vieux or Réserve (three to four years of age), then comes VO or Vieille Réserve for Calvados barrel-aged four to five years. VSOP, the designation also given to Cognac and Armagnac, is five to six years old, and Calvados over six years old when bottled can be called Hors d’Age, Napoléon, Extra, XO or Age Inconnu, and some producers have their own names to designate their older blends.

Although some Calvados is made from a single vintage (the age on the bottle is the year of distillation), most Calvados is a blend of different distillations from different casks, and the age stated on the bottle refers to the youngest batch in the blend. Thus the Calvados in a VSOP must be at least five years old, but much older spirits may have been added to lend balance or finesse. Pierre Huet’s superb Hors d’Age, for example, is blended from Calvados that is at least 12 years old, while the components of Huet’s Cordon Or are all at least 30 years old, and some even older.

Most older Calvados is well worth the wait, but older doesn’t always mean better—although it is inevitably pricier. Some people like the stronger apple flavors of youthful Calva; others think it hits its peak around 20 and then starts to fade. Good Calvados older than 30 is hard to find.

The art of the apple

It would be romantic to imagine that Normandy’s most famous export, William the Conqueror, who defeated the English in 1066, owed his battlefield success to the inspiring effects of Calva. Alas, the earliest record of eau de vie de cidre dates only to 1553, when local nobleman Gilles de Gouberville first noted in his diary the process of turning cider into eau de vie de bouche—spirits for drinking. Had the process been around earlier, apple-obsessed de Gouberville would certainly have mentioned it. The Johnny Appleseed of his day, he spent a lifetime planting apple trees, propagating new varieties and encouraging production and consumption of cider. As American brandy enthusiast Charles Neal recounts in his indispensable Calvados, the Spirit of Normandy, de Gouberville considered apple cultivation to be “not simply the work of a peasant but that of an artist”.

Fortunately Normandy apple artists have a wonderful canvas on which to work. When it comes to terroir for producing apples and pears, it doesn’t get much better than Normandy, where soil and climate—plenty of rain and enough sun—are ideal. Residents have been growing apples and making cider since Roman times. Charlemagne served Normandy cider and perry at his 8th/9th-century court, but it was not just a rich man’s drink: for much of the last millennium in northern France cider, rather than beer or wine, was the drink—and solace—of the populace.

Today Calva remains a key regional product, but much has changed, including the landscape. Normandy’s traditional “high-stem” orchards counted some 14 million trees in 1929 compared with fewer than 4 million today, now outnumbered by more productive, faster-growing “low-stems”. The profile of Calvados producers has changed too. More than 400 small farms still make cider and Calva as they have for generations, and many are thriving, but most production is now handled by industrial distillers who grow some of their own apples but mainly buy fruit from small growers. French liquor giant La Martiniquaise alone accounts for one third of today’s Calvados.

Small producers will tell you that bigger does not mean better, defending the virtues of their artisanal ways with some justification. But the larger producers have been able to develop new markets for Calvados—exports are growing strongly—and provide much-needed investment in the region. The venerable, now Swiss-owned, 16th-century Château du Breuil is making award-winning Calva, including a blend designed specifically to be sipped while munching dark cocoa-rich chocolate (presumably the Swiss influence). Domaine Pierre Huet, founded in 1865, has grown from small family roots into a sizeable producer of some of the more sophisticated Calvados around.

No doubt the rivalry between small producers and their bigger brethren will continue. Normans can be a disputatious and stubborn bunch. But even if feelings in both camps are sometimes as bruised as the apples that fall from high-stem trees, they are united in realizing that they are custodians of yet another of France’s unique contributions to civilization. Another epiphany!


There is some wonderful Calvados out there from producers great and small. A few favorites, all from the Pays d’Auge:

Calvados Pierre Huet Calvados Tradition (15 years). Now available in the US. www.calvados-huet.com

Domaine Dupont Try one of their cask-strength bottlings. 1977 was a good year. www.calvados-dupont.com

Calvados Roger Groult The Doyen d’Âge—more than 40 years old—is sensational. Baked apples and toffee flavors. www.calvados-roger-groult.com

Calvados Christian Drouin Try the 25-year-old. www.calvados-drouin.com

Calvados Le Père Jules The 40-year-old Prestige is holding up well. www.leperejules.com

Château du Breuil Try the Réserve des Seigneurs (20 years old). www.chateau-breuil.fr

Originally published in the March 2012 issue of France Today

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