Calvados Season

12/6/11 -

Calvados represents Normandy’s version of a brandy.  Since it is historically too cold to ripen grapes along the English Channel, Calvados is made from apple and pear cider, unlike grape-based Cognac and Armagnac.  What Normandy lacks in viticulture, it more than makes up for in rich farmland, producing apples, pears, cows, and cheese.  The orchards have symbiotic relationships with the cows whereby the cows are provided with shady grazing land, and in return the cows till the land with their hooves and fertilize the trees with their manure, allowing many of our favorite producers to work organically without the addition of pesticide or fertilizers.  In Calvados there are many of the modern vs. traditionalist issues that divide much of Europe’s wine and spirit regions, including the shape of the distillation still, orchard planting on dwarf or standard rootstock, and the use of new wood in the cellar.  Other spirits such as Cognac or Scotch usually only hint at their original ingredient, but even Calvados that has spent 18 years or more resting in barrels retains a core of delicious apple fruit; first timers may be shocked that Calvados actually tastes of apples.  This is the time of year to try Calvados, ideally after dinner on a brisk evening. 

Like other French brandy, Calvados expresses a variety of terriors and there are numerous producers making in a range of styles.  There are two different crus that are distinguished from the basic Calvados AOC: Calvados Domfrontais AOC surrounds the town of Domfront, has granitic soils, and is generally considered more favorable for pears.  Lemorton,  who makes a very good value Reserve bottling in the Domfrontais, also makes exceptional vintage Calvados.  Lemorton’s orchards are planted to roughly three times more pears than apples; this shows itself on the nose and palate of their brandies. 

The other elevated Calvados cru is the Pays d’ Auge.  Here the soil is much richer with ripples of flint and clay over limestone.  Apples are preferred over pears, and to qualify to use the name “Pays d’Auge” producers must double-distill in pot stills.  Some of the oldest and most respected producers are in the Pays d’Auge,  including Girard and Camut; they represent several generations of Calvados production, and are responsible for elevating Calvados’s reputation to that of a world class spirit.  The Camut family promoted a richer smoother style of Calvados that was meant to be savored - the 18 year, introduced in the late 1960s, was a far more elegant spirit than the stuff that locals would add to flavor their coffee.  The Girard family has been on their property in the Pays d’Auge since the 1700s.  Roger Girard has retired but still presides over an impressive collection of very old vintage Calvados.  His son Patrice has taken over, and has worked to make a delicious and approachable young reserve bottling under the name “Domaine du Manoir de Montreuil.”  At the estate there is still a preference for late ripening old varieties and the trees are all full sized hautes-tiges giving the cows ample room to roam below them.  These are all impressive and unique spirits that we encourage you to try or consider as gifts this winter.  JR 

We should also mention importer Charles Neal’s impressive new 700+ page book, Calvados: The Spirit of Normandy, on the subject.  It is exhaustive in the best possible way, and the perfect companion to his brilliant Calvados selections. 

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