What is Calvados?
Calvados is an apple brandy produced in Normandy, France.
Specific apple and pear varietals are naturally fermented to make a cider that then distilled into a (maximum 72% ABV) alcohol spirit which is matured in typically French oak barrels. The National Institute of Origin and Quality (Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité or INAO) in France defines the regulations for the production of Calvados or Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) in the same manner that applies to French wine productions and protects the terroir of the product. Three distinct Calvados appellations exist, however the regulation of Calvados production was introduced in 1942 following the liberation of France after World War II. The original regulations defined two major categories; The Calvados d’appellation contrôlée (controlled origin Calvados varieties), which had to be derived from the distillation of a cider produced from apples from the orchards of the Pays d’Auge (a region to the east of Calvados) using a still and The Calvados d’appellation d’origine réglementée (regulated controlled origin Calvados varieties), for the orchards of other regions of Normandy, including Domfront and its area, the Orne valley and the Risle and Bray areas, etc. In 1984 the regulations were simplified and in 1987 Calvados Domfrontais was awarded its own appellation reflecting the traditional use of pears within this region.
The various Calvados appellations previously referred to as “regulated” were now included in the Calvados d’appellation contrôlée label, The AOC calvados area includes all of the Calvados, Manche, and Orne départements and parts of Eure, Mayenne, Sarthe, and Eure-et-Loir. Apple orchards and pear trees can be grown in high stem (maximum density of 280 trees per hectare with a minimum distance of 5 meters between trees) or low stem (maximum density of 1000 trees per hectare).
- Constitutes around 70% of total Calvados production.
- Terroir and geographical area of production is defined.
- The fruit produced per production site comes from at least 35% of the area of ”high stem” orchards.
- Two hundred and thirty varieties of cider apples and one hundred and thirty varieties of perry pears are specified for production
- Single distillation using the “continuous jet” or column still method is permitted though double-distillation in traditional pot stills (L’alambic à repasse or Charentais) is not excluded.
- A two-year minimum of aging in oak barrels is required.
AOC Calvados Pays D’Auge
This was the official “birth” of the Calvados d’appellation contrôlée Pays d’Auge (the controlled origin Calvados variety for the Pays d’Auge) which replaced the “Calvados d’appellation contrôlée”. This now unanimously became established as the “king” of Calvados.
- It is produced in the geographical area of the Pays d’Auge on shallow clay-limestone slopes (region of the Calvados department which also includes some communes bordering the Orne and Eure rivers).
- The fruit produced per production site comes from at least 45% of the area of ”high stem” orchards and within the area.
- About 100 varieties of apples with cider are listed as well as thirty varieties of perry pears.
- Distilling ciders contain not more than 30% perry pears and must ferment for at least 6 weeks.
- L’alambic à repasse is obligatory for the Calvados Pays d’Auge and implies a double distillation.
- A two-year minimum of aging in oak barrels is required.
AOC Calvados Domfrontais
This special Calvados, produced in the Canton of Domfront in the Bocage Ornais is unique in that it comprises at least 30% pears. High stem orchards in the Domfrontais region have a maximum density of 250 trees per hectare with a minimum distance of 6 meters between trees.
- A minimum of 30% pears from the designated areas is used.
- The trees grown in “high stem” represent at least 80% of the planted area of the orchard.
- The orchards must consist of at least 15% pear trees (25% from the 16th harvest).
- About fifty varieties of apple cider are listed and about one hundred and twenty varieties of perry pears.
- Single distillation using the “continuous jet” or column still method is mandatory.
- A three-year minimum of aging in oak barrels is required.
The Normandy orchard covers around 7,500 hectares and is comprised of around 3 million trees. The traditional High Stem orchard is low density and enables cattle grazing in the meadow beneath, producing a maximum average yield of 25 tonnes of fruit per hectare. More modern low-stem / high density orchards (of over 280 to 1,000 trees per hectare) produce an average yield of 35 tonne of fruit per hectare. The varieties of cider apples grown are categorised into four major groups “bitter”, “sweet-bitter”, “sweet” and “acidulated” are married to build a balanced cider and later become a harmonious Calvados. Calvados is never the fruit of a single variety. Fruit are washed and macerated before pressing to yield around 80% of the sugar and juice content, for AOC Calvados further processing e.g. by diffusion band is allowed to recover up to 98% sugar content from the fruit. A slow natural fermentation must be performed without addition of sugar and must be for a minimum of 21 days for AOC Calvados and Pays d’Auge and 30 days for Domfrontais.
Required within the framework of the AOC “Calvados Pays d’Auge” , it is the traditional alembic composed of copper elements and involves a double distillation.
The cider introduced into the boiler is heated. The alcohol vapors rise, are collected in the tent, engage in the gooseneck and then in the coil that plunges into a tank of cold water. In contact with the refrigerant, they condense into liquid. The “heads” and “tails”, the vapors at the beginning and end of the distillation, which are very rich in higher alcohols and which will be re-distilled with the next cider, are eliminated in order to obtain the “brouillis” or “petite eau” 30%. The second heater is the distillation of this “small water”. The heads and tails are also spread to retain only the heart of the distillation called “good heat” . This must not exceed 72% at the exit of the still. In order to save energy, the cider intended to be distilled in a subsequent cycle is introduced into the cider heater, which contributes to cooling the alcohol vapors which pass through it and is preheated up to 65 ° C before being returned to the boiler.
Imperative for the Calvados Domfrontais , it is also used for the AOC Calvados. It consists of three elements: the boiler, the exhaustion column and the concentrating column, both of which are composed of plates equipped with bubbling elements. The first column receives the cider at its upper part. The cider descends while circulating from plate to plate. Under the effect of heat, the most volatile products (water and esters) vaporize. The water vapors produced from the exhausted cider go up and enrich themselves by bubbling in the cider with the volatile elements: alcohol, esters, aromas. They are finally concentrated in the smallest column which directly supplies the brandy to 72% maximum. The column still has to be equipped with three casting taps allowing the separation of “heads” and “tails” to retain only the “heart” of the distillation.
According to the AOC Calvados can not be sold until it has aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 2 or 3 years. The Calvados ages in very dry oak barrels, the contact of the wood communicating the elements necessary for its perfect completion. The tannic materials of the wood give it its natural colour and through the ceaseless exchanges between young brandy, wood and the ambient air, Calvados acquires its finesse and its fullness. For some producers, young Calvados is first ripened in 250 to 600 litre new French oak barrels, very loaded with tannins, to give it a little colour and flavour before being transferred to much older less tannic casks to mature with age. Other producers prefer to pass the Calvados directly in 1,000 to 10,000 litre Tuns that have already been used and which ensure both aging and storage.
With maturation its colouring will increase, from golden to a deeper amber. The aromas of fresh apple, very present in a young Calvados will evolve towards more complex aromas of cooked apples, woods but also of vanilla fragrances, honey, spices or walnuts, signs of a beautiful maturity. The work of the cellar master is not limited to letting the Calvados age. Like an alchemist, he makes skilful assemblages by associating spirits of different ages, coming from different crops or terroirs in order to associate the complementary qualities of each of them. The assembly is a delicate operation which proceeds mainly from the tasting and requires a great competence to find the balance between wood and fruit. Before bottling, these assemblages will have to mature further for months during which the different bouquets can mix and enrich.
Reading the label
The law requires:
- The sales denomination: Calvados, Calvados Pays d’Auge or Calvados Domfrontais. In case of absence of mark, the mention “Appellation Contrôlée” will appear just after Calvados. If a trademark is used, the words “Appellation Calvados Contrôlée” will appear immediately after Calvados.
- The capacity (cl)
- The alcoholic strength by volume (ABV) followed by % vol
- The contact details of the manufacturer or packer or a salesman established within the European community (in the latter case, add the packer code)
- The lot number preceded by the letter L may appear elsewhere than on the label so that it is legible and indelible on the bottle.
- The health message or pictogram advocating the absence of alcohol consumption by pregnant women. It must be in the same visual field as the ABV.
- Recycling Logo “Point Vert” in case of membership with a competent body, which is compulsory, except for special cases of recovery of used bottles or deposit.
- The term “fermier production” (farm produced) may also be added to the label when the spirits are produced exclusively on the farm (from harvest to bottling).
When the age of a Calvados is mentioned on the label , it indicates the age of the youngest brandy that goes into the composition of Calvados eg 30 years (Ans) of age. The vintage (Millésime) is a reference year (ex: 1995) indicating that the eaux-de-vie that make up Calvados come from a single distillation year. It is recommended to mention on the labeling the year of bottling as a Calvados in bottle does not age any more.
Although not mandatory, the mention of age if indicated must comply with the following indications:
Fine, VS (Very Special), Trois étoiles (Three Stars), Trois pommes (Three Apples) – indicates an aging under wood of 2 years minimum.
Vieux (Old), Réserve (Reserve) – indicates aging of at least three years.
VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), VO (Very Old), Vieille Réserve (Old Reserve), – indicates a minimum aging of four years.
XO (Extra Old), Hors d’Age (Beyond Age), Très Vieille Réserve (Very Old Reserve), Très Vieux (Very Old), Napoléon – indicates aging of at least six years.