Words by Simon Difford
Calvados is a French brandy made from apples (though it can also contain pears). The name is an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, meaning that calvados can only be produced in defined areas of North-Western France. (Calva, the French shortening of calvados, is used to denote an apple brandy other than Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée Calvados.)
Like Cognac and Armagnac, the Calvados-making region is divided into smaller sub-regions, each with their own Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC). The three calavodos regions are:
1. AOC Calvados
- encompasses much of the Basse-Normandie region
- accounts for over 70% of total production
- single column distillation or double pot still distillation may be used but almost all producers use single column distillation
- no limit on the percentage of pears.
2. AOC Pays d'Auge Calvados
- area around the villages of Orne and Eure
- generally considered to produce the best Calvados
- fermentation must be for a minimum of six weeks
- must be double-distilled in pot stills
- max 30% pears
3. AOC Calvados Domfrontais
- small production zone around the city of Domfront in Orne county
- specific fruity style of calvados from an area awarded AOC status at the end of 1997
- must be made with at least 30% perry pears
- single column distillation (pot still distillation is not permitted)
More than 120 different varieties of apple may be used in calvados production and these are divided into four types:
1. bitter varieties (contribute flavour)
2. tart / acidic varieties (contribute freshness)
3. sweet varieties (contribute sugar for fermentation)
4. bittersweet varieties (contribute tannins)
The use of a blend of these four types of apple ensures an aromatic and balanced calvados. Pear juice may also be added to the apple juice and the varieties of pear which may be used are also controlled under the AOC rules.
There are two types of orchards in the calvados region, those growing tall 'high stem' or standard apple trees and those with short 'low stem' trees. The short trees mature more quickly but require more fertiliser and care. Tall varieties (considered by some to produce superior apples) take some 15 years before they start to crop apples but allow farmers to bring cows into the orchards to graze so naturally fertilised.
The fruit is harvested (either by hand or mechanically) from mid-October into December, washed, crushed and pressed. It is then fermented:
- using just sugars from the fruit (no sugar may be added)
- at ambient temperature (temperature control is not permitted)
- traditionally, only natural yeasts from the skin of the fruit are used without additional yeast added but in 2017 the law was changed to allow the use of cultivated yeast. Few producers have switched from just the use of wild yeasts
Fermentation lasts from one to three months, producing a dry cider with an alcoholic strength of at least 4.5% alc./vol. Every calvados producer is by definition a cider producer and it is common for producers to also bottle and sell cider.
The cider is then either single-distilled in a column still or double-distilled in a pot still with the distillate produced around 68-72% alc./vol. (Pays d'Auge calvados must be made using a pot still.)
Calvados must be aged in French oak casks for a minimum of two years although most calvados is aged for longer and some as long as 20 years or more. Maturation takes place in 200 to 400-litre oak casks or in oak vats as large as 30,000 litres. Spirit aged in cask and vat may be blended together.
Maturation in wood turns the spirit from clear to golden, then mahogany and eventually deep brown. As the colour develops so the cask may impart flavours such as vanilla, butterscotch, nut, chocolate and spice.
Generally, different batches are blended to produce a consistent product, although some distillers offer vintage bottlings from a single barrel.
After blending, calvados is bottled at between 40 and 50% alc./vol.. Most producers also blend the spirit with water to reach this strength, but some old calvados is bottled without hydration with bottling strength arrived at after the alcohol has evaporated naturally as it ages.
Calvados age statements
The age stated on a bottle is that of the youngest brandy in the blend and quality calvados will include spirit that is much older than this in the blend. For the purposes of calculating age, a calvados is deemed to have been born on the 1st July following its distillation (in winter or early spring) and must be at least two years old. Young fruity calvados is a particularly good cocktail ingredient, both as a base, or as a modifier to impart apple flavours into the drink.
Calvados labels may use one of the following age terms:
Fine or Trois étoiles or Trois pommes - must be at least 2 years old
Vieux (meaning 'old') or Réserve - must be at least 3 years old
V.S.O.P. or V.O. or Vieille Réserve - must be at least 4 years old
X.O. or Extra or Napoléon or Hors d'Age or Age Inconnu - must be at least 6 years old (often as old as 25 years)
A stated vintage - some calvados are bottled from distillate produced in a single year rather than a blend of years. In this case, the label usually states that year. Also, check the bottling date as calvados does not continue to age once bottled.
Compte d'Age - is a term which accompanies age statements on non-vintage calvados and refers to the youngest brandy in the bottle.
Artisanal calvados producers
In the 1960s there were 15,000 calvados producers with most farmers in the region distilling cider from their own orchards to make cider. By the millennium the number of producers had dropped to around 1,000 and today there are only some 300 producers left. The majority of the smaller producers have given way to larger corporations. However, some small producers survive and the term 'Produit Fermier' or 'Production Fermière' (farm-made) on a bottle indicates that all the fruit used in the calvados was grown on the same estate where it was distilled and aged.
How to open calvados
Calvados, particularly older calvados is sometimes packaged in a bottle with a wax-sealed stopper. To open, simply tap around the wax with the blunt edge of a heavy knife at a point where you estimate the top of the bottle meets the bottom of the stopper. The wax is hard and brittle and will chip away easily. Guard your eyes against flying shards.
How to serve calvados
Traditionally served after a meal with a dessert such as a tarte tatin. Calvados is also great with cheese particularly the four Normandy AOC cheese: (creamy) Camembert de Normandie, (pungent) Orange Livarot, (creamy) Neufchâtel and (golden) Pont-l'Évîque.
Young calvados, particularly fruit Domfrontais calvados, served on ice, or with soda or tonic water makes a great aperitif.
Although viewed as a traditional, you should not serve calvados in a snifter (brandy balloon) glass as this shape of glass accentuates harsh spirit aromas. Instead, use a tulip-shaped glass or small wine glass.
Young calvados should have fresh fruit aromas reminiscent of apples and pears. As calvados is aged so the distinctive apple fruit character becomes more subdued and the flavour becomes more reminiscent of other aged brandies.