My first proper contact with calvados occurred at Cadenhead’s last December [WLP].
What I subsequently found out about Calvados then is:
- It’s an apple and/or pear brandy made from distilled cider and/or perry.
- Like everything else, Calvados has its own appellation and regions within, as well as permitted apple & pear types. There are orchid rules, fermentation regulations,… you know the drill. If you like apples & pears or cider, you may just love calvados.
- Calvados saw a boom in popularity after Phylloxera wiped out grape-based drinks and spirits.
- Reputed houses will tell you the varieties of apples and/or pears they used.
Calvados 101 [on Saturday 25th April, as part of the Cognac Show] was the perfect opportunity to expand my experience of this spirit. Here are brief notes I made from the Calvados 101 broadcast [LINK], presented by Dawn Davies from TWE. Appropriately enough, all bottle photos have been taken from the TWE website. Due to my inexperience in this area, none of the samples were scored.
The Cognac Show started in 2017, for the love of the spirit, the history, the traditions… TWE Whisky Show featured rum as its guest spirit in 2018, and again 2019. For the Cognac Show, armagnac seemed the obvious guest, yet Dawn also wanted to further explore and present the wonderful world of calvados, even though she doesn’t like apples. Brought up in Kenya she didn’t eat apples as a baby and doesn’t eat them now, but can drink them. Result!
There’s a long-standing relationship between Normandy and England. Tourism for one. Whilst Jersey and Guernsey lay a stones-throw away, a frequent ferry from Portsmouth to Caen sees hundreds of thousands of visitors from Britain visit Normandy each year. This includes a large number visiting the World War II museums, battle sites and cemeteries. Going back further, there’s the Battle of Hastings [Saxons vs Normans/Bayeux tapestry] connection. Then there’s food [Camembert] and drink [cidre & calvados]. Though the majority of calvados producers today are relatively modern, like in Calvados, England has a long tradition of growing apples and making cider & brandy.
Calvados is farming country and orchards are its thing, mainly apples. There are thousands of apple varieties. 40 different varieties can go into a single calvados batch. Wine may have up to 5-6 different grape varieties. Cognac, a couple, and single malt whisky, one grain type.
Apples are categorised into three distinct flavour camps:
- Bitter and bitter-sweet apples which provide tannin and body. This style makes up the majority of calvados, around 70%.
- Sweet apples, whilst aiding alcohol conversion, give character.
- Acidic apples give freshness and vibrancy. They are typically used in small percentages, these percentage strictly regulated.
Apples once harvested are left to rest/mature/settle for several weeks before being crushed and pressed. The majority of the flavour comes from the skin in the same way as grapes for wine. There is much of a likeness between wine and calvados with regards to soil and climate for example. Calvados sees weeks-long fermentations. The cider/perry is then boiled in a pot or a column still, typically the charentais alembic style. Travelling stills are still common. For ageing in casks, oak is used from all over France.
There are three main AOC regions/appellations:
- AOC Calvados covers a wide area that produces 70% of all calvados. Here we typically see column still distillation although pot still distillation is also permitted.
- AOC Pays d’Auge to the east has tighter rules than mainstream Calvados. For example, only pot still and double-distillation is permitted. There’s a limit on the apple types used, 70% of which should be bitter-sweet varieties and there’s a minimum of 6 weeks fermentation.
- Domfrontais [Dawn’s favourite region] is described to us as a “super sexy” calvados style. Whilst in AOC Calvados you can use up to 30% pears. in Domfrontais you have to use a minimum of 30% pears. This brings all manner of bouquet/flora/perfumed complexities. Only 250 trees per hectare are permitted, compared to 280 in AOC Calvados. Column-still distillation is mandatory.
Let’s get tasting.
Avallen Calvados  Ob. 40% TWE
Dawn is enjoying her Avallen with tonic, the calvados equivalent of a Highball I’d imagine. She recommends it with sparkling wine too. Avallen, she says, ‘is breaking the mould’, modernising the image of calvados and in doing so, setting itself apart from traditional calvados producers. With 50p from every bottle going to bee charities, there’s a firm focus on sustainability at Avallen. For example, product sourcing comes from within a very small radius [maybe 20km]. Even the label is made from apples.
- N: Crisp, fresh and a touch waxy, I’m picking up lots of apple-forward toffee confectionery bars. There’s no deep stewed apple here. Instead, we’ve many shades of apple on the lighter side with hints of perfumed apple bath products.
- T: A light fresh and lively eau de vie style, and all this at only 40%. With water, a soft almost dry mouthfeel. It merges towards other spirits [rum/tequila], so I’m assuming that’s from the column-still part of the distillation talking.
- F: It’s all spirit by the end, the apple ‘core’ inhibiting the fringes.
- C: Perhaps a tad mono-chrome overall, but an ideal introduction/appetiser to this Calvados flight.
Calvados comes with different ageing brackets, as is typical with cognac. For example: 3-Star, 3-Pommes, VS [2 years minimum], Vieux, Reserve, VSOP [4yo+], XO, and vintages too. AOC Calvados & Pays d’Auge requires a minimum of 2 years ageing. In Domfrontais it’s 3 years.
Christian Drouin VSOP Calvados  Ob. Pays d’Auge 40% TWE
Drouin is a family business of three generations going back to the 1960s. Using around 30 different apple varieties, they have their own vineyards and also buy in fruits from other orchards. They use alternative barrels to many other producers, smaller casks and older barrels used for port and other fortified wines for example.
- N: More toffee-d [Werther’s], hints a biscuity,/bread [sour dough], soft dried fruits figs < raisins,… Whilst sharing a similar perfume to the Avallen – though very much in the background – this is clearly significantly more aged [4 years+].
- T: After the light-styled Avallen, this is thicker with more body, more mouthfeel and more sourness, the sweetness rather reserved and entwined with the oak and making for a succulent dry chew. Dawn indicates this would be ideally suited to go with Camembert, such is the tannic quality. Indeed, there is a clear resemblance to the soft cheese on the turn with a soft live culture-driven butyric-ness.
- F: I can really taste the apple skins in this one, yet the soft apple body soon comes through with its mushed sweetness. Finishes as a heavily stewed chewy toffee apple bar akin to Naked’s Apple Pie, all stewed and baked by the tail.
- C: Right up my street. I could cane this.
Some of the best apples are grown on the hills, much like with grapes for wine.
WF tells us: ‘Père Magloire is a very large brand in France, these Calvados are the most commonly found in supermarkets‘.
- N: Being very different to the first two, this is akin to cognac in the style of the big houses with sweet varnished fruits, pineapple, slight husky hessian toasted fungal, and polished & rich juicy syruped fruitiness in the main. Dawn spots a little [sandlewood] spice from the cask.
- T: So very cognac-like again, ‘smooth’, contemporary, homogenised, polished, refined, sanitised, rounded and rich, sweet > sharp n spicy. The acidity and spice come through in the middle, becoming fluffier with water. Quite a short travel either way.
- F: Cognac-like till the last and remaining quite fresh with apple ginger spice, some vanilla and plenty of grape, oak, and fruits at the death.
- C: Very much a safe familiar global presentation, one to suit the populist’s palate. So important to have this in the lineup. Its place in the calvados world will become even more evident after the Huard up next.
Michel Huard Vieux Calvados  Ob. 40% TWE
Vieux indicates 4yo+, but we are told this is actually 7 years old. Using around 40 different varieties of apple, Huard uses bigger barrels than Drouin.
- N: The Pere Magloire was a departure after the Drouin, never more highlighted by returning to the ballpark with this Huard – Drouin and beyond – but how clever to have slipped in a mainstream example in-between the two. With age brings complexity. Big cider/perry vibes, deep sour ~ > sweet cider underline this one with a perfumed pong that talks of long apple beer/cider fermentation. There’s plenty of tasty oak showing too with a butyric touch, perhaps some nuttiness, [candy floss] popcorn and floral~honeysuckle pollen.
- T: All six samples take to water well, even though they are bottled at between 40-42%. Here we’ve an amazing cider immerging underneath a salivating dryish rustic almost rancio oily arrival, the oak and fermentation showing equally, and all those [40 or so] apple varieties. This is the deepest/richest, thickest calvados of the flight so far, with deep-cut, heavily fermented ripe apples.
- F: With an oaky nutty apple tannic chew, the bittersweet level is truly perfect. Becomes more biscuity over nuttiness. The apples & pears on oak remind me of Balblair’s 1991 and 1997 vintages respectively [WLP].
- C: Very all-consuming this one, so more your sipping calvados. Whilst the weight of this presentation may soon become tiring, the Drouin would sustain, and compliment food tirelessly.
There’s a question from a viewer about the rules over barrel sizes used in maturation. As it stands, there is no law that limits barrel sizes. It’s with ageing that the laws kick in.
Dawn tells us as a master of wine that you have to be able to identify where a wine comes from. So, sense of place is important [how do the whisky regions hold up now?]. So to shake things up a little, why not throw in an English [calvados] cider brandy? Dawn says when we taste the Somerset cider brandy, we’ll see why calvados is calvados and why apple brandy is apple brandy.
Despite traditionally being a country where apple brandy was produced, Julian Temperly was the first person [in a long time] to get a license to distill apple brandy in the UK. He’s now established an AOC [Appellation d’origine contrôlée] for apple brandy in Somerset.
WF: ‘No re-racking, no dosing with sugar, no tricksy colouring agents‘.
- N: Mushrooms? That’s a fleeting note as I lift the lid. Whoa, there are heaps of whisky references. Must be the cask[s] talking. We’ve the savoury nutty notes of Hazelburn Rundletts & Kilderkins, independent [7-10yo] Linkwood, and what I might be calling a rushed distillate note if this were whisky. Moving on, this is apple-light [Dawn says ‘muted’] with nutty wood oils from many types of seasoned and polished woods – furniture woods, weathered woods. Furthermore, we’ve melted vanilla ice cream, hints of cinnamon, clove, honey into Golden Syrup – not quite pancakes but we are close – hints of ginger cake. a transient waft of a Tandoor Curry house drive-by and a spiciness buried deep. Tastes like they’ve used oloroso casks, given the of sulphury element. Dawn gets the sulphur too but says this could come from wine casks, not just sherry. Apparently Julian is using some Somerset oak too.
- T: The oak talks first but then comes the apples. Reminds me of many a young whisky distillery where small casks shape young spirit very quickly. Travels on spirity almost sherried nutty apple juice, the apple notes driven by the wood.
- F: We are firmly talking malternative here. Could this pass as whisky blind in a flight? Concludes desirably with soft resinous oaked baked apple snow.
- C: This sticks out from this flight, which was the whole point. Dawn is right. This is as different from calvados as calvados is to Somerset apple brandy. “How many questions does the product ask of you,…. is the sign of good quality”, says Dawn.
[EDIT: Further reading – WLP]
Nick asks, why aren’t the English making more fruit spirits given we grow many apples here? Dawn says ‘for the best distiller of fruit brandies/distillates in the UK, it’s Barnie‘ at the Capreolus distillery in Cirencester. She likens Barnie’s work to Capovilla [thewinehouse], for Dawn, the best distiller of fruit spirits in the world.
Last one. Getting back to a sense of place.
Camut 6yo Calvados  Ob. 41% TWE
Pronounced ‘Camoo’. this might well be the first Calvados Dawn tasted. From Pays d’Auge, she loves this style, ‘a premium calvados with depth’. using 25 different varietals and pot still distillation. To promote oxidisation, Camut never fills more than 75% of the barrel. Dawn says oxidisation is as important for flavour as the alcohol itself. That reminds me of what I learnt years ago at the Aberfeldy distillery – no oxidisation, no whisky.
- N: I get pollen into leather suggesting oily fungal woods, but not in a way I find in whisky. We are talking apple dunder, autumn rotting leaves, not peat but sweet tobacco. Dawn gets yoghurt. Focusing on the lactose note, I’ll raise with ‘natural’ set yoghurt.
- T: More polished-ness with fungal lactose hints, this is deep fermented medicinal apple, menthol into Tarte Tartine,… tying in from earlier notes of blossom and bathroom perfumes from younger earlier expressions. and varnished teak furniture.
- F: Essence of apple and its blossoms, and custard-y desserts – the remains of and deep light-boozy sweet-sour and tannic apple crumbles accompanied by beautiful apple snow brimming with flavour. If there is to be a winner today, of the best example that has preserved the base fruit, this should be it.
- C: I’d pair this with 2 and 4 as exemplars of craft, blending and ageing, all for different occasions. This last expression is full-on though. I think pairing this with food would lead to confusion. A super sipping malternative it is.
What a cracking tasting selection and one of the most enlightening tastings ever.
- #1 – An ideal introduction to calvados
- #3 – ‘The JW of calvados’, great for getting your bearings
- #5 – Highlighting why calvados is calvados, and why apple brandy is apple brandy.
- #2 4 & 6, exemplars of calvados craft and what ageing can bring.
There’s time for one last question, ‘What’s your favourite?’ Not always the most liked question but Dawn’s on it. Almost without hesitation, she tells us ‘I’m totally in love with Didier Lemorton Domfrontais Calvados‘ [distiller] – loving the pear influence which adds another dimension.
Thank you [as ever] to Dawn, Billy and the TWE team, and the producers for a super tasting. Bring on calvados and armagnac as guests for the next Cognac Show in 2021.