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Calvados is a fine apple (and pear) brandy produced in the Normandy region of France. Legend has it that the name derives from a shipping accident in 1588 that took place when a distressed galleon from the Spanish Armada of Philip II, having clashed with the English navy under Queen Elizabeth I, finally strayed to Normandy and crashed between two rocky cliff zones. Some accounts say the name of the embattled ship was El Calvador. Others say the spot where it crashed had always been known as “Calva Dorsa,” a space between the cliffs where those from the shore could see returning sailors. Regardless of which is correct, the name for the brandy came to stay during the 17th century. But cider distillation had its origins long before the name became official. The Arab Moors, who had been distilling spirits from grains and fruits in their home country for centuries, came to France and taught locals the art of disillation. Lord de Gouberville is credited with being the first to distill apple cider in the 1500s.
Phylloxera dealt a devastating blow to the wine industry in the late 1800s, killing most of the world’s grapevines. However, pears and apples were still able to grow, and Calvados producers suddenly had far more business. But that only lasted until the World Wars. Normandy was one of the major battle locations, and many orchards were destroyed. Though the region became officially recognized during World War II in 1942, it didn’t fully recover from the destruction until the 1980s when modern orchard planting techniques, for better or worse, yielded faster results and more production. High stemmed trees (“haut-tiges”) were often replaced with lower ones ("basse-tiges"). Some orchards stuck to the old ways, which many say yield better tasting fruits. Calvados became an AOC in 1984, and the mostly pear appellation Domfront earned its status in 1997.
To properly balance the flavors in Calvados, different types of apples and/or pears are used in the mash. They fall under these four main categories, with dozens of varieties grown within the districts:
AOC regulations stipulate 70% bitter and bitter-sweet varieties and 30% acidic must be used for Calvados. Added pears are permitted for the sweet category.
The fruit is picked at harvest time (between September and January), then left to sit for a period of three to four weeks to fully ripen and come to full flavor potential. They are then pressed for juice and fermented. Fermentation can last as much as three months due to the low PH of the juice and the cool seasonal temperatures. All distillation is required for completion by June 30th following the harvest.
The method of distillation varies between the subregions. Prior to the 1984 AOC recognition, there were ten distinct Calvados districts. Now it is broken down by three sub-appellations, which define their ingredients and production methods.
*AOC Calvados, covering the majority of apple and pear production. Distilled once in a single column still, with a minimum two years of aging in oak casks.
*AOC Domfontais, a minimum 30% pear from designated growing areas are used. Distilled once in a single column still with a minimum three years of oak aging.
*AOC Calvados Pays d’Auge, considered the highest quality sources and production methods. Double-distillation is allowed in each region, but only Pays d’Auge is required to double-distill in a Charentais pot still, the same type of still used for Cognac. Cider must be fermented a minimum of six weeks, and once distilled, aged a minimum two years in oak casks.
As with Cognac and Armagnac, Calvados is sometimes aged in new oak, and sometimes in previously used barrels. Sometimes it is a blend of Calvados that were given different oak treatments. Others are aged in as many as three different casks, starting with new oak and then used barrels, some of which were used many times over. All of this depends on the producer. The oak treatments impart certain flavor characteristics to the Calvados, with newer barrels providing the most oaky flavors and tannins, and used casks toning them down.
The age designations on a Calvados label refer to the age of the youngest brandy in the blend:
*** (Three Stars, Trois Étoiles), Fine, Trois Pommes = minimum 2 years (3 years for Domfrontais)
Vieux, Reserve = minimum 3 years
Extra, XO, Napoléon, Hors d’Age, Age Inconnu = minimum 6 years
Calvados with a declared vintage means that all of the brandy in the bottle was harvested in that year.
Age and expense is not necessarily an indication of quality. Some prefer younger Calvados for their fruity characteristics, while others prefer the influence of aging, and the rancio (the oxidized aromas) imparted from extended contact with wood. It’s worth tasting a few examples to learn favorite producers, regions and age nuances. ~Amanda Schuster– Description from Amanda Schuster
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