Calvados raises the spirits
Normandy, like the Westcountry, is celebrating a terrific apple harvest this year. I'm pleased for our cousins across the Channel, because elsewhere in France, their counterparts in the wine industry have had a miserable time of it in 2013.
More about the tribulations of the new vintage will follow in this space shortly. For the moment let us welcome the better news for the French cider business, and in particular its distilling sideline, which on Monday launches National Calvados Week. The promotional campaign aims to make the apple brandy of Normandy a lot better known in Great Britain.
Calvados has been made in Normandy, so the story goes, since 1553. It was the year a local squire and dedicated diarist of domestic life, Gilles de Gouberville, recorded he had distilled a quantity of his own cider. The region had been fermenting its indigenous fruits ever since the first Norsemen (Vikings) settled there six centuries earlier and found the land covered in wild apple trees.
The origin of the name Calvados is open to doubt. The likeliest derivation is from the description on 17th-century marine charts of a strip of Norman coastline just southwest of Le Havre as "Calva Dorsa", which in Latin means bare-topped cliffs. Another, more picturesque, story dates the name precisely to 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada. The great invasion fleet sent by Spain against England was, as we all enjoy remembering, utterly confounded by Sir Francis Drake's navy, assisted by some wild weather in the Channel. One of the Spanish galleons washed up on the Normandy shore, we are told, was called the El Calvador.
Either way, the name of the coastal cliffs or that of the wreck was adopted as Calvados – the Norman pronunciation of the original Spanish name – and was used as an informal designation for the region as a whole. The term calvados for the apple brandy has certainly been in use since the 1790, when the revolutionary government officially adopted the name for the new "department" (administrative area) within Normandy.
The spirit is an acquired taste. France is much better known for its prestigious grape brandies, cognac and armagnac, than for the relatively rustic delights of the kind of spirit that is made from apples. But calvados can be sophisticated stuff.
The method of production is straightforward enough. Most of the base cider is distilled by co-operatives of growers, using continuous stills. The first distillation is then redistilled for purity. It is a dramatically reductive process. To fill one 500-litre barrel with finished spirit, you need to start with seven tons of fruit.
The new-made spirits are offered for sale to the handful of shippers who blend from many different sources to suit their house styles, ageing and reblending for varying periods before bottling under their own labels for sale.
Newly-distilled calvados is colourless and fiery, emerging from the still at or above 70 degrees proof. The process of maturing this raw material in oak casks produces the richly-coloured and mellow finished product.
There is a quality hierarchy partly based on the length of time calvados is aged before final blending and bottling, defined by descriptions displayed on the label. Bottles designated as "Fine" or as three-star have been matured in casks for at least two years. "Vieux" or "Réserve" signifies a minimum three years, and "VO" or "VSOP" four. Calvados at the luxury end of the hierarchy, aged at least six years, is variously designated "Extra", "Hors d'Age", "XO", or simply "Very Old".
It is all governed under the Apellation d'Origine Controlée rules that have defined calvados since the 1940s. Only spirit made in three specified zones can be called calvados at all. If it doesn't say AOC Calvados, Calvados Pays d'Auge or (rarely) Calvados Domfrontais, it is not calvados.
Even in National Calvados week, you will find only a limited choice of calvados brands on sale in wine merchants and supermarkets. I recommend as an introduction to the style the VSOP Calvados from the largest producer in Normandy, Père Magloire. A finely-coloured spirit with bright copper-orange hue and a piquant sweet-apple aroma, it is both smoothly mellow and crisply ardent, with a clear apple redolence. Waitrose have the 50cl bottle at £20.50.
At Wine Rack, you will find Château de Breuil Calvados Fine at £22.99 for 70cl. This is a basic calvados with just the minimum two years' ageing in oak, but it is nonetheless silky and warming, with lively, pungent apple fruitiness.
Aged for very long periods, calvados does become smoother, rounder, more mellow and intense. But it can also lose its apple freshness along the way, and ultimately even its apple flavour. Some of the very long-aged calvados I have tried has been too similar to old cognac for comfort.
The great merit of calvados is its distinctive and stimulating apple character. It is well worth discovering.