Booze à la Normande: Calvados, Cidre, Poiré and Pommeau

A Little Background            

            Normandy, located east of Brittany and north of the Loire Valley, is a coastal region along the English Channel, whose native populace can claim Viking ancestry.  In 911, King Charles III of France ceded Normandy to Scandinavian invaders led by Rollo, who was formally baptized as Robert and pledged as vassal to defend the French king.  The line of Robert’s successors, the Dukes of Normandy (Norman = Northman, or Norseman) lasted through the French Revolution, although claim of the title moved in time from Normandy to France to England—today, the Queen of England lists “Duke of Normandy” as an official title, although her crown retains authority over only the Channel Islands.  William (Guillaume) the Conqueror, one of Robert’s descendants, conquered England in 1066 as the Duke of Normandy, and is formally regarded by the monarchy in the UK as the founder of the State of England.  The titles of King of England and Duke of Normandy were united until 1204, when France confiscated Normandy, a loss formally recognized a half-century later in the Treaty of Paris.  The region remained contested for several hundred years, and the English sporadically occupied the land during the bloody Hundred Years’ War of the 14th and 15th centuries.  When the French monarchy was dissolved at the end of the 18th century, the Duchy of Normandy was formally disbanded as well; its sole remnants are the Channel Islands off the coast and the obsolete title in the hands of the Queen.

            Normandy is a picturesque and pastoral region, dotted with small towns and hamlets, each clustered around a magnificent church, whose spires sharply jut above the verdant waves of hill and field.  Farms and orchards abound; half-timbered farmhouses in the English Tudor style stand side-by-side cottages and churches erected from the plentiful local granite.  A sonorous French GPS struggles to carve a path through the back roads and single lane bridges.  Cattle are everywhere; in the Manche and Calvados départements their milk provides the raw material for Beurre d’Isigny AOC and Crème d’Isigny AOC—butter and cream, respectively.  The French stipulations for agricultural product appellations are every bit as regimented as those for wine: butter, for example, must be churned at certain speeds; temperature and pasteurization procedures are methodically detailed.  Even the amount of time cattle must be left to graze at pasture is mandated.  Soft-ripened cow’s milk cheeses are produced as Camembert AOC, Pont l’Évêque AOC, and Livarot AOC, from communes of the same name.  Only Pont l’Évêque producers may use pasteurized milk.  Overall, dairy produce makes up 27% of Normandy’s agricultural output.  Beef composes another 20% of the total product—the Normande cow is a dual-purpose breed, utilized for both dairy and—with a little more finality—the abattoir.  Tripe from Caen, the urban center of Normandy, is famous, and the nearby Atlantic provides fishermen with bountiful scallops, mussels, and monkfish.  Cooking in Normandy is rich, indeed, with butter and cream at the base of the à la Normande style.  Apples, of course, are widely incorporated into both the cuisine and the homegrown libations of the region.        

The first of four courses....for lunch.  Normandy conspires to make you fat.

Cidre, Poiré, and Eric Bordelet

With over 300,000 tons of cider apples harvested per year, Cidre (cider) production in Normandy is a major business.  In Normandy, east of Caen, Pays d’Auge AOC (1996) produces Cidre exclusively from apples.  In Brittany, along the western border of Normandy, Cidre may be released as Cornouaille AOC.  Just as in wine, Pays d’Auge AOC controls are strict: orchard density, apple varieties, yields, minimum must weights, fermentation methods, final alcohol levels (min. 3.5% acquired, min. 6% total), and pressure (min. 3 atmospheres) are all regulated.  Dozens of apple varieties are authorized, grouped into the main categories of bitter and acidic.  For Pays d’Auge, there is a mandatory encépagement: orchards must comprise a minimum 70% bitter varieties of apple, and a maximum 15% of acidic varieties.  Sweet apples are also used, but none of the cider apple varieties are suitable for eating.  A single apple may compose no more than 60% of the finished Cidre.  The apple harvest may be conducted by hand or machine, and it occurs from October through Christmastime, with some of the most interesting and complex varieties harvested near the end of the season.  Harvested apples are crushed to a rough pulp—but not so fine as a purée, which ruins flavor—and are usually macerated on the apple skins for a few hours prior to pressing.  To qualify for the AOC, Cidre develops during a slow, cool fermentation in vat before being transferred to the bottle, wherein, with the optional addition of active yeasts, it undergoes a second fermentation that lasts at least six weeks and produces the mousse at a level similar to old style crémant.  Finer ciders are bottled as cidre bouché, in a Champagne-style bottle under cork.  There is even a subzone in Pays d’Auge: 22 communes may append “Cambremer” to the AOC name on the label. 

Producers in Domfront AOC, named for the cité médiévale of the same name some fifty-five miles south of Caen, make Poiré rather than Cidre.  The production of Poiré (pear) follows a similar formula, and is a reflection of the region’s abundance of pear trees, some of which are centuries old.  The apple tree, as described by Emmanuel Camut of the renowned Adrien Camut Calvados Pays d’Auge estate, ages much like a man, whereas the pear tree, although it may bear fruit by its 16th year, may be 100 years old before it reaches true maturity.  The pear trees are better suited to the stonier soils of the Domfrontais, and Poiré is a major component in the region’s style of Calvados.  Despite the asserted superiority of AOC products, Eric Bordelet, one of Normandy’s best producers of both Cidre and Poiré, is not making his elixirs under the auspices of either AOC.

As one approaches the family estate of Eric Bordelet, a half hour’s drive southeast of Domfront, the ruined Château de Hauteville dominates the scenery.  The castle, built in 1789—a year in which many manors and palaces in France were destroyed and very few were actually erected—succumbed to fire in 1922.  Today it is a skeleton, slowly and irreversibly swallowed by time and scenery, the stone façade cracked and reclaimed by vegetation.  Bordelet still uses a small cellar hewn out of the granite upon which the castle stands, but the château, to an outsider, threatens to collapse at even slight provocation.  15 ha of orchard land surround the castle, amidst other fields and pastures, and Eric envisions planting 2 more hectares within the next year.  A sommelier by trade, Bordelet returned to his family home in Charchigné in 1992, where he gave up his ambition to produce wine in exchange for the pear and apple trees of his native Normandy.  Today, he makes Sidre/Sydre (two old spellings of Cidre) and Poiré from a mixture of trees—although he cannot recall the exact proportion of pear to apple in his vineyards, he estimates approximately 60% are pear—but he never mixes the juices of each fruit in the final product.  As the Poirés benefit from higher acidity and a more elegant structure, he likens them to white wines, whereas the more tannic and full-bodied Sidre could be compared to a red.  Like some German producers who prefer to showcase Riesling and Spätburgunder in reverse order because of the intensity of Riesling’s acidity, Bordelet will pour his Sidre before Poiré in a tasting flight.

On the red schist and granite soils of the estate, Bordelet’s orchards contain a wide variety of pears and apples and include bitter, sweet, and acidic varieties for both fruits.  The majority of his orchards were planted in 1992 or later, but there are three hectares of 40- to 50-year old trees that are the soul of his Poiré production.  An even smaller stand of wizened, ancient 300-year old trees predates the construction of the Château de Hauteville and provides the raw material for his Poiré “Granit”, a bottle worth keeping in the cellar—a 2003 Granit tasted in 2011, with Scallops à la Normande was off-dry, with piney, rustic, caramel flavors and great acidity despite the heat-wave vintage.  The older trees are planted in the traditional haute tige (“high stem”) fashion, with high branches and wide spacing between trees.  The younger trees on his property are planted in high densities and trellised, in the manner of a European vineyard, and many of these trees are grafted to produce a different variety of the fruit.  Through grafting, Bordelet can control disease and increase the number of “heirloom” fruits present in his orchards, and he firmly believes in tending his trees in accordance with biodynamic principles.  Bordelet does purchase an amount of fruit each year from a handful of other growers, who may cultivate their orchards organically but not in full biodynamic fashion.

A grafted pear tree in Bordelet's orchards

Soyons réalistes, exigeons l'impossible: “Be realistic, demand the impossible”.  Che Guevara’s famous statement adorns the stainless steel tank from which Bordelet bottles his production.  He rigidly controls every step in the “winery”—for lack of a better word—from the sleek, jacketed fermentation units to his own bottling line, and insists that his specific method, despite the lack of a second fermentation in the bottle, is not akin to the Charmat Method utilized in Asti.  Persuaded by his close personal friend, the late Didier Dagueneau, to pursue cider production, he is striving for a level of complexity rare in a traditionally rustic field.  He releases several Sidre bottlings, usually in a range of sweetness levels: Brut, Tendre, and Doux.  In 2010, a vintage defined by heat and drought, Bordelet did not release a Brut.  His off-dry 2010 Sidre Tendre shows fairly pronounced tannin.  He likes his Sidre to finish between 4% and 6% abv, which is difficult in drier, hotter years—many producers, even within the AOC, may add water to the must to keep final alcohol levels down.  Bordelet refuses to add water directly to the must, but he will irrigate his trees in such years, accomplishing the same result—a solution, ironically, prohibited by AOC regulations.  His most complex Sidre is the “Sydre” Argelette, a vinous, ageworthy, intense style that combines 19 apple varieties, and is characterized by extremely small bubbles.  His Poirés are less weighty and paler, with alcohol levels in the 3.5-4% range, and they tend toward elegance, freshness, and racy acidity.  His total production numbers hover around 85,000 bottles annually, including a small amount of Calvados.

Calvados, Adrien Camut and Lemorton

The first lesson in successfully navigating Normandy should have hit home when Gilles de Chambure, MS—a Norman native—gravely intoned: “Get a good map.”  GPS is useless here.  Driving hopelessly back and forth through the tiny town of La Lande Saint-Léger and its environs, I first encountered Emmanuel Camut, who currently runs his family’s 45 ha estate with his brothers, while out walking the family dog.  Emmanuel—a man thick in Viking blood—guided a French friend and me to the wooded drive of the Camuts’ Domaine de Semainville, named for its former owners, aristocrats on the wrong side of the revolution, where he would patiently explain his methods of producing Calvados Pays d’Auge AOC.  Pays d’Auge, considered the best region for Calvados production, is located east of Caen in a large area, its center marked by the city of Lisieux.  Pont l’Évêque is to the north of Lisieux, Camembert lies to the south, Bernay is to the east, and Cambremer is to the west.  Unlike the granite-based soils of the Domfrontais, Pays d’Auge has more clay and less stone, which permits apple trees to grow faster.  Camut’s property, which contains apple trees cultivated in the haute tige style almost exclusively—he admits to planting a couple of pear trees, for “fun”—is nearly devoid of the larger stones that slow tree growth and result in smaller apples with lower sugar content.  His facilities are a monument to traditional, artisan production: there is no insulation or temperature control anywhere on the property, nothing to suggest a modern distillation facility save a single modern pneumatic press.  He tends his orchards organically, as his father and grandfather Adrien did before him.  Chickens, each bearing a vibrant, unique plumage, scatter across the property. 

Cidre in foudre awaiting September's distillation at the estate of Adrien Camut

We passed through his Cidre production facility—a barn, really—where he explains the benefits of utilizing a selection of 25 to 30 different varieties of apple, and only apple, despite Calvados Pays d’Auge AOC’s allowance of up to 30% Poiré in the blend.  Traditionally, cigar-shaped tonne barrels were used in Normandy for cider production, and the foudre, with twice the wood thickness, was used to hold and age Calvados—a development perhaps due to the greater safety it bestowed upon the spirit inside, in deference to the relative expense of the two liquids.  Camut, however, allows his Cidre to ferment in large, neutral American oak foudres, where they remain until the September after harvest—with no temperature control—when the contents are finally distilled.  Many of his competitors would have distilled the previous March.  Stepping outside, Emmanuel motions to two separate piles of firewood for his stills, as he dispels the notion of using gas so favored by many of his colleagues, including Bordelet.  Peuplier (poplar) wood summons a rousing, enthusiastic fire for the first distillation, whereas apple wood burns evenly, more embers than open flame, providing a more constant temperature for the second.  Calvados Pays d’Auge AOC must be distilled twice, like Cognac, and Camut’s old twin copper Charentais alembics suggest something alchemical, mysterious, and transformative.  10 liters of Cidre produce about 1 liter of Calvados, and the whole distillation process lasts about six weeks, 24 hours a day.  Of course, Cidre of higher alcohol content will produce larger amounts of spirit: a producer with a 9% abv Cidre can make twice as much Calvados as a producer, like Camut, who prefers to use Cidre of around 4.5% abv.  Instead of keeping the spirit at cask strength as it begins its sojourn in oak, Camut reduces the spirit with rainwater vapors that intermingle with the vapors of the exiting eau de vie as they condense.  A second innovation is the pot of Camut's still, which is divided in two: a small tube connects the pots and refreshes the alcohol vapor by contact with boiling Cidre in the second pot, giving the spirit additional flavor.  The brouillis, or petites eaux—the heart of the condensed spirit—is then distilled again, with the final alcoholic strength ending up closer to 55%, rather than the standard 65% or 70%, due to the reduction with water vapor.  Camut believes that spirits nearer 70% alcohol will sear the casks, and render the wood less able to permit the exchange of oxygen.  Oxidation is vitally important to Camut’s style of Calvados: the spirits are moved frequently between barrels in the first few years of life, and barrels are generally not topped off over time.

The spirits age for at least six years in neutral Limousin oak foudres—the appellation requires a minimum of only two years—but his best products are a blend of vintages: the Reserve de Semainville Calvados is composed of spirits between 25 and 30 years of age, the Reserve d’Adrien is composed of 35-40 year old spirits, and the Prestige contains Calvados between 40 and 50 years old.  His liquors, unlike offerings from many of the larger houses, are neither filtered nor colored, and sugar is never added at bottling.  To preserve a presence of tannin without having to resort to new barrels, Camut may fill a cask destined for Calvados with Saint-Martin apple must (one of the more tannic bitter varieties) prior to storing a new spirit in the wood.  Camut does not typically release vintage bottlings, but he holds casks dating to the middle of the last century on the property, and will occasionally offer a vintage bottling as a gift—he drew spirit from a 1977 cask into bottle, sealing the closure with hot wax as I watched, a gift bottle of Calvados distilled in my birth year.  The honey-colored spirit—oxidative, slightly rancio, and caramel-toned, yet still fresh with apples, grass and flowers—will not continue to mature in bottle, but it will last indefinitely once opened.  Adrien Camut releases 15,000 to 20,000 bottles of Calvados each year.

Camut's alembic

The Normans of the back roads are perfectly hospitable but still guarded.  While Bordelet himself remains pretty protective of his processes, Bordelet’s mother remains ever vigilant, refusing to allow photographs of the property with a zeal undeterred by casual tourists, facebook addicts, and serious bloggers alike.  Neither he nor Camut seem interested in recommending other producers worth visiting in the region—both regard the question with either incredulity or outright aversion, as though the question was untranslatable, or perhaps not even heard. When pressed, Camut relented: Didier Lemorton, who represents the sixth generation of his family to produce Calvados at the Lemorton estate in Mantilly, near Domfront.  The almost 100 hectare Lemorton property has only 9 acres of orchards, composed of nearly 80% pear trees planted in the haute tige style.  The mandatory inclusion of at least 30% pear in Calvados Domfrontais AOC is far exceeded here: the family recipe generally calls for about 70% pear in the blend.  As with Camut, distillation occurs nearly a year after the fruit harvest, although a column still is used rather than the traditional copper pot alembic of Pays d’Auge, and Calvados Domfrontais AOC may only be distilled once.  The 65% abv spirit leaves the traveling oak wood-fired still—few if any producers own a still in the Domfrontais—and is then transferred to old casks.  AOC regulations for Calvados Domfrontais require a minimum three years in cask before release.  Lemorton is famous for vintage Calvados, and currently maintains stocks of every vintage from 1963 forward in cask.  Barrels are never topped up, and the spirit is bottled with the addition of distilled water upon sale; thus, the same vintage purchased years apart may show different characteristics.  Due to the higher presence of pear, Calvados Domfrontais usually takes on a fresher, lighter, more feminine character than Calvados Pays d’Auge, but the Lemorton style remains intense.  A 1978 vintage tasted out of bottle at the domaine was delicate, smoky, and laden with orange peel, roasted nuts and honey.  Lemorton does not solely make vintage bottles; the Reserve Calvados Domfrontais, aged for at least five years, is an introduction to house’s style, whereas the Rareté, a blend of vintages dating back to 1920, reveals complex toffee, spice and nut flavors. 

Calvados AOC is the largest of the three Calvados appellations, encompassing both Calvados Domfrontais and Calvados Pays d’Auge, along with other outlying and disconnected areas.  Spirits labeled simply “Calvados” may be distilled by either pot or, more frequently, column still, and they are required to be aged for a minimum of two years in cask.  Most Calvados AOC is less complex than the spirits produced in the two more signature appellations, and it is generally best consumed as an aperitif or in a cocktail—Calvados and tonic is a growing trend—rather than as a contemplative digestif.  All Calvados has a minimum alcohol content of 40%.  Blended Calvados is marked with an age statement indicating the youngest spirit in the blend, whereas vintage Calvados will be labeled with the year of distillation.  Approximately 10 million bottles of Calvados are shipped every year, and although it has declined in popularity in its native France, the rapidly expanding Russian market gives hope for the future. 

Producers of Calvados and Cidre in Normandy agree on methods rarely if ever, and the absolute scientific precision and technical acumen that increasingly govern the world’s great winemaking regions seems utterly out of place here.  Things occur because that is the way they should occur.  Taste and observation are the calculus of measurement and decision, not the laboratory.  Along the cider route, one can find many small farmsteads offering Calvados “fermier”, farmhouse spirits produced in even more rustic, fiery fashion.  Camut, Bordelet and Lemorton, deep in the hills of Normandy, each have their own outlook and methodology, but they share a basic, unembellished authenticity, and a genuine product.  I did not seek out the larger names of Calvados, such as Château du Breuil, or even the moderate-sized Domaine Dupont; perhaps these estates, with their public tours, professional websites, and range of products, have a similarly engaging story to tell.  Dupont’s organic Brut Cidre Bouché has wowed me in the past, and I enjoy the estate’s Calvados, which shows a little new wood.  But for sheer immersion into the culture of Calvados, I recommend a visit to Adrien Camut.  Just be sure to speak a little French. 

Emmanuel Camut and Didier Lemorton, photo courtesy of Charles Neal

A final note: Pommeau de Normandie AOC

Pommeau de Normandie AOC (1991) is made from a mixture of fresh apple must (juice) and AOC Calvados of at least 65% abv, aged for a minimum of 12 months in oak.  Mutage results in a final alcohol level between 16-18% and at least 69 grams per liter of residual sugar.  As with both Cidre and Calvados, a blend of apple varieties must be used, including at least 70% bitter varieties and no more than 15% acidic varieties.  The production area for Pommeau de Normandie is identical to the delimited area of Calvados AOC.  A similar style of apple-based aperitif is produced in Brittany, under the Pommeau de Bretagne AOC (1997).  A third Pommeau AOC, Pommeau du Maine, was approved in 2009 for producers in the Mayenne and Main-et-Loire départements, just south of Normandy in the northern Loire Valley region.  Eaux-de-Vie de Cidre du Maine, the apple spirit of the region, is used in place of Calvados.

Pommeau de Normandie and Pommeau de Bretagne are aged in oak for 14 months before release, whereas Pommeau du Maine is kept for at least 21 months prior to sale.  The sweet, amber-colored aperitif is best enjoyed between 46-50° F, and it is sometimes served with a single cube of ice in the brasseries and cafes of Normandy.  Sweetness in the better examples is balanced by structure and tannin. As a starter, it is a good accompaniment to foie gras torchon or the sweet/savory tatin apple tarts of the region.  Lemorton makes a more serious example of Pommeau de Normandie; honeyed smoke aromas intertwine with apple, toffee and cherry.

Mme. Colin's beautiful Chambre d'Hote, in the half-timbered style