I was thrilled when I received the call to partner with Business France to create a Calvados activation in the Chicago market! I have been a long fan of this French apple brandy since 1999 when I worked for a wine and spirits distributor.

This project is an opportunity for the Shall We Wine team to share Calvados’ legacy and pure deliciousness with consumers. Regarded as one of the three historic French spirits alongside Cognac and Armagnac, Calvados embodies the essence of its coastal homeland, capturing the spirit of its orchards and maritime climate. Let’s delve into the world of Calvados, exploring its production, aging process, flavor profile, and why it deserves a place on every home bar.

The first documented mention of cider distillation in Normandy dates back to 1553. By the 17th century, the popularity of cider eau-de-vie spread throughout France. The term “Calvados” was officially coined in 1790, post-French Revolution. The first industrial distillery was created in the 1860s, which coincided with an era when Normandy was experiencing the impact of the development of transport routes.

This gradual “opening-up” of Normandy brought with it new opportunities due to increased seaside tourism, creating more means for commerce and an explosion of new products. Another factor that contributed to growing interest in Calvados was the phylloxera crisis which was destroying French vineyards.

With the decline in wine, “Calvados to the rescue.” Calvados was granted AOC status in 1942. The Calvados AOC, the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, translating to PDO in English, which means Protected Designation of Origin) system defines the origins, appearance, and aromas of the Calvados brand. Producers began to take part in agricultural competitions and trade events, garnering awards for quality, thereby establishing the legitimacy of Calvados. Today, there are approximately “300 producers in Normandy collectively selling about 5 million bottles annually, a quantity less than that of a single medium-sized Scotch distillery in a year.”

What is Calvados?

Calvados is a type of brandy crafted from apples, and sometimes pears, from Normandy, in the northwest of France (166 miles northwest of Paris, France’s capital). 

This spirit stands apart from other brandies as it is exclusively made from fruit, namely apples, harvested from the region’s orchards. The apples used are not the varieties you find at your grocery stores; they are cider apples. These minuscule apples are not great for midday snacking but are perfect for making cider. There are 200 varieties of apples and 139 varieties of pears that can be used to make the cider, which is then distilled into the brandy we know as Calvados.

The inclusion of pears is the result of pear trees being planted near apple orchards to provide shade and protect the apple trees. As you can imagine, there was an abundance of pears, and as your mom said, “waste not, want not,” therefore pear fruit was added to the cider build! Furthermore, “the more varieties of fruits included means a longer blossom and a longer crop. According to a recent Calvados Masterclass, “the blossom will last 1-1 ½ months, and the crops last 3-4 months in Normandy, which helps to ensure a good harvest in case of inclement weather. This is important because they have to wait for the fruit to fall from the trees at the peak of ripeness.”

Sustainability in Calvados

Sustainability is paramount in Calvados, a partnership between nature and producers, each doing its part to contribute to the overall good. Several laws and practices are employed to ensure eco-friendly practices. Firstly, trees are planted and left for 50 years, utilizing fruit trees that act as efficient CO2 absorbers. Secondly, irrigation of orchards is strictly prohibited within the AOC, the region only uses rainwater for tree growth. The majority of water used for Calvados production (approximately 1.5 liters of water per liter) is used for apple washing. This number is significantly less water “than other spirits like whiskey or vodka which can be 30-40 liters for production and does not account for irrigation of crops.” Third, pollination is encouraged by the inclusion of wildflowers in Normandy orchards to attract bees. Furthermore, “50 to 60% of apples grown for Calvados are pesticide and herbicide-free, maintaining a natural ecosystem.” The orchards are shaped in a way that allows for grazing cows and sheep beneath orchards, eliminating the need for fertilizers and pesticides.

The Regions of Calvados

There are three distinct regions: AOC Calvados, AOC Calvados Pays d’Auge, and Calvados Domfrontais. Each region has its own regulations about the percentage of apples or fruit that can be used, aging requirements, and whether the distillation takes place in column or pot stills.

The AOC Calvados is the largest region, with approximately 70% of Calvados bottled and sold coming from this region. This AOC is not limited by the percentage of apples or pears that can be used in production, with no specific ratio. In the AOC Calvados, the spirits can be distilled in column or pot stills and must be aged for a minimum of two years before being bottled and sold. AOC Calvados offers unique expressions of the spirit.

The second area is Calvados Pays d’Auge. 29% of Calvados comes from this region. Here, the producer must use a minimum of 30% bitter apples, are allowed to add up to 30% pears in the cider build, can only use a pot still, and must age for a minimum of two years before being bottled and sold. Pays d’Auge adheres to strict guidelines regarding apple varieties and production methods, resulting in a more traditional and robust spirit.

The newest region is Calvados Domfrontais, which was created in 1997. Only 1% of Calvados comes from this region. The requirements are a minimum of 30% pears in the cider build, the spirit must be distilled using a column still, and aged for a minimum of three years before being bottled and sold. Domfrontais’ inclusion of pears alongside apples creates a flavor profile that is both fruity and floral.

The Production Process

Crafting Calvados begins with carefully selecting apples and pears. Standard practice is to use the natural yeasts present on fruit skins to ferment, although adding yeast became legal in 2015. Using additional yeast strains is uncommon because it increases the fermentation time from 21 to 30 days. Producers will use a combination of fruit that are sweet, bittersweet, bitter, and acidic to provide balance. It is important to note that the AOC does not allow the addition of water or sugar to Calvados production.

Once the cider is created, it is then distilled in either column or copper pot stills depending on the regulations of the AOC. AOC Calvados can use both, while the AOC Pays d’Auge requires a pot still, and Domfrontais, a column still, is mandatory. The pot still used in Calvados is like that of Cognac. These pot stills produce a rounder, smoother eau de vie (French for water of life or spirit), whereas the column still will produce a fresher, fruitier, crisper eau de vie. 

The minimum alcohol content for Calvados is 40% ABV (alcohol by volume).

For spirit enthusiasts, it’s important to note that these stills are much smaller than the stills you may have seen in, say, vodka or whiskey production. Furthermore, these are copper column stills, with most of them heated with a flame produced by either wood or gas.

There are about 300 Calvados producers in Normandy, and about 250 of them use “flying distillers.” Flying distillers are basically traveling distillers who pull their still with a tractor from one producer to another to “burn” the cider and turn it into eau de vie before the producer puts it in the barrel for aging.

Aging and Classification

Calvados are separated into two types: blends and vintages.

In blends, the age on the label denotes the youngest Calvados in the blend. For example, a Calvados with the age statement of 30 years may actually have a portion of a 50-year-old included in the blend.

Vintage Calvados are blends of eau-de-vies that have been distilled in the same year, and this year then appears on the label. It is important to note that age statements are not mandatory; however, if it is on the label, the age statement must comply with what is reflected in the bottle.

One of the defining characteristics of Calvados is its aging process. The barrels used for aging are different from those of other spirits, as they are oval in shape. Historically, these oval-shaped barrels were used for two reasons: they were free and could be used as a ploy to “evade” taxes. In the past, wine and spirits were shipped in oval barrels as there were no tanks and plastic for transportation. When the products arrived at the ports, instead of disposing of the barrels, Calvados producers gladly accepted them for aging their spirits. In addition, producers were taxed on the amount of spirit being shipped or sold. The oval shape makes it difficult to assess the amount of liquid in the barrel, so producers got away with paying less tax. Today, we see a variety of barrels being used in the area.

According to AOC law, Calvados must be aged for a minimum of two years in oak barrels to be considered matured. A combination of barrels is used, from tannin-rich French oak to American oak that gives vanilla flavors to whiskey barrels that provide milky notes. The aging process imparts depth and complexity to the spirit, with three main categories based on aging: Fine, VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), and XO (Extra Old).

– VS (Very Special) denotes an aging of at least two years.
– Reserve/Old denotes an aging of at least three years.
– V.O. (Very Old)/VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) denotes an aging of at least four years.
– Hors d’Age/XO (Extra Old)/Napoleon denotes an aging of at least six years.

Terroir and Flavor Profile

The geographical location of Calvados plays a significant role in shaping its flavor profile. There is Low seasonal temperature variation (temperatures range between 9.5 and 13.5°C), little elevation and proximity to the sea. In the case of Normandy, that body of water that most impacts the growing region is theTouques River. Even though there are regional contrasts, precipitation remains significant. All in all this is a perfect region for grow

Another characteristic of Normandy that influences the character of the apples used in production is the region’s shallow clay-limestone soil. Common flavor notes include apple, pear, caramel, vanilla, spice, and oak, resulting in a spirit that is both robust and nuanced.

There are distinct regional variations in Calvados that offer unique expressions of the spirit. Domfrontais, for example, is known for its inclusion of pears alongside apples, creating a flavor profile that is both fruity and floral. In contrast, Pays d’Auge adheres to strict guidelines regarding apple varieties and production methods, resulting in a more traditional and robust spirit.

Sipping and Pairing Calvados

Calvados can be enjoyed in various ways, from neat to incorporating it into cocktails and even culinary recipes. Its versatility offers endless possibilities for exploration and creativity. I recommend trying it in your favorite seasonal cocktails, substituting it for whiskey in a winter Manhattan, or giving a refreshing twist to a summer margarita by replacing tequila with Calvados.

French tradition is to pair Calvados with a variety of foods, from chocolates and cheeses to pastries such as Calva Baba (a dry cake drizzled with Calvados) to the Normandy tradition called “le trou Normand.” In this tradition, “Calvados is enjoyed between main dishes or as a palate cleanser with green apple sorbet and a dash of Calvados. The brandy not only helps make room for the remaining courses but also aids in digestion.”

Calvados stands as a testament to the rich heritage and craftsmanship of the Normandy region. Whether enjoyed on its own or as part of a creative cocktail, Calvados invites enthusiasts to explore the depths of its character and discover the magic within each sip. So why not level up your drinking experience with a taste of this exquisite French apple brandy?