While most of France obsesses about the grapes, folks in the northwest corner proudly fret over apples. This time of year, as the last of them fall off the trees, distillers in Normandy ruminate about the yield and quality of the fruit they will blend for apple brandy. Named Calvados for a coastal pocket in Normandy, the stuff is worth exploring precisely because of its underdog status in a country whose alcohol economy is steeped in wine.
Calvados is a favorite in France among the working class, probably because orchard owners don't have the snobbish image of winemakers. But the alchemy of Calvados is not unlike that of wine. Calvados makers painstakingly choose and blend dozens of apple varieties -- sometimes along with pears -- and follow well-guarded recipes of drying and rotting the fruit in flat boxes or right in the grass. They then make cider that becomes Calvados after two distillations and aging in oak. The apples are mostly bitter and acidic, but the subtleties of their flavors are easier to manipulate than those of sweet eating apples.
Age is a big differentiator in picking from among Calvados varieties. Last May I bought a bottle of eight-year-old Calvados in Reims, France, and my Norman friend, Jean-Yves, grumbled: "Too young, too young." But after tasting several brands and ages, I have a difficult time saying "the older the better" across the board.
Consider the $20 Ch?teau du Breuil Fine Calvados from Diageo Ch?teau & Estate Wines, blended from brandies aged between two and four years. Finicky Normans might reserve this for cooking sauces, but I liked its buttery feel, taste, and aroma of apples rotting under the tree. Indeed, I didn't care for the eight-year old Reserve du Ch?teau as much, as its finish was not as good as the younger brandy.
Calvados Boulard, from Palm Bay Imports of Boca Raton, Fla., also has a range of ages. The $33 Calvados Grand Solage Boulard, a blend of two- to four-year-old brandies, was excellent with a bright apple taste, while the $110 Boulard 1979 had a deeper, oakier flavor, much closer to cognac. It was very good -- but, frankly, if I want cognac, I'll pour cognac. Another high-end Calvados, the $100 Michel Huard 1976 from Robert Chadderrdon Selections, unabashedly chases cognac but does retain enough apple essence to keep my senses in the orchard.
The Domaine Familial L. Dupont line of Calvados from Robert Kacher Selections based in Washington, D.C., includes Hors D'Age, $53, aged 10-12 years. Honestly, it reminded me more of brandy from grapes than apples. I preferred the Domaine Dupont Fine Reserve, $38, for its smooth earthier apple flavor.
I compared these brandies with some homemade Calvados produced by a Norman cabinetmaker who would be identified only by his first name to keep the tax collectors at bay. Daniel distills his own Calvados after the production from his 30 trees has been cider for a month or so. His apple potion was a bit raw for me and darn near blew the head off my martini-sipping brothers. Lacking precise production methods, Daniel's results are a bit volatile. But what fun to taste a noble amateur's recipe against the pricey stuff.
Apple brandy must be made in Calvados to carry the name. But it's worthwhile to try some variations from New Jersey distiller Laird, which has been selling apple brandies since 1780. Laird's $65, 88-proof 12-year-old Rare Old Apple Brandy is aged in charred bourbon barrels and thus has the peaty character of whiskey. Its $17 Applejack, made from peak tree-ripened apples instead of the ground-rotted fruit preferred by the Normans, has a polished apple-juice-like essence.
American apple brandy has its place, but I prefer the real thing from France. A.J. Liebling, the American journalist and indefatigable gourmand, wrote in his 1958 book, Normandy Revisited, that Calvados "has a more agreeable bouquet, a warmer touch to the heart, and more outgoing personality than cognac." It's true. If a glass of cognac reminds you of a visit to a wealthy French estate, a glass of Calvados is finding out that the conversation is better in the kitchen with the help.
By David Kiley