While calvados uses different ingredients to other well-known brandies like cognac, it has a surprisingly similar production process. However, learning more about calvados can greatly help developing an appreciation for it.
In this guide, you will learn how calvados is produced as well as the different geographic zones:
- What Is Calvados Made From?
- Where Is Calvados Made?
- How Calvados Is Made
- Calvados ABV
- Different Types Of Calvados
- Other Calvados Appellations
Simply use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read out entire detailed guide.
Learn How Calvados Is Made With Bespoke Unit
See The Best Calvados To Buy Online
What Is Calvados Made From?
As you will learn in this guide, calvados is a brandy made by distilling apples that have been fermented into dry cider. However, you’ll soon realise that it can also be made from pears in certain appellations!
As the Calvados region has particular poor soil that’s strong in chalk and marl, it produces small apples. As a result, they are rich in flavour but their size and polyphenol content also deliver a greater quantity of tannins due to the larger ratio of skin.
Although most regulated brandy is limited to just a few grape varieties, calvados enjoys the freedom of over 230 types of apples and 139 types of pears that are grown throughout Normandy.
The following apple varieties are perhaps the most common and each has unique characteristics that can contribute to the resulting blend:
- Avrolles: Bitter
- Binet Rouge: Bittersweet
- Bisquet: Bittersweet
- Cidor: Tart
- Douce Coetligné: Sweet
- Douce Moën: Bittersweet
- Frequin: Bittersweet
- Judor: Bitter
- Mettais: Bittersweet
- Noël des Champs: Bittersweet
- Petit Jaune: Tart
- Rambault: Tart
- Rouge Duret: Sweet
- Saint Martin: Bitter
The 13 varieties listed above are those favoured by Dupont for producing its calvados. Additionally, much of the above varieties can also be used to produce Norman cider as well as Pommeau, which is made by combining calvados with unfermented apple pomace.
Where Is Calvados Made?
The brandy shares its name with its home department in the northern French region of Normandy, nestled in the Baie de Seine along the English Channel. However, Calvados production also includes the Manche and Orne departments as well as parts of Eure, Mayenne, Sarthe, and Eure-et-Loir.
The apple orchards cover just 7,500 hectares of this sprawling geographical area and are also shared by cider producers. The region was recognised as an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée in 1942.
For producers to be eligible for the appellation, they must abide by specific regulations in the varieties of apples and pears used as well as the production techniques.
Furthermore, calvados consists of several appellations, which are defined as the following terroirs:
You can use the links above to jump ahead or scroll down to read about them all.
The main calvados appellation accounts for over 70% of its total output. However, it is surprisingly scattered rather than sprawling with pockets near Cherbourg in the north-west as well as a patch surrounding Neufchâtel in the east.
Similarly, although calvados is often perceived as a particularly northern beverage, the appellation descends as far as parts of Eure-et-Loire, which is further south than Paris.
As a result, the appellation has an assortment of different soils with varying levels of chalk and marl. Similarly, the oceanic climate and mild temperatures can fluctuate between areas too, which allows for a diversity in the apple and pear yields.
A strictly defined appellation in the hear of calvados, Pays d’Auge surrounds Lisieux and also includes the picturesque coastal town of Deauville. Although the appellation is significantly smaller than AOC calvados, it provides as much as 25% of the region’s total production.
As well as being a more focused production zone, it is also more tightly regulated. Indeed, it follows the same basic regulations as AOC calvados as well as additional rules.
For instance, you will learn below that most producers can interchangeably use either a continuous column or copper pot still. However, the Pays d’Auge appellation must perform a double distillation with a Charentais copper pot still, which is the same one used for making cognac.
Furthermore, pears can be used in Pays d’Auge calvados but may not exceed 30% of the final product. Any additional flavourings are extremely limited and the cider must have spent six weeks fermenting before it can be distilled into an eau-de-vie.
An intriguing appellation that was only officially recognised in 1997, Domfrontais focuses mainly on pears rather than apples. With a heavier concentration of granite in the soil, Domfrontais is known for producing rich and flavoursome pears.
Its overall production regulations are similar to AOC calvados and the eau-de-vie is usually extracted via single with a continuous column still.
However, there are additional rules. New orchard must consist of at least 15% pear trees, which must then account for 25% by the 16th harvest. Furthermore, the resulting calvados may contain apples but should be at least 30% pear.
Finally, while AOC Calvados and Pays d’Auge has to be aged for at least two years in oak barrels, Domfrontais requires an additional year.
Although not officially recognised as an appellation, “Fermier” or “farm-made” calvados has become quite popular. the label is used to indicate more artisinal calvados that has been entirely made on a single farm.
Fermier producers will usually use only traditional agriculture and techniques.
How Calvados Is Made
Although calvados is made using either apples or pears, it shares a lot in common with other brandy like cognac and Armagnac.
Firstly, calvados orchards come in two distinctive types. Firstly, you have “haute tige” orchards, which should have no more than 280 trees per hectare with 5 metres between each tree. The maximum yield is limited to an average 25 tonnes per hectare.
Meanwhile, “basse tige” orchards consist of shorter trees with between 280 and 1,000 per hectare. Yields here are restricted to an average of 35 tonnes per hectare.
Furthermore, the above quantities and distances apply to AOC calvados. The allowed distance between trees increases with pears and the number of trees per hectare is lower for Pays d’Auge calvados.
Harvesting takes place between September and November and the fruit is usually picked by hand when it reaches full maturity. Therefore, a single tree might be harvested several times. Similarly, apples of different varieties will reach maturity at different times of the year.
The apples are then temporarily stored in wooden boxes called “palox” before being washed and sorted by hand. Any damaged apples will be immediately discarded.
Historically, apples were pressed using a large stone wheel that would roll through a circular channel. However, most calvados producers prefer membrane presses used for winemaking, which ensures slow and uniform juice extraction with the skin at low pressure.
The resulting juice or “moût” is fermented into cider and is then aged with the yeast still inside, which is referred to as “on the lees” to ensure rich flavours. Cider destined for distillation is referred to as “cidre de chauffe” and is essentially undrinkable.
In the first few days, the fruit pectins will coagulate and produce a solid matter on the surface of the moût. This natural process is referred to as the “montée du chapeau brun” and shows that the impurities have been separated. Over time, the moût becomes clear if it is properly and slowly fermented.
Pays d’Auge calvados will initially be fermented for two months and will then require an additional minimum of six months before it can be distilled.
Apple varieties are pressed, fermented, distilled, and aged separately. It is only once the eau-de-vie is ready to use that they are blended together.
As the yeast turns sugar into alcohol, sweet cider may be slightly milder than that made from bitter varieties. However, most of the cigar is around 5 to 6% ABV before being distilled.
As mentioned above, AOC calvados producers can choose between single distillation with a continuous column still like Armagnac or double distillation with a Charentais copper pot still like cognac. Meanwhile, Pays d’Auge calvados must be produced with the latter.
Small column stills were historically the most popular choice as they were relatively mobile. Independent distillers called “bouilleurs de cru” would transport their stills by horse and cart and distil cider for multiple farmers in their local area.
The local bouilleur ambulant is sadly an endangered trade but it still exists today. However, a tractor and trailer have since replaced the horse and cart!
Charentais copper pot stills are far larger and more complex. They feature a “chauffe-cidre”, which pre-heats the cider to 80°C (176°F) before being transferred to the heating vessel.
The distillate is captured in the distinctive mushroom-shaped chapiteau and then travels down a long tube called a “col de cygne”. Eventually, it comes to the coiled copper serpentine pipes, which are submerged in water to cool it down.
Each distillation run is referred to as a “chauffe” and consist of the “brouillis” and “la bonne chauffe” respectively. In both cases, the heads and tails are discarded. The resulting “bonne chauffe” must not exceed 72% ABV.
Needless to say, single distillation is a much faster process and the resulting eau-de-vie will retain more of the cider’s fruitiness but is arguably less complex.
Meanwhile, double distillation is a far more complex process and creates a purer distillate. As a result, double-distilled eau-de-vie will take on more of the flavours and tannins of the wood.
The eau-de-vie is transferred to 400-litre oak barrels, which are usually charred inside through a process called “bousinage”. Typically, the eau-de-vie starts the ageing process in new oak barrels. However, it is often transferred to older casks after a few months to prevent the wood from dominating the flavours.
The eau-de-vie absorbs the wood and the clear liquid takes on an amber colour, which becomes darker as it continues to age. To be recognised as a genuine calvados, the eau-de-vie must spend at least two years ageing unless it’s Domfrontais and then it requires an extra year.
Young calvados has a distinctively fruity profile. However, old calvados will develop a rich complexity as its fruitiness oxidises and takes on the barrel’s woodiness. Some argue that calvados tastes surprisingly similar to cognac after a certain age.
The eau-de-vie will slowly evaporate due to the angel’s share. In order to slow down the process, producers may consolidate batches into a smaller number of casks. Transferring the eau-de-vie also improves aeration for a superior ageing process.
If desired, producers can then move the eau-de-vie to glass demijohns or “Dame Jeannes” to stop the ageing process. However, while the eau-de-vie will stop ageing, it will continue to oxidise.
A single bottle of calvados may contain over one hundred different batches and variety of eau-de-vie. Like other brandy, rum, and whisky, it is usually blended with a selection of apple varieties from different places and of various ages to produce a consistent and unique flavour.
As mentioned earlier, different apples are used as they have unique characteristics. Similarly, where they are grown can change the resulting flavour. Furthermore, how long they have spent in a barrel will drastically alter their taste.
Yet, you can also find “millésime” calvados, which may use different apple varieties but consists of just a single vintage. In cognac, the person responsible for blending is known as a “Maître de Chai”.
However, calvados is closer to Armagnac in the sense that this task is usually undertaken by either by the family or a single family member.
Finally, a small amount of caramel, sugar, and Boise may be added to calvados as a flavouring. Caramel visibly darkens calvados and a pinch of sugar can help produce more rounded flavours.
Meanwhile, Boise is a syrup made from boiled wood and is occasionally used to produce a slightly more mature flavour.
Nevertheless, the use of the above ingredients is strictly limited and they can be added in very limited quantities. Although AOC calvados may be somewhat more flexible, Pays d’Auge calvados is highly regulated.
How Strong Is Calvados?
In both Europe and the USA, calvados is required to have a minimum 40% ABV to be legally regarded as a brandy or alcohol spirit. Other brandies like cognac are often hydrated or “reduced” to 40%. However, calvados is closer to Armagnac in that it favours a more natural process.
As Normandy is quite humid, the eau-de-vie’s alcohol evaporates faster than the water. Therefore, it slowly loses strength as it ages. Some producers encourage this process by periodically adding small amounts of water to casks to further reduce the strength, which also slows the angel’s share.
If timed properly, fully-aged calvados will have reached the desired alcoholic content and requires no additional hydration. Therefore, it can be bottled directly as a “brut de fût” after being blended. However, it is occasionally hydrated down to near 40% ABV before it is bottled.
Different Types Of Calvados
Calvados uses a similar set of classifications to cognac and armagnac to identify its expressions. However, you will notice a few interesting differences below:
- Fine: 2 Years
- Vieux or Réserve: 3 Years
- V.S.O.P. (Very Special Old Pale), V.O, or Vieille Réserve: 4 Years
- X.O. (Extra Old), Napoléon, or Hors d’Âge: 6 Years
- Millésime: Vintage Armagnac consisting of a single year.
If you’re familiar with cognac or Armagnac, you may notice that calvados is somewhat less structured with a variety of terms that can be used to indicate the same age.
For instance, Napoléon and X.O. will indicate a cognac that is blended with eau-de-vie no younger than 6 and 10 years respectively. However, these are used to classify calvados of the same age.
As explored earlier in the article, calvados is often blended by composing an expression from several batches of different ages and varieties. Like most regulated brandies and aged alcoholic spirits, the age statements and classifications will refer to the youngest batch used to produce the blend.
Furthermore, calvados can be released as bottles of single vintages in a similar way to Armagnac. Although this practice is almost unheard of with cognac, both Armagnac and calvados will produce “Millésimes” that are blended with the fruit of a single year.
Other Calvados Appellations
Although the below beverages are not strictly considered calvados in their own right, they are produced with AOC calvados. Therefore, they’re often associated with the alcoholic spirit.
What is Crème de Calvados?
Crème de calvados is the result of combining 69% ABV AOC calvados that has been aged for at least two years with cream liqueur, sugar, and caramel. As Normandy is revered for the quality of its dairy, especially its heavy cream, crème de calvados is a combination of its celebrated heritage.
What Is Pommeau de Normandie?
Similarly, Pommeau de Normandie is a “mistelle” style fortified wine that is made with calvados. It is typically produced by blending two-thirds of unfermented apple juice with one-third of 65% ABV AOC calvados, and then ageing the combination in oak barrels for at least 14 months.
As the addition of calvados prevents fermentation, it was initially made to preserve apple juice for long periods of time. It became particularly popular as techniques improved during the 1970s. However, it was illegal to sell until it received its own AOC in 1991.
Not only does the appellation protect the drink but it has also outlined regulations to ensure quality. For instance, the AOC calvados must have been aged for at least 12 months and consists of 70% bitter and bittersweet apples.
Typically served cold, it can accompany a number of sweet dishes including melons, foie gras, chocolate, and desserts. Occasionally, it is used to make sauces for seafood and meat.
Having now learned about how calvados is made and the different varieties, why do you read more about the surprisingly elusive spirit?