The expression of specific terroirs in Calvados, identified by three Appellations


of Christian Drouin 21 marzo 2024

An article by Christian Drouin on the three different Appellations d’Origine of Calvados for cider and pear spirits produced in Normandy, with a brief introduction on their historical origins.

The role of war

Calvados as tank fuel and stills as cannons?

Calvados is a spirit made from apple cider or pears that has been produced for centuries and whose origin and production are now codified into three Appellations d'Origine Contrôlées. Calvados Pays d'Auge became part of a small group of spirits protected by an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée in 1942, at the height of World War II and during France’s occupation by Nazi Germany. Did the Normans have nothing more pressing on their minds, at such a dark time in their history, than claiming a designation of origin for their spirit? It's a strange story, but one worth telling.

Under pressure from the occupying authorities, the government had been forced to pass the law of 13 January 1941 to deal with the shortage of fuel for war vehicles. As a result, all alcohol produced was reserved for the Service des Alcools, with the exception of products placed under a designation of origin scheme. Cognac and Armagnac escaped requisition, but stocks of calvados and cider spirits not protected by a designation of origin were doomed to be converted into fuel for tanks and military vehicles. It was a rude awakening for the Normans. Another threat also loomed over the distillers. With the Germans requisitioning all available copper for weapons production, how could their stills be saved?

Calvados: the first designation given to a product not made from grapes

Part of an ancient Norman family in the Domfront region in the Orne département, Jacques Le Roy Ladurie was a man of strong character. In 1942 he briefly held the position of Minister of Agriculture before joining the Resistance in January 1943. 

Horrified at the thought of what would become of their spirit, in 1941 the Normans appealed to INAO. Fortunately, in 1925 INAO's jurisdiction hadn’t been specifically restricted to wine spirits only, which meant it also had authority over cider spirits. Cider spirit producers and their unions submitted the required reasons and proposals to INAO for the regulation of cider spirit production. A study conducted between February and September 1942 led to two decrees issued in 1942 which granted calvados and cider spirits their current status. Never before had an application for recognition as an Appellation d'Origine been approved so quickly!

Quite effortlessly, the Normans had obtained a designation of origin for their apple and pear cider spirits. However, with no means to carry out a proper investigation, geographical boundaries were initially based on empiricism and laxity, the main goal being preserving their drinking spirit and, indirectly, their copper stills. The protected area was huge, with very few restrictions. The future would show the need for more stringent regulations.

The decrees of 1942 and 1947 established the controlled designation of origin "Calvados du Pays d'Auge" and later regulated designations:

Pays d'Auge is recognized as an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée. 

Ten regions are protected by an Appellation Calvados Réglementée:

Calvados du Calvados, Calvados du Cotentin, Calvados de l’Avranchin, Calvados du Domfrontais, Calvados de la Vallée de l’Orne, Calvados du Mortanais, Calvados du Pays du Merlerault, Calvados du Perche, Calvados du Pays de la Risle, Calvados du Pays de Bray.

This first regulatory stage brought the production of calvados within more reasonable geographical limits.

Perfectible regulations, fiercely individualistic producers.

The protection offered by an Appellation d'Origine also involves accepting INAO’s supervision. This restriction is hardly compatible with the Norman character. Fiercely individualistic, they will fight tooth and claw to defend their individual freedoms. Why worry about Appellation regulations when fraud secures a good price and cash payment for just-out-of-the-still spirits? Easy solutions, however, are never solutions for the future. The time was fast approaching when fraud would no longer pay and only quality would guarantee sales - as long as it was promoted. If Calvados was to become a resource for producers and for Normandy, it had to be supported by stricter designations. Admittedly, their creation proved to be laborious to say the least. 

Some of the most rigorous regulatory steps include the 1984, 1998 and 2015 reforms.

The rules governing designations are not irrevocable. INAO and producers must ensure that they don't act as a noose, hindering or even preventing the necessary changes. As a result, the regulations introduced in 1942 and 1947 were revised in 1984, 1998 and 2015.

The 1984 reform

The creation of the European Union raised the issue of protecting the designations of origin. The Northern States, initially hostile to designations of origin, which they considered a form of protectionism, eventually accepted them on condition that they had to be strictly justified and that only controlled designations would be protected. The large area covered by the regulated names of calvados and cider spirits, which included Normandy, Brittany and Maine - a vast region that included large cereal-producing plains - was not justifiable. In 1984 INAO urgently started the first reform, hastily bringing together the 10 previously regulated Calvados designations to create a single Appellation Calvados Contrôlée. The Domfrontais region was invited to apply for a specific AOC, but declined. Cider spirits were no longer protected.

The 1998 reform

Producers were now being asked to review the rules governing their designations. The request was not opposed, as everyone was well aware of the need to fill the gaps left by the first decrees. After years of hard work, three controlled designations of origin were established in 1998: "Calvados Pays d'Auge", "Calvados Domfrontais" and "Calvados". With the unwavering support of Jean Pinchon, the Domfrontais region finally applied for and obtained its own specific designation. This time, rigor won over laxity. All orchards had to be identified and approved.

The February 2015 decrees

The rules currently applicable to the three designations were codified in the 2015 decrees, which once again made restrictions more stringent.

Between 1942 and 2015 we went from laxity to one of the most restrictive regulations, which now risks marginalizing some designations like Calvados Domfrontais. Today, Calvados is on par with top-level spirits in international competitions, and is increasingly in demand in the best bars and clubs around the world.

The three Calvados designations

The expression of different terroirs

The specificity of a calvados is based on the soil, the fruit varieties used, the fermentation of the must, the distillation method and the aging process.

For a long time, the role of soil was viewed only in terms of physical and chemical characteristics with no consideration for the life in the soil, an essential factor in the expression of a terroir. This is the result of the interaction between the microflora in the soil and the tree's root system. A properly aerated soil helps the development of the root system, which allows the plant to firmly anchor to the ground and absorb the water and nutrients it needs (minerals and trace elements). Fauna (bacteria, earthworms and small animals) are responsible for soil porosity, which allows air and water to penetrate deep into the ground, and microflora are responsible for forming the nutrients absorbed by the trees. 

Up until the 1970s, nothing hindered the expression of terroir in wine production. Then came a revolution in agricultural practices that disrupted life in the soil: intensive agriculture. This revolution affected much of viticulture and offered vine-growers the opportunity to secure yields and save crops by using massive quantities of plant protection products, powerful pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. These practices have wiped out the fauna, leading in some cases to the total disappearance of biological activity. Nutrients can only form if the soil is well aerated by wildlife. With the disappearance of soil life, the nutrients that plants can no longer find in the soil need to be provided in the form of fertilizers. The connection with the soil is thus lost along with the expression of the terroir. Since the vine roots can no longer reach the bedrock, the resulting wine is no longer a terroir wine, but a varietal wine like any other.

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The pre-orchard system and the absence of chemical treatments make for a very active soil life. The revolution in agricultural practices did not affect fruit production in high-stem orchards. In low-stem orchards, the use of chemicals has always been very limited and never smothered soil life. As a result, Calvados producers never had to face the same problems as winemakers who adopted the so-called modern agricultural practices.

The relationship between soil, bacteria and tree varieties is too complex to be replicated. By contributing to a product's specificity, a living soil also protects it from foreign competition and gives it a unique character. Many countries produce cider spirits, but none have managed to imitate calvados. Some producers - mainly Americans - have imported cider apple trees from Normandy. They can produce excellent spirits which however will necessarily express a different terroir.

From the soil the fruit extracts an expression of the terroir that fermentation without cultured yeasts, followed by distillation, turns into fragrances. When these fragrances reach the nostrils, the receptor cells send a message to the brain, which identifies them. Normally, the mouth merely confirms the information provided by the nose. A Designation of Origin product must express its terroir, revealing its soul. Calvados has a fascinating, evocative power. It's a reflection of the country where it was made and the people who produced it. For those who are familiar with Pays d'Auge and Domfrontais - two regions with consistent, identifiable characteristics – the respective designations are easy to recognize. The expression of the terroir is strong. For the generic name Calvados, this is much more difficult as the production area, which covers eleven regions, many of which with specific characteristics, is extremely diverse.

Pays d’Auge

For centuries, Pays d'Auge has been known for its excellent dairy products and cider fruit. In 1588, Charles de Bourgueville wrote that "the whole Auge region is rich in fruit and apples, from which the most excellent ciders can be obtained."

Pays d'Auge is a very uniform area, both geographically and geologically. It includes four different natural areas: the coast, the marshes, the woods and the bocage. The bocage has strongly eroded elevations - a succession of hills and valleys that give it its unique charm. It's divided into small plots. Those used for grazing cows under apple trees are enclosed by hedges. Horse breeding, especially racehorses, is a rapidly developing industry. In recent decades, an increase in the number of stables has changed the landscape, with a larger number of treeless plots enclosed by wooden or concrete fences. The soils are predominantly clay with a silty surface layer. Heavy, cold soils combined with the mild, humid climate are ideal for grazing land and apple farming, but are not immune to global warming and its consequences.

For centuries, Pays d'Auge and its cream, butter, cheese like Camembert, Livarot and Pont-L'Evêque, cider and calvados have enjoyed some fame. André du Boullay, a producer, lamented the absence of an organization capable of protecting Camembert and Calvados, which had become public domain. As early as 1922 he decided to devote his efforts to defending farmers and bringing them together into a union. The "Syndicat de la Marque d'Origine Pays d'Auge" was created in 1926 with the goal of certifying the origin of top Auge products. Together with other industry players, the Syndicat applied for an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée for calvados produced in Pays d'Auge. To mark the boundaries of the Pays d'Auge terroir, the union hired a geographer, Marcel Reinhard. The 1942 decree adopted the same demarcation, with slightly expanded borders.

Today, the Pays d'Auge designation is regulated by the 2015 decree. Fruit production and picking, the production and distillation of apple and pear cider and the ageing process must all take place within the geographical area defined in the decree. An annex lists the municipalities included in this geographical area. Another annex specifies the permitted cider fruit varieties. 70% of the surface area must be planted with bitter and bittersweet varieties. The decree also stipulates the requirements for the management of high- and low-stem orchards and yields per hectare. At least 45% of the fruit used at each production site must come from high-stem orchards. No more than 30% of the cider to be distilled may come from cider pears. Distillation takes place in stills with a maximum capacity of 2500 liters. The first distillation, as our readers will remember, consists of boiling the cider containing about 6% alcohol to obtain the petite eau, which has an alcohol content ranging between 28 to 30%. The second distillation - or bonne chauffe - involves the petites eaux obtained from the first distillation. The result is calvados, which must have an ABV not exceeding 72%. The first and last distillation products, i.e. the "heads" and "tails" respectively, are discarded and only the hearts are used. To obtain the designation, the spirit must age for no less than 24 months in sessile or pedunculate oak barrels. Barrel capacity is also regulated.

In my opinion, what sets Pays d'Auge Calvados apart is its smooth apple aromas, the fullness, roundness and fatness of the mouth and, after prolonged ageing, the balance, mellowness, richness and extreme complexity of the aromas and flavors. Pays d'Auge is a quiet force and its calvados accurately reflects the region, with its soft cheeses and cuisine rich in cream and butter - a land loved for its gently rolling landscapes and the understated class of its half-timbered buildings.

Calvados Domfrontais

Like Pays d'Auge, the Domfrontais region in quite uniform both geographically and geologically. Discreetly tucked away in southern Normandy between Alençon and Mont-Saint-Michel, the Domfrontais bocage is a rolling wooded region of hills and ridges, with rugged terrain and an abundance of waterholes. The fields and meadow orchards are bordered by hedges and coppices. Dairy cattle farming and cider, perry and calvados production are the main agricultural activities of the bocage region. However, corn farming is on the rise.

Despite a considerable decline in its orchards, what still impresses visitors to the Domfrontais are the tall, imposing trees standing majestically in the natural meadows. The pear tree is a very slow-growing tree that reaches adulthood at fifty years of age and can live for several centuries. These large pear trees bloom before the apple trees. In the fall, in favorable years, the pear trees fill with small green or grey pears that are used to produce poiré, a sparkling drink similar to cider.

The ubiquity of the pear trees is due to the nature of the soil, which promotes their growth - a deep soil consisting of a granite bedrock and shale layers covered with silt, with good water retention capacity. The soil is well aerated by microorganisms and the biological activity next the bedrock helps create elements that can be absorbed by the trees and are specific to this terroir, which contribute to making this product unique. The pear tree is the signature of Domfrontais calvados!

The most important feature of calvados produced in the Domfrontais region is its nose, unmistakable in the world of spirits with its enticing scent of pears, elegance and finesse, often more vibrant than the calvados produced in Pays d'Auge. Pays d'Auge and Domfrontais calvados are two aristocratic spirits, one smooth, rich, full-bodied, unfathomable, the other wild and fiery.

The specifications for the "Calvados Domfrontais" designation require that cider pears make up at least 30% of all the fruit used, and that the resulting spirit be aged in oak barrels for at least 3 years. The specifications also define the geographical area and list the 114 municipalities it covers, for a total of 1600 km². At least 80% of the orchards must be planted with high-stem trees. The permitted apple and pear varieties are specified in an annex. The percentage of poiré pear trees planted must be at least 25%. The percentage of bitter and bitter-sweet apple trees must be at least 70%. Allowable yields are also specified.

The distillation method contributes to the character of the spirit. In the Domfrontais region, calvados is traditionally produced in column stills turning cider into alcohol through a continuous process. The column still is excellent for extracting apple and pear aromas, giving the spirit unique aromatic exuberance, freshness and liveliness. This distillation method is mandatory to obtain the Domfrontais AOC. Cider and poiré are distilled together in a column still. After distillation, calvados must not exceed 72% ABV.

It must age in sessile or pedunculate oak barrels. Barrel capacity is also regulated. Producers very rarely use new barrels to preserve the fruit aromas as much as possible. Unfortunately, a minimum ageing of 3 years is required for Calvados Domfrontais, as its fruity aromas make it ideal to be enjoyed young, either straight or in cocktails. This explains why a large amount of this calvados is placed on the market before 3 years of age under the Calvados designation.

Calvados AOC

The Appellation Calvados Contrôlée covers the largest production area - 7 departments with very different soil types. The selected municipalities include those where traditional cider production was maintained, particularly from a traditional orchard - the pré verger, which combines fruit trees with grazing grass for livestock. Notably, Appellation Calvados Contrôlée can be produced in both Pays d'Auge and Domfrontais if not all of the obligations for these specific designations are met. The requirements for the production of Calvados are less stringent. The respective ratios of cider apples and pears are not regulated, although 70% of the apples must be from bitter or bittersweet varieties. At least 35% of all fruit used must come from high-stem orchards. Apple or pear ciders are distilled in pot stills or column stills. As the production cost of double distillation is higher than the cost of single column distillation, only a few producers use the former. The spirit must age for at least two years in sessile or pedunculate oak barrels.

Since production of Appellation Calvados Contrôlée can vary quite widely across the region, it's difficult to perceive the bond with the terroir, and even more difficult to pinpoint the specificities of the Calvados produced here. In this case, the very brief description of the characteristics of this designation as provided in the production specifications is quite appropriate: "the nose and mouth are aromatic with notes reminiscent of the fruit from which it's obtained." This does not in any way affect the quality of the product, which some producers successfully took to very high levels.

Farmed surface area and number of producers by designation in 2019:

Appellation Calvados - 337 producers - 7329 hectares

Calvados Pays d'Auge - 59 producers - 3252 hectares

Calvados Domfrontais - 52 producers - 752 hectares

Calvados production meets all of the requirements of a true designation of origin. By nurturing soil life in their orchards, the Normans successfully preserved the expression of their terroir in calvados.

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