Calvados is a brandy (eau-de-vie) made from apples and pears grown in the orchards of north-western France. In theory, this traditional apple brandy can be produced in more than 1550 parishes dotted all over Normandy, Brittany and inland into the Pays de la Loire. In practice, however, the unquestioned epicenter of Calvados production is the Normandy region, on the Atlantic coast due west of Paris.
The name Calvados is the source of some intrigue, and several stories exist about how a very Spanish-sounding name came to represent a region of north-western France, and its apple brandy. One tells of a Spanish ship named El Salvador, which was wrecked off the Normandy coast in 1588. An appendix to this adds that the ship was carrying a cargo of apple brandy, which washed ashore in barrels. Another story suggests that the name comes from calva dorsa, which means 'bare back' in Latin. This was the name given to two large, barren rocks located just off the coast near the town of Arromanches-les-Bains. Whichever story is accurate, the name was adopted for the new 'Calvados' administrative which was created following the French Revolution in 1789.
© Wikimedia/Harald Bischoff
Normandy is home to some of Europe's finest orchards, so there was a natural evolution to producing ciders and perries – and eventually eau-de-vie (brandy) – derived from the fruit. The earliest records of cider distillation come from the 16th century, although it is likely that the practice was already widespread by then; cider production here is known to date back to at least the eighth century.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, apple brandy became more and more popular. It received a particular boost when the phylloxera epidemic of the 1860s led to dramatic wine shortages across Europe. By this time the spirit's allure had spread far beyond Normandy, and 'Calvados' was now being produced in various parts of France. In 1942, ten districts in Normandy and Brittany were each granted their own protected appellation for their Calvados brandy, giving them exclusive rights to the name. In 1984, these ten appellations were combined to form the single Calvados AOC in force today. A tiny amount of grape-based wine is also produced in Calvados, but this is far outweighed by the brandy in terms of both quantity and quality. The wines are labeled as 'Calvados IGP', the brandies as 'Calvados AOC'.
Calvados can be made either from apples, or a combination of apples and pears. A total of 177 different apple and pear varieties are officially recognized by, and permitted under, the Calvados appellation laws. Compared to everyday eating apples, these varieties are very high in phenolic compounds and have low levels of acidity. At least four weeks after the fruit is pressed, the juice is distilled in an alembic, via continuous distillation rather than in batches. The resulting spirit is then aged in barrels for a minimum of two years, to develop more-complex flavors and a smoother mouthfeel. The alcohol level of the finished product must be at least 40%, and there is also a required minimum content of alcohols other than ethanol and methanol (400 grams per h/L). The effect of this latter requirement is to ensure that 'heavier' alcohols, which contain important flavor compounds, are not distilled out of the liquid in the search for greater alcoholic strength and purity.
There are two key methods of training the trees producing fruit for Calvados, the principles of which have a great deal in common with vine training. The relationship between the length of the trunk and the relative height of the branches is the main variable, and may be either basse tige (trained low) or haute tige (trained high).
There are two regional variants on standard Calvados: Calvados Pays d'Auge, which has further quality-focused production restrictions; and Calvados Domfrontais, which is made with a greater proportion of pears.