Home of Calvados, a brandy made from local apples and pears.
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.
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