Calvados received Appellation d'Origine status in 1942 and today three different appellations exist for calvados. Each appellation has unique and distinguishing characteristics, which concern the geographical area and the distillation process. The geographical production areas are strictly defined and all operations that result in the production of calvados are carried out within these zones. The Appellation Controlee System is a set of rules designed to guarantee and maintain the characteristics and quality of the product and its century old traditions.
In short apples from the Calvados region made a single, continuous distillation process using a column still.
AOC Calvados Pays d'Auge
The most controlled and perceived highest quality. In short apples from the Pays d'Auge distilled in a copper double still.
AOC Calvados Domfrontais
Made of at least 30% pears in the Domfrontais region with a single, continuous distillation process using a column still.
It all starts with the right apple not just any apple and certainly not eating apples. Instead small fruits with great aromatic intensity are used. Generally sweet varieties of pear are chosen. For the making of calvados, hundreds of varieties of apple can be used. Traditional producers grow 20 to 40 varieties. The various varieties ensure the production of a juice containing the necessary sugar, tannins and acidity.Traditionally the harvest was carried out by shaking the branches of high stem trees. The apples would fall onto tarpaulins spread out below the trees where they are gathered by hand and placed in sacks. Apples to be used for calvados would be stored on the floor, piled to a height of about 70cm.
Grating and Pressing
There are three different periods of ripening early season apples, which ripen in September, mid season apples ripening from October to mid-November and late-season apples, which are harvested in December and generally stored until January.The mid and later season apples are used for the production of Calvados early season apples would have to be mashed early when temperatures are still too high for the production of good cider. The apples used must all be equally ripe when the crusher transforms the apples into a homogeneous pulp.The pulp is left to work for a few hours allowing the apples to soften, making it easier to extract the juice tannins and aromas once the pulp is conveyed to a hydraulic batch press, which extracts the juice by squeezing. Most of the flavour is extracted from the skin and not from the pulp. Compared with cider for drinking cider for distillation is fermented until crisp dry.The fermentation takes place in large oak barrels. The cider ferments for anything from 6 weeks to a year depending on the producer and then can be aged for a further year before distillation.
Early European distillation was primitive and shrouded in mystery. Apothecaries and monasteries sold alcohol not as a beverage but as a medicine, aqua vitae or eau de vie a cure for anything or a life-span enhancing elixir. Before 1942 Calvados was still widely called eau de vie de Calvados which translates to water of life of calvados. Many wood-fired stills are still used today although gas-fired stills require less attention. From the home made to the high-tech the variety and individual characteristics of different stills contribute to the individuality of what they produce.
In general the flavour of calvados distilled in double distillation is more complex compared to that distilled in a continuous still. AOC Calvados Pays d'Auge is distilled twice, the first distillation of cider yields an intermediate product with strength of about 30%. This product is distilled again. The liquid produced is not called calvados but eau de vie de cidre and is colourless with strength in the region of 70%.
It produces a burning sensation on the palate and gives off an aroma of fruit and alcohol although made well and served chilled it will stand up to good vodka. The column still is used for the production of AOC Calvados and AOC Calvados Domfrontais it easier to control and runs continuously, making it a much safer and cheaper choice. Many stills were mounted on wheels so they could travel the countryside bringing the skills of the distiller to the farm.
The distillation of cider takes place in a single operation of continuous production. The cider enters the top of one column, passing downwards from plate to plate. The more volatile compounds evaporate out due to the heat and the vapour given off from the cider rises gradually becoming enriched as it bubbles back up through the cider. These vapours condense in a second column producing a liquid with again strength in the region of 70%.
Ageing and maturing
The producers of calvados have agreed to age the spirit for a minimum of two years or three years for Calvados Domfrontais and then test it before the spirit is sold as calvados. Much is aged for a great deal longer and some is aged for between 20 and possibly 60 years. Ageing and maturing are not the same thing age being the time spent in cask while maturity expresses the result. In dark and peaceful cellars under the expert eye of the cellar master calvados is aged slowly in oak casks often firstly in small new casks and then in older larger barrels. As time goes by the most volatile compounds that give the young calvados its burning taste disappear. The calvados extracts various substances from the wood, including tannins that give it colour and body. Its bouquet intensifies and its colour changes from golden to deeper and deeper shades of amber. On contact with oxygen, the wood compounds dissolved in the spirit and undergo chemical transformations producing new aromas. Often former sherry and port casks are used. This helps yield fewer bitter tannins and helps to give finer colour, more body and greater aromatic richness.
The Angels Share
Whilst in the cask the calvados evaporates through pores of the wood and this is known as the Angels share. The angels are quite thirsty and represent an annual loss of between 1 and 3 percent in volume. This can rise to 6 percent in small casks. This however is not all bad as aromas become more complex and concentrated and controlled by temperature and humidity the angels speed up their work intensifying the aromas and improving the quality so the calvados requires less reduction before bottling. Big casks are often half filled to increase evaporation.