Drinks Atlas: Normandy, France - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Drinks Atlas: Normandy, France

Less than 100 kilometers from Paris, hugging the coastline of the English Channel, Normandy holds a distinct history and culture among the regions of France, and it still bears the name of its 9th-century Viking invaders. “It’s very different from the south of France—the accent, the food and drink, the climate, the behavior,” says Charles Neal, importer of Charles Neal Selections. Dotting the region’s bucolic landscape, two things can be seen that have historically shaped the area’s culture and economy: dairy cows and apple trees, with the latter giving rise to Normandy’s signature spirit, Calvados. Pressing apples for cider was common practice in the region for centuries, influenced by the arrival of tannic apple varieties from the Spanish Basque country as far back as the 12th century. Local history points to Gilles de Gouberville, a gentleman from Cotentin who, in 1553, was the first to record the distillation of cider into brandy.

Steadily the agrarian spirit, initially called eau-de-vie du Calvados, began to grow in popularity through western France and beyond, its fortunes rising and falling in step with wars and government regulations. It wasn’t until 1942 that the first designated appellation (AOC) was recognized with the establishment of Calvados Pays d’Auge. “In the way that in Cognac, people would consider the Grand Champagne region to be the best, that would be the Pays d’Auge in Normandy for Calvados. Legally, they have to double-distill their ciders,” says Neal, who wrote the 2011 book Calvados: The Spirit of Normandy. By 1984, a collection of regulated regions were grouped together to form the sprawling AOC Calvados, and in 1997 the AOC Calvados Domfrontais was designated, unique for its requirement that the brandy be made with at least 30 percent pears, which grow widely through the area. 

Though Calvados is distributed internationally today, the bulk of the spirit’s sales remain in France and the European Union, with a small fraction (about 4 percent) coming to the U.S. where it’s most commonly seen as a cocktail ingredient. “[In France] it’s still sipped mostly after meals. You would have to go to a fine restaurant to get a cocktail,” says Neal. “In Calvados, it’s still considered a more rustic drink. That being said, I think everyone in Normandy is proud of Calvados, even if they’re not drinking it.”

Fast Facts

  • Normandy is one of the largest producers of milk and dairy products in France. “Just about every independent Calvados producer is also going to have dairy cows,” says Neal. “Most producers are going to make about 50 percent of their income off the dairy side, and then 50 percent on the cider side, whether that’s cider or Calvados or vinegar or jelly.”
  • Among more than 18,000 acres of orchard trees, there are 230 varieties of cider apples and 139 varieties of perry pears used for the production of Calvados. The apples, often selected for their robust tannins and polyphenols, are grouped into four categories: sweet, bittersweet, bitter, and acidic.

5 Makers to Try

Calvados Adrien CamutNeal describes the spirits from Adrien Camut as “the Rolls Royce of Calvados,” and many of the older bottlings have a price tag to match. The Camut family has been growing apples and making Calvados in the Pays d’Auge since the 1800s. During the first two years of aging, they frequently transfer the brandy between barrels to encourage oxidation before moving to large wooden foudres to reach a minimum age of six years. $99.99, klwines.com

Domaine du Manoir de MontreuilFamily-owned dating back to the 1700s, the Domaine du Manoir de Montreuil in Pays d’Auge is currently run by husband and wife Patrice and Michelle Giard, who produce both cider and Calvados with traditional methods and older apple varieties. Their herd of Normande cows are allowed to graze through the orchards to fertilize and aerate the soil until autumn, when the fallen apples are picked and pressed. $39.99, sipfinewine.com

Lemorton Calvados Domfrontais Calvados produced in the Domfrontais AOC must be made with at least 30 percent pear, but the Lemorton family crafts most of their Calvados with a mash closer to 70 percent pear from their long-standing trees. The cider is aged for 11 months in oak barrels before undergoing a single distillation and aging again in old barrels. $54.96, astorwines.com

Calvados Michel Huard The Huard family property in the Suisse-Normande falls under the AOC Calvados appellation, and Jean-Francois Guillouet-Huard is the domaine’s seventh-generation maker. Around 20 varieties of mostly sweet and bittersweet apples are used to make a cider, aged for 8 months and then column distilled. The Michel Huard Calvados is known for its “Hors d’Age” bottling that blends three vintages into a masterful final product. $99.99, wallywine.com

Christian Drouin A newer operation by Calvados standards, Christian Drouin has been a family-run business in the Pays d’Auge since 1960 and is one of the larger producers, with several tiers of Calvados widely available on the market, from young vintage selections to blends aged up to 25 years. $34.96, astorwines.com

Enjoy This Article?

Sign up for our newsletter and get biweekly recipes and articles delivered to your inbox.

Send this to a friend