If you have not recently strayed far from the heady fumes of cognac, that dusty bottle of calvados on your shelf needs immediate attention. Nothing against the fine, delicate grape brandies of Cognac—they are exquisite and they define the whole big-room, big-fire, deep-chair, let's-admire-our-money after-dinner gesture. It's just that fine and delicate aren't usually the qualities I'm looking for in firewater. Give me the peat-smoke wake-up call of the Islay malts if it's whisky you're pouring. If it's grape brandy, then I'll take armagnac, which almost always has a bit of farmhouse coarseness to it.
The nub is this: For making brandy, apples crush grapes. They have the brawn to stand up to the relatively harsh process of distillation. Fermentation of grapes into wine is a fruit-coddling, low-temperature bubble bath at the spa compared with the Finnish-style steaming and whipping of distillation, which tends to beat grapy character out of the final drink. In the best calvados, you have much of the elegance of the oak-barrel aging notes found in good grape brandy, but you also have the delightful essence of the apple, intact. Its basic nature is right there in the smell and the taste, and because of this soul-warming fruit, calvados doesn't just please your throat and belly on a winter eve; it leaves you existentially satisfied, like apple pie. This is the heart of my claim for calvados's supremacy in the brandy department: home-baked happiness in a glass of hooch.
It isn't a bushel of Safeway-issue red Deliciouses that makes a good bottle of calvados. Normandy has about a thousand obscure apple varieties—with names like Binet Rouge, Saint Martin, Mettais, Rambault, Frequin Rouge, Diot Rouge, Peau de Chien and Doux Normandie. A lot of these are mean, runty-looking fruits that are grown on dismal, deliberately unfertilized soil. Many varieties are valued for their bitterness or sourness, and calvados makers are finicky about striking the right blend. These are not for eating, in other words. They are born for cider or its high-octane derivative.
Turning a laundry list of Norman apple varieties into calvados (one distiller says it uses twenty-five varieties in one of its blends) is a laborious task that many Americans would laugh at. This is the calvados proposition: Grow the spindly apples on crappy soil, pick them, let them sit around until they get a bit fruit-bowl funky, brew into a fragrant cider, wait eight months or a year for the cider to mature, distill, distill again, then age for two or eight or eighteen or forty years in oak barrels. Thank God there are people who think this way.
The above-detailed agonizing process of manufacture explains why a drink made from such a common fruit costs $30 for a basic bottle, $55 for something with eight years of age, $110 for an eighteen-year-old bottle and, oh, $299 to $599 for a vintage from the thirties or forties, depending on the year and the maker. In most cases I'm talking about calvados from the small, prestigious Pays d'Auge appellation, where old-fashioned pot stills are used, though there are some good ones from the larger, more-general Calvados region; in some areas, pear is included. In a bottle of calvados, we have an obscure farmhouse product selling at chateau prices. Some of the finest bottles of calvados look like they were bottled by marketing simpletons, label-wise. But this just furthers the charm of the drink.
Let's get down to flavors. As with any distilled product aged for a long time in oak barrels, calvados has a flavor arc. It begins young, as a harsh booze. It then takes on the colors and vanilla whiff and spicy-caramel flavors of oak-barrel aging, while integrating its apple notes (which range from a tart green to a baked-apple sweet). Eventually the fruit begins to dry up and the complex brandy/wood mix moves forward. Somewhere along that arc is your ideal calvados. I tend to like the relatively young but not diaper-wearing eight to twelve year olds, the Vieille Reserve and Hors d'Age, both for their high apple intensity and still-admissible price. At eighteen years, I find, the appealing complexity of the drink may be offset by a reduction in soulful fruit and the size of the hole in one's wallet. Within these age ranges, however, lie a vast array of styles, from a truly eccentric, powerful brandy to a rather refined drink that, nonetheless, retains the happy echo of the fruit from which it is made.
Tasting Notes: Calvados
Calvados isn't always easy to find, but Web sources (klwines.com, wallywine.com) will ship to many states. It's worth buying both the Dupont and the Huard, described below, if you want to try very different versions of hard-charging, fruit-forward, big, aggressive but delightful calvados. Huard is the untamed, slightly wild version; Dupont lets a bit more apple sunshine come through. Below, a few favorites from a recent tasting.
Domaine Dupont Vieille Réserve Calvados du Pays d'Auge ($55): About eight years in the oak. Smells like a crush of green apple skin, with hay or grass, like a walk in a rainy orchard. This is a big, confident calvados, bold rather than refined, fruity but not sweet. Outstanding.
Michel Huard Calvados Hors d'Age "Le Pertyer" ($50): An example of singular, local country character: It has a smoky, almost firecracker-smelling nose reminiscent of a cask-strength whisky. Armagnac-like power in the mouth: long flavors, more smoke, some bitterness. Terrific with a cigar.
Adrien Camut Calvados du Pays d'Auge Twelve Year Old ($90): From a producer of excellent old calvados. At this age, caramel and apple-pie notes come through in the nose. Much more velvety than the Huard or Dupont, with a persistent apple quality and fair amount of sweet wood. Rounded in the mouth, everything floating around in a cloud of alcohol.
Adrien Camut Calvados du Pays d'Auge Eighteen Year Old ($110): Fragrant and spicy on the nose, smells like tarte tatin with crème anglaise. Good example of how the apple recedes and the sweet wood advances, compared to the Twelve. If you appreciate a cognac-like balance and elegance, go for the Eighteen.
Clear Creek Eau de Vie de Pomme Eight Year Old ($35): I throw in this Oregon-produced apple brandy, from an excellent fruit-brandy producer, to illustrate the difference between the American and the Norman approach. Compared with the French style, the apple quality here is totally unrestrained: It flounces out of the bottle like Harvey Fierstein in Hairspray. Basically, this is apple pie in a glass, and delicious, but far more straightforward than the French stuff. Not unlike comparing a big California zinfandel to a complex red bordeaux.