Calvados - the spirit world's unsung hero

By Fiona Sims

Calvados - the spirit world's unsung hero

It was hidden from the Germans during the Second World War in a hole in the ground and now I’m tasting it – 1939 Christian Drouin Calvados. It’s surprisingly fruity, with a peppery hit - still very much alive and kicking. What a privilege.

I’m on a tour of Normandy to check out its produce, but it’s the Calvados that truly excites. It’s much misunderstood in the UK, or worse, ignored. The good stuff is delicious, multi-layered and mouthwatering, with dazzling complexity.

The large négociant houses predictably dominate but the real delights come from the smaller artisan producers who distil from their own orchards, such as Christian Drouin.

“I love using old sherry barrels best for maturing Calvados. You get good structure and body, round tannins and a saltiness in the mouth,” explains Guillaume Drouin, as we inhale deeply, taking in the ‘angel’s share’ – the bit that is allowed to evaporate, which all helps with the ageing process.

Guillaume is a third generation Drouin and he now runs the estate, which was established by his grandfather, who started making Calvados as a hobby.

These days there are around 300 Calvados producers in Normandy, but once every farmer made it, along with cider, selling their distillations to larger producers for blending, some bottling their own.

We’re in the Pays d’Auge, the oldest Calvados appellation, established in 1942. It was created to stop the French military from nicking it all to make gunpowder, so the story goes.

The thirty apple varieties for their production of calvados and cider come from two family orchards between Gonneville-sur-Honfleur and Coudray-Rabut.

Up to 40 varieties of apples (and pear) can be used in Calvados, ranging in flavour from bitter to sweet. And ideally, Drouin wants fruit that has dropped. “It you pick it from the tree it’s not ripe enough,” he explains.

So who is drinking it? The Russians apparently, plus Americans and the Japanese. Us? Not so much. But we should be.

Drouin puts the emphasis on the vintage, unlike the majority of producers. “We try to make every vintage different, and we do that with the help of the wood that we use,” he declares.

AOC rules do permit the inclusion of the vintage on the label of a bottle of Calvados, although it’s not tradition here. But there are significant vintage variations, I discover, as we taste through a selection dating back to 1958, the first vintage the company sells.

And 1958 just happens to be my husband’s birth year. “It smells like caramelized apples,” remarks husband, savouring it slowly. My birth year Calvados smells like cheese rind, but it has a pleasing funkiness.

Of other older vintages we taste, we particularly love the leathery, tobacco and cocoa notes of Drouin’s 1970, at 300 euros a pop. “My father did a double maturation that year – first in sherry casks and then in port barrels, Sherry barrels are my favourite though,” declares Guillaume, as we prize off a jute-covered bung to whiff the full nuttiness of the casks. More recently, though, Drouin has been experimenting with Sauternes barrels, with great results, he reports.

“When tasting Calvados a tulip-shaped glass is best, and serve it at room temperature, never chill it- it brings out the bitterness. And never hurry when you’re tasting Calvados. Roll it around the glass and observe the tears, then bring it to your nose slowly,” he advises, as we taste through a line-up.

Other highlights included a cherry clafoutis-scented 1994 that had been aged in a Banyuls barrel, and a gingerbready 1986, aged in a Muscat de Rivesaltes barrel, the fruit still bursting with freshness. And that bottle of 1939 Calvados? Yours for 900 euros a bottle.

For your drinks cabinet: Christian Drouin Calvados is available from Master of Malt, starting at £31.50.