Best of Wines, Douglas Harrison, explains why we should all be considering a return to Calavados this summer.
Legend has it that the name Calvados came from an old Spanish galleon, El Salvador, which was wrecked off the coast of Normandy in 1588 and its cargo of wooden barrels, when washed ashore, were found to contain apple brandy. An interesting fate given Normandy is where some of Europe’s finest orchards are to be found.
So, what exactly is Calvados and why is it so good? Quite simply, it is a brandy distilled from cider which has been made from apples; and therein lies the key to its greatness. A lovely fruity flavour of apples is to be found in its taste, which makes it very agreeable to most people, especially those with a more sensitive palate. In addition to apples, one can also find aromas and flavours of vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, candied fruits, prune and many others dependant on the age and style of the Calvados.
Around 6 million bottles of Calvados are produced each year from some 7,500 acres of orchards. Of this, 65% is exported with the top two destinations being Belgium and Germany.
It is made from more than 200 different apple varieties, although some pears are also permitted. The juice is first made into Cider before being distilled into Eaux de Vie either by a single distillation or a double distillation, according to the producer’s preference: it must spend a minimum of 2 years maturing in oak barrels. There are three classified regions of production: Pays d’Auge 25%; Domfrontais 1%; and Calvados AOC 74%.
Whilst those growing the fruit, those distilling the liquid and those composing the blends may all strive for perfection, there is another contributor whose influence is critical – Terroir (soil, aspect, micro climate, etc.) and that is Nature’s contribution.
The Pays d’Auge is blessed with the finest calcareous terroir, hence producing the finest Calvados, which brings me neatly to the House of Lecompte. Personally I’ve never tasted better than Lecompte, although I will admit to having tasted the odd one which does come close.
The House of Lecompte really got started in 1923 when Alexandre Lecompte, a local wine and spirit merchant, decided to sell his business but hold on to his treasured collection of Vintage Calvados and solely concentrate on that.
In 1980, the business was in the hands of the Pellerin family who brought a rather special expertise to Lecompte; Yves was the owner of the perfume company Roger & Gallet and his grandfather, Jean-Marie Farina, was the creator of L’Eau de Cologne. Such an ability to work with wonderful aromas and flavours naturally led to Lecompte Calvados winning many awards in numerous tasting competitions.
The Lecompte distillery and cellars are in the picturesque village of Notre-Dame-de-Courson in the very heart of the Pays d’Auge, conveniently surrounded by orchards producing the finest apple varieties in Normandy. The cellars house some 800 oak casks, an extraordinary array of Vintage Calvados Pays d’Auge, peacefully maturing under the ever watchful eye of the Cellar Master, M. Richard Prével. He has been the Cellar Master for over a quarter of a century and it is he who imbues each Lecompte Calvados with its own unique personality.
After the distilled spirit is safely in its cask, the vital process of ageing begins. Here, time is key, there is no way of producing great Calvados quickly. This is “Production Artisanale”, where the Calvados must be left to a long, slow, gentle maturation in the traditional way with no additives to try to speed up the process.
Currently, Lecompte offers a 5 year old, a 12 year old (this won the World’s Best Spirit Award at Vinexpo in 2007), an 18 year old, a 25 year old and a Single Vintage from the year 1988. Never a House to rest on its laurels, Lecompte also creates unique limited edition blends of Calvados: Multi-Vintage, a special blend of their 5 best vintages, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1992 – presented in a special bottle made by the last remaining master glass shapers in Normandy.
Such an impressive range of Calvados can be daunting when trying to make your choice but I can assure you that whichever you choose, you will never be disappointed. Whether you are trying a new and exciting Calvados Cocktail made with the 5 year old or slowly sipping a glass of 25 year old as a digestif, you will find Lecompte Calvados wonderfully intriguing and, most important of all, tremendously satisfying.