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France Day 8: Camut

Just like with wine, the decisions made in the orchard by the Norman apple farmers will have a large impact on the eventual flavor of the cider and the Calvados distilled from it.  Just like with wine, there are shortcuts.  We talk about the flavors of whisky, the quality of the wood, the skill of the distiller, but we never talk about the barley, the beer, the yeast, or the vintage because there's really nothing else to talk about.  With Calvados, much like Armagnac, you've got to be a farmer first, a cider maker second, a distiller third, and a cellar master fourth.  It's a lot of work and, like any job, some people choose to do the minimum amount required just to get by.  Others, however, take their profession seriously and dedicate their lives to it - they believe in it and they get a sense of pride from doing it.  We were talking in the car on the way to Camut, comparing spirits producers and athletes.  There are some athletes with raw natural ability and others who succeed through sheer hard work and determination.  When you combine both of those elements you get Michael Jordan - or, in the world of fine spirits, you get Camut Calvados.

As I wrote earlier, Calvados producers are farmers first.  The great part about growing apples, as opposed to grapes, is that you don't have to sacrifice livestock space.  In fact, apple trees and cows thrive together because the cows eat the grass around the trees and maintain the soil with their manure.  The Camut brothers, Jean-Gabriel and Emmanuel, have a few different orchards and some have horses instead of cows.  All of their trees are haute tirages as opposed to basse tirages, which means that the trunks are longer and the fruit higher off the ground.  Basse tirages means the trees are grafted and grown closer to the ground.  The advantage of this is a faster and more plentiful production soon after planting the orchard, however, there can be no animals on the sight because they will disturb the branches and eat the fruit.  Haute tirages is the more difficult method - it takes longer for the trees to produce and you get less fruit.  However, the animals and trees can co-exist and the fruit is more flavorful and concentrated.  The Camut orchards are 100% haute tirages because everything they do is about quality and flavor, rather than money and ease.

The Camut estate has been around since the late 1700’s and the tradition of making Calvados has changed little since Adrian Camut, grandfather to Emmanuel and Jean-Gabriel, brought his family’s technique to high esteem.  Besides a belief in the importance of traditional apple farming, the Camuts take a very old school approach to distillation as well.  While even the smaller producers are using industrial grade wood-chipper-like machines to shred their apples before pressing, the Camuts are using a tiny grinder that looks like it could pass maybe a dozen apples at a time.  Emmanuel believes it’s important to do as much by hand as possible in order to control quality and flavor.

Their old alambic still is also their pride and joy.  Not only was it built by their grandfather, it was designed by him as well and works differently than a traditional Calvados still.  Much like an Armagnac still, the alambic at Camut introduces the cider from the top of the still, down into the chamber so that the vapors from the boiling cider below must pass through additional cider as they make their way to the top.  The Camuts believe that the distillate is more apple-like this way.  If there’s one thing that Camut has going over every other Calvados producer I have tasted, it’s that their Calvados tastes more like fresh apples than anyone else’s.

When it comes to barrel aging, the Camut brothers are believers in minimizing the amount of new oak to touch their spirits.  In Normandie, the brandy producers are typically using incredibly large barrels to age their spirit because of the importance of the apple to the flavor.  The warehouse at Camut is simply jaw dropping because they have stocks dating back to the 1920’s.  After a long night of booze and brotherhood, we made our way into the chai for some barrel tasting.  In one of the larger barrels was a fifteen year old blend that tasted like magic.  I have a feeling that we might be on the verge of a K&L exclusive with this one, something the Camut estate has never offered to any retailer before.  The shocker of the night was when Emmanuel climbed to the top of the warehouse and pulled a sample from the 1945 vintage – still in barrel!  It was the color of coffee, but it was somehow still alive, brimming with fruit and zest even after 67 years.  It was mind-blowing and ranks among the top spirits I have ever tasted, purely because of my disbelief in its durability.

I could go on forever about the technicalities of the Camut Calvados, but there’s only so much the reader can take!  What you need to know is this: the Camut brothers do everything the hard way because it tastes better.  It’s more expensive to make, it takes longer, and it requires a true commitment to quality, but it’s worth it.  I would rank their older expressions among the greatest spirits in the world.  Think old Port Ellen or Brora for a single malt comparison, or Michters for a Bourbon analogy.  Think DRC or Lafite for wine.  Think the very, very best.  That’s what these brandies are.  They are the best – hands down, bar none.  They're also incredible people with a passion for keeping their grandfather's legacy alive.  The stop at Camut was perhaps my favorite visit to a producer ever and we will be working hard to bring you all an exclusive bottling.

-David Driscoll


France Day 7: Normandie Rules

Normandie.  Even now we think of the D-Day invasion immediately upon hearing its name.  Soldiers storming the beach along the English Channel, innumerable soldiers dying in the cold, grey mist, as the tides of World War II shifted over to the Allies.  The people of Normandie haven't forgotten the war or the role of the American soldiers in their liberation.  It's ingrained into their pysche and the subject arose numerous times during our visit.  While Normandie may conjure images of battle to many, I think first of apples, cider, and Calvados.  I absolutely love single malt whisky, and I have a side affair going on with Bourbon, but Calvados is slowly making it's way into my heart, challenging me with its character and winning my affection with its beauty.  The production of Calvados is perhaps the most rustic and traditional - it's literally the business of farmers.  While Armagnac producers may have a more down-to-earth reputation than Cognac makers, neither are as humble or modest as Calvados producers.  The Normans who make apple brandy in the north of France are out everyday milking cows, feeding hens, and harvesting crops.  Calvados production just happens to be another task on the list of daily chores.

Didier and Martine Lemorton have a wonderful farm.  About one hundred cows fill their barn and orchards of pear and apple trees surround it.  You can tell a lot about their lifestyle by shaking their hands.  Their palms are hard and calloused from the hard manual labor they perform on a daily basis.  They've never been on an airplane and they've never had a day off.  They don't have a still (most producers use a traveling still and hire someone to bring it), but they have tons of fruit and that produce needs to be preserved.  Distilling it into brandy and then aging it in oak barrels is the best way to do so.  Their fruit also happens to be quite excellent, which translates into excellent Calvados. 

Located in the Domfrontais appellation of Calvados, their cepage must be at least 30% pear, although they choose to make brandies with about 60% pear and 40% apple.  In Calvados, the fruit is not picked, but rather gathered only after it falls to the ground.  After they're collected, the apples and pears are loaded into a machine that works like a wood chipper.  Apples cannot be pressed or squeezed whole like grapes, but rather must be chopped into tiny pieces before juicing can take place.  Didier describes the process in front of his processor above.  Once the juice is collected, he ferments it inside large wooden barrels because that was the way his father did it.  He has considered updating to stainless steel, but it's a large expense and his traditional methods seem to have worked so far.  We've carried the Lemorton Reserve for years and hope to bring in some of the vintage bottles very soon.

Michel Huard is one of the newest producers than Charles has recently begun importing and we were very excited to see their operation.  Jean Francois Guilloumet is now running things on his family's farm and was happy to show us around the site.  Huard also uses both apple and pears in their cider and have a number of vintage distillations available.  We lucked out and happened to arrive right in the middle of a distillation run.

The hired distiller had towed over his traveling alambic and was in the middle of loading in some more wood when we pulled up.  Most Calvados producers use wood-burning stills as it's always been the tradition in the region seeing as there's plenty of fuel from the orchards.  Jean Francois was distilling a two year old cider, which seemed quite interesting to us because we assumed they would be distilling shortly after fermentation has ended.  He told us, however, that growing apples and pears is a tricky thing because the trees don't give fruit every year.  If one vintage happens to yield lower fruit than another, then older ciders will be needed to make up for the shortage. Tasting the distilling cider was crazy.  Like the wine from Cognac or Armagnac, it is not for drinking.  The acidity is through the roof and the yeast is dominant. High acidity is essential for a fine distilled spirit.

Tasting out of the cask, we realized again that we were perhaps naive in our assumption that single cask spirits from France would be just the same as single malt whisky.  There's a reason most producers blend their barrels.  The brandies from Huard were delicious on their own, but together in a blend they were much better.  We tinkered with building our own out of 1999 and 2002 barrels that we thought had lovely potential. 

Jean Roger Groult makes one of the more successful Calvados that we carry.  As a larger producer, Groult not only grows its own apples, but also acts as a negociant and buys fruit from other growers as well.  They have a large facility in the Pays d'Auge further north of Domfrontais.  After driving a few hours from Huard, we made our way into the Groult warehouses with Jean Francois as our guide.

While other small farmers are storing their Calvados in small chais next to their barn, Groult is a big player in the industry with large supplies being aged in their larger, more modern facility.  Calvados aging is an interesting thing because there are really no rules.  You can use new wood, old wood, large barrels, small barrels, gigantic tanks, or whatever!  As long as it tastes good you're alright.  Deciding how to mature one's Calvados is key to establishing a distinct flavor and character.

Another large producer and negotiant in the region is Dupont, about as large as Groult.  Jerome was there to give us a tour through his Calvados selections and taste us on some delicious ciders. 

While Dupont is a well-known Calvados producer, they might be even more renowned for their cider.  Part of the fun of Normandie is the omnipresence of cider instead of wine.  Jerome even went down into the cellar, where he ages his own ciders for further consumption, and re-appeared with an unbelievable 2002 vintage cider that was slightly smoky and very complex.  We killed that bottle in minutes.

After an extensive day of Calvados tasting, we drove another hour to the Camut property where a large steak from one of the local butchers was awaiting us.  Camut needs an entire post (maybe two) to itself.  They're like the DRC, first-growth, grand cru of Calvados all rolled into one.  They're so much better than any other Calvados producer that it's almost unfair.  I'll get back to this later though. Right now it's time to show you how Jean-Gabriel cooked this steak.

We sat around the fire, eating Camembert cheese, salmon tartar, and this gigantic steak that was cooked over the flames right next to us.  Both David and I had the time our lives at this dinner and we quickly learned about how genuine the Camut family is.  I already knew I loved their brandies, but now that I know how wonderful the family is, I am even more endeared to their products.

Things definitely got nuts.  Before long we were competing to see who could come the closest to burning off their face by spitting high proof apple spirit back into the fire.  More on this night later.  It was certainly epic.

-David Driscoll


Day 7: Tons of Calvados

This will be short and sweet because I am currently sitting in the office of the Camut brothers, borrowing their computer for a quick update.  No wifi here, so I will not be able to update with photos until late tomorrow.  We have a ton of stuff to show you about Calvados.  This is the real authentic part of French distillation.  Farms, cows, apples, and booze.  Oh....and the cheese.  The cheese stands alone, just like the old song says.  Photos, info, and good times coming tomorrow in a full report. 

-David Driscoll


France Day 6: Free Time in Normandie

K&L gives its buyers a certain amount of paid time to travel the world in search of great new products.  Unfortunately, we've already used up our allotted time. We of course have some paid vacation days we can use, so David and I decided it was worth cashing in two days to traverse through Normandie before flying home.  The five hour drive north was long, but worth seeing as we stopped off in the Loire Valley's Nantes for some Musadet and seafood.  Before sunset, however, we wanted to see France's second most visited attraction after the Eifel Tower.  Off on its own island, just off the shore of the Atlantic, stands Mont Saint Michel, the historical church and walled town that has existed since the 6th century.  Until recently, the island was only accessible at low tide, and was again isolated when the water came back in.  We stopped off for a brief tour before heading into Domfront to drop off our bags.

In the Domfrontais of Normandie sits the Lemorton family farm, a small outpost of cows, chickens, and, or course, a few pear and apple orchards.  Lemorton Calvados has been one of our top quality apply brandies since I started working at K&L, so it was a real treat to be invited there for dinner.  I felt right at home in their house and my stomach was able to exhale.  Rather than a glass of champagne and an introductory course of fois gras, Didier and Martine had a plate of peanut flavored cheetos and a bottle of pommeau (Calvados mixed with sweet apple cider) on the table.  Ahhhhh....finally a bit of relaxation.

Cheese and bacon toasties, salmon with braised leeks, chicken breast with potatoes and green beans, all served with pommeau, pear cider, apple cider, and fifty year old Calvados. I can't tell you how happy David and I were to be drinking cider instead of wine and apple brandy instead of Cognac.  We savored every bite and enjoyed the down-to-earth company of Lemorton.  We're going back tomorrow to dig through their cask inventory, but for now I'm content to rest in my cozy hotel room without ten pounds of duck fat in my stomach.  I've only gained about seven pounds so far, I think. 

-David Driscoll


France Day 6: To Boisé or not to Boisé

I was never really too clear about Cognac aging, but I knew that there wasn't much new wood involved.  They weren't using old Bourbon or old Sherry casks, yet many of the Cognacs we carried had dark, amber colored hues with rich, supple textures.  Sweetness in brandy, just like whisky, comes from the barrel, as does the color.  Bourbon tastes rich and sweet because it's put directly into new, heavily charred casks immediately after it's distilled where it remains until the day it's bottled.  Cognac goes into lightly charred casks for around five to twelve months before it's transfered into an older barrel.  New in Cognac terms can mean a barrel that's been used zero to four times - the more often it's been used, the longer the first maturation lasts to make up for the weaker wood influence. 

So.....if Cognac producers don't heavily char their casks to release more color and vanilla from the wood, and they don't leave their spirit in the "new" wood for very long, then where the heck is that color coming from?  The answer can be multifacted, but there's usually a creeping suspicion in these cases that something else is being added to the brandy.  In fact, with Cognac, it's perfectly legal to do so.  Besides the addition of caramel coloring to deepen the shade of brown, a substance called boisé is regularly added to intensify color, sweetness, and texture.  Boisé is a mixture of sugar, oak chips, and lower-proof brandy that is left to macerate in a barrel or tank.  The color is extracted from the oak ships and the boisé acts like a concentrated syrup which can make young Cognac both taste and appear older than it is. 

The terms VS, VSOP, and XO are used to help designate maturity on a Cognac bottle, but they're usually quite misleading.  VS simply means at least two years old, VSOP means at least four, and XO at least six.  However, the producers we're looking to buy from aren't releasing VS Cognacs under ten years old.  When tasting at the estates of the distillers, we generally ask which vintages the Cognacs are composed of, say a mix of 1991 with 1994, for example.  When a producer tells us a Cognac is comprised of 2004 with 2006 and the color looks like toffee, then we know what's being done to make it look that way.  There's a big difference between the flavor in pre-boisé and post-boisé CognacDavid and I have done some extensive cask tasting over the last few days and many of the Cognacs do not taste that great straight from the barrel. 

Now, although it may seem like cheating when compared to Bourbon, single malt, and Armagnac, the addition of boisé to one's Cognac doesn't necessarily mean that the brandy isn't good.  The most successful Cognacs in the world are loaded with it.  However, when it's used in younger Cognacs to add richness that wouldn't normally be there, the result can be quite terrible.  The reason producers do it, however, is because aging Grand Champagne Cognac takes FOREVER.  Like I stated in previous posts, we tasted some 60+ year old brandies from Dudognon (a producer that NEVER adds boisé) and they were still babies.  Using more new oak would destroy the delicate flavor from the high-quality grapes, so that's not an option either.  The answer is simply time, something that most producers don't have.

The Cognac market is very strong right now, which is why the price of Grand Champagne fruit is high.  Hennessy, Martel, and Remy are buying whatever they can get their hands on (usually very young Cognacs), adding loads of boisé, and pumping them overseas to awaiting night clubs.  The marketing departments are out there pushing the quality of the big houses, despite the fact that the quality is terrible compared to some of the smaller producers.

Anyway, it's something to think about.  We're obviously trying to go "zero boisé," but we're not going to turn down a fantastic Cognac if there happens to be some in it.  One more stop today and then we're on the road north to Normandie.

Until then....

-David Driscoll