Lemorton Calvados and the Quest for an Honest Spirit
Normandy is such a wondrously moody place, its eternally grey skies stretched over rolling green hills, rustic old windmills elegantly placed among them; it can be really hard not to romanticize it a little. I recently managed to find myself driving around this enchanted corner of France, pledging anew my devotion to the country life at the sight of each thatched farmhouse that popped over the horizon, all of them seemingly stuck in a timeless fantasy version of western Europe that I never imagined truly existed. It was one of those surreal experiences where time catches up with you, you realize existence is fleeting, and that maybe your whole life has been leading to this moment. But like, in a good way! You really can’t plan these moments, and in fact they usually find me in some less than romantic setting like a Barnes and Noble restroom or at the god-damned Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. I was glad it happened in Normandy this time.
But I wasn’t in Normandy just to bliss out on the bucolic melancholy that wafts upon the air. Nay, I had given myself purpose on this trip. Accompanied by my always game companions, Mom and Dad, I was on my way to visit one of my favorite producers of any kind of spirit anywhere in the world, Lemorton Calvados, where I would find myself blissing out again on something much more tangible.
Now you may find yourself asking, “what the hell is Calvados, and why are you having existential-poetic meltdowns over it?” I aim to answer both of these questions. Firstly, what is it? Calvados is certainly an obscure spirit, and even in its home of France it is greatly overshadowed by grape brandies like Cognac and even Armagnac, which itself has a crippling inferiority complex next to its more famous brother. Basically, Calvados is brandy made from apple or apple and pear, aged in used French oak barrels. In Normandy it is treasured, and like Cognac and Armagnac, is a government protected appellation d'origine contrôlée (or A.O.C.), which means it has to be made in a specific region, under certain guidelines determined by centuries of tradition.
There are three appellations of Calvados, each with its own defining set of rules and traditions. The most famous is probably the Pays D’Auge, which was officially established as a protected denomination of origin in 1942. Calvados produced in this area is made solely from apples, and is distilled twice in a traditional pot still. The apples used to make calvados all fall into four basic categories: sweet, bittersweet, bitter, and acidic. Most producers use a combination of the different apple varieties to make a complex and balanced Calvados. The soil in the Pays D’Auge in particular is high in flint and clay, which produces apples that are generally sweeter than in the other appellations.
The large and simply named Appellation Calvados is made up of various smaller producing regions spread throughout Normandy that were consolidated as one Appellation in 1980. The rules of production are generally looser here than in the other two regions, but most producers still use only apples, and most distill using a column still. The soils vary more in this region, but much of it contains a very silty clay, which ends up producing a more acidic apple and a Calvados with a more recognizable apple flavor.
The last, smallest, and for me, most special Calvados region is the Appellation Domfrontais, which was not officially recognized as a protected designation until 1997. Located in the southernmost area of Lower Normandy, the soils here are high in granite and schist, resulting in a haven for pear trees. Because of this, the Calvados produced here must be made of at least 30% pears, producing a very different, delicate and floral spirit.
Lemorton is in the Domfrontais, and makes Calvados using between 70 and 80% pear, a divine and delicate nectar that is, for this trip, our objet d’amour.
We arrive at the Lemorton farm on an especially grey Sunday afternoon, greeted by a humble little roadside sign advertising cider and calvados tastings and some exceptional looking cows grazing about the apple and pear trees. Normandy is of course known not just for its cider and calvados, but also it’s magnificent cheeses, Camembert in particular. The sight of cows among apple and pear trees ignites an insatiable need for creamy funky cheeses washed down by calvados. In this moment I wonder if they will have cheese here too; they won’t, but I’ll go on to pair their calvados with plenty of Camembert in the future. I recommend this combination, highest marks. But I digress.
We arrive a bit earlier than expected, and meet Martine Lemorton, whose husband Didier is the sixth generation of Lemortons to produce Calvados in this place, and the third generation to bottle it and sell it commercially. Between my parents and myself, we speak about three actual coherent sentences of French, and Martine speaks only a little English, but somehow we are able to communicate fairly well through this bit of English and a hefty dose of expressive gesturing on our part. We are shown around the small old production facility, which consists of a handful of large fermentation tanks, a small corner for bottling and labeling, and barrels that are aging both calvados and cider that will then be distilled to become Calvados, which is aged for a year before distillation. One thing is conspicuously missing from the scene: the still.
All Calvados made in the Domfrontais region is distilled in a central location on a single column still. No matter who makes it, all of it has passed through the exact same still, which makes it especially interesting to compare different bottles from around the region, as they all share not only a very similar soil, but are literally distilled with the same equipment. It is also the only thing that keeps most Calvados from being “officially” estate produced, which requires that every aspect of production, from the growing of the raw material all the way to the bottling, be done on one premises. In the case of Lemorton, and indeed most small Calvados producers, everything (except the distillation itself) is done on the same property, by one family, the same way it has been done for generations.
This is a truly amazing thing, a rarity that simply doesn’t exist very often in an industry that has for the large part become so, well, industrial. Plenty of large multinational beverage corporations have brands that tout their family heritage and traditional methods, but too often the family in question has abandoned what may have once made the product special in favor of industrial grade raw material sourced from wherever is cheapest, flavor additives, and of course a much bigger market share. Gone then is the terroir, the sense of place, both literally and emotionally, though they can try to recreate the latter. A grower-producer like Lemorton doesn’t need to try to create an emotional sense of place, because it actually exists. They don’t need to invent a family, because the whole endeavor is literally just the two of them.
That sense of place is very present during our visit, partly because the property is so small. You’re always within sight and smell of the trees that grow the raw material, the soil that produces them, the little production building, the farmhouse, and of course those wonderful cows. They smell too. Didier, who has been washing up after preparing the cider to make the journey to the community still for distillation in four days, joins us as we venture out to wander among the trees. These trees, some of which are nearly 300 years old, grow some eight varieties of pears, and two varieties of apples. He identifies a few of his favorite trees, the ones late in their second century of life, whose fruit is apparently at its peak. The harvesting process is itself delightfully French and nonchalant, the fruit simply falling off the tree when it’s ready, then casually collected to be pressed and fermented into cider.
Upon closer inspection, the apples and pears look nothing like the varieties I’m accustomed to seeing in grocery stores. They are all much smaller, and many of the pears are just as round as the apples. These strange little varieties are generally considered unpleasant to eat, but their high acidity makes them perfect for making into cider and Calvados. Their small size also means a higher ratio of skin is present in the mash, where much of the flavor comes from.
It should be noted that Didier and Martine, in their excitement to talk about this place, about trees and soil, tastes and smells, never promote the product. There is no bragging, no comparing themselves to competitors, no mention of the fact that no sugars or flavoring or coloring is ever added to their product. That no pesticides or chemicals are used in the growing of the fruit. This is all simply understood, and when I bring it up with a question about coloring additives, I immediately feel a bit foolish, like I have violated some kind of trust between the land, the producer, and myself, the consumer. When true terroir is an understood norm, questions like these just don’t make sense.
After spending some more time with the cows, we are brought into the newly constructed tasting room, which adjoins to the production facility. Filled with more Calvados than you can shake a stick at, there are also some wonderful old photos of a younger Didier with his father, Roger and grandfather, Isidore, holding bottles of Calvados bearing the same exact label that the bottles surrounding the photos do. Nothing about those bottles has changed since Isidore began bottling it almost 100 years ago, on the outside or the inside. The enterprise has not grown, nor has the product been altered to satiate the palates of some test group. Innovation is not part of the culture here; nobody is looking for the next big thing. As a millennial American, this is very unusual to me, and very, very appealing. There may be some interesting new way of making a spirit from these raw materials that doesn’t fit in with the traditions and guidelines of the A.O.C., and that spirit could be delicious, but it wouldn’t be Calvados. What a divine thing it is to preserve something beautiful.
So we get to tasting. We go through the youngest, blended bottlings first, the 3 year old Selection and 5 year Reserve, both lovely and exciting with their bright juicy pear and floral notes, with just enough time spent in oak to mellow the spirit (Domfrontais Calvados must age for 3 years before it earns the distinction of being called Calvados). These are the bottles that made me fall in love with Lemorton in the first place, the Selection in particular making exceptional cocktails. We taste through some of the older blends as well before moving to the single vintage bottlings.
These single vintages, made up only of Calvados from a single distillation, are where really special things happen. With these you get a sense not only of the true terroir of place, but a kind of sentimental terroir of time. Each of these bottles are of a very specific time and place, and are allowed to exist just as they are, each one different. With blended spirits, the goal is a kind of consistency, an end product in mind during the blending process. A single vintage spirit is simply allowed to be itself, good or bad, which is a very exciting thing. With the kind of emotional trust that a producer like Lemorton has earned, if one year’s vintage didn’t turn out to be especially good, forgiveness would be automatic. Didier and Martine are quite forward about which vintages excite them the most and which don’t as much. The early 1980’s, in particular 1980, are their personal favorites, demonstrating to them the greatest balance between the bright, floral fruit flavors, and oaked vanilla. I am eventually seduced by the 1969 vintage, a 49-year-old beauty that has amazingly retained a strong fruity presence, with the aroma and taste of baked pear and apple, almost like a pie with the long influence of the oak imparting vanilla and deep woody characteristics. Again, Objet D’amour, and again, sudden moment of surreal existential poignancy. I am deeply saddened to think that soon I won’t be able to taste this Calvados in my mouth anymore. So I avoid this fear by buying a bottle. Didier and Martine very kindly throw in a bottle of the Reserve and several handfuls of adorable little mini bottles. This is good shit, these are good people, and I am happy.
The word authentic is thrown around too much in the world of food and drink, and it may have lost much of its meaning. So I hesitate to say that I love Lemorton Calvados because it is authentic, but I will say that I love it because it is honest, just like the place it comes from. It’s easy to make something that can somehow check the box of authenticity, and over time what is and isn’t authentic can change. But this Calvados, and these people, and this place that begat both is wonderful in its honesty about what it is, who they are, and what it’s all about. It can’t be faked. There is no need for some marketing gimmick, and certainly no need for any added flavors or colors. It’s just good shit.
In general, and especially with spirits, I only really want something if nobody has tried to sell it to me. It feels unholy to be sold something. So I won’t tell you to buy Lemorton Calvados. In fact, don’t buy it at all. I’ve just finished a bottle while writing this, and if I come in to the store tomorrow to find it’s all sold I’m gonna be pretty upset.
But of course, c’est la vie.