Drinking it gave me something of a lightening bolt moment: namely that for all of our discussion of fine, aspirational, interesting ciders, there was a category which had been almost entirely overlooked on Malt (with the exception of passing reference in our first ever cider article) and indeed goes all but undiscussed in the wider community of UK cideristas: fortifieds.
As I said at the time, it’s unthinkable that wine lovers wouldn’t dedicate discussion to such things as Sherry, Port and Madeira, and yet here is a huge sector of the cider world which we cider lovers virtually ignore. One that produces some of the tastiest and (I’d wager) most universally appealing of the lot.
To begin a rectification of that, today I’m casting my eye to the corner of the world that makes (by miles) more fortified cider than anywhere else: France. There, Pommeau, a blend of apple juice and apple spirit (so technically not fortified ‘cider’ per se, but let’s not split hairs) can be found at cideries right across Normandy, Brittany and beyond. And yet other than a couple of pages in Pete Brown and Bill Bradshaw’s peerless World’s Best Ciders, very little English ink has been spilled on the subject.
Keen to learn more, I turned in the direction I always turn on the subject of French apple-grog: namely Camille, of Calyce Ciders, who has graced these pages once or twice before. But on the subject of Pommeau she suggested I’d be better served speaking to someone else, and re-introduced me to Mathilde de Bazouges (pom_pressee on Instagram), who I’d briefly met at last year’s CidrExpo. Mathilde was unbelievably generous in offering her time and knowledge to answer my many questions on this elusive subject, and our conversation is submitted in all its wonkish glory below. Buckle in, fellow cider swots.
Malt: Firstly, can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what you do around cider?
Mathilde: Three years ago I drastically changed my life and ditched my office work in a publishing house for my passion: spirits. Tasting spirits. I took a semester course in cidermaking (such a thing exists in France and we are so lucky to have it). Ever since then I have been working here and there for people who need me to make cider for them using chemical-free techniques and also evaluating the contents of barrels, tasting them and blending them as well as making decisions as to their final use. You could say I am a cellar master without being attached to a specific cellar for now. I am also broadly involved in the business at different levels; I was in charge of the programming of the last CidrExpo and I am still, this year, a member of the conference’s programming crew. I take photographs for cider estates as well as the IDAC (responsible for the AOP). And of course, I make my own cider and liquors …
Malt: Can you tell me a bit about the history of pommeau?
Mathilde: There is a recent official history of pommeau that starts in 1981; that’s when it was given the name pommeau and made legal. But if you dig into the past of western France, in the 1940s we already had something similar, although it was not framed by the legal system. You can expect people making calvados, or lambig¹, to add it to must² to preserve its apple taste (the apple taste disappears with the fermentation). It is the most instinctive thing to do. Some farmers will even tell you that they were making pommeau two centuries ago in their family… but liquors made using calvados were prohibited in Normandy. I assume for two reasons: one was to protect Calvados itself (remember that post the Second World War we were trying to rebuild our stocks that had been dried out by the Germans during the occupation) the other reason might have been to protect pineau, the liquor made by combining Cognac and grape must.
Back then, Calvados was wrongly called the Norman Cognac and the cider liquor was called the Norman pineau to make it easier for people to understand. For identity purposes the use of this name, and the making of a ‘Norman pineau’ were prohibited. Once made legal, pommeau production started with 12,000 bottles (under the recognized name ‘pommeau’), the next year people rushed to make more and 12,000 turned to over 150,000…
These figures mean that it took a year to promote the recognition of pommeau and make its rules accessible to a large degree. But it is also due to the fact that ever since the 1970s, we French have been undergoing a major crisis: during that decade the law drastically reduced the alcohol limit for drivers. The traffic ticket was responsible for the death of digestifs and thus Calvados. It was about time we gave people alternatives with less alcohol that allowed people to drink more (or less depending on how you see things, glass half full or half empty…)
Malt: What are the best or traditional varieties of apple used in pommeau? And are the apples that go into the Calvados different to the apples that are used in the blending juice?
Mathilde: When making pommeau you need 70% of bitter or bittersweet apples in the composition of your must. The apples used are the same (in Normandy) as the ones used in the making of Calvados, we call them phenolic apples. They are rich in tannins and are typical from the western part of France although you can find some in the south of Great Britain too. [Ed: quite a lot!] Common varieties in Normandy have exotic names such as Douce Moen, Kermerrien (common in Brittany), Marie-Ménard, Saint Aubin, René martin (an acidic variety), Douce Coët Ligné, Bdean, Fréquin-Rouge… and so many others.
Malt: What are the most important considerations for the maker when they are blending the juice and the Calvados?
Mathilde: There are two schools really when it comes to making pommeau: either you take the most aromatic and sweet must and blend it to your fruitiest 18-month-old eau de vie to age. Or you can take a sweet must, add it to a very neutral 18-month-old eau de vie and count on the aging in a barrel to bring structure, tannins, and aromatic richness. Both ways are good. But they make distinct pommeaux, in my opinion.
I tend to notice a lack of length in pommeaux that use neutral eau-de-vie and that haven’t aged long enough… But also you can be quite disappointed on the other hand with a pommeau that has a flattering nose due to the use of a rich eau-de-vie and will turn out to lack fruitiness when you taste it and will, on the contrary, be quite woody. Pommeau is an exercise in juggling the right balance: the one you want to get or the one you expect the consumer to want. (The real question is: what do we expect in a Pommeau? We said they can be very different from one to another… I believe the fact that there are distinct pommeaux, using different varieties and different ageing processes shows that we are still in the process of improving pommeau which is great).
Then the size of the barrel you are going to be using impacts the pommeau. Small barrel (50L for instance) will lead you to a path of woodiness, nuts aromas, port-like tastes, vanilla… Huge barrels like foudres (up to and in excess of 1000L) will keep the fruitiness intact for a longer period and you will have cooked apple aromas, tatin apple, honey etc.
By adding calvados or lambig to your must, you stop it fermenting. It’s called mutage. You then need to blend really these two elements because they have a different density, and if you just had them without any aging there is a chance it would feel dilute. The aging is for a minimum of 14 months in Normandy and Brittany, 21 in Maine. You do that in oak barrels in Brittany; as with Normandy it is required to be a specific sort of oak, but it’s French oak broadly speaking.
As for the aging, the sky is the limit. (Or, rather, the angel’s share is the limit actually because like anything you store in a barrel, the evaporation will sip out the alcohol as time goes by, and keep in mind that the legal final level of alcohol of pommeau is somewhere between 15% and 20%).
There are no limits fixed legally as to for how long you want the pommeau to age. But you have to make peace with the fact that the pommeau will oxidise and eventually taste sometimes a lot like vin de noix if left for a very long period. These sort of aromas are not really accepted in contests but just because you don’t own a medal doesn’t mean you are not good. It means you stand out, too. But for unexpected or unusual reasons. Extravagance is not a bad thing…
Malt: How does Pommeau de Normandie differ in style and flavour to Pommeau de Bretagne?
Mathilde: Pommeau de Normandie feels most of the time a bit less strong than the Breton one, and less bitter. As for the aromas with long aging the oak will ultimately the same sort of profile; really the most obvious differences are, in my opinion, in the younger pommeaux.
Malt: I understand there are different appellations for pommeau within Normandy, just as there are for Cider and Calvados. Can you tell me about the different appellations and what makes them unique in terms of style, method, fruit and flavour?
Mathilde: Pommeau is the general term for the liquor made from one part calvados, two parts must. Pommeau de Normandie, like Pommeau de Bretagne, is an AOC. Which means that it follows a quality chart. Since it’s made from calvados, the taste can change depending on the calvados used. That, in my opinion, really impacts on the final taste. For instance, Cavados Domfrontais is very distinct from Calvados Pays d’Auge (the sort alembic still used is completely distinct, for instance, and there are more pears in Calvados Domfrontais.) As a result it’s not unusual to find honey and white flower aromas in a Pommeau made using Calvados Domfrontais.
Malt: Is pommeau made outside of Normandy and Brittany and, if so, where?
Mathilde: In Maine (France) they also make pommeau with a longer minimum ageing (21 months). Maine, Britany, and Normandy correspond to different locations. Since the geology and the meteorology is not the same in these places the final product is not quite the same either. People tend to think that the most crucial ingredient in the making of pommeau, calvados or cider is the apple. But it’s actually apple AND water. Apple and RAIN. Rain will dilute sugar, rain is the reason why some sort of apple and pear trees have grown so easily in the western part of France. And if you carefully read the chart for these pommeaux, rain is a key criteria in the orchard’s management!
Malt: Meteorology, rain, soils, climate. These are all things barely discussed in the UK cider scene (outside, perhaps, of the private and innermost circle of makers). Can you tell us more about these important effects of rain?
Mathilde: I am going to get really nerdy on this one… You have rain, and you have soils. And the nutrients you get in the rain are for the most part the ones you get from the soil… The great cycle of life. This soil in the western part of France (central France too, and the bottom half of Great Britain) is the remnant of a big sea that used to exist during the Jurassic (the Boréal Sea). At the bottom of this sea limestone started to accumulate. When the sea later disappeared we kept this common soil in this part of the world. We might have borders, Brexit and neighbour problems with Brittany, truth is we have a strong geological heritage in common that trumps it all. Now soils with limestone have a draining effect. Which means that when it rains in Brittany, Normandy or Somerset, the roots of the trees benefit from what’s in the rain. And in the summer on the contrary limestone accumulates the heat. Alcohol is sugar, right? After it’s been fermented of course. So when it rains constantly but you have a soil that regulates this amount of water for you, it also regulates the dilution of your sugar. The limestone soils and the rain are the ones that will directly impact just how much sugar (fructose) your apple holds. It has been doing so for millennia. Mother nature knows exactly what she is doing.
Malt: How is pommeau best served, and what foods do you prefer to pair it with?
Mathilde: I love to have my pommeau like a martini rosso, fresh with a slice of orange. I think a lot of aromas in the pommeau pair very well with fruits confits because it already holds gingerbread-like aromas. That is also why I would recommend serving it with a chutney and foie gras, and if you are more adventurous, have a wonderful duck à l’orange with fresh pommeau de Bretagne (for its acidity). If you have a sweet tooth you can never go wrong when pairing chocolate with pommeau.
Malt: Can you tell us about three of your favourite pommeau producers and what it is that makes their Pommeaux stand out particularly?
Mathilde: It’s not easy to recommend you pommeau makers since pommeau, like any craft made product, depends a lot on vintages. But for their consistency I would say:
Le Père Jules. They have very old pommeau, and a great diversity of pommeaux. They store some of them in huge barrels. I think it preserves the apple taste instead of giving these walnuts and smoky flavors that are too similar to pineau to my taste.
Pacory and Ferme de l’Yonnière. You can never go wrong with Pacory. This Calvados Domfrontais and Perry Domfrontais maker makes amazing perry AND calvados. [Ed: see review of a Pacory perry here, and its inclusion in our essential case of 2020 here. We also covered a Ferme de l’Yonnière perry here.] The raw material is excellent, the final taste is always a success and you get to taste a pommeau that contains a certain amount of pears.
I haven’t tasted that many Breton Pommeaux yet, which is why I won’t advise any. But I can recommend to you the pommeau made in Maine by la Ferme du Theil. It’s aged for 30 months and the colour is really more mahogany than what is expected in Normandy and Brittany.
Malt: You mentioned vintages – tell us more. Are there any standouts we should look for? Most of the few pommeaux I’ve tried don’t seem to mention vintage …
Mathilde: It is not easy to give the right direction in choosing the perfect pommeau. If the eau-de-vie that is in the pommeau was distilled in the spring or the summer, I would say it’s a ‘don’t’. Distillations made in the winter are usually the best ones when it comes to calvados. Then for the must itself, years that had a big climate stress give surprisingly good results (heatwaves for instance, they give high amounts of sugar). We had one in 2017 and one last year in 2019, so be patient…
In the meantime, you’ll be wanting a few Pommeau reviews, and quite right too. There’s pretty slim pickings in the UK, but I came across a clutch at the Whisky Exchange, namely Pere Magloire (£20.45) and Château du Breuil (£16.75). There was a third at the time of buying, but looking back it seems to have sold out, so I’m not sure it’s worth posting a note, as I realise it’s annoying when you read reviews of things you can’t buy, and I’m endeavouring not to proffer too many this year.
Pere Magloire Aperitif Pommeau de Normandie – review
On the nose: Very nice. There’s an earthy spice and a soily dunnage quality alongside some polished oak and nutmeg. Dried apple, cola syrup. It’s very shifting and complex. There’s a nice meatiness to it too. Not as intense as, say, the Sagardoz Goxoa, but perhaps more layered and (dare I say it?) grown up.
In the mouth: Very nicely balanced; the Calvados is certainly there, but married beautifully – there’s no burn or excessive estery spirit character. It’s also neither as thick nor as sweet as the Zapiain, though there’s a nice full texture and there’s more oak and mature development. Toffee apple and chutney. Cloves and cola. Little if any acidity – in fact it could possibly do with a touch more just to lift it slightly, to my taste. The rancio and dunnage characters have remained; texturally and in terms of its flavours it’s deep and complex and harmonious. My frame of reference is virtually nil, but I like this an awful lot.
Château du Breuil Pommeau de Normandie – review
Colour: Deep, lightly-hazy copper.
On the nose: More straightforward than the Pere Magloire. Ripe apple juice. Lightly estery spirit. The slight metallic tang of new pennies. A meatier note – perhaps a touch of cheese rind? But mainly this is a story of the ripe, young, juicy apple.
In the mouth: Follows the nose almost note for note. The sweetness is balanced by that touch of acidity I’d have liked in the Magloire. Which is really needed here, because this Pommeau is definitely more overt in its sweetness. Apple juice, brown sugar, that slightly estery young spirit element, though not to excess. It’s not insanely complex, but it is very moreish.
With no real frame of reference or prior knowledge I can’t with any degree of certainty tell you where these rank in the grand scheme of pommeaux. Mathilde may well be reading this and thinking “what? Why would you choose those?”
What I can tell you is that in the grand scheme of tasty things that are worth the asked price, these rank pretty highly and you should buy them if able. My favourite – the one I’ve already splashed for a second bottle of – is the Pere Magloire. It seems, somehow, more developed and complex. If I was a gambling man, I’d say that this one fell into Mathilde’s school of “more maturity, more active casks”, whereas the overt wood influence on the simpler, juicy Château du Breuil seemed significantly less. But again, I could be barking up entirely the wrong tree.
What I can say with certainty is that pommeau is a wonderful thing indeed. I feel confirmed in my conviction that we need to talk more about fortifieds when it comes to the fine/aspirational cider conversation, and I’m determined to do just that. The moment that safety permits I shall be scuttling across the channel and stocking up.
¹Apple brandy from Brittany
²Unfermented (apple) juice
Thanks again to Mathilde for unlocking this secretive world in so much depth.
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