Adult Apple Cider from France
One of the side benefits of the craft-beer revolution in the late 80s was a revived interest in hard cider. Not only did several American brewers begin making their own cider, but several British companies also got in on the act. Strongbow began importing their ciders on a larger scale, and Woodpecker even began producing cider here in the U.S. following their Old World recipe.
All this gave a strong beer tilt to cider in America. Ironically, the process of making cider actually resembles winemaking much more than it does brewing. Apples are pressed and the resulting juice is fermented; there is no malting or mixing of hops. But because the marketing and distribution system of beer and wine in the U.S. remain fairly distinct, a more beer-like style dominates the U.S. hard cider market.
French cider makers, however, have long maintained a more wine-like style of cider. Their ciders are often lower in alcohol and less sweet than their British counterparts, with fruitier flavors, a lighter texture, and higher acidity. Texturally they often resemble Champagne, and in fact they bottle their ciders in similar bottles, with cages and corks. This greater complexity and their acidity in particular make them especially good with food.
Cider’s French home is Normandy, where it has been made since the Middle Ages. Norman cider remains an artisanal, hand-crafted product; larger industrial companies have never gotten as involved in cider making there as they have in England. France and England both have apple orchards with varieties specifically grown for cider, whereas eating apples are used in the U.S. French cider apples are typically small, warty, and unappealing to the eye; they are also relentlessly tart and unpleasant to eat. It is only when they’ve been pressed and fermented that they show their virtues.
Much of the cider maker’s art lies in blending a number of different apple varieties to create a well-balanced beverage. Single-variety ciders are a possibility, but have not been much explored as of yet. The most important skill for a French cider maker, however, may be an obsession for cleanliness. French cider is made without preservatives, and because of its low-alcohol is more susceptible than many beverages to becoming tainted or flawed by infections that could ruin the delicate flavor of the cider. Attention to these sorts of difficulties has made French cider more stable and easier to export in the past decades.
Domaine Christian Drouin
Calvados producer Domaine Christian Drouin has been making cider commercially since 1962. Their facility in Coudray-Rabut is a former stud farm which they renovated in 1990; its late Renaissance architecture makes it a beautiful spot to visit. As with winegrapes, mature trees are important for obtaining fruit that will create beverages of depth and complexity. For that reason, Christian Drouin is still sourcing their grapes from older orchards near their former location in Gonneville-sur-Honfleur while they wait for their orchards at Coeur de Lion to develop.
They harvest the trees by shaking them and taking only the fruit that falls, which then finishes its ripening in a loft. Drouin uses about 70% bitter or bittersweet apples, 20% sweet apples, and 10% high-acid apples. After crushing the apples are macerated briefly before being pressed. A lengthy, fermentation follows: 3 months in vats followed by further time in the bottle, where the carbonation can be trapped to give the cider its fine mousse of bubbles. The Domaine Christian Drouin Cidre Pays d’Auge AOC is the color of a deep pilsener with a foamy, beer-like head that is belied by the smooth texture in the mouth. It shows a complex blend of baked apple, cinnamon, and earthy aromas. The appley notes are fresher in the mouth and followed through by a long, gingery finish.
Again, as with grapevines, in orchards with poor soils the trees dig deep for nutrients; consequently they produce fewer but more concentrated, characterful apples. This explains the number of cider makers in the Pays d’Auge region of Normandy. Drouin’s neighbor Domaine Dupont has been making cider and Calvados there since 1837. In France, there is even an AOC system for cider just as in wine, but Dupont has chosen not designate its ciders under the system because they feel that the paperwork process makes it too difficult to get their cider to market when it is freshest. The Etienne Dupont Cidre Bouché Brut de Normandie 2002 is a medium gold, with a light head. Its apple aromas are quite earthy and rich, balanced out by touches of leather, flowers, and citrus.
Dupont has also recently begun making a completely organic, USDA certified cider, the Etienne Dupont Organic Cidre Bouché Brut de Normandie 2002 is quite Champagne-like, with a pale golden color and light head. Apple and floral aromas are filled out by honey notes and cinnamon. It’s a very refreshing, elegant cider with a long, appley finish.
Eric Bordelet, former sommelier at the three-star restaurant Arpège, may be the ultimate example of how a wine-based approach to cider rules the roost in France. Many sommeliers aspire to eventually become winemakers; encouraged by renowned Loire Valley winemaker Didier Dagueneau, Bordelet turned his sommelier’s eye instead on the ciders of his native Normandy. All of the trappings of classical winemaking make their way into his ciders: old trees, low yields, and terroir all mean as much in the orchard as they do in the vineyard. He produces ciders at three levels of sweetness, all with a light mousse and apple, floral, and spicy notes. However, the highpoints of his portfolio are the “reserve” cuvées Sydre Argelette and Poiré Granite; the latter is made from 300-year-old pear trees. The Argelette is crisp and elegant, with an aroma and flavor of poached apples leavened by citrus and spice. The Poiré Granite is very Champagne-like and dry; the pear aromas are subtly balanced by citrus, flowers, and earth, and the finish is long and complex.
At the Table
All of these ciders make great matches with food. Apple desserts are an obvious pairing, and many crepes also get along quite well with cider. But it is on the savory side where the distinctive acidity of French cider can show its values at the table. Cream sauces partner fantastically, as do a number of cheeses: think Brie, Cheddar, or Fontina. Chicken and seafood are also strong possibilities; I was particularly impressed by a pairing of cider with mixed shellfish. The touch of sweetness in the ciders also allows them to balance spicier dishes, which can be problematic with many wines.
One last pairing: When I was a kid it was an autumn ritual for my family to go out to the cider mill and drink cider with fresh cinnamon donuts. These days I find that French cider goes great with donuts, too, and gives a relaxing adult spin to my sentimental seasonal reminiscence.
Resources and Links:
Both of the above are imported by B. United International;
see their site for additional information