The Pleasures of Pommeau
Farmers are known, of course, for growing things. But they are nearly as adept as preserving them--or were, up until refrigeration and mass production. In the temperate zones, where winter freezes the soil, farms are feast-and-famine affairs; after the autumn harvest, the ground will produce nothing edible for long, hungry months. So farmers learned how to preserve their bounty in various forms, using technology and biochemistry to ensure it lasted until the new shoots returned the following year. Two techniques are age-old standards, pickling and fermenting, and farmers were well acquainted with both.
On the farms in Normandy, one of the most important crops were apples, which were turned into juice and fermented. Some of the resulting cider was distilled into brandy, which farmers squirreled away in oak barrels in their gorgeous, rustic half-timbered farmhouses until it turned into Calvados, one of the most underrated of all spirits.
When I visited Normandy while writing Cider Made Simple, I toured the facility of Christian Drouin, one of the classic makers, with Guillaume, the third-generation family owner. He described what happened as that fresh brandy sat in barrels. “There are three things that happen together. The first thing is the contact with the wood. The wood gives color at first, but it will mainly give tannins--that’s part of the structure of the Calvados--and new flavors. The second thing is oxidation. The Calvados is always in contact with the air, and this completely transforms the flavors. The young spirit smells like fresh apple. With time in the cask, the flavors will move to baked apples, ripe apples, apple marmalade, and at the end, dry fruits. That’s due to the oxidation.” When people talk about the age of a liquor, they always mean the amount of time it was aged on wood, not once it was bottled. Because of the oxidation, the cask creates a dynamic environment. Each barrel will contribute slightly different qualities to the liquor. Founder Christian Drouin purchased old stocks dating back to the 40s when he started his company in 1960, and they continue to have stocks going back decades.
Really good Calvados ages twenty years, becoming as complex as any Islay whisky. It's a mystery to me why America is not a target of export for this wonderful spirit, but so far it remains hard to get and few people here have tasted it.
Twenty years is a very long time to wait on a brandy, so French farmers invented another way to preserve their apples by using young Calvados, typically just a year an a half old. They add it to freshly-pressed, unfermented juice, at a ratio of between two-to-one or three-to-one, creating a mixture of 15 to 18% alcohol. That's just strong enough to kill yeast and bacteria, sterilizing the juice and making it fit for storage--science cider-making farmers have understood for centuries. It is a rustic, farmhouse concoction, and commercial pommeaus are far less common than Calvados. They have the quality of dessert wines--sweet and heavy--and I confess that the examples I encountered in Normandy were not impressive.
This is one area where the US may well have the advantage. Young Calvados is used to make Pommeau because the most dominant flavors come from the fresh juice; the subtlety that makes a Calvados sublime would be completely concealed, so younger, rawer stock is sufficient. That in turn means that good American brandy, which is no match for aged Calvados, can be used to make pommeau here in the states that is actually better than the Norman originals. Calvados makers don't seem to take pommeau seriously; it's just a weird, sweet thing they use to fill out a portfolio. Americans, by contrast, have elevated pommeau, offering it as a refined, unusual treat. South Hill in Ithaca, NY, San Juan Island Distillery (WA), and 2 Towns, under their Traditions label, make them (among others), but the real revelation comes from EZ Orchards, which recently released Pomme, which is so good it redefined for me what pommeau can be.
Most pommeau tastes like apple juice spiked with brandy. The juice provides most of the flavor, while the booze just adds octane and bite. They're typically oversweet and heavy. A small tipple is fun and interesting, but it's not a drink you'd have often--a seasonal celebration, maybe. Kevin Zielinski's Pomme tastes more like the brandy, showcasing its warmth and dryness. He makes his own French-style cider and has some of the best fruit in the States, most of it French cider apples. This is key, because good apples provide tannin, acidity, and aromatics rather than just sugar. In the Pomme, the juice blend is earthy and tannic, smelling a bit like a forest after a light rain. There is pepper and cinnamon and maybe even a tiny spritz of citrus. The two liquids harmonize as one, and it's hard to tell where the flavors and aromas of the juice end and the brandy begins. It's a revelation, and anyone who likes good brandy will really love this.
I doubt Americans will ever learn to make brandy that rivals French Calvados--and even if we do, it's decades and decades away. But pommeau? That Americans can make, and make well. Because they treat it not as a lesser product of Calvados, but a more sophisticated product in the cider range (even though there is no cider in it), Americans seem to be finding quality well above the French originals. Go track a bottle down, and if you're in Oregon, start with EZ Orchards Pomme.
Oh, and one more photo because I have it on hand. This is a "pressoir," the original press house at Drouin.