In the French language, the word is cidre, and it’s a tradition in Normandy and Brittany going back thousands of years. Those areas in northwest France, by the Atlantic Ocean and English Channel, are inhospitable to wine grapes but perfect for apples. Cider-making began with the Celts and continued with the Romans in a heritage that passes through Charlemagne — a cider-loving sovereign — almost unbroken through the history of France and northern Europe and England unto the present age, anywhere that apple orchards thrive, including North America. Cider is fermented apple juice, as wine is fermented grape juice. The reality, of course, is rather more complicated, but today’s post is a suggestion, not a treatise, though a few basic facts can’t hurt. First, the best apples for cider-making are sour and bitter, the “spitters,” in terms of your mouth’s reaction to biting into one. The best ciders, however, are made from a combination of many different types of apples, to lend balance and depth. Cider tends to be lower in alcohol than wine because even the sweetest apples embody less sugar than grapes. Finally, only in America is a distinction made between “cider” and “hard cider,” the first being just apple juice, the second being the mildly alcoholic beverage that the rest of the world terms “cider.”
Today, we look at six examples of cider — or cidre — from Normandy and Brittany, the heartland of cider-making. These ciders issue from small, family-owned farm-orchards and represent a level of character that might startle those used to commercial or factory-produced ciders in America. All are sparkling ciders marketed in the standard 750 milliliter bottle. I thought they were all intriguing, elemental, highly individual and excellent.
Imported by Winesellers, Ltd, Niles, Ill.; samples for review. Apple image from jamesbeard.org.
Brittany, the thumb of France that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, is represented here by Le Brun de Bretagne, which has been producing cider by traditional methods since 1955. The names of apples are as exotic as the names of roses or tomatoes. For these two ciders from Le Brun, the apples are Kermerrien, Marie Ménard, Douce Moên, Peau de Chien (“skin of the dog”) and Douce Coëtligné. The Le Brun Brut Cidre is a clean, brassy-gold color and offers mild and pleasing effervescence. Twist the cork — carefully — and a swoonable aroma of ripe apples bursts from the bottle. There’s something a bit fleshy and floral about this cider, a little musky and autumnal, like damp straw, apple peel and almond skin, and the finish offers a tinge of fresh wood shavings. Lovely, crisp, very dry. 5.5 percent alcohol. About $9. Le Brun Organic Cidre is certified organic by Ecocert. This is a demi-sec or medium dry cider, which to my palate is still pretty darned dry. You feel the tannins rummaging through your taste buds, though they are soften by notes of spiced and baked apple, apple skin and a hint of lemony cloves. The finish brings in a touch of elemental bitterness and rootiness. 4 percent alcohol. About $10.
Domaine de la Minotière is a 37-acre single domain of apple orchards in Normandy — or 15 acres, depending on which piece of paper one looks at. Anyway, the orchards are cultivated completely under certified organic practices. The Cidre Fermier Brut Bio displays a bright gold color, a frothy head quick to elapse and aromas of ripe apples, orange peel, apple blossom and what cider devotees call “horse blanket,” which I assume refers to what I perceive as a musty, sweaty, feral aspect that is not unpleasant; in my notes, I wrote, “smells like apples & trees & leaves & earth.” Quite dry and with tannins to pucker the palate, this cider is crisp, lively and almost viscous. 5 percent alcohol. About $11. The stablemate is the Cidre Fermier Bio Doux, which for a cider marked beyond “Medium Sweet” and into the lower end of “Sweet” felt pretty dry to my sensibility, though a softening of the dry, tannic edge was distinctly perceivable. Here the bright bronze-gold color is tinged with green highlights, and the scents and flavors of cedar, orange peel, slightly musty jasmine and spiced pear are very attractive. 3 percent alcohol. I could drink this cider with duck a l’orange, rabbit terrine with fig sauce or a selection of soft cheeses. About $11.
The Manoir de Grandouet is a third generation farm run by Stephane and Lucile Grandval in Normandy’s Pays d’Auge region. In addition to cider, the Grandvals make Calvados, a brandy distilled from apples. The couple recommends keeping their ciders for up to two years, well-stored, to allow them to develop the aromas further. Their Cidre Fermier Brut — dry farmhouse cider — exhibits a clean, brassy gold hue and beguiling scents of apples, orchards, roots, autumn leaves and a slightly wilted floral arrangement. It’s very dry, dense, almost chewy yet with a sleek lithe structure; close to the best part of it is its dazzling balance among tannin, acid, fruit and the hint of leathery, leafy bitterness that enlivens the finish. 5 percent alcohol. About $11, and My Favorite of this sextet. The Cambremer Cidre de tradition Pays d’Auge is billed as demi-sec but felt fairly dry to my palate. The color is radiant medium-gold, and the bouquet is ripe, musky, dusty and foresty, with notes of heather, mashed and slightly cooked apples and spiced pears. Tannins feel soft and finely sifted. About $13.