A Sweet New Year
Review of Miharmartif “Antique Red Sweet Wine” and several Boulard Calvados.
By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon
Washington Jewish Week September 24, 2014
Besides being one of the four “New Year” celebrations in the Jewish calendar, traditionally Rosh Hashanah marks the start of the Jewish civil calendar and the anniversary of the creation of the world. It initiates the 10 Days of Awe (Yomim Noraim), also known as the 10 Days of Repentance (Aseres Yomei Teshuvah), culminating at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
During this period we traditionally pray and wish for a “good and sweet new year.” Over the centuries Rosh Hashanah has become associated with many sweet related food customs, such as apples and honey. The range of sweet food customs ranges from traditional honey cake down to the more contemporary offerings of, say, sweet and sour chicken.
Keeping with this theme, we thought we’d recommend a sweeter, dessert-style wine at the conclusion of the meal. One of our favorites is a Port-style indulgence that is ideal for concluding the fall holiday meal.
The Zion Winery’s Miharmartif “Antique Red Sweet Wine” (14.5 percent abv; $98) is made in the style of a Tawny Port from a blend of different grapes, with some of the constituent varietals seeing up to 32 years of oak aging. Beginning with raisin and nutty aromas, it develops layers of dried apricots, citrus, butterscotch, caramel and almond flavors with nice balance and a long finish. A marvelous creation from one of Israel’s oldest wineries.
Spirits-wise, for an elegant and enjoyable change of pace, we thought we’d stick with the apples and honey sentiment and once again reconsider a fine premium calvados from Calvados Boulard, one of the very best calvados producers.
Calvados is basically apple brandy, or distilled hard apple cider, made in the Normandy region of northwest France. Think of it as the working Frenchman’s cognac – though these days prices are keeping pace.
A.J. Liebling, the longtime New Yorker journalist and famous fresser (read “gourmand”), declared in his 1962 food memoir, Between Meals, that “Calvados … is the best alcohol in the world.” To Liebling, calvados, “the veritable elixir of Eden,” was much better in every respect to cognac, which he considered “precocious and superficial” by comparison, even though “millions of Frenchmen are obtuse enough to prefer cognac.” In his 1958 book Normandy Revisited, Liebling opined that calvados “has a more agreeable bouquet, a warmer touch to the heart, and more outgoing personality than Cognac.” He charitably allows, however, that “not everybody has had the advantage of a good early soaking in the blessed liquid.”
It takes between eight and 16 pounds of apples to make a single bottle of Calvados. The first step is to press the freshly picked apples and ferment the juice into cider. Of the over 6000 varieties of apples, there are a couple hundred different varieties favored by Calvados growers. They typically blend dozens of different apple varieties that range from bitter, to bitter-sweet, to sweet, to acidulous. Once ready, the hard cider is distilled into a colorless eau-de-vie, and then aged for a minimum of two years in oak casks. After two years it is legally considered “calvados”.
As with French wine, Calvados is governed by an “appellation contrôlée” system that defines the regions where calvados production is permitted, the varieties of apples allowed in the production, the type of pressing and fermentation, the distillation regimen, and the maturation. There are three Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) for Calvados. The basic “AOC Calvados” accounts for over 70 percent of the total production. It prescribes a minimum of two years ageing in oak barrels and a detailed distillation regimen, though the equipment is not designated and either single column stills (like the stills used to make vodka) or the more traditional alembic copper pot stills (like the stills used to make Scotch) may be used. The second AOC is the “AOC Calvados Domfrontais,” a fruity, subtle style which regulates that at least 30 percent pears are used in its production, that single column stills be exclusively used for distillation, and that it ages a minimum of 3 years in oak; the appellation was created in 1997 largely to accommodate the long tradition of pear orchards in the region.
Finally, and most importantly, is the “AOC Calvados Pays d’Auge”—the highest quality appellation. The Pays d’Auge rules include all the same basic rules for “AOC Calvados” along with several additional requirements, including a minimum of six weeks fermentation of the cider and the mandate for double distillation exclusively in alembic copper pot stills.
The mature barrels of calvados are then traditionally vatted or blended together to create the final product. Calvados is more often than not semisweet with aromas and flavors of apples and other fruits and spices. A young calvados can be harsh and feisty, like a young whiskey, but, like whiskey, mellows and matures beautifully with barrel aging. Each producer has their own recipes and traditions for making calvados, and Boulard Calvados is among the super-premium end of the quality spectrum, from the AOC Pays d’Auge.
Boulard Calvados has their own plantations of 35,000 apple trees growing 120 different apple varieties. To make a good base hard cider, Boulard uses 15 percent sweet apples, 30 percent bitter apples, 40 percent bittersweet apples, 10 percent that are high in acidity and they use 5 percent pears. About 20 percent of the apples come from their own orchards, the rest from some 500 local growers.
Founded in 1825 by Pierre-Auguste Boulard, La Maison des Calvados Boulard, or simply Boulard Calvados has been family-owned and managed for five generations. In the early 1950s Pierre Boulard (fourth generation), made a pioneering decision to export Boulard Calvados, and to this day remains the export leader. In the US alone, for example, Boulard Calvados is a brand leader with a 31 percent share of the calvados market (widely available in 38 states, and obtainable through all the major distributors in the remaining). The current member of the Boulard family at the helm is Vincent Boulard (fifth generation), who has pushed the brand into the premium or luxury market, with, alas, an increasingly luxury-brand price-tag.
Despite the rising prices, Boulard remains our favorite producer of calvados. Note that there are some who consider all calvados to be kosher, while others only consider certain brands to be kosher; we are not aware of any brands with formal kosher certification at present. Boulard is officially considered kosher without certification by the Kashruth Authority of the London Beth Din (KLBD), by the Grand Rabbinat du Bas Rhin Beth Din de Strasbourg, and by the Consistoire de Paris. All three are perfectly reliable in such matters in our book. As always, those concerned should consult their local or personal kosher food authority.
Without further ado, consider these four fine offerings:
Boulard Calvados VSOP NV (40 percent abv; $50): This unctuous, heady, yet balanced, blend of 4- and 10-year-old calvados, is bittersweet, with tart and bittersweet apple aromas and flavors, and hints of almonds, vanilla, allspice and ginger wrapped in a slightly woody box. Lovely.
Boulard Calvados XO NV(40 percent abv; $90): Blended from 8- to 40-year-old calvados, this is a full-bodied, rich, velvety smooth, elegant spirit with aromas and flavors of apples, sweet vanilla, cinnamon, toasted nuts, raisins, allspice, toffee, and tart citrus fruits, with a lovely toasty, oily and spicy apple cider finish. A bit more spirity than appley, but oh so absorbing.
Boulard Calvados Auguste NV (40 percent abv; $250): a special harmonious blend of variously aged calvados, named in honor of Boulard’s founding figure, this is a wonderfully heady yet poised, full-bodied spirit. With aromas of apple tart, apple sauce, vanilla, and lightly toasted almonds and hazelnuts, and with rich, rounded, punctuating flavors of tart and sweet ripe apples, almonds, nutmeg, cinnamon and a dollop of marmalade. Vibrant and warming, approaching cognac like flavors, but without betraying its appley core. Complex, delicious, dangerously easy to drink…but yikes, so expensive!
Boulard Calvados Extra NV (40 percent abv; $460): made from a blend of variously aged calvados and then matured for 7 years in oak, this is sophisticated, complex, off-dry, rich and elegant with aromas and flavors of tart, ripe and sweet apples, baked apple, fruit compote, licorice, cinnamon, caramel, toffee, burnt orange peel and soft, subtle smoky notes (presumably from the oak); the initial impact, repeated in the finish, is an intriguing and enjoyable sensation of a slight mentholated overlay. In turns, prickly, vibrant, sweet, dry, oily and warming on the palate, this is brilliant elixir is, sadly, designed and priced for the patrician set, but most assuredly makes for incredibly yummy—if extravagant and prohibitively expensive—sampling. L’Chaim!