UFOs cannot land in Châteauneuf du Pape. That’s a firm “cannot”, by the way; plonking your spacecraft at Château Reyas or Domaine Du Vieux Télégraphe is not only frowned upon and tutted at, it is absolutely prohibited by the immutable word of the law. Klingons, Daleks and Darth Vader would all be given short shrift. ET would be told in no uncertain terms to go home or face judicial prosecution. Ignorance would be considered no excuse and I dare say he’d be handed no small fine. A few vineyards down, go for your life, but interplanetary visitors may not come, in peace or otherwise, to Châteauneuf du Pape. And it’s because of the AOC.
Issuing parking tickets to aliens is, admittedly, only a subsidiary (if non-negotiable) remit of Châteauneuf’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC – sometimes AOP). Its primary purpose is to regulate such things as grape varieties used, winemaking techniques and geographical boundaries within the Châteauneuf du Pape appellation; only wines conforming to all of its specifics are permitted to bear “Appellation Châteauneuf du Pape Contrôlée” on their label.
Wine AOCs came about in 1936 in response to fraud and mislabelling on a colossal scale. A set of rules to which individual wines must conform in order to carry the name of the designated location on their labels. Regulation through the awarding of AOC status on a wine-by-wine basis would offer the consumer guarantees of authenticity, quality and style whilst preserving and enshrining the individual characteristics and methods idiosyncratic to an appellation’s terroir and makers. Châteauneuf du Pape was the first to gain an AOC; over 360 appellations have followed since. As to their tolerance for extraterrestrial stop-ins, you’d have to ask someone better-versed in French law. And for nineteen years, perry – poiré, we’re across the channel after all – has had one too. Normandy’s Domfront.
It’s difficult to tell precisely when poiré was first drunk in France, but we can be certain that in the 11th century there were pear trees in Normandy soil. Indeed France was so committed a pear-grower that most of England’s medieval consumption came from over La Manche. Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III, introduced the culinary variety Cailhou to England’s orchards, and Henry himself was given a gift of pears from Rochelle-Normande. But fast forward to the 1990s and poiré, much like its English counterpart, had become a marginalised curiosity; a drink of yesteryear with scant promotion or understanding even within its home nation.
So parlous was the situation that by the 1990s Norman farmers had begun prolifically grubbing up ancient pear trees – trees that had stood for centuries – so as to more easily plant and harvest maize, and to sell the wood to Italy to be used in the making of furniture. Determined to stop the rot, save their traditional orchards and ensure the continuation of quality and style, a group of farmers banded together to promote Domfront poiré. After much discussion of the geographical boundaries, Domfront was granted AOC status by the National Institute of Origin and Quality (INAO) in 2002.
I have a glass in front of me as I type. (Never trust a drinks writer who doesn’t). Thrilling, brisk, vivacious; it trills with citrus and riper pineapple, skewered by a vibrant zing of whistle-clean acidity and a fine seam of mousse. A dab of sweetness is perfectly balanced; lovers of Kabinett Riesling or the Chenin Blanc wines of the Loire Valley, apply here. Much of that character is down to one pear: Plant de Blanc. “The queen! Plant de Blanc is the most complex of all and the spine of Poiré Domfront” says Camille Guilleminot, co-founder of Calyce Cidre Bar, France’s first cider and perry subscription service. “It brings to a perry cuvée all its roundness, lightness and lively effervescence”. So important is the variety to Domfront that, to qualify for AOC status, a poiré must contain no less than 40% Plant de Blanc. In practice the percentage is rarely under 60, and single variety Plant de Blancs are not uncommon.
The stipulations continue. Pears must be harvested by hand or machine only after falling from the tree – no picking from or shaking of branches is permitted. Carbonation must be natural, pasteurisation is forbidden and, of course, the poirés must be from 100% fresh-pressed juice (not a universal legal requirement for French cider and perry, despite the enduring popular myth). Calvados, the glorious apple and pear brandy of Normandy, wasn’t forgotten – there’s a specific AOC for that which is made in Domfront. As you’d expect, qualification demands a high percentage of pear in the distillate.
“It was important in identifying this particular region,” says poirémaker Jerôme Forget. “And in recognising or, in a way, honouring all the efforts undertaken in preserving traditional orchards. It was also important in preserving the “savoir faire”* of the past.” As president of AOP Poiré Domfront and AOC Calvados Domfrontais, Jerôme was at the forefront of securing the appellation status and establishing its perameters. His own AOC poiré, made at Ferme de L’Yonnière is regarded as one of the finest in the region.
The results speak for themselves. Since the granting of the AOC, 60,000 trees have been planted by individuals, producers, local authorities and the Parc Normandie Maine. Jerôme attests to more poiré being drunk, and more promotion of Domfront poiré through the tourist offices, with tastings and orchard visits increasing in popularity.
“For the savoir-faire and terroir of Domfront it has been an amazing thing,” enthuses Camille, who is also keen to point out the benefits towards high value perception that AOC status confers: “on the journey of adding value to perry and cider it’s also another step to make it recognize as a complex drink as valuable as wine and champagne.” Appellation status shows that a drink is being taken seriously – that it’s considered worth enshrining and preserving, not just by those who are most passionate about making and drinking it, but at a national government level as well. It is the clearest possible demonstration of poiré’s value.
I’m curious to learn whether the AOC has had any knock-on effect on the diversity of Domfront poiré. Perry’s broad spectrum of flavours and styles is one of its crowning glories and, with a required minimum of 40% Plant de Blanc in any bottling’s blend, as well as tight specifications concerning the making of AOC Domfront Poiré, I wonder whether some of that spectrum has been sacrificed. Camille concedes that the recognised reputation of appellation status does take away some of the perceived sheen of those which are, for example, made from different varieties and thus can’t bear AOC Domfront on the label. “It happens that talented perry (and cider) makers will deviate from it and [find] their products not as valued as the AOP ones despite the same terroir, same amount of work and talent.”
Jerôme takes a more positive view: “there’s less to offer in the way of other varieties … [but] producers can do what they like. I’m in favour of keeping the AOP “cahier des charges”** the way it is. I am, however, keen to explore the possibilities of other varieties since they offer a whole spectrum of taste, colour and aroma once pressed. It would be boring just to keep on doing the same thing. I think that the production of Poiré Domfront AOP and other types of poiré can go hand in hand, providing the values remain the same.”
Jerôme’s own range, championing pear varieties such as Vinot and Fossey, as well as fully-fermented dry styles, attests to the diversity still to be found in poiré bottlings from the region. The appellation certainly hasn’t stifled individual innovation.
No country delineates and champions its inimitable, traditional and regional takes on food and drink as thoroughly as France. Appellation systems and their razor-toothed defence in international legal battles means that products from champagne to comté cheese to Domfront poiré are not only instantly recognisable to consumers, but offer guarantees of style, quality, provenance and integrity of production. Looking at the often-embattled state of our own English perrymakers, and the insouciant regard with which the British government often treats our ancient and invaluable perry pear trees, I can’t help wondering what difference might be made, were Herefordshire or Gloucestershire or Worcestershire or Somerset or Kent or Wales to follow the example of Domfront and lobby for more heavily recognised and championed status, protected by law. Not to the detriment or reduction of diversity, but to more clearly shine a light on the intrinsic quality of English perry, reward good practice, encourage orchard growth and bring in a wider audience of curious consumers.
Domfront poiré isn’t without its challenges. “[It] is still a very niche product,” says Camille. “Ask a French person about perry, they will have a slight idea of what it is. Domfront perry, unfortunately is even more unknown.” But with trees being planted, tourism increasing, producers like Jerôme, Pacory, La Cave Normand and Domaine Fourmond-Lemorton setting dizzying standards of quality and individuals like Camille extolling its virtues, the future looks ever brighter. Domfront demands and deserves to be a port of call on the list of any perry lover. Terrestrial or otherwise.
Many thanks to Camille and Jerôme for taking the time to talk to me for this piece.
Thanks also to Susanna Forbes for the pictures, taken on a visit to Jerôme in Domfront when researching her wonderful book on international cider, The Cider Insider, which has long been a huge inspiration and invaluable resource to me, and is available here.
*Way of doing things
**The specific requirements of the AOC