The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the clocks have zipped forward an hour and the mercury is creeping up to whatever hell-sweated, climate-breakdown-spawned peak it’s planning on hitting this year. I’ve even been out in the garden, finally attempting to battle the bramble-jungle left for us by the previous owners, though I’ve a hunch that nothing short of carefully-deployed dynamite and industrial quantities of concrete is going to make any difference.
And of course, since the sun is coming out, the British consumer is once again thinking about cider.
Yes, although cider is a many-splendored drink whose spectrum of flavour stretches over a seemingly-impossible breadth of season-appropriate apples and styles and bottlings, the advertising of the cold-pints-on-tap macro set (the only cidermakers with budget for serious advertising, after all) mean that cider is destined, failing any meaningful movement to overhaul the position, to be seen as a drink only for summer and the sunshine. Which isn’t to say that it can’t perform that role — it does so magnificently — merely to point out that few other drinks have such seasonally-restrictive coverage, and that the ‘sun’s out, ciders out’ approach makes for miserable bank balance reading for producers over winter time. So a general note here to lovers of all things apple (and pear) to keep shouting out the ciders and perries that suit the chillier seasons.
Indeed, irrespective of the warming weather, it is to just such a winter-warmer that I’m turning today. (Being a cider and perry writer and thus nothing if not impervious to zeitgeist). Although arguably, just as cider and perry are drinks for all seasons, so pommeau — for it is pommeau that has caught today’s attention — is more versatile than its warm-your-cockles-by-the-hearthside stigma tends to imply.
Pommeau — a blend of two parts unfermented apple juice to one part apple brandy, then aged together in casks — is, quite simply, one of my favourite, favourite drinks. Indeed on my trip to Normandy in January I tweeted something to the effect that I was beginning to think that there were drinks which claim to be the best drink, and then there is pommeau. I may have been slightly speaking through holiday spectacles. But only slightly.
The drink is made in Normandy, Brittany and Maine, from a minimum of 70% bittersweet apples and ageing varies from a minimum of 14 months (in Normandy) or 21 months (in Brittany and Maine) to well over three years. When I visited Antoine Marois, of the eponymous domaine, he suggested that the majority of pommeau would benefit from longer ageing than it traditionally gets. I tasted his yet-to-be-released 5-year-old, and could see his point. One of his neighbours apparently bottles one aged in excess of 20 years.
Since this is France, and since no one in the world affords their produce more legal protection, Pommeau de Normandie, Pommeau de Bretagne and Pommeau du Maine have been a part of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system since 1981. This dictates the precise way in which the drinks must be made, with various qualitative hoops for producers to jump through, theoretically establishing a high base level of quality.
AOCs are meant to offer additional legal protection from competitors both domestic and overseas — try calling a sparkling wine from anywhere outside the Champagne region ‘champagne’ and you can expect a scarily-worded legal letter, as many an American and Australian winemaker of decades gone by will tell you. (Not that all letters were heeded).
Pommeau, it seems to me, is seldom given the same respect. Strictly speaking, pommeaux fall into a broader drinks category known as ‘mistelles’, which applies to any drink made by blending unfermented fruit juice with spirit from that fruit. (See also Pineau des Charentes, made from grape juice and Cognac eau de vie). ‘Pommeau’ itself is a legally-protected term which really shouldn’t be used outside the appellations listed above, but it seems to me that most makers of apple mistelles anywhere else in the world are either unaware of this fact or have decided to conveniently ignore it, and hope that the lawyers of Caen are less razor-toothed than those of Reims. ‘Pommeau’, certainly, has more power than ‘mistelle’ as a marketing term, but the reason for that is the collective effort put in by the producers of Normandy, Brittany and Maine to establish it as a recognised drink, and putting my cards on the table I think it’s slightly cheeky of producers elsewhere to pinch their copyright.
(Though I am, of course, very much open to apple mistelles being made in as many places and by as many people as possible, and a hearty ‘chapeau’ to those doing so without pinching the ‘p’ word. Continuing this somewhat lengthy aside, the excellent Natalia at Cider Explorer recently reviewed a trio of such things from the also-excellent 1785. I mention this partially because in my half-year ‘retired’ period they sent me a bottle, which I thought was superb, and have occasionally felt guilty that it never made it onto these pages. So finally flagging it here!)
All of the above being born in mind — and apologies for the somewhat meandering ramble there — I thought I’d spend a couple of articles covering a handful of mistelles which are not pommeau, both in the hope of highlighting the quality and increasing global spread one of the world’s truly great drinks, and that if I write ‘mistelle’ often enough, one or two other folk will start using it too.
I’m beginning my ‘like pommeau but not pommeau’ search in a somewhat unlikely place: Normandy itself, the home of legally-titled Pommeau. Like Pommeau these drinks have been made from a blend of unfermented juice and eau de vie, then aged in casks. So why don’t they qualify? Because they are made from pears.
Although Norman Cider and Calvados are split into various appellations — not only Normandy AOC itself, but Pays d’Auge AOC, Domfront AOC and others — there is only one appellation for Pommeau: Pommeau de Normandie, which covers the entire region. Its strictures demand that the unfermented juice be made from apples, meaning that even in Domfront, Normandy’s pear and perry heartland, where the eau de vie component will certainly contain a large quantity of pear, the overwhelming flavour profile of each producer’s pommeau will be shaped one way or another by apple. What to do, if you are a pear-proud Domfront producer, keen to make something with your favourite fruit? The answer is to ignore the AOC entirely and make something else entirely, which is just what today’s producers have done.
I reviewed one of these Domfront pear mistelles — Pacory’s Grim’ de Poire — earlier in the year, and thought it was one of the best cider or perry-related products I had ever tasted. Pommeau and its cousins being thin on the ground in the UK I brought as many back from Normandy as I could, and shared another — a gorgeous, honeyed, nectary ‘Fleur de Poire’ from La Cave Normande — with James and Susanna of Little Pomona, but idiotically forgot to make any notes, as I was having too much fun in too good company. So I am looking forward immensely, and with very high expectations, to today’s pair: Pyrus, from Jérôme Forget at Le Ferme de l’Yonnière, and Délice de Poire, from Thérèse Gérard at Gaec de l’Oueffrie. The former is a maker who has now appeared several times in these pages, and whose creations I hold in the highest regard, the latter is a producer entirely new to me — which is just as fun.
Since they’re not regulated by an AOC, there’s no law governing such things as minimum time spent ageing in oak when it comes to these pear mistelles, and production specs are thin on the ground both on the label and on the producers’ respective websites (Gaec de l’Oueffrie is especially elusive). So I approach the glasses with a little less certainty as to exactly what I might find. I can’t remember exactly what I paid for each one, but I have them in mind as being somewhere around €18 apiece for 70cl bottles. I bought the former directly at Jérôme and the latter from a shop in Caen after my ferry was happily delayed.
Thérèse Gérard Délice de Poire – review
How I served: Chilled
Appearance: Clear Tawny-Bronze.
On the nose: Stand by for superlatives. Just so, so, so pure and clear and expressive and downright heavenly. Young Verdelho Madeira meets good Amontillado meets pear tart with lots of frangipane drizzled in honey and pear-infused golden syrup. Candied tropical fruits and flowers with a smattering of chopped hazelnuts. I just love how these pear mistelles achieve such balance of fresh, baked and dried fruits. Could nose this forever.
In the mouth: Unctuous, full-bodied and very sweet and rich, yet the freshness of gentle acidity and light tannic purchase keep it lifted and balanced and pure and very elegant. I’m still in Verdelho-Madeira-but-from-pears territory; honeys, hazelnuts, almonds, with white grape, heady summer flowers and pear compôte. Perfect balance of fruit, micro-oxidation and weight. Clarity, elegance, length all outstanding.
In a nutshell: A stunning drink. Another of those bottles that baffles you as to why perry gets so little attention.
Jérôme Forget Pyrus – review
How I served: Chilled, then half an hour out of the fridge.
Appearance: Cloudy peach juice.
On the nose: Pure juice — a fruit bomb that just screams Domfront. Mango, tangerine, pear sauce and a little peach juice (promise I’m not just following appearances there!) As it warms, there’s a sense of sous bois; autumn leaves, branches even, the brush of pear skin, all just balancing that ripe primary fruit. But mainly this remains a noseful of summery loveliness writ Domfront. An aroma of joy.
In the mouth: Delivery to match — fuller-bodied and more robust than the Délice and with a little less sweetness (though still certainly on the sweet side) and a touch more tannin, giving gorgeous mouthfeel and structure. This is the Port face of Domfront pear mistelle (in structure and ‘feeling’, though certainly not flavour). Again there’s all that summery tropical, peach, mandarin and juicy pear fruit, but here it’s joined by baking spices, brown sugar, vanilla and orchard floor. It has almost surprising depth actually; not much acidity (though just enough) means that flavours seem to burnish and darken, like an enchanting, pear-scented maillard reaction that creeps into soulful, autumnal tones.
In a nutshell: A very different style, but another sensational, expressive, contemplative drink.
I’m starting to think that these ‘poireaux’ might just be Normandy’s secret ace in the hole. Indeed with their sheer elegance and structural components of acidity and tannin aligned with layers and layers of flavour, they might even be making a case for, dare I say it, an even more compelling drink than pommeau itself. No, surely that’s rose-tinted crazy-talk? Tell you what, shall we try a proper, pukka, no-cheating, full-blooded pommeau itself and see what we reckon? I think we shall.
And to really give these pear-bothering upstarts a run for their money, let’s go straight in at the serious end of Pommeau with what looks, on paper, like a heavyweight. Manoir de Durcet is actually pretty close to Domfront; indeed although their Calvados is labelled only Appellation Calvados Controlée, squinting at an appellation map suggests they must be within spitting distance of Calvados Domfrontais AOC. This Pommeau, which it must be said is one of the most gorgeously packaged cider or perry products I’ve ever seen, is vintage dated as a 2015 and has apparently spent 5 years in oak. No messing around then. A bottle cost me €24 from the same shop — Made in Calvados— as the Délice de Poire. Don’t visit Normandy without popping in there, I’d say. Right, let’s see if the apple-based item can defend its crown.
Manoir de Durcet Pommeau de Normandie Cuvée 2015 – review
How I served: Very lightly chilled. Barely colder than cellar temperature really.
Appearance: Super-deep chestnut
On the nose: Incredible. A Ron Burgundy drink; smells of leather bound books and rich mahogany. Mega spicy, but deep and sonorous in that spice; old wood, dried apple, cloves and nutmeg. Also prune and dried cassis. It’s sumptuous, rich, antique stuff – an old manor house full of dried fruit. Manages to push the boundaries of how extreme the dovetail of dried oaky spices and ripe fruit can go, without tipping out of balance. Brilliantly-judged.
In the mouth: That is a sumptuous, sumptuous palate. Again woodsy, leathery, cloves, mace, nutmeg, but compared to the nose there’s a plumper richness of apple compôte, cider cake, raisin. Huge sous bois — the whole orchard is here, alongside a core of dark berry, fruit and jam. Although, as with all pommeaux, acidity is pretty low, the spice cuts through sweetness, body and fruit in a not-dissimilar fashion. I was wrong earlier — this is cider and perry’s answer to Port. I’ll take one roaring fire please. Really shouldn’t be writing this up after the clocks have gone forward.
In a nutshell: Utterly gorgeous. Immense, stately, rich, yet finds an equilibrium amidst all that. The most Christmassy cider ever. (Also likely sensational with dark game).
Well, what do you think?
Come the end of the year I’ll be amazed if at least two of these aren’t in my ‘essential case’, and the only reason it may not be three is I’ve had even more outrageously tasty stuff from Jérôme in 2023. Irrespective of that, though, each of the bottles here is buy-on-sight material, sitting in the very highest tier of which I believe cider and perry products to be currently capable.
The Manoir de Durcet is possibly as good a pommeau as I’ve ever had, and both of the Domfronts make the strongest of cases for the pear mistelles of that area being granted their own AOC. Then again, given how marvellously different they were to each other, perhaps the lack of legal direction in terms of their making has proven a positive.
Either way, this tasting reaffirms in my mind that pommeau — and its equivalents — are perhaps French cider and perry’s shiniest trump card, and deserve the full attention of anyone even vaguely interested in tasty drinks. I hope that makers all around the world continue to cotton on to the quality found in this marvellous category, and to bottle their own takes on it. Just perhaps under a different, less regionally-cherished designation.