Cider country, in northern France, is not like the rest of the country: For one thing, they tend to love Americans—holdover relief from when troops came ashore on D-Day and played a critical role in the liberation. For another, not much wine is produced here— the area known for its production of hard cider, called cidre, is around five hours west of Épernay and much closer to the sea.
About even split between Normandy and Brittany, the rivalry between these two cider-producing regions is legendary. Both claim to have invented the stuff and, naturally, both claim to have the best—a contention that also extends to their crêpes. In general, like most such infighting, it comes down to loyalty or taste. Ciders from Normandy are often more fruity than their Breton counterparts, with varieties containing citrus fruit or pear.
Technically, Brittany ciders are labelled with an Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP), a European label certifying that the drink is made from apples grown in the region, while ciders produced in French Cornouaille – an historical region on the west coast of Brittany – are protected by the Appellation d’Origine protégée (AOP) label, which vouches for the geographical origins of the product and protects the name across the EU. Cidre de Cornouaille AOP unites around 30 cider producers in Brittany.
Normandy cider is also protected by both the IGP and AOP labels; the IGP label indicates bottles with Cidre de Normandie or Cidre Normand. The AOP was labelled for ciders of the Pays d’Auge, an area that takes in parts of the Calvados and Orne departments.
When fifteenth century Cistercian monks in Burgundy first began to document the difference in wine quality from various vineyards, they believed that it was a sign from above; that terroir expressed the variegated contours of God’s creation. Although in the modern era, the science of fermentation and a winemaker’s skill in applying and refined production methods have supplanted a monastic explanation for the differences in wine, the quest for a ‘sense of place’ remains alive and well.
In cider production—especially when compared to wine—terroir has traditionally had a less firm hold on the thought processes. For most of the world, cider is a year-long industrial manufacturing process, while in France, especially in controlled appellations, cider is typically made seasonally, following the apple harvest. But like wine from grapes, cider can be redolent not only of the fruit used, but of the locality where it’s grown; the soil, the aspect, the geography and the climate of the orchards. In addition, the age of the orchard is appearing in more and more tech sheet.
All of which is precisely what winemakers call terroir.
The dream-state of most French cidre is to be rich, lush, amber and full of bittersweet apple character; most are low in acidity but well-balanced between the full-bodied fruitiness and tannin. They range from dry to sweet. ‘Fermier’ is farmhouse cidre made where the apples are grown (similar to ‘mis en bouteille au château’ in Bordeaux) and ‘bouché’ refers to the cork stopper, often caged when the cidre is effervescent.
Cidre can be made still or sparkling, desert-style or fortified, or even co-fermented with hops or other fruit juices. So far, the cidres that have impressed us the most have been made from pure, farm-pressed apple juice and electrified with a natural mousse created inside the bottle.
It’s a delightful journey of discovery to the style that best suits your palate, but to take the challenge most authentically, cidre should be sipped from wine glass. Traditionally, country folk could not afford glass, so they used terracotta. The favored receptacles looked like small bowls known as ‘bolées.’
Like wine, many cidres benefit from age. You’ll find that young cidre tends to show strong aromas of fruit ranging from citrus fruit, linden and anise flowers; when fermented in a barrel, notes of caramel, honey and fresh butter appear. In matured ciders have aromatic notes principal among them being vegetal, woody or spicy.
Cider that’s ‘hard’ contains alcohol, although generally much less than wine, making it (perhaps) a wiser choice through a holiday season that often involves driving from one celebration to another. In Normandy, for example, sweet ciders have a minimum of 3% abv, while drier styles must reach 5% or 5.5% for Cidre Bouché.
With a choice of dry or sweet styles, food pairing is rife with opportunity. There was a time, of course, when the ciders available to Americans tended to be fizzy, fun and largely uninteresting, but with the arrival of complex and sophisticated ciders from France and Spain, they have an obvious place with a large and multi-coursed meal. Perhaps surprisingly, cider may be a better main-course accompaniment since richer wines can steamroll turkey.
While every holiday table is different, a few pointers and tips that should help:
Since the French have long treated fermented apple juice with the near-reverence of wine, passing laws that restrict apple varieties (winnowing 750 varieties grown to about fifty) and delineate appellations, as an opening salvo, a high-end cider makes a quaffable alternative to Champagne.
Cider fermented on wine yeast results in a somewhat vinous cider, with flourishes of acidity and rusticity, a fine alternative to a bright white like Sauvignon Blanc.
Most high-end ciders gravitate toward dryness, but a touch of sweetness can buoy a cider’s complexity, especially tannic and ‘sauvage’ characteristics that might feel unbalanced on their own. These are enjoyable as a swap for an off-dry white like a Riesling.
Cider aged in oak barrels rounds out the edges of tart cider with notes of vanilla, making it hold up against heavier courses much as a barrel-aged white wine might.
Sweet with sweet is a rule of thumb, but the beverage should never overpower the food. For dessert courses (especially pie) a fruity cider works best.
Normandy, which most of us associate with the D-Day invasion of 1944, gets a failing grade in being French: They tend to love Americans. They also love apples, and harvest nearly half a million a year, many (but not all) destined to be transformed into Norman Cidre. Throughout the regions of Calvados, Eure, Manche, Orne and Seine-Maritime, cidre is king, although the menu also includes world-class apple juice, pectin jelly and phenomenal apple-based pastries. In the 9th century, Charlemagne ordered more apple trees to be planted in the region, which is too far north and too sunshine-challenged for world-class grape cultivation. In fact, the Normandy AOP contains a single vineyard: Les Arpents du Soleil.
The Norman apple harvest begins in mid-September, when ripe fruit begins to fall from trees naturally. More than 200 varieties of apples are legally permitted; the most common is the Frequin Rouge, followed by distinctive Michelin and Muscadet de Dieppe.
The Contenin Peninsula, part of the staging area for Operation Overlord (the codename of the Invasion of Normandy) pokes its nose far into the English Channel, and was chosen as a landing site for this very reason. Maison Hérout, known for producing some of the driest and most complex ciders made anywhere, has seen many such incursions—the Hérout family tree goes back to the Vikings, who settled in this area around the ninth and tenth centuries. In fact, many Cotentin village names in the still flaunt Norse roots, like the beautiful Briquebec and Quettetot.
The Hérout estate is located near the town of Auvers, where apples thrive in a lush oceanic climate. The Hérout family began producing cider in the 1940s; today, Marie-Agnès Hérout has taken over the farm and remains true to her heritage by producing some of the finest ciders available from this region. After picking, the apples are grated, macerated, and then pressed with the help of a rack press dating back to 1920, whereupon the juice is left to ferment for four to seven months, often in used Calvados barrels.
Marie-Agnès also continues the family tradition of planting apple trees for future generations and in 2000, began a campaign with the Syndicat de Promotion du Cidre du Cotentin to earn the region’s certification for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée Cotentin status. In May of 2016, after 16 years of hard work and perseverance, the quest succeeded.
Maison Hérout ‘Micro – Cuvée No 1’, 2019 AOP Cotentin ($23) (Effervescent Brut – Cidre Bio 6.5% abv)
Micro-Cuvée n°1 is an organic cidre distinguished by its orange-yellow color and a fermentation of at least 3 months in used Calvados barrels, which slightly reinforces the alcohol and tannins. Built around Rouge de Cantepie apples from trees between ten and 65 years old, the cidre is fermented for three to five days.
Maison Hérout ‘Micro – Cuvée No 1’, 2020 AOP Cotentin ($23) (Tranquil – Cidre Bio 5.5% abv)
An experimental, still version of the effervescent Brut.
Maison Hérout ‘Micro – Cuvée No 4’, 2020 AOP Cotentin ($23) (Effervescent – Cidre Bio 4% abv)
A micro-cuvée made of 80% Grasse-Langue, a native Cotentin variety traditionally used for baking. The cuvée is complemented by a blend of bitter and bittersweet varieties to provide structure and balance. The cidre offers aromas of citrus fruits and sour candies behind a balance of bracing acidity.
Maison Hérout ‘Cuvée Tradition’, 2020 AOP Cotentin ($18) (Effervescent – Cidre Bio 5% abv)
Nicely balanced between sweetness and acidity, the cidre offers subtle aromas of butter and dried herbs; acidity is discreet and the palate expresses bitter, integrated tannins.
Jazz-aficionado Cyril Zangs was a book sales rep in Paris before returning to his native Normandy and jumping into the cidre game with both feet. Of the 200 apple varieties approved for cidre making, he uses 69 of them, and in keeping with the natural wine movement, he ferments on native yeasts, unfiltered and without added Sulfur.
After apple quality, Zangs says, it is all about process: “Each of our varieties possesses a particular characteristic (sweet, bittersweet, bitter, slightly acidic or sour) and are harvested from high-stem orchards which range from fifteen to sixty years old. We harvest by hand between early October and mid-December, when apples are the ripest. Our manual selection process ensures that only the best apples are picked—we then separate the apples by variety and store them in our barns to continue ripening for up to six weeks.”
What happens next? In his own words: “Once sorted to obtain the best flavor balance, the apples are grated to create a marc. This is put through to our hydraulic press and the juice is transferred to vats, and racked during the 6 months long fermentation process. It is left undisturbed apart from infrequent racking, or ‘soutirages’. The unfiltered cidre is bottled with no sulfites added and stocked horizontally for two to three months to capture the sparkle. The bottles are then stored on A-racks and regularly turned for three weeks; we then disgorge every bottle by hand, a process that naturally removes the sediment. Each bottle is topped up with the same disgorged cider, with nothing else added.”
Cyril Zangs ’14 Glos’, 2019 IGP Cidre de Normandie ($27) (Effervescent Brut – Cidre Bio 5.5% abv)
From the tiny commune of Glos in Calvados, Cyril Zangs produces this IGP cidre—IGP, for reference, is an EU quality classification that became valid in 2009; it means Indication Géographique Protégée and supplanted Vin de Pays. ‘14 Glos’ shows a creamy and rich texture, and displays notes of star anise, orange peel and unsurprisingly, bittersweet apple.
“In 1923, my father distilled his first Calvados”, says Léon Desfrièches, current head of the Desfrièches clan, and who has (since 1949) carried on the cidre and distilling traditions put in place by ‘Père Jules.’ In 1976, Léon’s eldest son Thierry joined him, followed by Guillaume, Thierry’s son, in 2002. Jules, Léon, Thierry and Guillaume—four generations of Desfrièches.
Located in the Norman village of Saint Desir, the flagship cidre is made in honor of the late patriarch Jules. Now 85, Léon says: “I would have really liked my father sees what we have accomplished. As for myself, I hope I am like my Calvados: Serene and not afraid of aging with elegance, grace and roundness.”
Cidrerie Léon Desfrièches et Fils ‘Le Père Jules’, IGP Cidre de Normandie ($16) (Effervescent Brut – 5% abv)
Very mature apple notes do homage to the titular Father Jules, showing white flowers and honey. Upfront in the first mouth, it develops an earthy, rich and fruity bouquet with interesting tannins for a long aftertaste.
Like Normandy, the apple is emblematic of nearby Brittany; there are over 600 varieties grown (though not all are approved for use) and Breton farm cidre is the ultimate local drink. Orchards abound throughout the region, but sites around Dol-de-Bretagne, the Rennes and Vitré valleys, through the length of the Rance valley and the Vannes region are some of the most heralded. Of somewhat lesser importance to the economy, but still vital to the culture are Pommeau de Bretagne AOO and Eau de Vie de Cidre—a vague Breton answer to Calvados.
Like wine, Breton cidre celebrates outstanding vintages, and there are a number of officially sanctioned terroirs: Among them, Cidre de Cornouaille was the first product from Brittany to be granted an Appellation d’Origine Protégée. It comes from an area that covers 38 communities around Quimper that meet certain criteria such as hours of sunshine, rainfall or altitude. Cornouaille is a semi-dry cidre made from 100% pure juice and has a golden color, very fine bubbles and a slight hint of bitterness.
In 1998, Marc Abel pointed his future away from the cleanliness of a photograph development lab to the dirt of an apple orchard and found a whole new level of pristinity within his soul. After leaving Paris and relocating in Bretagne (for fresh air and an escape from the city rat race) he continued to work as a photographer until 2010, all the while searching for a job that would respond to his inner farmer. In 2011, he happened upon an abandoned cidery four kilometers from his house and took it as a sign.
With the help of his friend François, Marc plunged headfirst into cidre making. An earlier encounter with natural wine convinced his that natural cidre—made without additives—was the route to take. Now, with partner Max, he has created a cidre that embraces natural wine’s philosophy and practices to create a cidre that has gained international notice.
Cidrerie du Golfe ‘Cidre d’Ici’, IGP Cidre de Bretagne ($24) (Effervescent Brut – Cidre Bio 5.5% abv)
Twenty different varieties from old ‘found’ orchards combine to create Cidre d’Ici, the flagship cuvée of the cidery. Balanced and fruit-forward with notes ranging from bitter to bittersweet to sweet and sour, the cidre is an ideal accompaniment to sophisticated meals.
Cidrerie du Golfe ‘Hors-Norme’, 2021 IGP Cidre de Bretagne ($24) (Effervescent Brut – Cidre Bio 5.5% abv)
Meaning ‘Extraordinary’, Hors-Norme is made with Marie-Ménard, Douce-Coet, Douce-Moen and Judor apples grown in a 23-year-old orchard planted in sandy clay. The cidre is spicy, slightly bitter, and very food friendly.
Cidrerie du Golfe ‘P’tite Cuvée’, IGP Cidre de Bretagne ($26) (Effervescent Brut – Cidre Bio 5.5% abv)
A monovarietal, meaning that it is made exclusively with one variety of apple; in this case, Guillevic, which is hyperlocal to the region. It results in a crystalline cidre emblematic of the southern Morbihan. It is a ‘cidre de soif’, finely effervescent with delicate acidity and a nice integration of fruit.
Cidrerie du Golfe ‘X-Tra’, 2021 IGP Cidre de Bretagne ($28) (Effervescent Brut – Cidre Bio 7% abv)
A dozen varieties— Marie-Ménard, Douce-Coet, Douce-Moen, Kermerien, Avrolles, Guillevin, Peau de Chien, Pomme de Moi, Bedan, Petit Jaune, Petit Amer and Judor—make up the cuvée; it is aged two years in tanks and barrels and results in a highly complex, bone-dry cidre with a long, persistent finish.
Cidrerie du Golfe ‘Baphomet’, 2021 IGP Cidre de Bretagne ($37) (Effervescent Brut – Cidre Bio 7% abv)
Baphomet is a symbol of balance in various occult and mystical traditions; here, recycled lees (used for making Pommeau) form the core of the fermentation process for the cuvée, resulting in a cider of profound depth and rich aromas with a slight woodiness and an intriguing licorice finish.
Cidrerie du Golfe ‘Gueule de Bois’, IGP Cidre de Bretagne ($37) (Effervescent Brut – Cidre Bio 7% abv)
Translated colloquially to ‘hangover’, Gueule de Bois uses a solera-like method of fermentation, where several generations of apple cider aged between one and nine years create a cider of exceptionally rare complexity.
Hervé Seznec found his calling at an early age and has dedicated himself to produce world-class cidre. At the age of 19 he replanted his 74 acres of family orchards with 25 varieties of cidre-friendly apples. The core of his passion was the creation of natural cidre; as such, he uses no herbicides and allows indigenous plants and grass to grow between the trees.
“From the ladybugs that rid our orchards of insects,” he says, “to the almost mystical darkness of the cellars where our AOP Cornouaille cider is aged in huge oak casks, we are making a genuine attempt to return to the hands-on, artisan production methods of our ancestors.”
Cidrerie Manoir du Kinkiz ‘Cidre de Fouesnant’ AOP Cornouaille ($15) (Effervescent Brut – 5% abv)
Fouesnant is a commune on the south coast of Brittany renowned for its orchards, regarded as the source of some of the very best Breton cidres. Hervé Seznec maintains, “Our Fouesnant cidre is assembled from old apple varieties, all harvested by hand. The apples are then sorted manually, and pressing is done only when the fruit is at its peak ripeness, from late September to December. The fermentation is slow and ends with a second, 2½ month bottle fermentation, giving the cidre its very fine bubbles. This cidre has a lot of personality and is well-defined by its roundness, persistent flavors of freshly cut apple, complemented by notes of butter and hazelnut.”
A recipient of the Prix d’Excellence by the French Ministry of Agriculture for the quality of its product, Séhédic cidres are all certified organic. Located in western Brittany, only the traditional apples of the region are used in production. Although they may sound like a cornucopia of the weird and unpronounceable—Dous Moën, Dous Coët, Marie Menard, Kermerlen, Stang Ru, Trojen Hir and Mad Koz—they all contribute to a complex and age-worthy beverage.
Cidre Séhédic has three apple orchards across 45 acres; some of the trees are more than 40 years old. All cidre is made without the addition of sugar, water or SO2. The Séhédic family has been producing cidre since 1950, with the second generation Marie Laure Séhédic and her husband Christian Danielou now running the operation.
Cidre Séhédic ‘Fouesnant’, IGP Cidre de Bretagne ($15) (Effervescent Brut – Cidre Bio 5.5% abv)
Produced from 30 heirloom varieties: Rich aromas of ginger and cinnamon spiced apple-sauce followed by a finely-textured palate; more savory stewed apple with an appealing acid-driven tartness on the finish, and lasting notes of baking spices and stony minerality.
Du Léguer is located six hours directly west of Paris; so far that to go any further west, you’d get your feet wet. In this apple-friendly maritime region, Cédric Le Bloas farms 15 acres, raising artisan varieties like Marie Ménard, Jeanne Renard, Peau de Chien and the sharpest apples, Judor, Locart Vert, Rouget de Dol and Petit Jaune.
According to Cédric, “Each cuvée is made according to my taste, however the same process is followed time and again. The trees are hand harvested three times between October and December, before further ripening in crates before pressing up to four weeks later. The cidres go through two ferments: the first lasting five months before bottling, followed by a three month fermentation in bottle. The cidres are bottled with no Sulfur, just pure juice, naturally sparkling and spontaneous, no collage, only racking and filtering when required.”
Cidrerie du Léguer ‘BrutBrut’, IGP Cidre de Bretagne ($17) (Effervescent Brut – Cidre Bio 6.8% abv)
Sourced from two different orchards, the cidre is made with an apple blend that is 5% bitter, 50% bitter-sweet, 25% sweet, 20% sharp. As with all of Cédric’s cidres, it is made from apples that have fallen and were allowed to further ripen in wooden crates. Cédric uses the old-school process of “keeving” to clean the musts (thus they are not filtered) and all fermentations are natural. The cidre is woody and vinous, showing aromas of dry apples, mild barnyard notes and earth along with a touch of vanilla.
‘Sidra’ gets less press than Sherry or Cava, but fermented cider has been a staple throughout Northern Spain—which sees far more rainfall than the vine-loving south—since the first century. Although 80% of Spanish ciders are made in Asturias in the northwest, sidra from Catalunya (like everything Catalan) has its own special personality.
Sidra Catalana is made primarily in the provinces of Girona and Lleida, and unlike some Spanish ciders, tends to have slightly sparkling profile. The town of Olot in the Garrotxa region is known for its cider production and its annual Festa de la Poma.
Joanetes in La Vall d’en Bas is a four-acre orchard now under the care of Marc Fuyà and provides the source material for Serps—a treasure trove of Catalan sidras as unique and idiosyncratic as Marc himself.
After stints cooking in London and Barcelona and playing music throughout the continent, Marc succumbed to the gravitational pull of Girona, where the biodiversity of its environs convinced him that ‘Serps’ would be his retirement plan, a cidery dedicated to rescuing local apples on the verge of extinction. He also draws fruit from several orchards around Girona and the Pyrenees, including some located in a national park and sourced in collaboration with a conservation project.
Noting that many wild varieties of apple only produce in alternate years, Marc jokes, “Apples are much more clever than humans. If you work a lot one year, the next year you go on holidays.”
Serps Sidra ‘Gos Com Fux’, 2021 Catalunya (Spain) ($26) (Effervescent Brut – Natural 6.5% abv)
Made with Clon Pink x Gala, Reineta Gris, Golden Russeting, Pink Lady, Judor, Granny Smith apples sourced from coastal orchards in Empordà, the sidra undergoes a 12-hour maceration before pressing. Varieties are co-fermented and undergo a second fermentation after being bottled by hand without fining or filtration.
Serps Sidra ‘Lord’, 2021 Catalunya (Spain) ($29) (Effervescent Brut – Natural 7.2% abv)
A blend of Story Inored, Mandy, Crimson Crisp, Opal, Fengapi, Golden and Manzana Silvestre apples co-fermented on native yeast after a short maceration and press. It is bottled before first fermentation finishes to capture the bubbles in the bottle; no filtration or Sulfur is used.