Bittersweet apples and traditional techniques give French ciders their own special fizz, writes Max Allen.
I have just picked an apple from a tree. It looks like a normal, old-fashioned apple, with a lovely scarlet stripy blush. I take a bite: my mouth fills with sweet flesh and a rich, heady perfume. Yum. But then a wave of bitterness crashes over my tongue: a raspy, drying astringency, sucking all the saliva into an arid vanishing point of tannin. Crikey. No normal apple, this, then.
The tannic dryness in this Frequin Rouge apple - and dozens of other, similarly bittersweet French varieties - is one of the secrets to the unique character of that country's cider, or cidre, as it's known. Once the apples have been crushed, pressed and fermented, the tannins in the fruit give the cidre its golden colour, full flavours and food-friendly, chewy texture. Traditional French cidre is unlike cider made anywhere else.
Travel through Normandy and Brittany, France's two main cidre regions, and you'll find wild orchards of gnarly apple and pear trees (the fruit of the latter used to make poiré, a drink the English call perry and we call pear cider). You'll find small farms where cidre is still made the old-fashioned way in rustic outbuildings. And you'll find cidre is the drink of choice for connoisseurs of the regions' famous cheeses - Camembert, Pont-l'Évêque and Livarot - and for truck drivers wolfing down platefuls of breakfast Breton galettes.
The local apple varieties are only half the cidre story, though. More than any other cider-producing people, the French have mastered the dark art of "keeving", an unusual fermentation technique that produces naturally sparkling, naturally sweet and rich-tasting cider.
After harvest, the apples are left to mature and soften, sometimes into winter, before being crushed and pressed. The syrupy juice, called the must, is left to start fermenting spontaneously with wild yeasts, and special enzymes are added which cause the pectin in the must to coagulate into a brown gel. The gel forms a thick layer on the surface of the must, buoyed by the bubbles of fermentation - the gel layer is called the "chapeau brun" or brown hat - leaving clear, golden liquid beneath.
The clear must is pumped into barrels and, because most of the yeasts and nutrients were trapped in the chapeau brun, the cidre ferments slowly over many months, before being bottled in thick, Champagne-style bottles. This slow, nutrient-starved, low-yeast keeving process means traditional cidre - and poiré - often has a low alcohol content (most of the bottles recommended below are between three and five per cent), natural residual sweetness and a gentle foaming fizz as a result of finishing ferment in bottle.
Though many of the best cidres and poirés are made in small quantities, thanks to a few Australian wine and spirit importers, some are several available here.
Some, like those of Victor Gontier in Normandy and Manoir du Kinkiz in Brittany, are at the more "agricultural" end of the flavour spectrum, with more than a hint of barnyard and a fair whack of that raspy tannin, but I find these flavours go well with the region's more powerful cheeses, and are sensational with roast pork. Some, though, are refined: Domaine Dupont's Réserve, aged in old Calvados barrels before bottling, is appley and complex; and ex-sommelier turned cult cider-maker Eric Bordelet produces cidres that express as much terroir-derived mineral tang on the tongue as a top grower's Champagne.
Five of the best French ciders
Julien Frémont Cidre Brut Par Nature, Normandy, $24
This naturally fermented cider is a good introduction to the traditional Normandy style: pale golden colour, lively fizz, rich apple juiciness and a tangy, dry finish.
Victor Gontier Cidre Bouché, Normandy, $23
One for lovers of rustic farmhouse cider - it smells and tastes like a big pile of apples left to soften in an old barn. Heady, intense and chewy. I love it.
Manoir du Kinkiz Cornouaille, Brittany, $23
Beautiful deep golden colour and crammed with semi-sweet, bruised-apple flavours, this finishes with a distinctive spicy, slightly farmyardy perfume.
2012 Domaine Dupont Cidre Reserve, Normandy, $30
The six months spent in old Calvados barrels before bottling add an extra layer of warm, heady perfume and a lick of alcohol to this complex, off-dry cider.
2013 Eric Bordelet Poiré Granit, Normandy, $50
Made from ancient pear trees grown in stony soil, this is simply one of France's most refined, exquisitely perfumed and delicious drinks. Worth every cent.