- Normandy, France
Julien Frémont is the latest generation of his family to carry on raising apples and cows on the farm which they founded in the Pays d’Auge region of Normandy in 1759. Ever since, the Frémont family has pressed cider and distilled Calvados, while keeping cows that helps mow and fertilize the grass and eat fallen apples in their orchards (bear in mind too that this is the homeland of Livarot and Camembert cheeses). Broadly speaking, Julien has carried on the Frémont family traditions. There are 45 hectares of land, 12 of which are planted to apple trees, the rest being used mainly for grazing. The trees are all heirloom cider apple varieties, some of them quite old; the orchards have been perpetuated by massal selection over the centuries. The hand-harvested fruit is pressed in the original 18th-century wooden press, the juice then being naturally fermented and bottled before finishing, to become a naturally sparkling, dry cider. Some of that cider is then turned into Calvados in their ancient pot stills.
The whole operation as described above is quite straightforward, as well as true to regional and familial tradition—but since he took over 20 years ago, Julien has gradually diverged from some of the more conventional aspects of his family’s operation and of the regulations of the Pays d’Auge appellation. Working harvest with the legendary Beaujolais vigneron Foillard was a turning point in his approach in both the orchard and the cidery. Julien tends Frémont’s trees purely organically and biodynamically, a true rarity in Normandy, with assistance from the resident herd. The trees grow in a range of flinty clay soils, and Julien very much works the orchard and makes cider with terroir in mind: at least two bottlings are soil-specific ones (“Silex” and “Argile”), which is also highly unusual if not unique in the Pays d’Auge.
Besides thinking like a vigneron in the orchard, Julien does so in the cidery as well. Some things have not changed: the fruit is harvested by hand in many different passes and carried up into the loft of the cidery in a home-rigged pulley system of small buckets. They are crushed in the ancient press with the juice going into huge 2000-liter, 100-year-old, open wooden vats. But for most of its 20th century production, the Frémont farm like most others were visited by a traveling oenologist, who would issue advice on how much of this or that—yeasts, enzymes, sulfur, sugar—to add and when. Julien dropped the outside consultants and forged a new path for Frémont. Fermentation takes places with indigenous yeasts only and with zero sulfur—which is not added at any stage in the cider’s life—or any other additives. This hands-off approach is extraordinarily rare in Norman cider production.
Julien did not stop there. Frémont ciders have always been bottle-conditioned, in other words finishing their fermentation in the bottle. But the ciders always finished with or were dosed to finish at a demi-sec sweetness level, which is required for the famous Pays d’Auge AOC classification. Julien came to feel that the best expression of Frémont terroir and apples was with no manipulation and no sugar to distract from the fine bones of the cider. Continuing the natural fermentation to the point of dryness or near-dryness in the bottle meant also not continuing with the Pays d’Auge designation. That was never a deal-maker or -breaker for Julien: the Frémont production is quite small and became the darling of not only natural-leaning vignerons but also the Parisian restaurant world and beyond. The ciders are dry, robustly flavored, complex, and dripping with pure, earthy apple flavor, occasionally with a gently oxidative aspect.
The preceding explanation of Frémont’s cider production might seem excessive, given that none of those ciders are currently imported by Louis/Dressner Selections and thus not distributed by David Bowler Wine. But they are the heart and soul of the single Frémont Calvados (sometime found in France with “reserve” on the label, though the exact same Calvados lacks that word on the American label as of late 2017). Their biodynamically farmed, naturally fermented, unsulfured, dry, 100% apple cider is distilled in small batches in their old pot stills into irregularly and scantly produced Calvados. It is a young brandy, averaging around 3 years of cask aging and bursting with fresh apple flavor. It is a gem rarely available in the U.S.