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[Photographs: Christopher Lehault]

Cider came to France by way of Kazakhstan. As caravans traveled west from where apples originated, the travelers discarded their apple cores and seeds on the roadside. These seeds grew into fruit-bearing apple trees and, eventually, made their way to modern day Brittany and Normandy, where the cooler climate proved difficult for grape production but ideal for apple cultivation.

There are mentions of cider making in Normandy and Brittany as early as the middle ages and Charlemagne even documented the consumption of French cider in the early 10th century. But it was with the invention of the cider press in the 13th century that helped secure cider's place at the French table.

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Tasting French Ciders

What sets French cider apart? With its deep, amber hue and aggressive carbonation, it's easy to spot a French cider amongst its Spanish or British cousins. There is also often a more profound sweetness in French cider due to the the process of keeving in which fermentation is slowed through enzymatic activity. This sweetness is often balanced with a sturdy tannin and acid structure (brought about through the blending of bittersharp and bittersweet apples.) And finally, while American ciders have a bright, acidic character, the flavors of French cider are more subtle and less sharp.

French Cider with Food

Good food pairings for French cider are as varied as the as the landscape of Normandy. Full bodied, sweeter French ciders work well with cream-based sauces, white meats, and even a good cassoulet. The drier, more champagne-like ciders can elevate flaky fish and creamy cheeses.

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Our Favorite French Ciders

Cyril Zangs Sparkling Cider (6% ABV, $14 for 750 mL) is a well-rounded sipper and a great representation of Normandy. It's an earthy, funky cider with notes of apple seeds and orange pith. The slight carbonation of this deep amber cider make it an excellent partner for cheese plates and cream sauces while the complex flavors of wet stone, chalk, and Gala apple let this cider shine on its own.

For a more austere, Champagne-like experience, we recommend the Duché de Longueville, Antoinette (4% ABV, $7 for 750 mL). Bone dry, with aggressive carbonation, the Antoinette leads with huge caramel and toasted almond aromas. The flavor, however, is much more subtle with only hints at apple character. Instead, mineral notes and big, chewy tannins dominate the palate. Antoinette is a refreshing alternative to sparkling wine with a price tag that encourages a good impulse buy.

Of course, our French cider round-up would be incomplete without mentioning Eric Bordelet's Sidre Doux (4% ABV, $13 for 750 mL). We were first introduced to Eric a few months back in our perry review when we flipped over his "Granit" (still our favorite.) So it was no surprise that this Sommelier-turned-farmer also produces a fantastic cider. Full bodied and slightly sweet, with subtle apple character, there is something masterful about the balance of acid, tannin, an sugar in the Sidre Doux. A mix of citrus peel and musty floral notes, this full-bodied cider is ideal for cider fans and white wine drinkers alike.

About the author: Christopher Lehault is a New Jersey-based cider journalist, craft beer documentarian, and home brewer. Follow his cider adventures on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter.

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