The tradition of hard cider production in France is quite different from that of the United States. In France today cider is still very much a working drink, usually with a higher alcohol content than beer, but relatively inexpensive - around $2 for a 75cl bottle. A common characteristic of all good French cider is that it is essentially fermented apple juice - you can always taste the refreshing flavor of the apples.
Whilst American cideries use a wide range of eating and cooking apples, and crab-apples, French cider is produced using dedicated apple varieties that are grown specifically for their juice qualities - in fact many of them are so tannic that they could not be eaten fresh.
The growing of cider apples and the production of cider is all highly regulated, with an emphasis on traditional methods and areas. Almost all cider orchards are found in the north-west of France, in the regions of Normandie and Bretagne. French cider can be still or sparkling, but most is sparkling - produced through natural fermentation in the bottle.
The regulations for cider production for the "appellation d'origine controlee" of the region of the Pays d'Auge in Normandy are typical. They specify the precise geographic area in which orchards must be located, as well as the way the trees can be trained. Only certain primary cider apple varieties are permitted:
Bitter varieties: Domaine, Frequin Rouge, Mettais, Moulin a Vent.
Bittersweet varieties: Bedan, Binet Rouge, Bisquet, Noël des Champs, Saint-Martin
Sweet varieties: Germaine, Rouge Duret
Sharp varieties: Rambault, René Martin
Other local varieties can be added in smaller proportions. It is interesting that many of these French varieties produce small or average-sized fruit - which is regarded as a desirable characteristic by French growers because it increases the ratio of skin to flesh and also means the flavors are more concentrated.
As can be seen, not only is hard cider in France a very different drink to its US counterpart, but there is almost a philosophical difference. In France it is seen as an expression of the qualities and character of the area where the apples are grown - the orchards, the apple varieties, the soil, and climate. This comes together in the French word "terroir", which really has no English equivalent, although it is clearly related to the word "territory".
There is no doubting that French cider is a unique and wonderful drink, but in some ways it is weighed down by tradition and regulation. It lacks the freedom and innovation seen in the burgeoning cider market in the USA. Ultimately the key to French cider, with its pure fruity apple flavors, is the traditional apple varieties it is made from - and many of these varieties can be grown very successfully in the USA.