Hail nets are a necessity in Limousin, France, where it hails “ten years out of ten years, and some years, four times.”
Wine is often described in terms of its terroir, a French word that translates loosely to sense of place, used to describe unique characteristics from the soil and microclimate that influence the wine’s aroma and taste. But a terroir or appellation for apples?
The Limousin region of south central France, while famous for Limousin cattle, was recently awarded the first appellation status for Golden Delicious apples—AOC Pommes de Limousin. AOC, which means appellation d’origine contrôlée or controlled term of origin, is the French certification used to identify geographical locations for wine, cheese, and agricultural products such as olives, potatoes, lentils, walnuts, and honey.
Administration of AOCs is under a branch of the French Ministry of Agriculture, the Institute of National Appellations of Origin, and establishment of an AOC involves a long and lengthy certification process.
It took more than 12 years to achieve AOC status for their Golden Delicious apples, a process that was completed in 2005, Jean-Pierre Lachaud told members of the International Fruit Tree Association when they visited his orchards and cattle ranch. But the motivation was to be able to set their mountain-grown Golden Delicious apples apart from those grown in warmer climates, he said.
The two primary areas in France where mountain-quality Golden Delicious apples are produced are in Limousin and the Alps. In the Limousin region, there are about 350 orchardists, and most are growing Golden Delicious apples, Lachaud said. "Mountain-grown Golden Delicious have a perfume and taste that is exceptional," he said.
The Limousin region produces about 120,000 metric tons of apples annually, according to Lachaud. Total apple production in the country is around 1.5 million metric tons.
The mid-1990s were tough times, Lachaud said. Strong competition in the market was accompanied by poor growing conditions for the Limousin growers. Cold weather and hail during bloom became common occurrences. "It hails ten years out of ten years here," he said. "Some years, it hails four times."
The Limousin area is part of France’s Massif Central region, landscape defined by a huge central plateau formed by a chain of volcanoes and soil composed of granite rock. Golden Delicious apples are grown on the hilltops of Limousin at elevations of 950 to 1,450 feet above sea level. During harvest, day and night temperatures can swing significantly, from around 70°F during the day to 33 to 36°F at night. It is the temperature variations that produce a blush on mountain-grown Golden Delicious apples.
"We had to prove that this terroir, this soil, was something special," said Lachaud, president of the Limousin Apple AOC Association that was formed to show that growers supported the concept of geographical designation. Lachaud, who has about 100 hectares (250 acres) of apples and sells registered breeding stock from his Limousin cattle herd, is typical of Limousin apple growers who combine cattle and apples.
"It is the equilibrium of the acidity and sugar and the keeping or storage quality that makes our apples so exceptional," he said, explaining the differences between Limousin Golden Delicious and other French Golden Delicious apples.
Earning the AOC seal is more than just proving that the product is grown in a specified area. While extensive soil mapping is part of the certification process, the AOC Golden Delicious certification mandates that growers follow certain horticultural practices, such as using only microjet—not overhead—sprinklers and not planting more than 3,000 trees per hectare (about 1,200 trees per acre). Elevation of orchards cannot be less than 960 feet, and yields cannot be more than 58 metric tons per hectare.
Before certification was awarded, extensive taste tests were conducted to confirm that the apples are truly distinct from other areas.
The rigorous taste tests continue today. A panel of 20 trained tasters sample AOC apples every three weeks and rate the sample on a scale of 1 to 20. Fruit that come up short in the ratings (13 or less) cannot be labeled AOC. Samples are also routinely analyzed for sugar, acidity, and firmness and must meet the following quality standards: minimum of 12.5° Brix; minimum of 3.7 grams per liter for malic acid; and 5 kg (about 11 pounds) for firmness. Lenticels must be very pronounced.
Enforcement of the AOC standards is serious business. If fruit samples from three packed boxes fail to meet the standards, the packer can lose the right to sticker the fruit as AOC Limousin.
In the four years of the Golden Delicious certification, one of the four packing houses packing Limousin AOC fruit flunked a taste test, said Bernard Longpre, a representative of Perlim, which is a growers’ cooperative in Saint-Aulaire.
"It’s very expensive to unsticker fruit so it can be sold as non-AOC apples," he explained, adding that packing houses now conduct their own internal quality assurance tests.
Lachaud said the AOC label has not yet resulted in higher f.o.b. prices to the growers. He has noticed improvements in fruit quality, because the growers have standardized their growing practices and target quality attributes. "We showed growers that if they target crop loads of 165 fruit per tree, they will have better color and flavor," he said.
The AOC label is beginning to be recognized in major markets like Paris, Bordeaux, and in nearby countries. "But more importantly, it’s brought us an assurance of selling all of our apples each year." Lachaud said.