Five Cognac Curiosities

Cognac CuriositiesAll good wine and spirits students know that Cognac is a high-quality French Brandy, made from grapes grown in the delineated Cognac region, located just north of Bordeaux. There are several grape varieties allowed, of which Ugni Blanc (aka Trebbiano) is the preferred; the ferment goes through a double distillation in an Alembic still, followed by a minimum of two years’ aging in oak. Good! We’ve covered the basics. But did you know…

#1 – The product of a third distillation is known as “Espirit de Cognac.” Espirit de Cognac was awarded an AOC in 1936, and is an unaged product that – after hours and hours of distillation – comes off the still at 80 – 85% abv. Brandy lovers of the world, don’t feel bad if you think you’ve never had Espirit de Cognac. In reality, you actually might have – as all of the production is destined to be used in the “liqueur d’expedition” for sparkling wines such as Champagne.

#2 – Don’t confuse the unaged, bound-for-bubbly “Espirit de Cognac AOC” with a product labeled as “L’Espirit de Cognac.” Many Cognac producers use the term “L’Espirit” to designate their top-tier bottles. For instance, “L’Espirit de Courvoisier” is an assemblage of old cognacs – the oldest is rumored to be from the 1802 vintage (“the few precious drops that escaped Napoleon’s lips”), and the youngest from 1930.  Bottled in a numbered, hand-crafted Lalique crystal decanter, L’Espirit de Courvoisier sells for upwards of $5,000 per bottle – if you can find one.

Cognac grapes#3 – Cognac is distilled from a white wine base, which, according to the AOC, must be a minimum of 90% Colombard/Folle Blanche/Montils/Sémillon and/or Ugni Blanc. (In practice, Ugni Blanc is by far the dominant grape, accounting for up to 90% of the total vineyards.) A Folle Blanche X Ugni Blanc cross named Folignan may be used up to a maximum of 10%. Upon being authorized for use in Cognac in 2005, Folignan became the first cross variety produced at the INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique) to be authorized for use in an AOC.

#4 – Three other grapes are currently allowed to be used in the base wine as well. These are Jurançon Blanc, Meslier-St-François, and Sélect. However – it gets a little tricky here – they are only permitted through the 2020 harvest, and only if they were planted prior to September 18, 2005. Most of these grapes fall into the “uninteresting” category; however Meslier-St-François is (according to Jancis Robinson, et al, in Wine Grapes) a historic French variety that once grew in Champagne, the Yonne department of Burgundy, and the Loire Valley. As a matter of fact, in 1990, Charles Jumert of Cave de la Berthelotière “saved” the last surviving Meslier-St-François grapes of the Loire Valley by taking cuttings off of a vineyard as it was bulldozed under. He planted the grapes in Villiers-sur-Loir (north of Tours) and has been making a varietal “Vin de France” from them since 2003.

Cognac curiosities 2#5 – 97% of all Cognac produced each year is exported. That’s right – only 3% of the Cognac produced, on average, is consumed at home. As a matter of fact, the French consume as much Scotch whisky as they do Cognac. This means that an average of 130 million bottles of Cognac are exported each year, which is enough to make grape brandy one of France’s most valuable exports. (As for France’s other valuable exports, #1 is airplanes (as in Airbus), #2 is medications, #6 is wine (as in yeah!), #9 is make and sun-tan preparations, and #13 is perfume (we knew those had to be in there somewhere). Number 18 is brandy, Cognac included – not bad. You can see the rest of the data on French exports here.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

Creature Feature: The Glassy-winged Sharpshooter

This is NOT a picture of the glass winged sharpshooter. Glassy winged sharpshooters are NOT cute. There is a link to a picture of a real glassy winged sharpshooter at the end of this post.

This is NOT a picture of the glassy winged sharpshooter. Glassy winged sharpshooters are NOT cute. There is a link to a picture of a real glassy winged sharpshooter at the end of this post.

Every good wine student knows this: The glassy winged sharpshooter is a vector responsible for spreading Pierce’s Disease, and as such, is a known threat to commercial viticulture.

I’m right, aren’t I? You knew that? You have probably answered that question correctly on an exam, or even discussed the little guy fairly intelligently amongst your wine-loving friends.

But do you even understand what a vector is? (Hint: a vector is an insect that spreads disease.) And how well do you really know our friend with the glassy wings? Read on for a little insect insight!

The glassy winged sharpshooter is a common type of insect known as a leafhopper. There are over 20,000 different species of leafhopper, and they reach all over the world. Leafhoppers are closely related to, and share their insect family name – Cicadellidae – with cicadas and treehoppers, but are only distantly related to grasshoppers.

All members of the leafhopper family – who go by the nickname of “hoppers” – are plant feeders that feast on the sap of grass, shrubs, or trees. Their hind legs are built for jumping and they do just that – hopping from leaf to leaf, blade to blade, or tree to tree, inserting their needle-like mouths into the plants to lap up the juice. Hoppers are considered pests in many places as they can dehydrate the plants they feed on, causing havoc not just to grapes but to over 100 different plants all over the world, including oak trees, citrus trees, apple trees, and even coffee plants.

The name “sharpshooter” is used to refer to a group of large leafhoppers in the Proconiini branch of the family tree. In order to get enough nutrients, these insects filter a large volume of liquid sap through their digestive systems. Much of the excess water is then “squirted” forcibly away from the insect’s body in a fine stream – thus, the nickname “sharpshooter.” (I was hoping it was something a bit less gross, but there you have it.)

The glassy-winged sharpshooter is about ½ inch (12mm) long and has large, translucent (“glassy”) smoky-brown wings with red veins.  They are native to the South America, and migrated to California from the southeastern United States. They were not always considered a serious pest in the past, but once introduced to Southern California; it became a serious threat to viticulture due to the ease and rapidity with which it can spread the bacteria that causes Pierce’s disease. Once the sharpshooter has acquired the bacteria, it will remain infectious for the rest of its life.

There are NO glassy winged sharpshooters in the pictures. These bugs are cute. Glassy winged sharpshooters are NOT.

There are NO glassy winged sharpshooters in this picture. These bugs are cute. Glassy winged sharpshooters are NOT CUTE.

The glassy winged sharpshooter remains a serious threat to viticulture in California and beyond. Due to its coloration, it is difficult to see in nature, despite its size. “Bug spotting” programs are underway in parts of California to help identify and prevent further infestations. Plant nurseries must confirm that their plants are “sharpshooter-free” and everyone is on the lookout. School children are taught to spot “sharpshooter rain” and many Californians are encouraged to have yellow sticky traps in their yards. Anyone who thinks they spot a sharpshooter is encouraged to call a hotline.

In the case of minor infestations, biological controls are used, including the introduction of various bugs – such as small wasps, spiders, and the praying mantis – that feed on the eggs. Chemicals (pesticides) are used in more extreme cases, but some of the more effective chemicals are also damaging to the wasps that help control the sharpshooters.

In other parts of the world, the glassy winged sharpshooter causes havoc by spreading phoney peach disease, oleander leaf scorch, and citrus X disease. The danged little glassy winged sharpshooter, it seems, remains a serious pest.

To learn more, and to see a picture of the glassy winged sharpshooter, visit the website of the Applied Biological Control Research Department at UC Riverside.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

In Praise of the Juniper Berry

Fig 4-2 Juniper BerriesThe hero of gin lovers everywhere, the juniper berry is not really a berry at all but the seed cone of the juniper plant. Juniperus communis, the common juniper, is a shrub or small evergreen tree with needle-like leaves in whorls of three. Juniper often grows as a low-spreading shrub, but juniper trees can grow to over 32 feet (10m) tall. The juniper plant has over 50 species, and the largest range of any woody plant, thriving throughout the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere from North America to Europe and Asia.

Many cultures consider the leaves of the juniper to be a symbol of protection against disease and evil spirits. In Tuscany, a sprig of juniper is often placed in front of the door to offer protection to the house and its inhabitants. Juniper can also ward off snakes, at least according to the ancient Greek pharmacologist Pedanius Dioscorides, who claimed that the smoke from a fire of burning juniper could keep snakes away.

The “berries” of the juniper plant begin life a grey-green color, and ripen in 18 months to a deep purple-black hue with a blue waxy coating. Juniper berries are revered for their medicinal purposes, particularly as a diuretic and in regards to conditions of the kidney, bladder, and stomach.

Of course, to students of wine and spirits, the juniper berry is known primarily as the predominant flavoring in gin and other spirits such as Genever, Steinhäger, and Wacholder. The flavor profile of juniper berries is often described a pine-like, resin-like, intensely herbal and with bitter citrus notes. Noted author Harold McGee, in his book On Food and Cooking defines the flavor of juniper as “green-fresh.”

The Juniper Forest ("The Valley of Juniper) in Ziarat, Pakistan

The Juniper Forest (“The Valley of Juniper”) in Ziarat, Pakistan

Juniper berries are considered an important culinary herb, particularly throughout Scandinavia and Central Europe. Juniper is often used to impart a sharp, clean flavor to meat dishes – particularly game meats – as well as cabbage and sauerkraut dishes. Juniper has a natural affinity for pork and is found in many recipes for roast or braised pork. The recipe for Choucroute Garnie, a classic Alsatian dish of sauerkraut and meats, universally includes juniper berries.

One more thing: on Easter Monday, the young boys in Kashubia (Northern Poland) chase the girls in the town square, brushing (sometimes referred to as “gently whipping”) their legs with juniper sprigs. This is, according to tradition, to ensure good fortune in love to the “chased” young ladies. After watching this annual tradition unfold,  I am guessing, the parents would most likely appreciate a nice shot of gin.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas: missjane@prodigy.net

Ten Tidbits on Tasmania

Tasmania VineyardTen Tidbits on Tasmania – Tasmanian Wine, that is!

#1 – The island of Tasmania is the southernmost state of Australia and lies about 150 miles south of the coast of Victoria, across the Bass Strait. Tasmania lies directly in the path of the fierce trade winds known as the “Roaring Forties” and as such, its west coast has a cold, wet climate.

#2 – Tasmania is Australia’s most mountainous state. The highest point is Mount Ossa in the northwest. Mount Ossa reaches peaks of 5,350 feet (1,620 meters) above sea level. The temperature climate necessary for viticulture in Tasmania is made possible by the multiple mountain ranges that criss-cross the center of the island. Most Tasmanian vineyards are located on lower slopes and valleys of these mountains, or in the rain shadow to the east.

#3 – As is to be expected considering its location, Tasmania has a maritime climate. Mild spring and summer temperatures, warm autumn days, and cool nights allow for the region’s grapes to enjoy a long, slow ripening with minimal loses of natural acidity.

#4 – Cool climate grapes dominate the viticultural landscape and include 44% Pinot Noir, 23% Chardonnay, 12% Sauvignon Blanc, 11% Pinot Gris and 5% Riesling. Other varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Gewürztraminer.  Tasmania’s cool climate makes it a natural for sparkling wines, and many of the sparkling wines produced in Australia are sourced with grapes grown in Tasmania.

Tasmania map#5 – Tasmania’s output is tiny. At last count, the state had just over 3,700 acres (1,500 hectares) of vineyards, and accounted for approximately 0.5% of Australia’s output. They even say that “more wine is spilled on the main land than is produced in Tasmania.” However – Tasmania’s wine production rose by more than 300% over the last decade, and quality is regarded as quite high.

#6 – According to winetasmania.com, 100% of bottled Tasmanian wine retails for $15.00 or more – as compared to only 7% of Australian wines overall.

#7 – Tasmania’s first vineyard, planted in 1788, was a failure. The vines were planted by William Blight at Adventure Bay (on Bruny Island), but when he returned four years later they were gone. Vines were planted again in the early 1800s, and wine was made and sold commercially in Tasmania from 1800 through the 1860s. However, vine disease and the gold rush in Victoria (1851-1870) caused wine production in Tasmania to collapse by the 1870s.

#8 – In the 1830s, wines from Tasmania were brought to Victoria by William Henty. Henty sailed from Launceston in Tasmania to Portland in Victoria on the Schooner Thistle. Among his belongings were “one cask of grape cuttings and one box of plants.” These cuttings became the first vines planted in Victoria. At about the same time, vines from Tasmania were also among the first grapes planted in South Australia; John Hack (in 1837), and John Reynell (in 1837) both planted Tasmanian vines in South Australia.  Some say, based on these facts, that vines from Tasmania founded the wine industries of both Victoria and South Australia.

Map via winetasmania.com.au

Map via winetasmania.com.au

#9 – The beginnings of the modern era of Tasmanian wines can be traced back to the 1950s, when two Europeans, Jean Miguet and Claudio Alcorso arrived in Tasmania and, without knowing each other or what the other was doing, began planting vines and making wine.

#10 – While Tasmania does not have any officially designated wine regions or sub-regions within it, the following “unofficial” areas are generally used to describe those areas rich with vines:

  • In Northern Tasmania: The Northwest Coast, Tamar Valley, and Northeast/Pipers River
  • In Southern Tasmania: Coal River Valley, Derwent Valley, and Huon/Channel Valley
  • Straddling the Two: The East Coast

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas: missjane@prodigy.net

A Side Note on the Sidecar

sidecar 1This blog post about the classic cocktail – the Sidecar – was borne of last Friday night’s dinner.

The anh (adorable new husband) and I went to our favorite local swingin’ hot spot. It’s a pretty fancy restaurant, maybe even special-occasion style, but we always snag a couple of seats at the bar and order casual. We have never been disappointed. Great, simple, classic food; excellent cocktails, professional, white-apron service – we love it every time.

One of my favorite things about the restaurant is the short-and-simple list of craft cocktails they offer. I usually order something cha-cha like the Bartlett Pear Martini (garnished with a house-made slice of dried pear) or the absolutely fabulous Blood and Sand, but this evening I really fancied a Sidecar. Interestingly enough, our lively bartender remarked that no one had ordered a Sidecar in years and he had to look it up. He quickly consulted his handy Mr. Boston Guide and made me a -well, two- delightful cocktails. Just perfect.

But it set me to thinking…if a working bartender in a busy, urban restaurant has to remind himself how to make a Sidecar – what gives? A Sidecar is a classic, 1920’s-style  cocktail, and as such should be enjoying a resurgence of popularity along with other crafty cocktails – so let’s help it along!

As is true of many cocktails, there are many versions of the origin of the drink and the meaning of the name. One legend dates back to Harry’s Bar in Paris, near the end of the First World War. It seems there was a certain American Army Captain who sidecar 2would often arrive at the bar in the sidecar of his friend’s motorbike. The Captain drank Cognac, but as Cognac is considered more of an after-dinner drink in France, the bartender sweetened it with a bit of Cointreau and sharpened it with a squeeze of lemon juice. Named after the Captain’s preferred method of transportation, the Sidecar was born.

England also claims to be the land of the Sidecar’s invention. In London the star of the story is the legendary Pat MacGarry, bartender at the Buck’s Club in London, famous for inventing the Buck’s Fizz cocktail. The details of the story are the same – a Cognac-loving gentleman pulled up to the club in his friend’s sidecar – only the names have been changed!

A totally different version of the story harkens back to pre-prohibition New Orleans, where it is said that the Sidecar evolved from the Brandy Crusta. Here, the word “sidecar” was used for that little bit of a drink that is sometimes leftover after a drink is strained into the glass. The bartender would serve the excess in a shot glass on the side – which came to be known as a sidecar. In time, the story goes, the recipe for the Brandy Crusta (Cognac, Curacao, bitters, lemon juice, sugar) evolved, with Cointreau replacing the Curacao, and the new drink became known as a Sidecar.

sidecar 3There are also many versions of the recipe. While it is commonly agreed that the drink is composed of Cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice, after that all bets are off. Some recipes call for a sugared rim, some call for a lemon zest garnish, some call for a non-sugared rim, and some call for an orange wedge garnish. Some list the proportions of the drinks as 1:1:1 Cognac-Cointreau-lemon juice, some 2:1:1 for the same ingredients. I used to make mine in the 2:1:1 recipe – until I watched this beautifully made video by The Cocktail Spirit with Robert Hess. Robert recommends 4:2:1 Cognac-Cointreau-Lemon, and after listening to him (and trying it out) – I agree!

You need to watch Robert’s video! It will take six minutes of your life, but I promise it will be well worth it! You’ll learn a lot about the Sidecar, cocktail ingredients, cocktail techniques, and perhaps even life in general. And you will definitely be left craving a Sidecar. Enjoy in moderation and good health!

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas: missjane@prodigy.net

Five Fast Facts about Brouilly

Photo of Louis Jadot Brouilly by Rob Ireton, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Louis Jadot Brouilly by Rob Ireton, via Wikimedia Commons

Five Fast Facts about Brouilly

#1 – Brouilly is one of the ten Crus of Beaujolais. It is the largest and most southerly of the ten Beaujolais Crus,  Although this large area contains a wide range of microclimates and soil types, most of the vineyards face roughly east and capture the bright morning sunshine as it rises over the Saone River Valley. The hills to the west shelter the region from some of the colder influences coming in from western France, while warm sunshine throughout the growing season means that the vines of Brouilly are among the first to be harvest in Beaujolais every year.

#2 – Brouilly is one of the few AOCs of Beaujolais not to be named after a local village; instead, it is named for Mount Brouilly. The vineyard area of Brouilly surrounds the mountain, and covers land in the following six communes: Cercié, Charentay, Odenas, Quincié-en-Beaujolais, Saint-Etienne-la-Varenne, and Saint-Lager.

#3 – The mountain itself, set somewhat apart from the hills to the west of Beaujolais, was named after a Roman soldier named Brulius, who is credited with planting the first vines here over 2,000 years ago. There is a small chapel at the top of the hill, built in 1857 in order to place the vineyards under the protection of the Virgin Mary.  A smaller, separate AOC, Côte de Brouilly, covers vineyards on the higher slopes of the mountain, and is completely surrounded by the larger Brouilly AOC.

#4 – The Brouilly AOC is approved only for dry, red  wines based on the Gamay grape variety. Interestingly enough, the décret for the appellation also allows for white grapes to be grown in the region, and up to 15% of the wine may be based on Chardonnay, Aligoté, or Melon de Bourgogne.

Mount Brouilly

Mount Brouilly

#5 – There’s a legend for that: Brouilly is home to a Lieu-dit (small vineyard area bearing a traditional name) named Pisse-Vielle. Pisse-Vielle which pretty much sounds like what it means, which is for lack of a better way of saying it, “Piss, old woman.’

The  legend behind the name goes like this: A pious old woman, who regularly goes to confession, had her first meeting with the town’s new priest. The woman had very little to actually confess, so at the end of their meeting, the priest gave her his typical salutation of “Go, and sin no more!” Unfortunately, in the local dialect of the town, the word for to sin (pécher) and (for lack of a gentler way of saying it) to pee (pisser) sounded quite the same – and she thought the priest had commanded her to “Go and pee no more.” (Poor thing!) She tried her best to comply, but her husband didn’t quite understand the command, and went to see to Priest. The husband and the priest quickly cleared up the confusion, and in his rush to convey the news, the husband yelled down the street towards his wife – “Pisse Vielle!” (“Piss, Old Woman!”) – “the priest said it’s alright!”  As these things usually go, the neighbors heard his cry, and have not since forgotten!

Five Fast Facts about Entre-Deux-Mers

Map of Bordeaux via The Society of Wine Educators

Map of Bordeaux via The Society of Wine Educators

Five Fast Facts about Entre-Deux-Mers

#1 – Entre-Deux-Mers is named after its geographical location (“between two seas”), which refers to its situation in the lands between the Garonne and the Dordogne Rivers. These rivers provide the location with a mild, maritime climate and soils made up mainly of  a mix of clay and limestone. The area closest to the eastern shore of the Garonne River has a good deal of humidity – enough for the production of botrytis-affected wines.

#2 – The Entre-Deux-Mers AOC appellation is only approved for white wines. 70% of the grapes must be the “principal varieties” of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Muscadelle, or Sauvignon Gris.  The other 30% may include Merlot Blanc (maximum 30%), and a combined maximum of 10% of Mauzac, Colombard, and Ugni Blanc.

#3 – The Entre-Deux-Mers area contains within it 7 different AOCs.* These appellations are approved for a variety of different types of wine. They are:

  • The aforementioned Entre-Deux-Mers AOC (for dry white wines), which includes the sub-zone of Entre-Deux-Mers Haut-Benauge.
  • Cadillac-Côtes de Bordeaux AOC (botrytis-affected sweet white wines)
  • Graves de Vayres AOC (for dry wines, both red and white)
  • Loupiac AOC (sweet white wines, may be affected by botrytis)
  • Côtes de Bordeaux-Saint-Macaire AOC (white wines – dry (sec), off-dry (moelleux ) and sweet/botrytis affected (liquoreux)).
  • Sainte-Croix-du-Mont AOC (sweet, botrytis-affected white wines)
  • Sainte-Foy-Bordeaux AOC (may be dry, off-dry, or sweet/botrytis affected white; also approved for dry reds)
  • Grapes grown in the Entre-Deux-Mers area may also be bottled under the generic Bordeaux AOC (including the sub-zone of Bordeaux Haut-Benauge) or Bordeaux Supérieur AOC.
Photo of Château de Rastignac by MOSSOT, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Château de Rastignac by MOSSOT, via Wikimedia Commons

#4 – The area produces a lot of good-to-very good red wine, with the majority of the red grapevines planted to Merlot. The best of these wines are sold under the Bordeaux Supérieur AOC.

#5 – Just-for-fun fact: A house (now sub-divided into apartments) in the area, known as Château de Rastignac, was designed to look like the US White House. While the architect, Mathurin Salat, never visited the United States, it is known that our wine-loving third President, Thomas Jefferson -who had reviewed the original architectural plans of the White House – did visit the area and meet Salat during Jefferson’s service as the US Ambassador to France.

*Some of the references I used for this article claimed that there are 9 different AOCs located within the defined geographic area of Entre-Deux-Mers, while others said 7. (Alas, wine is never simple…) The two “other” AOCs often mentioned are Bordeaux Haut-Benauge and Entre-Deux-Mers Haut Benauge. These two designations certainly exist, and are used for dry white wines. The area of Haut-Benauge, located somewhat in the center of Entre-Deux-Mers itself, surrounds a crumbling hilltop castle – the Château de Benauge – first built in the 11th Century. The AOC documents list the Bordeaux Haut-Benauge AOC as a sub-zone of the Bordeaux AOC, and the Entre-Deux-Mers Haut Benauge AOC as a sub-zone of the E-D-M AOC (there are no separate AOC documents for either). For this reason, I chose to include the two H-B AOCs as sub-zones, and not separate AOCs in my “count” of the AOCs in the region – however – I totally acknowledge that some folks/organizations say the number is 9. No one ever said that wine is easy!

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas – missjane@prodigy.net

 

 

 

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