Chasing Chasselas

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All of the grape varieties in France are chasing Chasselas—or ahead of Chasselas, or running side-by-side with Chasselas.

And you thought Chasselas was just an insignificant little grape that only Switzerland cares about. Think again.

Late last night while I was studying the Bordeaux Wine Guide published by the CIVB (Counseil Interprofessional du Vin de Bordeaux) I saw it right there on page 43: “In France the main families of grapes are defined (by typical time of ripening) according to the usual maturity date of Chasselas (the reference variety).”

I had to read it twice and call four of my wine friends to see if they had ever heard of Chasselas being France’s reference variety. No one had. As such, I did a bit of research.

The quick version is: it’s true.

Back in the 1800s, a French ampelographer named Victor Pulliat (1827-1896) created a classification of grape varieties—The Pulliat Classification—based on their typical ripening date in relation to the Chasselas Doré grape variety

The Pulliat Classification breaks down as follows:

  • Early-ripening grape varieties:  Ripen from eight to ten days ahead of Chasselas Doré
  • First-period grape varieties: Ripen at about the same time as Chasselas Doré
  • Second-period grape varieties: Ripen from 12 to 15 days after Chasselas Doré
  • Third-period grape varieties: Ripen from 16 to 30 days after Chasselas Doré
  • Late-ripening grapes: Typically ripen more than 31 days after Chasselas Doré

Chasselas grapes on day zero (?)

The Pulliat Classification seems like an interesting bit of history in the world of wine, but as I just learned, it is still used. These days, however, the Winkler Scale created by Maynard Amerine and A. J. Winkler of UC Davis—which measures ripening in terms of degree-days or heat summation—is in wider use. The Winkler Scale was designed in 1944 to be used in California but has since been used in many wine growing regions all over the world.

References/for further information:

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

The First-Ever AOC Goes to…

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The first-ever AOC goes to…Roquefort Cheese!  As a matter of fact, Roquefort Cheese was protected by a Parliamentary Decree in the year 1411 and as such, may be credited with starting the entire idea of terroir-based certification for agricultural products. Several centuries later, once the French government created the bureau of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (later called the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité [INAO]), Roquefort Cheese was awarded the first-ever AOC in 1925.

I can hear you saying to yourselves, “but I thought this was a wine blog!” And indeed it is. But it’s always best to start with first things first, and it appears that  the concept of the AOC was first introduced for cheese—which seems apropos, as cheese is an icon of French gastronomy (and thus agriculture). There are now (by most counts) 36 AOC-designated French cheeses, and in the 1950s the concept was opened up to other types of products, which now include Le Puy green lentils, chicken from Bresse, and lavender essential oil from Haute-Provence.

Which leads us to another issue: What was the first French wine to be granted AOC status? Most people will say it was Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This is at least partially true; however, if we look at the rest of the story, it is more accurate to state that Châteauneuf-du-Pape was one of the first.

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Here are the true facts and figures about the first time an AOC was granted for wine: In 1935, the Comite’ National des Appellations d’Origin (CNAO) for wine and spirits was created (recall that a similar group had been created in the 1920s for cheese).

By early 1936, the CNAO had received and approved six applications for protected designations of origin for French wine. On May 15, 1936, French President Albert Lebrun signed the first six decrees for wine AOCs into law. The designations, published in the Official Journal on May 17, were (in order of their appearance in the journal) Arbois, Tavel, Cognac, Cassis, Monbazillac, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

As for the rest of the story concerning Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it goes back to 1894 when there was rampant fraud concerning the wines of the area. In response, the winegrowers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape formed a Syndicat Viticole presided over by the mayor of the town. The Syndicat worked for years and in 1919 managed to pass a law that defined the geographic boundaries of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine-producing region. This was one of the earliest geographical designations in France.

While it helped, the 1919 wine appellation law in Châteauneuf-du-Pape did not put a stop to the ongoing fraud,  and it was soon seen as too general and essentially limited to the question of geographical boundaries.

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By 1923, the winegrowers decided it was time to enforce more specific legislation in order to protect their appellation. A delegation of wine growers went to Château Fortia and asked its owner, Baron Le Roy (a lawyer and winegrower), to help. Soon thereafter, on October 4th, 1923, the first meeting of the Winegrowers Union of Châteauneuf-du-Pape took place, and Baron Le Roy was elected President.

The newly-formed Winegrowers Union met many times to codify and define all the conditions necessary to entitle wines to the use of the name of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  After presenting their case to the court in the Commune of Orange, the court found that there was no precedent for the legal definition of a wine, and assigned the case to a panel of experts. This panel was tasked with establishing the legal foundation for the “conditions of territorial origin and faithful, constant, and local traditions concerning the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation.” After four years of deliberations, the panel of experts published their report, and on November 21, 1933 a law was passed by the Cour de Cassation (French court of last resort) that defined the geographic boundaries and production requirements of the wine known as Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It is believed that this was the first set of laws in all of France concerning not just geographic boundaries but also production parameters for a specific wine.

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So…was Châteauneuf-du-Pape the first AOC? Well, not exactly. There were five other AOCs established on the same day, and Arbois—with the first listing in the Journal—might want to claim the first spot for their own. However, Baron le Roy always insisted that his application on behalf of Châteauneuf-du-Pape was the first to be presented to the CNAO and the first to be accepted—so why not give it to him? What do you think?

References/for more information:

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wine Icon: The Crumbling Castle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape

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It is one of the most enduring symbols of wine that I can think of…the crumbling castle on the hill in the middle of the commune (and the vineyards) of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. You see it on labels and in textbooks, and I use the picture to symbolize the Old World of wine in my CSW classes. (The Sydney Opera House symbolizes the New World.)

The first written reference to the commune of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is in a document dated 1094, from the records of an estate belonging to the Bishop of Avignon known as Castrum Novum. “Castrum” actually means “fortified town” rather than “castle,” however, the two meanings bounced around quite a bit over the centuries.

The next mention of the village is dated 1213, in documents of the Bishop of Avignon that refer to the town as “Castronovo Calceranrium” and “Châteauneuf Calcernier.” The word calcernier was most likely added to the name of the town to distinguish it from others of the same name, and refers to the limestone quarry located nearby. It’s also known that in keeping with local traditions, there were vineyards established in the area by this time.

The fates changed for the sleepy town of Châteauneuf Calcernier and its wines in the early fourteenth century, when a series of seven Popes took up residence in Avignon rather than Rome due to the volatile political situation in Rome (and between Rome and the King of France).

1th Century Engraving of Pope John XXII (public domain)

1th Century Engraving of Pope John XXII (public domain)

The first of the Avignon Popes was Clement V. Clement V, a Frenchman, served as the Pope from 1305 until 1314. In 1309 he moved to Avignon, where he stayed as a guest at the Dominican Monastery. You can pay homage to Clement V by drinking a glass of Château Pape Clément, a property in Pessac-Léognan whose vineyards were originally planted in 1300; Pope Clement V was one of the property’s first owners.

The successor of Clement V was John XXII. Pope John XXII began the expansion of the now-massive Papal Palace in Avignon and built the Pope’s summer residence in Châteauneuf Calcernier. It is said that John XXII chose Châteauneuf Calcernier for the summer residence because he wanted a spot far enough away from Avignon to “discourage courtiers, sycophants, and scroungers,” yet close enough so that a courier could make a round-trip between the two spots in a single day.

John XXII oversaw the total construction of the immense summer castle that began in 1317 and was completed in 1333. Grapevines and olives trees were also planted on the estate, and according to the records of the Apostolic Chamber, the area had over 3 million grapevines by 1334. John XXII had a great appreciation for the wines of the area, and granted them the rank of “Vin du Pape.” As such they were served to foreign courts and dignitaries, and soon began to be shipped in barrels to areas far and wide.

After John XXII, none of the succeeding Avignon Popes used the enormous summer residence. However, during the time of the Great Schism (1378-1417) when there were two competing Popes (one in Rome and one in Avignon), Clement VII stayed in the castle for security reasons.

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After the departure of the Popes, the great castle passed to the ownership of the Archbishop of Avignon. However, the building proved too large and too expensive to maintain, so the building was slowly dismantled and its stones and hardware were used for building projects in the town. At the time of the French Revolution, the name of the town changed again, first to Châteauneuf d’Avignon, and later to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. At this time, the remaining buildings of the Pope’s once-magnificent summer estate were sold and dismantled, and only the fortified tower remained.

During World War II, an attempt was made to demolish the tower with dynamite, but only the northern half of the tower was destroyed. Today, the southern half survives, looming over the village, keeping a watch on the vineyards, and remaining as one of the most enduring symbols in the world of wine.

Click here to read the amazing-but-true story of the flying cigars of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

References/for further information:

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

Piquepoul: A Stinger or a Spider, a Beak or a Peak

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As many of you know, lately I’ve been taking a very, very deep dive into the grape varieties of the Rhône. More specifically, I’ve been diving for the grapes of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, in preparation for a mini-conference presentation. If it is part of the Châteauneuf 13 (or is it 18), I’ve studied it.*

One of the grapes I’ve been studying is Piquepoul. This is an interesting grape! For starters, while its most famous (and widely planted) incarnation is the white variety (blanc), there is also a PIquepoul Gris and a Piquepoul Noir. There are also a quite a few ways to spell the grape, all of them considered correct in certain places—such as Picpoul, Picpoule, Piquepout, and Piquepoule.

The leader if the Piquepoul pack is definitely the white version—Piquepoul Blanc. This grape has 4,000 documented acres (1,620 ha) in France and additional acreage in California. Most people would recognize this grape from the 100%-Piquepoul wine produced in the Languedoc’s Piquepoul de Pinet AOC. This is a popular wine for summer sipping, especially appreciated for its wide distribution and reasonable price point (ranging from around $10 to $15 a bottle). These light-bodied, high-acid wines are crisp, clean, and refreshing. Typical aromas and flavors of Piquepoul de Pinet include lemon, grapefruit, lime, peach, apricot, white flowers, yellow plum, and a hint of crunchiness or minerality.

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Piquepoul Noir is planted to about 200 acres (81 ha) in France, with about 7 acres in Spain. On its own, it tends to produce pale, acidic wines with oddly high levels of alcohol—in other words, it is not great on its own. However, it is very well suited to red blends and (in some cases) rosé. It’s an allowed variety (mostly in small amounts) in the Tavel, Vinsobres, Minervois, Gigondas, and Vacqueyras, and is allowed in the reds and rosés of the Luberon AOC—but only if planted before 1988.

The pink-skinned version, Picquepoul Gris, does not have any documented acreage in France (or elsewhere), and would be considered extinct save for a few cuttings and samples lurking in nurseries and university vineyards. Of course, being a color mutation, it might just decide to rise up one day in the middle of a vineyard somewhere. And it lives on in spirit, as Piquepoul Gris is still listed as an allowed variety in a few AOCs. Well, I could only find two AOCs that allowed Piquepoul Gris in their wines: Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Tavel, but surely there are plenty of vin de pays that have not yet kicked Piquepoul Gris out of the patch.

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As for the name Piquepoul, it has long been rumored to be based on the French word piquer, meaning “to sting,” and many people say that it is based on the Occitan term for “lip stinger.” Both versions of this “stinging” allusion relate back to the piquant acidity of the grape (and subsequent wine). However, it is now thought that while the term Piquepoul has a different background, the word piquer (to sting) is indeed the etymological root to a similar but separate grape variety (also grown throughout Southwest France) known as Picardan. Picardan, however, is also known as Araigan, and the name Araigan is thought to be based on the French word araigneé, meaning “spider’s web” and referring to the spider web-like hairs that grown on the underside of the leaves.

As for the meaning behind the grape known as Piquepoul, we need to consult a French botanist named Guy Lavignac and his book “Les Cépages du Sud Ouest—2000 Ans d’Histoire” (“The Grape Varieties of the Southwest – 2,000 Years of History [however, as far as I can tell, the book has not been translated in English]) Mr. Lavignac, a well-respected ampelographer, makes the claim the name Piquepoul is derived from the Oc dialect word for “peak” as in “mountain peak” or “place with a peak.” Alternatively, he believes it might refer to a “beak” as in a bird’s beak.

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There you have it: blanc, gris, and noir—all named after a stinger or a spider. Or was that a peak or a beak. I’ll take two glasses of Piquepoul de Pinet and think it over.

*There are thirteen grapes if you count varieties; and 18 if you add in the color mutations of Grenache, Piquepoul, and Clairette

References/for further information:

  • Lavignac, Guy. Les Cépages du Sud Ouest—2000 Ans d’Histoire. Paris, 2001: Roergue/INRA
  • Robinson, Jancis, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz: Wine Grapes. New York, 2012: Harper Collins Publishers
  • Robinson, Jancis and Julia Harding: The Oxford Companion to Wine, 4th Edition. Oxford, 2015: The Oxford University Press
  • http://www.picpoul-de-pinet.com/en

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

Cassis: the Town, the Wine, the Liqueur

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What do you mean by cassis?

It’s a question I have heard quite often—usually at wine tastings, when someone with a nose in a glass of Cabernet claims it as one of the wine’s aromas. Several others in the group may nod in approval at the spotting of a black currant jam- or Cassis liqueur-like aroma in the glass. Others have never heard of it—and thus, the question at hand.

Cassis is actually many things—a seaside resort town in Provence, a French AOC wine-producing region dominated by white wine, and a black currant-flavored liqueur produced in many parts of the world, but particularly famous in Dijon. Read on for a bit more information on the many faces of Cassis!

Cassis—the Town: If you happen to find yourself on the Mediterranean Coast, perhaps in the Provencal town of Marseille, and if you drive south on coastal route highway 559 for about 15 miles, you’ll end up in the seaside resort of Cassis.  The waterfront of Cassis is a picturesque fishing port lined with cafes and restaurants, making it both a wonderful place to stroll as well as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Provence. While there, you can take the petit train touristique around the town, walk along the waterfront, or grab a boat tour to the impressive calanques (narrow, very steep rocky inlets found along the Mediterranean coast).

The town of Cassis

The town of Cassis

The town is snuggled at the foot of Cap Canaille–a 1,293-foot (394 m) high seaside cliff (the highest in France).  The very picturesque Route de Crêtes (Corniche des Crêtes) runs over the top of the cliff, linking Cassis with the nearby towns while offering stunning views of the cliffs, the sea, and the towns in between.

If you’d like to find the sunniest part of the town, follow the signs to La Cheminee du Roi Rene (King Rene’s Fireplace)—a sun-drenched area at the junction of the two water-side walkways known a s the  Quai Jean-Jacques Barthélémy and the Quai des Baux.

Cassis—the Wine: Red, white, and rosé wines are produced in the Cassis AOC. The reds and rosés, typical for the area, are based on Grenache, Cinsault, and Mourvèdre with a smattering of other red grapes allowed in the mix. The white wines, of which the area is rightfully quite proud, are based on Marsanne (30–80%) and Clairette. Other allowed white grape varieties include Bourboulenc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pascal Blanc, Ugni Blanc, and Terret Blanc.

The Cassis AOC is unique in rosé-heavy Provence in that white wines dominate its production; in fact, three out of every four bottles of Cassis AOC is a white wine. These wines are known for their aromas of citrus, white flowers, pears, and honey along with a touch of minerality. Generally fresh, dry, and medium-bodied, these wines are delightful when young, but may also improve in the bottle for 2 to 5 years. Not surprisingly, they pair perfectly with Mediterranean fish dishes as well as dishes made with tomatoes, olives, and herbs.

Cassis—the Liqueur:  Crème de Cassis is a sweet, dark red liqueur flavored with black currants (sometimes known as cassis fruit). It is quite famous as an ingredient in the Kir cocktail—white wine (ideally Burgundy Aligoté) and crème de cassis—as well as its fancier cousin, the Kir Royale (ideally made with champagne). As with many things in life, you can get an inexpensive version of generic cassis at just about any corner liquor store and be done with it (try it on ice cream or in a Pompier cocktail [3 parts dry white vermouth, 1 part crème de cassis, served tall over ice with soda]).

On the other hand, there is the good stuff: Europe has five PGI versions of cassis, including those that hail from Bourgogne (France), Dijon (France), Saintonge  (France), Dauphiné (France), and Beaufort (Luxembourg). Of these, the original—and most say the best—is the Crème de Cassis de Dijon.

Sweet, fruit-flavored beverages were made in many places around Europe in the eighteenth century. These were often referred to ratafias and generally made with fortified wine or unfermented grape juice flavored with a variety of berries (and sometimes produced with a spirit base as well).

True crème de cassis began to be produced in Dijon in 1841 by a gentleman name Auguste-Denis Lagoute. Lagoute was a fan of the sweet ratafias but wanted to produce a beverage of a higher quality using local fruit. He began by soaking black currants, which grew in abundance around Dijon, in oak barrels along with high-proof spirits and beet sugar. Soon the family’s brand of crème de cassis, Lejay (named after the son-in-law), was wildly popular, particularly when served over ice with a splash of vermouth de Chambery, and later, when served as a Kir along with the white wine of the region. Lejay is still produced, and is one of the few producers approved to use the PGI of Crème de Cassis de Dijon.

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The PGI for Crème de Cassis de Dijon was first approved in 1923. The regulations specify that the finished product contain at least 400 grams of beet sugar per liter (cane sugar is not permitted).The specific type of black currant is not defined, but in general there are two varieties of high-quality black currants: Noir de Bourgogne (known for its aromatics) and Black Down (considered to be a rounder, smoother, and sweeter variety).

The finest Crème de Cassis is described as having aromas of black currants, cherries, and plums; a rich, velvety texture; intense, fruity flavor; and a sweet taste balanced with a bit of an acidic “snap.” Sounds good to me!

References/for further information:

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

 

Bacchus and Bacchus

Photo Credit: Dr. Joachim Schmidt, via Wikimedia Commons

Bacchus grapes on the vine: Photo Credit: Dr. Joachim Schmidt, via Wikimedia Commons

The name “Bacchus” means a lot to wine folk. First and foremost, Bacchus is the Roman god of wine and as such, he is the subject of a good deal of famous artwork produced from antiquity to modern times. Bacchus is also a grape variety of the vinifera species, a double-Riesling cross that thrives in  cold climates, but doesn’t do nearly as well at retaining acidity as its parent(s).

There’s also a Bacchus Wine Bar in Houston, a Krewe of Bacchus in New Orleans, and a European Research Initiative pertaining to clouds known as BACCHUS.  But for today, let’s focus on the god and the grape.

Bacchus: the god

Bacchus (or, as he was known in Greek mythology, Dionysus) is known as the god of wine and viticulture, and is often credited with the “invention” of wine. He is also–understandably so–the god of drunkenness (or, as the Greeks referred to it, “ritual madness”) and fertility. In later mythology, he was seen as a great patron of the arts and the god of the theater.

In the Greek myth, Dionysus is the son of Zeus (king of the gods) and Semele, a princess of Thebes. Thus, he is the only Greek god with a human parent. When Hera, the wife of Zeus, found out about her husband’s out-of-wedlock son Dionysus, she became enraged and ordered Dionysus to be killed. She succeeded, and the baby was murdered. Dionysus was next miraculously brought back to life, and Zeus conferred him with immortality. Zeus gave the baby to the mountain nymphs to be raised. In artwork, Dionysus is often depicted during this pampered stage of his life, as a fat, happy (and often naked) baby surrounded by wine, fruit, and luscious furnishings.

Bacchus by Caravaggio (c. 1595–Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

Bacchus by Caravaggio (c. 1595–Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

Dionysus is one of the few characters in Greek mythology credited with both being brought back from the dead himself and bringing someone back from the dead (he once rescued Semele [his mother] from the underworld). It is said that this cycle of birth and death is reflected in the annual cycle of viticulture, where the vines go dormant each year and must be pruned back before spring in order to ensure a good crop the following harvest.

Dionysus became one of the most important figures in the Greek and Roman mythology, but unlike the other gods, his followers did not always meet in temples dedicated to his worship. Instead, his followers held their worship services in the woods. In this way, Dionysus became “one” with his followers and during religious events his followers would become like gods themselves; first experiencing joy and ecstasy but often devolving into anger and rage. This represents not only “Greek god-like behavior” but also the dual nature of wine.

The festival for Dionysus was held in the spring in order to coincide with bud break. This festival became one of the most important religious holidays in the Greek calendar, and many Greek plays were originally written to be performed at the festival of Dionysus (beginning the tie between Dionysus and theater).

From its Greek beginnings, the cult of Bacchus became important to the Romans around 200 BCE. The Roman festival of Bacchus, the Bacchanalia, became well-known (and well documented) as a frenzied, sexual, scandalous, and extremely volatile rite that included both genders as well as people of all ages and social classes. Not surprisingly, the Roman Senate tried to shut down the cult of Bacchus. However, instead of being trampled, the cult of Bacchus merely moved “underground” and became a secret society. Decades later, the Senate approved a sanitized version of the worship of Bacchus and Bacchanalia became legal and outwardly popular once again.

Bacchanal before a Statue of Pan by Nicolas Poussin (c. 1633, National Gallery London)

Bacchanal before a Statue of Pan by Nicolas Poussin (c. 1633, National Gallery London)

This adoration of Bacchus continues, in a way at least–even in modern times.

Bacchus: the grape

The Bacchus grape variety is a white vinifera cross created by German agronomist Peter Morio in 1933. Morio, working for the Geilwilerof Research Center (now the Julius Kühn Institut) located in Germany’s Pfalz region, also created the Domina, Optima, and Morio Muskat grape varieties.

Bacchus is the offspring of an unnamed Silvaner X Riesling cross with Müller-Thurgau (a Riesling X Madeleine Royale cross).  So we’ll say that Bacchus is a double-offspring of Riesling instead of saying that its parents were siblings (enough said).

Like Riesling, Bacchus thrives in cold climates and can be quite expressive with fruity and floral aromas and flavors. That, however, is where the comparisons with Riesling should probably end, as Bacchus is not known for elegance–which Riesling exudes. Bacchus is also an early, high-sugar-ripener akin to Müller-Thurgau, and tends to be low acid. For these reasons, particularly in Germany, Bacchus is typically appreciated as a blending partner rather than a stand-alone variety.

Bacchus is grown in small amounts throughout Germany, including plantings in Rheinhessen, Franken, Mosel, the Nahe and the Pfalz. The total acreage in Germany is about 5,000 acres (2,010 ha).

These days, Bacchus might have found its place in the sun in England, where it is the second most widely cultivated white grape variety behind Chardonnay. Bacchus is made into varietal wines in both England and Wales, where the cooler climates help the grape hold on to its acidity and produce fresh, aromatic white wines. In the vineyards of the English countryside, Bacchus is noted to produce grapes that show a green-grassy character, leading to its nickname as “the Sauvignon Blanc of England.”

Small plantings are also found in Switzerland, Canada, and Japan. Bacchus (the god) would be proud.

Sources/for further information:

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

Of Saints and Satellites

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Saints and satellites help paint the story of Saint-Émilion

The Saint:

History tells of a Benedictine Monk named Émilion who lived in Brittany during the eighth century. He swore his loyalty to a count in southwest France and agreed to go with him and work in his household. Émilion was a baker and would often give some of his master’s bread to the poor. When the count found this out, he fired Émilion from his service and threw him out of his house.

Upon his ousting, Émilion vowed to spend the rest of his life in worship and solitude. He journeyed a ways up the Dordogne River and settled near an enormous piece of limestone rock. Émilion spent the next several years carving an underground cave out of the limestone, complete with a stone bed and chair carved into the wall. With time, it was said that Émilion was able to perform miracles, and people began to visit the hermit monk for healing. Faithful people soon developed into a following who lived with him, helping him carve out his cave. Émilion lived the rest of his days in the cave with his followers. He died in 787.

The Monolithic Church of Saint-Émilion

The Monolithic Church of Saint-Émilion

After his death successive generations of monks carried on with Émilion’s project and carved a vast network of underground caves and catacombs. The fame of the area, now known as the town of Saint-Émilion, grew and it became a major religious center. Many faithful passed through on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Some of these faithful remained and these followers are credited with the planting of vineyards and the growth of the region’s wine industry. With time, the tiny town of Saint-Émilion became a center of religious importance with a reputation for its excellent wine.

The Monolithic Church of Saint-Émilion was originally constructed in the early twelfth century from the same limestone rock where Émilion first dug his cave. The now-famous church stands watch over the 2,000 inhabitants of Saint-Émilion as well as the world-renowned vineyards that surround the town. Deep below the church–with its three naves, its gothic windows, and its 175-foot high bell tower–lies the original cave of Émilion, the hermit monk.

The Satellites:

Today the town of Saint-Émilion is a UNESCO World Heritage site with Romanesque ruins, religious monuments, and a maze of medieval streets. It is also one of the leading wine regions of the world, renowned for its red wines based on the Right Bank version of the Bordeaux blend–heavy on the Merlot, a good dose of Cabernet Franc, a sprinkle of Cabernet Sauvignon and filled out (perhaps) with tiny touches of Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Carmenère.

Statue of Saint-Émilion

Statue of Saint-Émilion

The four leading properties of the region–the Premier Grand Cru Classé A châteaux of Cheval Blanc, Angélus, Ausone, and Pavie–are known to wine students and wine lovers alike. (You may even be able to recite the 14 châteaux of the Grand Cru Classé-Classé B, and if you are really good, take a stab at the other 64 properties of the Grand Cru Classé.)

Surrounding this luscious region are several villages that produce deep, flavorful red wine similar in style and standards to those of Saint-Émilion itself. Four of these have earned the right to append the name of Saint-Émilion onto the name of their village in the labeling of their wines and are thus considered to the satellites of Saint-Émilion. These four satellites are the villages of Saint-Georges, Montagne, Puisseguin, and Lussac.

Saint-Georges-Saint-Émilion: Located directly to the north of Saint-Émilion, the Saint-Georges-Saint-Émilion AOC is the smallest of the four satellites and occupies a tiny spot along the edge of the Saint-Émilion region itself. The vineyards are planted to approximately 75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. The village of Saint-Georges (often referred to as a hamlet) has a population of around 500 people and is part of the Montagne Commune. The wines produced from the vineyards of Saint-Georges are allowed to use either name (Saint-Georges or Montagne).

Montagne-Saint-Émilion: The Montagne-Saint-Émilion AOC literally surrounds the Saint-Georges region and lies along the remainder of the northern boundary of the Saint-Émilion AOC, which is itself–for the most part–defined by the path of the Barbanne River (La Barbanne). Montagne is the largest of the satellites of Saint-Émilion. The Montagne (the Butte de Calon) itself is the highest point on the Right Bank. The soils range from sand and clay in the north, to a central plateau of clay and limestone and limestone slopes in the south. Vineyards are believed to be planted to 75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines of Montagne-Saint-Émilion are known to be full-bodied and rich with supple tannins.

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Puisseguin-Saint-Émilion: The Puisseguin-Saint-Émilion AOC is located north of the border with Montage and east of Lussac. The town of Puisseguin (population: 861) is filled with ruins from Roman times, and takes its name from two words, “Puy” and “Seguin.” Puy is an old Celtic term for “the hill of powerful wine.” Seguin is the name of a Roman officer who served under Charlemagne and settled in the region around 800 AD. The terroir of Puisseguin is similar to that of the surrounding regions and contains a mix limestone, clay, alluvial gravel, and sandstone soils. The vineyards are reported to be planted to 80% Merlot, with the remainder mainly Cabernet Franc (and a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon). The wines of the region have been described a quite fruit-forward while young, with aromas and flavors of licorice, mint, and other herbs evolving as the wines reach 6 to 8 years of age.

Lussac-Saint-Émilion: The appellation of Lussac-Saint-Émilion is the northernmost of the satellites. The village of Lussac, named for a gentleman called Lucius or Lucaniacus who is credited with introducing viticulture to the area during Roman times, is so small that the tourist bureau lists a visit to the town of Saint-Émilion (5 miles away) as the top tourist activity. The topography of Lussac- Saint-Émilion is diverse; the south-east covered with slopes of clay and limestone, the north a mix of gravel, clay, and sand; while the west, a slightly elevated plateau, is mostly sandy gravel. Vineyards are reportedly planted 70% to Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc, leaving just 10% planted to Cabernet Sauvignon (with a rare sprinkling–perhaps–of Malbec, Carmenère, and Petit Verdot). The wines of Lussac-Saint-Émilion tend to be elegant, velvety, and generous and are often compared to those of Montage-Saint-Émilion–its neighbor to the south.

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The Lost Satellites: Between 1936 (when the AOCs for Saint-Émilion and its satellites were approved) and the 1970s, two other regions–Parsac and Sables–were allowed to append their names to that of the Saint-Émilion AOC. However, they are no more. Sometime in the 1970s, Parsac merged with Montagne, and Sables was annexed into the Saint-Émilion AOC.

Click here for an excellent handbook of the regions of Saint-Émilion (and the rest of the Right Bank as well), provided by the Union des Maisons de Bordeaux.

References/for further information:

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