Monthly Archives: January 2012

Regarding French Snobbery

29 January 2012

A few weeks ago, while batting around blog post ideas for a travel website to which I contribute, I told my editor I planned on writing a piece or two about Cognac. “It’s strange, isn’t it,” I remarked, “that people go to Scotland for the whisky trail, but few travelers seem to think of going to Cognac to visit Cognac houses.”

“Oh, well, people expect — and with good reason, I might add — that they won’t be especially welcome in most of the Cognac houses,” he replied. “You know, they expect to encounter quite a bit of snobbery. It’s the same reason people don’t go chateau-hopping in Bordeaux.”

I have visited much of France, and I have yet to encounter the proverbial French Snob. It’s not because I speak beautiful French — the average 18-month-old Parisian speaks better than I do. But maybe in Cognac, home of France’s most exclusive liquor, it would be different.

The Charming Paul Giraud

It came as no surprise to me that it was not. On our very first visit of a Cognac house, I was charmed by Paul Giraud, (right) whose family has been making Cognac for 200 years. Wearing an understated navy sportcoat, he showed us his atmospheric aging facility, where clumpy black mold caked the cobweb-draped rafters above sweet-smelling oak barrels. Concluding his remarks, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’m just a farmer who makes Cognac.” Of course, it’s an entirely different experience visiting, say, the grand quarters of Courvoisier in Jarnac, but the friendliness and passion for the product were constants throughout the trip, wherever we went.

I met a number of French sommeliers during the trip as well, and none proved to be a wine snob. Quite the reverse, in fact. As we headed back to Bordeaux after the conference, I had a long chat with noted sommelier Dominique Laporte. He had no patience for people who claimed to know all there is to know about wine. “How can you ever really know wine?” he asked. He later argued that there were actually very few “bad” wines out there. I said something disparaging about Yellow Tail, to which he quickly responded, “That wine though, was made to appeal to people who drink soda. You know, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s sweet, it’s simple, it’s cheap. There’s nothing wrong with that.” It turned out I was more of a wine snob than Monsieur Laporte!



Cognac Update

26 January 2012

As I write this, I’m still in France, soaking up all there is to soak in the lovely city of Bordeaux. The International Cognac Summit was exhausting, but an absolute joy to attend. The Bureau National Interprofessionel de Cognac organized a wonderful event full of exciting people, fascinating visits and, of course, gorgeous Cognacs.

One of the most memorable round tables took place the first morning, when the group discussed ways to draw more women to Cognac. The Americans and Brits tossed around various ideas, seeming to agree that appealing Cognac-based cocktails were a big part of the answer. As people debated what ingredients and styles of cocktails women might most enjoy (I say quality ingredients in a delicious combination, the same as men, but what do I know?), I realized the French contingent hadn’t offered any ideas.

I said, “I’d like to hear from our French colleagues on this question. Since 97% of Cognac is exported, it seems to me there’s a huge opportunity here in France to sell more Cognac. What do you think?” I was expecting perhaps some ideas about ways to counter the French stereotype that women who drink Cognac are at best old fashioned, and at worst alcoholics and “bad mothers.”

After a long, silent pause, the moderator interjected, “Maybe Pierre, since you’re a bartender, you would be good to ask?”

I repeated the question, and Pierre (not his real name) replied, “Well, the marketing dollars go where the Cognac is selling, so they don’t have the chance to market so much here in France, because most Cognac is sold abroad. Also, you have to understand that advertising alcohol, it’s not the same as in the U.S. We have laws, so, you can’t just put up a billboard the way you can in America.”

Unimpressed by these rather strange excuses, I asked, “So it’s just hopeless?”

After some noises of consternation started bubbling forth, the moderator was forced to cut off the discussion. We were running late.

Working on ways to draw more women to drinking Cognac was a fine theme for the summit, and a fascinating one as well. But for next year’s summit, it might be wise to devote it to convincing the French themselves to drink more Cognac. There’s clearly a lot of work to be done right at home!


O Licor De Portugal

21 January 2012

I’m amazed I can even remember the first time I tried Licor Beirão, which is like a Portuguese Jägermeister except it’s lighter and not thoroughly revolting. About 12 years ago, my parents and I were in a bar in Lisbon one afternoon, taking a break from the sightseeing, when I got a bee in my bonnet and decided to try all the unfamiliar Portuguese liquors listed in my invaluable Berlitz European Menu Reader. Even back then, I was already hooked on drinking the unusual and the obscure.

So I finished my glass of Tawny Port and ordered up a shot of Ginja (also spelled Ginjinha), a very sweet but tasty cherry liqueur. Next was the Licor Beirão, and then I ordered a Bagaceira. The bartender’s eyes widened, and he repeated my order back to me to make sure he heard correctly. Apparently foreigners don’t order it very frequently. Or if they do, it’s not immediately after downing the ill-advised mix of booze listed above. (Actually, a Google Image search of “Bagaceira” illuminates what the bartender was likely imagining.)

Bagaceira turned out to be like Portuguese Grappa, a very powerful clear liquor with distinct raisiny notes. And I, perhaps as the bartender foresaw, turned out to be quite drunk. I don’t exactly remember what happened next, but one way or another I ended up with a bottle of each liquor and a pair of shiny black Capri cargo pants.



The World’s Oldest Sparkling Wine

18 January 2012

In the sparkling wine section of large wine shops, you’ll sometimes see a funny, rather squat bottle mixed in with the crémant and the Champagne. That would be Saint-Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux, the only Blanquette de Limoux I’ve ever seen on an American wine shelf. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Limoux locals claim it pre-dates Champagne, since bottle-fermented sparkling wines were in production at the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire as early as 1531.

The appellation of Limoux stretches into the foothills of the Pyrenees, just south of Carcassonne in southern France. Its altitude ensures a cool climate, giving Limoux perhaps more in common with the far northern Champagne region than its neighboring coastal appellations along the Mediterranean.

The appellation makes both still and sparkling wine, but its bubbly is far better known. Oddly, the region produces both Blanquette de Limoux and Crémant de Limoux, the latter a more refined, international-style sparkler made primarily from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, as opposed to the more “rustic” Mauzac which forms the base of Blanquette. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes that Limoux was supposed to have chosen one name or the other for the appellation back in 1994, but since the Crémant didn’t exactly catch fire as planned, both styles continue to be produced.



The Advantages of Wine Tastings – Part 2

14 January 2012

A little while back I wrote a post about a delightful tasting of small-batch wines organized by In Fine Spirits. Events like this can be amazingly helpful; tasting numerous wines in rapid succession can really clarify what it is you like in a wine. Then the next time you go into a wine shop, you can more clearly explain what you’re looking for (assuming you used the spit bucket occasionally, so that you actually remember what you like).

The other major benefit of wine tastings is meeting really fun, interesting people. At the In Fine Spirits tasting, I quite enjoyed the wines Ian of Vinejoy presented, we had a great chat, and he put me on his dinner party list. His wine company hosts periodic pot luck dinners in various atmospheric locations, gathering together wine geeks, chefs, friends and various other assorted folk.

A few weeks later, crock pot in hand, I descended into the old basement of Gentile’s Wine Shop on Taylor Street, where a bricked-up tunnel hinted at the space’s bootlegging past. Platters of delicious-looking food covered multiple tables, illuminated by the glow of Christmas lights hanging from the pipes and ducts.



Austria’s Little Green Lizard

11 January 2012

Riesling remains relatively unpopular in this country, and I must admit even I can sometimes be peremptorily dismissive of a glass of this variety myself. A lot of us associate the grape with cheap, sweet, insipid wines like Blue Nun and Liebfraumilch, and so when we drink a Riesling, even a very good one, it can be easy to just quaff it without paying attention.

It took me a while to learn this lesson: Pay Attention. There is a reason The Oxford Companion to Wine calls Riesling “arguably the world’s most undervalued…grape.”

Riesling is almost synonymous with German wine, but these days Austria produces some delightful expressions of this variety. In fact, Austrian wine has some of the strictest controls and regulations anywhere in the world, ensuring that when you get a Qualitätswein, Kabinett, Spätlese or Auslese, you are getting exactly the ripeness you expect and nothing less. (Listed in ascending order, these categories indicate the level of ripeness of the grapes at the time they are harvested.)

Just to keep things interesting, the Wachau Valley, Austria’s most famous wine region — and one of its very smallest, with only 3% of the country’s vineyards — eschews this system in favor of homegrown categories based on a wine’s alcohol content. The World Atlas of Wine explains this rather quirky (but thankfully simple) system:

Steinfelder is a light wine up to 11% alcohol for easy drinking. Federspiel is made from slightly riper grapes, 11.5-12.5% (stronger than it used to be), good in its first five years. Wines labelled Smaragd (after a local green lizard), can be seriously full-bodied, with alcohol levels above — often far above — 12.5%; they repay six or more years’ ageing.

We recently partook of the little green lizard, a 2007 Johann Donabaum Offenberg Riesling Smaragd. Johann Donabaum calls Offenberg its “most extreme [vineyard] location,” and goes on to explain how wines from this site, set a bit inland from the Danube, have a strong sense of terroir, particularly because of the soil’s slate content.

We opened the Riesling with a meal of cassoulet, a wonderful French stew of white beans and meat topped with a crunchy crust of butter-infused breadcrumbs. I love cassoulet with lardon, garlic sausage, rabbit and duck confit, but I made a simpler version substituting bacon, kielbasa, ground pork and braised chicken thighs. Still delicious, and ever so much easier. I hoped the Riesling could stand up to this rather robust stew.



Cocktails For Ladies

7 January 2012

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be heading to Congac, France, to participate in this year’s International Cognac Summit, hosted by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC). Each summit has a theme, and this year the focus is Women and Cognac.

One of the objectives of the summit, I’m told, is to “gather cocktails that appeal to women, identify key ingredients and possibly develop new cocktails geared towards the female audience.”

Certain cocktails, such as Cosmopolitans and chocolate martinis, would seem to have a stereotypically female following, and I suppose certain drinks tend to appeal to men (like Cognac, apparently). But why? Are our palates so different? Do delicate lady tongues really prefer sweet, frilly drinks? I don’t buy it.

But as a man, I don’t presume to know what women really truly want in their cocktails. So ladies, I’m asking: What do you want? When you’re presented with a cocktail menu, what makes you say, “Yes! That is the drink for me.” If you have a husband or boyfriend, do you think  your palate is different from his in any way?


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