All things French by Mark Backhouse
I trust that you enjoyed our whisky journey in the previous issue and that you tried some new whiskies.
The part of the ‘drinks’ world we cover in this issue is all things French. The French don’t merely drink a spirit; they own the complete category of spirit. Champagne, Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados and ‘Pastis’, are some categories unique to the French. Even with wine the French differentiate: they have wines such as Bordeaux, Chablis and more.
When it comes to presentation - Champagne is foiled and wrapped in glamour, Cognac bottles bold and ornate almost perfume-like, while Armagnac and Calvados bottles are snuggled with slim wood shavings in hand-made engraved wooden boxes. When we drink these world famous French spirits we use flutes for Champagne, a Cognac snifter for Cognac, a white wine glass for Armagnac, a Tulip glass for Calvados - we follow etiquette carefully. We have detailed rituals to ensure the correct consumption of these premium luxury spirits.
Champagne can only be produced in a defined area** of north east France. Two abbeys became the birthplace of naturally sparkling wine which was created by two cellar masters, Frère Jean Oudart and Dom Pierre Pérignon (not to be mistaken for the Champagne which was first produced in 1936). Champagne is essentially a wine with bubbles. The bubbles are achieved with in-bottle fermentation*, which was not always the case - sparkling wines were the result of an accident. When shipped abroad in cask, warm spring weather frequently set off a secondary fermentation in the cask. When the wines arrived at their destination, they were bottled immediately and retained a lively sparkle. This sparked the deliberate attempt to capture the ‘mousse’ in the bottle. Better Champagne is aged from two to three years in underground cellars. (The Romans quarried the chalky hillsides in Champagne up to three hundred feet deep, for chalk building blocks. Today the chalk pits are cellars for millions of bottles of Champagne). Famous Champagne producers are Mumm, Perrier-Jouët, Bollinger, Dom Pérignon, Krug, Laurent-Perrier, Moët et Chandon, Pommery, Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot, etc. These Champagnes are available through premium liquor stores and at premium restaurants in South Africa.
* The Classic method of making champagne is by creating a second fermentation in the bottle – the process is called ‘Method Champagne’, also used when making South African ‘Cap Classique’ or ‘Cava’ in Spain and ‘Asti’ in Italy. The Charmat method is produced in large tanks as opposed to bottles and finally - the cheaper sparkling wines inject carbon dioxide into the bottle.
**The official body that determines France's wine laws has decided to expand the country's champagne-producing region to meet growing worldwide demand. A century-old law has restricted champagne production to just 370 villages in north eastern France, but with demand now outstripping supply, the group is admitting 40 more communities.
The Armagnac region is in South-Western France and the spirit from this region is the oldest in France dating back to the early 15th century. The place Armagnac is the birthplace of brandy and its many illustrious members include Count d'Artagnan, musketeer to King Louis XIII and hero of Alexandre Dumas' novel "The Three Musketeers". The Marquis de Montesquieu family members are his direct descendants and their ‘Armagnac de Montesquieu’ is legendary. Armagnac uses the quicker column still process to produce the new spirit and is generally aged in Gascon oak producing a stronger spirit with higher tannins. Many people prefer Armagnac to Cognac. Armagnac is normally consumed after a meal. Armagnac de Montesquieu is available through premium liquor stores and at premium restaurants in South Africa.
The Cognac region is in South Western France, north of Armagnac, and the spirit is France’s best known brandy. There are six distinct growing regions in Cognac, listed in order of price as follows; the ‘Borderies’ is central to Cognac and is the smallest of the regions, followed by ‘Petite Champagne’, ‘Grand Champagne’, ‘Fin Bois’ (Fine Woods), ‘Bon Bois’ (Good Woods) and Bois Ordinaires (Ordinary Woods). A great Cognac would have more of the ‘Borderies’ and ‘Petite Champagne’ grapes. This is noted on the label. Martell Cognac only contains grapes from the top four Cognac regions and is the dominant user of the ‘Borderies’ grapes. Remy Martin is a Fine Champagne Cognac using grapes from only the two Champagne grape regions. These and other famous Cognacs contain ‘eaux-de-vie’, stored in ‘Paradis’*, which is more than 100 years old. (*Paradis is a windowless warehouse containing Cognac which has been aged in Oak for 50 years, then transferred to large glass bottles for storage and marrying of the alcohols – many of these Cognacs have been in these 50 litre glass demi-john’s since the early 1800’s) Cognac uses the more traditional slower copper pot still process to distil the new spirit and is aged in either Limousin or Tronçais Oak. Tronçais Oak produces a refined Cognac due to the tighter grain and lower tannins. It is not correct to heat Cognac in any way other than in the palm of your hands. Cognac is normally consumed after a meal.
Footnote: There are eight oak forests in France of which Limousin and Tronçais are two. The Tronçais forests were planted to produce wood for the ship building industry – the trees are planted closely producing tall and compact oak. Limousin oak is prized because it is loosely grained and therefore imparts a more obvious oak flavour and stronger tannins as opposed to Tronçais oak which is tightly grained and low in tannins.
Calvados is an apple brandy hailing from the French region of Normandy. It is distilled from specially grown apples, of which there are over 200 named varieties. Many Calvados producers use over 100 varieties of apple to produce their Calvados. The fruit is picked, pressed into a juice and is fermented into a dry cider. It is then distilled in the slower traditional copper pot still into new clear spirit before being aged for two years in oak casks. Calvados is normally consumed during the meal – with or without ice. Busnel Calvados is available through premium liquor stores and at premium restaurants in South Africa.
Many people have never heard of Pastis. Pastis is the largest French drink category. The two most famous brands are Pernod and Ricard. So massive is this French spirit category that the Pernod distillery produced over 30,000 litres per day in the early 1800,s and Ricard has become the world’s 6th largest spirit brand. It is the French countryside in a glass and to the French it is their beer – when last have you seen an overweight Frenchman.
PERNOD & RICARD
Pernod started life as the original absinthe drink created in 1792 by a French physician. Henri-Louis Pernod acquired the absinthe formula and immediately started to manufacture. Pernod’s appeal was reinforced by an alcohol by volume of 65-75%, and that it contained the all important hallucinogenic thujone (absinthe “Arthemisia Absinthium”). An absinthe ritual quickly took hold - water was poured into an ‘absinthe glass’ through a perforated spoon, loaded with a sugar cube – the drink turned a distinctive cloudy white - visually appealing, beautifully enigmatic, and revitalising. ‘The Green Fairy’ was so popular with the Parisian artistic and literary set that the cocktail hour was renamed 'l'Heure Verte' (Green Time). Oscar Wilde, Picasso, philosophers and artists alike, all enjoyed their petit ‘heure verte’! Pernod, the drink of choice, brought their thoughts alive as they socialised in the cafes and bars of Paris.
After the imposition of a French ban on wormwood due to its hallucinogenic effects in 1915, the absinthe formula was modified, resulting in Pernod as we know it today – a 40% alcohol (80 proof) anise-flavoured spirit. The ban opened the door for another pastis: “It’ll be called Ricard, the real pastis from Marseille.” The place is Marseille, the year 1932. Paul Ricard, aged only 23, created his own style of spirit, lending it his name and linking it to his native city. And today Ricard is the 6th largest spirit brand in the world. Ricard is made up of delights from the Mediterranean and the Orient: star anise from China, liquorice from Syria, and herbs from Provence.
How to drink Pastis? 5 Parts water and 1 part Pastis but if you want it more refreshing, you can add up to 10 volumes of water (water first). You can also substitute water with fresh fruit juice. Pernod and Orange juice, Ricard and pineapple juice and many other options will always be refreshing.As this has been an introduction to ‘all things French’ I will cover Pastis exclusively and more extensively in the next quarter edition.