Category Archives: Lessons

Playing second fiddle

Instead of heading north of Bordeaux, we’ll head south-east to a drier, warmer climate where there’s a long, rich history of local consumption of spirits made by individual producers rather than major brands.  We’ve covered Cognac so now we’re going to Armagnac (are-muhn-YACK), France’s second great controlled appellation for grape spirits.

The center of the trade is the city of Condom (tell that to your friends with a straight face).  While Cognac is broken down into 6 regions, Armagnac has 3 that were defined in 1936: Bas-Armagnac, the most westerly and home to the best spirits, Ténarèze in the center where the fullest-bodied styles come from and Haut-Armagnac to the east, where the wines are often sold off rather than distilled – you’ll see them labeled as Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascgone. When purchasing an Armagnac, the name of the subregion will appear on the label.

Only white grapes can be used for Armagnac production and you’ll recognize some of the names from Cognac production like Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche.  There are a few others, too – Colombard, Meslier, Jurançon and a hybrid called Baco 22A (sometimes called Baco Blanc).  It’s a hybrid because it’s a cross between the French vitis vinifera Folle Blanche and the American vitis labrusca Noah.  Noah itself is a cross between vitis labrusca and vitis riparia.  Hybrid=cross across species.

Since 1972 the use of pot stills has been allowed, just like in Cognac, but many producers still use the more primitive and traditional Armagnac still, a continuous still with two copper columns.  Another difference between the two regions lies in the oak aging.  Most Armagnac producers use the local, sappy Monlezun oak.  The combination of still and aging tends to make Armagnac a more rustic version of Cognac.  Cognacs may have more floral and grape-y notes while Armagnacs will have more dried fruit and prune characters.  Cognacs retain their bite, while Armagnacs are fuller-bodied and rounder.

Some of the labeling terms will be familiar to you, but the minimum aging requirements are a touch different.  *** (often written as VS) is one year old, VSOP is 4 years old and XO is five years old.  Hors d’Age means the youngest component in the blend is 10 years old.  Many producers will age individual casks from a single distillation and sell these with a vintage date.

For a fun and refreshing drink, look for Floc de Gascogne, a fortified sweet wine made with 1/3 Armagnac and 2/3 grape juice from the region.  The alcohol clocks in at 16-18%  and there are notes of honey, almond and jasmine.  I kept my bottle in the fridge and used it as an aperitif.


Filed under Lessons, Spirits

Thirsty for etymology

Alcohol comes from the Arabic alko’hl, which translates to finely divided – a reference to the separation that occurs during distillation.  While not everyone may have been drinking it (poor things), they were using it for medicinal and perfume-making purposes.

Beverage is from the Middle English pronunciation of the Old French term bevrage, from beivre.  This meant to drink, from the Latin bibere

Brandy stems from brandywine or the Dutch brandewijn, meaning burnt wine.   While usually made from a grape-based wine, brandy can also be made with pomace (skins, seeds, pulps and stems) or fermented fruit juice. 

Cordial is a term often substitued for liqueur.  Technically, they’re supposed to be invigorating or stimulating, a reference to their original medicinal usage.  Since the heart was considered the body’s most important organ, these “medicines” were named after the Latin term for heart, cordialis

Distillation comes from the Latin destillare, meaning to drop or to trickle down.

Distilled liquids used to be called ardent spirits, from the Latin ardor, which means to burn.  Sure, we have modern distilling techniques, but the starch source still has to be converted into fermentable sugar.

Gin gets its name from one of its major flavoring ingredients, juniper.  The French is genievre and the Dutch is genever.  Doctor Sylvius from Holland’s University of Leyden is credited with being the first person to distill gin.  His intent was to create a medicinal spirit and he felt he could stretch the diuretic properties of juniper berry oil by redistilling it with a pure alcohol.  The Latin juniperus communis translates to youth-giving.  I can’t say I’d use gin to treat a bladder or kidney ailment, but at times I’ve certainly found it therapeutic. 

Liqueur is from the Latin liquifacere, meaning to dissolve or melt – a reference to the seeds, herbs, roots and other flavorings used. 

Rum is a fun one that we already covered

Tequila is a Nahuatl (Aztec) word meaning place of work that dates back to 6500 B.C.  I’ve also seen that tequila stems from a town of the same name in Jalisco, Mexico, known for its high quality spirits.

Vodka is the diminutive of the Russian word for water.  No one can seem to agree as to whether vodka first appeared in Russia or in Poland, but it showed up around the 12th century.  At that time at a Russian monastery, it was called zhizenenniz.

Whiskey comes from the Irish uisce beatha and Whisky comes from the Scottish uisge-beatha, both a gaelic translation of the Latin aqua vitae, meaning water of life.  King Henry II’s soldiers invaded Ireland in the 12th century and couldn’t pronounce uisce beatha, so over time it degraded from sounding like “whishkeyba” to “whisky”.  All whisky was spelled without the “e” until 1870 when Scottish distilleries flooded the market with inexpensive spirits.  The American and Irish producers added the “e” to distinguish themselves.  Today whisky (plural is whiskies) is used for Scotland, Wales, Canada and Japan while whiskey is used for spirits distilled in Ireland the United States.

Leave a comment

Filed under Lessons


All Cognacs are brandies, but not all brandies are Cognacs.  The best ones are made from low alcohol, high acid grapes.  Sounds a bit like Champagne, don’t you think?  No wonder I like it!

Cognac MapThe Cognac region is just north of Bordeaux in the Charente and Charente-Maritime départments or districts of France.  The ancient city of Cognac, which sits on the Charente River is at the heart of the district.  The region was delimited by law in 1909 (i.e. to call your product a Cognac, it has to be made within the designated geographical area).  There are 6 districts or crus of Cognac: Grande Champagne (best), Petite Champagne (second best), Borderies (yup, 3rd best), Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires/Bois Communs.  You might also see Fine (feen) Champagne on a label and that means it’s a blend from the 2 best areas – Grande and Petite Champagnes.  The term Champagne here has nothing to do with the Champagne region, though both areas have very chalky soils. 

Since this region is on a navigable river close to the ocean, its wines have long been popular in England and the Low Countries.  The wines didn’t travel well since they were fairly light, so distilling them became the way to go.  Distillation became pretty common in the 17th century, but really took off in the 18th century when a number of families came to the region to control the trade: the Martells from Jersey, the Hennessys and the Hardys from Ireland, the Hines from Dorset and the Otards from Scotland.

Cognac is the 3rd largest vineyard area in France and up to 8 different grape varieties are permitted.  The two most important are Ugni Blanc – pronounced ooh-knee and also known as Saint-Émilion or Trebbiano (in Italy) and Folle Blanche.  The distillation season begins the November after harvest and runs through the end of March.  The Cognac is double-distilled in a copper pot still and aged in casks of Tronçais or Limousin oak for a minimum of 2 years.  During this process, the spirit mellows and softens, taking on color and flavor from the wood.  Some will evaporate, too and this is called the “angels’ share”. 

Let’s touch on a few other things you might see on the label:

C means Cognac

P means Pale

E means Extra

S means Superior

F means Fine

V means Very

O means Old

X means Extra

You’ve probably noticed that the letters represent English rather than French words, pointing to the traditional importance of the English market.  Usually these letters are used together and since 1955, they’ve had age significance.  For example, VS is at least 2 years old, VSOP is at least 4 years old, XO is at least 6 years old.  The years represent the minimum amount of time the spirit spent in barrel. 

Cognac can improve in wood for up to 55 years, but this is risky – there will be significant loss from evaporation and there’s a risk of over-aging, making the prices exorbitant.  Keep in mind that once the Cognac is bottled, it neither varies nor improves.  The producer has already done the work for you, so once you buy a bottle, just drink it (ideally not in one sitting) and once the bottle’s been opened, consume it within 6 months.


Filed under Lessons, Spirits

“Wine Uncorked” in the press

Wine Uncorked 071409
Caught mid-sentence by Janet

Janet Walker, a freelance writer and the founder of Pulse Point Productions attended last week’s “Wine Uncorked” class.  Her piece was picked up by L.A.’s Splash Magazine.  You can click here to get the full scoop (or to see what you missed).

1 Comment

Filed under Lessons, Wine

Fun guy? Hardly!

Last but not least in the series on stink – odors in the fungi family. 

First up is moldy-earthy smell (2-ethyl-fenchol and geosmine).  The molecules responsible for making your wine smell like dirty beets are usually produced by microorganisms.  The pungent smell is often caused by the lack of proper hygiene in winemaking equipment, especially vats or barrels.  Empty barrels are tricky to keep clean and free of mold because the temperature and humidity inside are often just what these microorganisms are looking for.  Once the pesky spores make their way into the pores of a wooden vessel, it’s almost impossible to remove them completely.  Sure, some earthy qualities in a wine can be enjoyable, but to prevent a moldy-smelling mess, the winemaking team needs to keep it (those barrels) clean; prewash, clean, rinse, disinfect, re-rinse – you get the idea. 

Speaking of moldy, another fault you’re probably more familiar with is cork taint.  Since the 17th century, oak cork has been the bottle sealer of choice – it’s elastic, compressible and impermeable to liquids and gases.  Its taste, similar to that of wood, also varies a bit depending on how it’s processed – stripping, seasoning, washing, etc.  A slight taste of cork or pieces of cork floating in your wine glass should not be confused with cork taint.  The former is considered pleasant by some and the latter is a problem with wine service.  Here are some scenarios, though, where the wine’s corked:

1.  A foul, putrid smell caused by yellow stains on cork harvested at the base of the trunk.  Don’t worry, though, the chances of this one are about 1 in 100,000.

2.  A taste of stagnant water caused by poor hygiene during the cork production process – the cork strips were not fully dried.

3. The smell of solvent or smoke caused by a narrow cork that created bottle leakage.  Mold or bacteria might be present and visible on the cork when you open the bottle.

4. The smell and taste of mold and must (yum!) caused by 2,4,6, tricholoro-anisole or TCA – this potent compound is responsible for 90% of cork tainted wines.  The formation of TCA  happens when chlorine reacts with organic phenols (highly prevelant compounds in the winery; in grapes, in corks, in barrels, in wooden pallets and in structural wooden beams) to form chlorophenols.  These in turn react with mold in the presence of moisture to form TCA.  Our threshold for detection of TCA is very low (less than 1 billionth of a gram per liter), so a little taint goes a long way to spoiling your glass of wine. 

What are your chances of running into a corked wine?  I’ve seen figures ranging from 2-8% of all bottles on the market – yikes.  We’ll tackle alternative packaging and closures another day.

1 Comment

Filed under Lessons, Wine

Wines of summer, Part I

I got a request for my recommended wines for summer (honest!).  I’ll introduce some off-the-beaten path varietals that will still appeal to all of you Pinot Grigio drinkers out there.  Summer’s certainly about drinking wines that are light, crisp and refreshing, but that doesn’t mean they have to be boring.  Today, we’ll start with the letter V. 

First up is Verdejo (vehr-DAY-ho); aromatic and herbaceous, it’s Spain’s Sauvignon Blanc.   Rueda is the spot in Spain to find Verdejo.  It’s northwest of Madrid in Castilla y León.  Wine has been made in this region since the Middle Ages, but found its stride in the 1970s, when Bodegas Marqués de Riscal of Rioja recognized the area’s potential for dry, white wines.  They began selling fresh Rueda alongside their Rioja reds and in 1980 Rueda was awarded its DO status (Denominación de Origen; controlled appellation, think France’s AC). 

Verdejo is sometimes blended with Viura (also known as Macabeo), the white grape of the Rioja region or with Sauvignon Blanc – in both cases, Verdejo must account for at least 50% of the blend.  If the label says Rueda Superior, the wine must contain at least 85% Verdejo.  Verdejos are fragrant, often with notes of apple, mint and fresh-cut grass.  In warmer years, they can take on aromas and flavors of tropical fruits.  When they’re well done, they have both juicy citrus as well as an underlying minerality.  Here’s more good news – they’re usually inexpensive – you should have no trouble finding some in the $9-$15 range.  Here are some producers to look for: Cuevas de Castilla “Con Class”, Martínsancho and Bodegas Hermanos del Villar “Oro de Castilla”. 

Next up is Vermentino (ver-mehn-TEE-noh), which is also called Rolle in Provence.  It’s grown primarily in Sardinia, Liguria and Corsica, with increasing amounts in Languedoc and Roussillon and a touch in California and Australia.    Some think the grape has Spanish origins, while others think it’s related to the Malvasia grape and to a grape called Favorita grown in Piedmont (who wouldn’t want to drink that?).  Vermentino produces a lively wine, with lots of citrus and great acidity.  Acidity=refreshment during the heat of the summer.  It’s a great partner with seafood or grilled vegetables.   Styles from Liguria tend to be a bit lighter than those from Sardinia.  Check these out: Cantina Santadi “Villa Solais”, Santa Maria la Palma “Aragosta” and Bibi Graetz “Bianca de Casamatta”. 

Last but not least for your summer sipping I present Vinho Verde DOC (VEE-nyoh VEHR-deh) (Denominação de Origem Controlada; again, controlled appellation).  I’ve switched gears now from varietal to region and I’m taking you to northwest Portugal.  Vinho verde means green wine, but not like green beer for St. Patrick’s Day – the green here refers to the youth and vivacity of the wines from this region.  These wines are slightly effervescent too, and you know how I feel about wines with bubbles.  Whites from this region are crisp, fresh and quite zippy.  They’re made from these grapes: Alvarinho (yup, Spain’s Albariño), Loureiro, Trajadura and Avesso.  Look for these in the store: Sogrape “Gazela” (I’ve seen it for $4.99!) and Auratus – a mix of Alvarinho and Trajadura and a bit more complex than most on the market. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Lessons, Wine

The thirsty bird gets the worm

I remember watching Hanna-Barbera cartoons when I was little and seeing the empty bottle of alcohol with the triple X on the label and the worm smiling out from the bottom.  The person who had consumed the spirit inside would be wearing a cowboy hat as well as a dark mustache.  I had no idea what had been in the bottle, but I remember thinking that worm must be one tough cookie.

Turns out those worms were originally used to help test the strength (and safety) of the spirit before hydrometers and other analytical equipment was developed – just like how the sailors used to light their rum on fire to make sure it hadn’t been diluted.  If the worm pickled and was preserved, the spirit was good.  If the worm decayed, the spirit had to be re-distilled.

Contrary to popular belief, the spirit in question is mescal, not tequila.  All tequilas are mescals, but not all mescals are tequilas.  Sure, they’re both Mexican and made from agave (which is NOT in the cactus family), but here are some differences:

  1. Mescal is made from a number of different agave varieties, while tequila only uses the blue variety of agave.
  2. The agave used to make tequila is cooked using ovens or autoclaves, while the agave used to make mescal is cooked in underground ovens using charcoal.  The smokiness imparted from this charcoal accounts for the major taste difference between tequila and mescal.
  3. Traditionally, mescal was distilled once and tequila twice.  Most mescal on the Mexican market today though has been distilled twice, too.
  4. Tequila is originally from the Jalisco state in Mexico and mescal is from the Oaxaca State.

So, where did these worms come from?  The worms are moth larva and live inside the agave plants.  Two types are found – a white one called blanco and a red one called rojo.  The white worm prefers the leaves, while the red one lives closer to the roots.  I guess enough people found the worm as charming as I did because now they’re grown commercially for inclusion in mescal bottling.


Filed under Lessons, Spirits

It’s not just for the birds

LimeLiming has many definitions: “liming the soil” or “liming the lawn” – applying lime (calcium hyrdroxide) to acidic soils to raise the pH, soaking hides for the production of parchment or to remove the hair before tanning, using birdlime (a sticky, plant-based substance) to catch birds and most appropriate for our purposes, a Caribbean expression for hanging out.

In the 18th century, liming came about as a term for relaxing in the islands with friends at the end of the day, sharing stories and drinking rum.  In terms of etymology, was it the British soldiers (limeys) in the colonized Caribbean or the fact that rum is really tasty with lime?  It was a practice of the Royal and Merchant Navies of Britain to supply their sailors with lime juice (limes were more prevalent than lemons) to prevent scurvy. James Lind, a surgeon and pioneer of naval hygiene, was responsible for determining the link between citrus fruits and scurvy.  He was inspired to conduct one of the world’s first clinical trials after noticing that Dutch sailors who ate cabbage had little problems with scurvy.

Can you imagine how it smelled below decks on those Dutch ships?

Leave a comment

Filed under Lessons, Spirits


sugarcaneThirsty humans can be a creative lot, making a spirit from a perennial tropical grass.

Rum is produced in over 100 countries today. While many consider the Caribbean to be rum’s home, accounts from the time of Alexander the Great mention the use of sugarcane.

While the exact origin of sugarcane is not known, it was introduced to Europe by the Arabs around 636 A.D. It never took off though, because it needed a longer growing season and warmer temperatures than Europe could offer. Columbus took cane cuttings from the Canary Islands to the West Indies. The early Spanish settlers working in sugar factories in the West Indies realized that the residual molasses from sugar production fermented easily.

The name rum could come from the Spanish ron – chances are good the Spanish were on to distilling before the British decided to use the sugarcane plantations in their colonies as a source of economic growth. It could also be from the Latin saccharum, meaning sugar, or from rombustion, meaning a strong liquid or my favorite, rumbullion, meaning a great tempest.

The two main types of rum depend on which form the sugar cane is in at the time of fermentation. Continue reading


Filed under Lessons, Spirits

Yellow wine, straw wine


Map courtesy of Charles Neal Selections

As promised, I want to touch on a few of the unique wine styles found in the Jura region of France.

Vin jaune (yellow wine) is one and it’s made in a purposely oxidized style.  The grapes are picked and fermented as normal, but then the wine is placed in old, 60 gallon casks that are not filled to the top in order to encourage the growth of a film-forming yeast called the voile (veil).  This process is similar to sherry production but there’s no fortification.  The voile is not as thick as the flor (the Spanish voile equivalent) in sherry production because the temperatures are lower here than in southern Spain.   The wine is not bottled until 6 years and 3 months after harvest and it’s full-bodied, mineral-driven and nutty.

The best vin jaune appellation is Château-Chalon, where the wine must be made using the local Savagnin grapes.  You’ll often see it in a distinct clavelin bottle, which is 620 ml, as opposed to the standard 750 ml wine bottle.   The locals claim that 620 ml is the amount left after leaving a liter in cask for 6 years.  Vin jaune from the best vintages will last 50 or more years.  A compound called sotolan forms during the bottle aging process and can give the wine spicy, curry flavors.  Try it with poultry dishes or a cheese course.  Here are some producers to look for: Jean Macle, Berthet-Bondet, Baud Père et Fils and Philippe Butin.

Another unique style in the region is vin de paille (straw wine), a long-lived sweet white wine made from grapes that have been dried on straw mats.  This style is called strohwein in Germany.  These wines are rare and only produced in very ripe vintages.  Once the grapes have raisinated, the yield is pretty small, so you’ll usually find these wines in half-bottles.

The Jura producers use Savagnin, Poulsard or Chardonnay to make this style and they often will place the grapes in boxes, rather than on mats, to dry them.  The grapes are pressed in January and are aged in cask for at least three years.  The resulting wine is rich and honeyed, with notes of dried apricots.  Try it with fruity or nutty desserts, with pungent cheeses or as a dessert on its own.


Filed under Lessons, Wine