Wednesday, October 15, 2008

How can Cognac be a Fine Champagne?

How can a Cognac be a fine Champagne? - You may well ask - as did one of our customers the other day.
Let's get a few things straight here whilst confusing the hell out of everyone - it's a little bit like the famous tea towel that describes the very English game of cricket
You have two sides,
one out in the field and one in.
Each man that's in the side that's in
goes out, and when he's out he comes in,
and the next man goes in until he's out.
When they are all out, the side that's out
comes in, and the side that's been in goes
out ...
In the case of Cognac and champagne you have 2 very different drinks, although they are both made from grapes (ironically Champagne is partially made from a red grape, pinot noir, whilst Cognac is solely made from white, colombard, folle blanche and ugny blanc!).

One is a fermented grape juice (Champagne), the other is fermented and then distilled (twice in the case of Cognac, though this is not true of all brandies).

Champagne is a sparkling wine but not all sparkling wines are Champagne as they have to come from a specific area in France and be made in a particular way to be called Champagne. Cognac is a brandy (from the German Brandwein meaning burnt wine - ie distilled) but not all brandies are Cognacs as they have to come from the Cognac area of France and be made a specific way to be called Cognac.

All clear so far? Good - because there's more! So we now know that Cognac is a Brandy and Champagne a sparkling wine - so how come when I look at my bottle of Courvoisier VSOP it says that it is a "Fine Champagne"?

Given the English nature of V.S.O.P. (which stands for "very special old pale") you would be quite justified in thinking that "Fine Champagne" was also English, but it's not. In this case it's French and it is refering to a blend of grapes from a small growing area in France which is in the heart of the Cognac growing region and is made up of 2 smaller areas "Grande Champagne" and "Petite Champagne". In order to qualify for this denomination, 50% of the grapes have to come from the Grande Champagne area. Of the 6 different growing areas in the Cognac region these are at the centre and considered the best - most mid-range Cognacs are made from grapes from these 2 areas whilst the older, more expensive Cognac blends tend to be solely from the "Grande Champagne" (an area of aproximately 80,000 acres, of which 17% is planted with vines) where the "terroir" (soil condition) is considered the best.

So when you see Fine Champagne on the label it means that the grapes used to make the Cognac you're about to drink come from the centre of the Cognac area, it has nothing to do with the sparkling wine known as Champagne. If you see Grande Champagne on the label the same applies, but this time 100% of the grapes are from that tiny area at the core of the Cognac area. Confusingly you can also get "Grande Fine Champagne" and "Petite Fine Champagne" - just knock out the "fine" to get where they come from.

See - simple!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sit in my lap?

Why would it matter where I sit? Well normally it doesn't.

Believe me, I'm not one of those who assumes that I can choose any table I like when I step into a restaurant early and there seem to be lots of empty places. I know it would be great if the two of us could sit at that lovely round top in the window that's laid up for 6 but that's not going to happen - or if it does, I doubt this restaurant will be here in a year! Whether you like it or not restaurants have a finite number of tables and they need to 'turn' them if they're going to survive.

Just occasionally though I have to say something. It happened a few days back when I went to quite a casual Brasserie for lunch where they don't accept reservations. Somehow I ended up in what felt like their broom closet. I was squashed against a pillar, close to the bar, that blocked my view of the 5 or 6 empty (2 top) tables by the windows. A foot to my right was one of only two other customers engaged in a fun relationship with her I-pod. Meanwhile over my left shoulder I could feel the tickle of what turned out to be the dining out section of the NYT as my fellow diner turned the page. This gentleman, perched on a stool at the bar stool, was none too happy when I swatted his newspaper a couple of times, suspecting a flying insect!

So, I asked if I could move to one of the tables in the window. Of course I was way too distracted watching the waiter seat the next few groups of people to take advantage of my window view, and I couldn't help noticing that the next 2 tables also both asked to be moved! When this happens I normally pride myself in being able to understand what's going on, but this one got me - either the host was just having a bad day or more likely (s)he'd been told to fill up someone's section.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Le Beaujolais Nouveau va arriver - in plastic bottles!!

I had a great conversation the other night with some guests over the whole Beaujolais Nouveau thing. We all agreed that it had done little to promote those great Beaujolais such as Brouilly, Fleurie, Moulin a Vent etc., but it had put Beaujolais on the map for good or for bad!

Some time in the 1980s what had traditionally been a local passion and interest in what the latest production of the very young Beaujolais table wine would taste like, turned in to a world-wide marketing phenomenon, no doubt encouraged by some local wine marketing consortium.

The goal I'm sure was to created a larger demand for and a greater awareness of Beaujolais, which at that time was no doubt lagging behind other French wine growing areas, like Bordeaux, Rhone and Burgundy. Although Beaujolais is actually in the southern extremities of Burgundy, it does make sense to separate it as the dominant red grape here is Gamay as opposed to the Pinot Noir of the rest of Burgundy. As early as 1395 Phillip the Bold's famous decree outlawing the Gamay grape from being grown in the then duchy of Burgundy made sure of this separation.

So a competition was set up which involved getting the latest Beaujolais Nouveau wines to the furthest reaches in the world, as fast as possible - a wine marathon of sorts. This led to some great stunts involving airplanes, concord, helicopters, submarines, rickshaws, bionic people etc.. And it worked, suddenly everyone was talking about "Le Beaujolais Nouveau" and the phrase "le Beaujolais est arrive" entered into every wino's vocabulary. Soon 50% of the region's wine production was crushed, fermented, bottled, labelled, shipped and drunk within 3 months of being picked!!!

In 1985 the rules changed so that the Beaujolais Nouveau could be released no sooner than the third Thursday in the month of November (it used to be 15th November) - just in time for the weekend!!

This year will be no different. Sure enough at 1 minute past midnight on Thursday 20th November 2008, the starting gun will sound in towns and villages like Beaujeu and millions of bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau will start their race towards the 4 corners of the world.

We'll get our Beaujolais Nouveau on Friday 21st - this year though it will be in plastic bottles!!!!

The problem is that shipping or rather plane delivery is proving too expensive - a discrepancy is beginning to open between quality, price and novelty. As the cost of a case delivered by plane goes to $140, more and more outlets are willing to wait for the ship delivery which will only cost $105, but then what's the point in featuring the wine since the whole idea of being one of the first to serve it will be lost and maybe there are some better bargains out there at that price!

So some smart George will bottle his Beaujolais Nouveau in plastic to keep the shipping costs down. What will these marketing geniuses think of next? It worked with me - I never usually buy the stuff but this year, I ordered a case before the grapes had even been picked - just out of curiosity!