Today is the 11th anniversary of the big “Berlin Wall Bash,” so let’s clink and drink to that momentous event with, if you will, a white wine. I propose something German — a riesling from Nierstein, a bone-dry Wurzberg Muller-Thurgau, or a sekt from Adolf Schmitt near Trier (excellent also with sushi). And, on the well-founded assumption that next week they’ll come through yet again, let’s toast France’s Beaujolais producers with — what else? Beaujolais Nouveau 2000.
Wine is great on special occasions, but frankly, with a chill nipping at our heels as we straddle the crisp cusp between autumn and winter, a tummy-warming taste of something more bracing than wine can be glorious. Consider wine-based brandies and marc, both centuries-old distilled products.
Brandy belongs to the spirits category and is still, today, known as aqua vitae (water of life), a Latin term coined by a Catalan physician in the 13th century to suggest healthful invigoration. The French call their spirits eau de vie, the Celts uisge beatha, the Scandinavians aquavit and so on.
Brandies are powerful spirits made by distilling what dwellers in cold climates unsuited for winemaking, such as England and Holland, believed to be the “spirit” of the wine. Almost anything fermented to produce alcohol, such as wine, they discovered, could be distilled into spirit. In fact, although various spirits were made from such ingredients as mashed malted grains (uisge beatha and whiskey) and potatoes (aquavit and vodka), the wine-based spirit cognac was the first to achieve high marks.
Cognac is made in a container consisting of a pot for heating fermented wine, an alembic (tube) that draws in expelled alcoholic vapor, and a condenser that coils and reliquifies the steam. Much of the product is lost. Discarded outright are the first condensed impurity-laden vapors (the “heads”) and the last vapors (the “tails”). Evaporation dissipates an enormous amount of brandy as well.
As a rule the spirits are distilled twice or more in a continuous still, a type used worldwide for spirits production to ensure better quality and also the method used to produce armagnac, the other famous French brandy (much preferred in France to the largely exported cognac).
Aging is done in casks made from oak grown in the Limousine forests of western France, wherein lies Cognac itself. How long the spirits remain in cask determines their tawny tone-depth, their smoothness and their character. Note that although wine continues to develop in the bottle, spirits do not. How long the spirit is aged is the main determinant in cognac and armagnac classification. That said, classification gets a bit complicated.
Imagine that you’re a winemaker constantly anxious, as winemakers must be, about the multitude of factors that might thwart your earnest efforts to bring home a good harvest and turn good fruit into good wine. Fungi, bugs, pests, frosts, drought . . . the list goes on.
In Europe, wine’s ancient cradleland, winemakers traditionally girded against nature’s slings and arrows by making marc, distilled from the residue of fermented pomace, mainly the skins and pips (seeds) remaining after the grapes are pressed or crushed.
Japan has no exact equivalent of marc, the closest thing being shochu, the vodkalike drink distilled from potatoes, corn, rice, sesame seeds — you name it. What you can find is Italian marc, grappa, a name also applied to the version made in California, where it has become rather trendy. In Italy grappa has achieved a high level of connoisseurship and indeed some of it is superb.
I relish the idea of a clever Japanese maker like Takara Shuzo making grappa using Japanese and imported ingredients from the grape. They might take a tip from Iby, one of eastern Austria’s many outstanding winemakers, who made a marvelous limited-election grappa that much impressed me. To fine-tune his grappa-making technique. Iby consulted a German schnapps maker. Success ensued.
Portugal’s marc is called bagaceira, and Spain’s aguardiente. French marc is made in Champagne, Burgundy, Alsace, Provence and Jura to the east — quite a spread — and has various names. Check out Marc de Champagne, made by Moet & Chandon. Marcs, bear in mind, don’t mix well, since they’re packed with tannins from pips and skins. Sip them “neat,” a solo or to perk up your palate after eating oily food.