The Incredible Crayères


In order to have enough stone to construct the city of Reims in what was then Gaul, in the fourth century, the Romans dug three hundred immensely deep quarries in the chalky rock. These same vertical chalk pits, called crayères, are used today by the Champagne houses to age Champagne. They are miracles of construction that seem to defy physics, and descending into their eerily quiet, cold, dark, humid chambers is an otherworldly experience that no wine drinker should miss. Because the best chalk was often well underground, many crayères go down as far as 120 feet (37 meters). They are shaped like pyramids, so the deepest parts of the crayères are also the widest, and the tops of the pits are narrow (this limited air exposure in the quarry and kept the chalk moist and soft, and thus easier to cut into large construction blocks). During World War I, when Reims was extensively bombed, twenty thousand people lived for years in the dark crayères (no sunlight penetrates). Indeed, the crayères under Veuve Clicquot and Ruinart were makeshift hospitals, and under Pommery was a school.


What is Kosher Wine?

With the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur both in September, we thought some information was fitting.  But get ready, kosher wine is a bit complex.

The term kosher means “pure” or “fit.” Kosher wines are those that are fit for Sabbath-observant (Orthodox) Jews to drink. By law, such wines can only be handled by a Sabbath-observant Jew from the time the grapes enter the winery until the time the wine is bottled. A non-Jew or non-Sabbath-observant Jew can be involved in the winemaking, but he or she cannot handle the wine while it’s in barrels or tanks. Additionally, anything used in making a kosher wine—from yeasts to fining agents—must also be kosher.

Kosher wines come in two categories—mevushal and non-mevushal. In Hebrew, mevushal means “cooked” or “boiled.”

Non-mevushal kosher wine (wine that is not cooked) must be made, handled, bottled, certified, opened, and poured only by a Sabbath-observant Jew. It is, in a sense, the highest class of kosher wine. If a non-Jew touches a non mevushal wine, the wine in effect loses its spiritual essence and is considered unfit for sacramental use. Strictly-observant Jews will not drink a non-mevushal wine that has been touched by someone who isn’t Jewish and observant.

The second, and far more common type of kosher wine is mevushal. Mevushal wines are flash-pasteurized and can therefore be bought, opened, and shared among Jews and non-Jews, as well as non-observant Jews and observant Jews. Kosher wines served in restaurants and at catered events are always mevushal.

Religious scholars speculate that the reason for the two types goes far back in history. Traditionally, Jewish religious authorities knew that wine was used not just for sacramental purposes, but also socially. Wine eased and encouraged social interaction. It’s thought that early Jewish intellectuals may have feared such socializing, viewing it as the first step toward the disintegration of Jewish culture and the assimilation of Jews into other cultures. To mitigate this, two versions of Kosher wine would be made. Mevushal wine would be, quite literally, boiled, making it less palatable and potentially lower in quality, but also “morally sterilized.” Mevushal wine could therefore be shared by non-Jews and non-observant Jews with observant Jews.

Today mevushal wines are no longer boiled per se, and many are no longer flash pasteurized. Instead, during a method called flash-détente, the just-picked grapes (rather than the wine) are quickly heated and then rapidly cooled in a vacuum. Flash détente is gentler than flash pasteurization and has less impact on the flavor of the final wine. It has tended to close the flavor gap between mevushal and non-mevushal wines.


Summer Iced Tea

How’s this for summertime trivia?  The first iced tea was more like a cocktail and often included wine.  For example, the cookbook The Kentucky Housewife, written in 1839 by Lettice Bryan, has a recipe for iced tea that includes tea, sugar, sweet cream and, “a bottle of claret or Champagne.”  Why these teas fell out of favor is anyone’s guess, since they undoubtedly made for more interesting sipping than cold Nestle.


The Name Shiraz

The Second Annual International Shiraz Day was yesterday. Herewith, some information on the name shiraz. Until the 1980s, Australians often called syrah “hermitage” and occasionally “shiraz.” But because Hermitage is an official appellation in the northern Rhône Valley of France, use of that term was eventually discontinued.  As for the name shiraz, it is probably a linguistic variation on a string of different names that the French have historically used for syrah. These include schiras, sirac, syrac, serine, sereine, and scyras. But no matter what it is called, DNA typing reveals that syrah is definitely a French grape and not named for the Iranian city of Shiraz (as has sometimes been suggested). Back to the wine itself: We love top Australian shiraz; it’s simply impossible to ignore the wine’s seductive aromas, gracefully soft texture, and luscious berry and violet flavors, plus the wine’s bolts of enlivening spiciness and black pepperiness.


The First Big Bar Tab

America’s early presidents were all avid wine drinkers—starting with the first president himself, George Washington. On September 15, 1787, to celebrate his election a few months earlier, as well as the impending signing of the Constitution two days later, Washington rounded up other “founding fathers,” plus friends, and troops to celebrate. The bill at the City Tavern in Philadelphia that night came to just over $17,300 in today’s dollars. By the end of the night, the 55 guests had consumed 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of Bordeaux, 8 bottles of whiskey, 22 bottles of porter ale, 8 bottles of hard cider, 12 jugs of beer, and 7 large bowls of punch. (The staff and musicians drank another 21 bottles and just as much punch). The bill also included reimbursements to the tavern for a serious number of broken glasses. The receipt for the night was saved in the First Troop Cavalry Archives.


The Charm of Absinthe

Despite the lovely charm of a good rosé, we know that occasionally you may want to drink something else on a hot summer night. In that case, there is another famous, well-loved French libation—absinthe, a bitter, bold green, licorice-flavored spirit that in French cafés is usually served as an aperitif with a carafe of ice water. When the water is added to the absinthe, the drink immediately turns ominously cloudy. Absinthe’s emerald green color and herbaceously bitter flavor come from green anise, fennel, and the plant wormwood. Alas, in the early 20th century, several reports claimed that a volatile compound in wormwood, thujone, was a hallucinogen that could “destroy the nervous system.” Although absinthe brands like Pernod were wildly popular among Paris’ bohemian artists and authors at the time, absinthe was banned in France in 1915, and before that in much of the rest of Europe and the United States. For several decades, absinthe drinkers had little choice but to substitute pastis, a similar spirit made from anise, fennel, and licorice—but no wormwood. Then research in the 1980s revealed that wormwood did not contain enough thujone to be toxic or deleterious to health. By the 1990s, bans lifted, wormwood was back as a legal ingredient in absinthe which, for its part, has regained its status as a café staple. Cheers.


Don’t Know What Chartreuse Is? You’re Not Alone.

There are only two people alive who know the identity of all 130 herbs and aromatic plants used to make Chartreuse, the world famous emerald green liqueur from east central France. They are monks of the Chartreuse Order (the Carthusians), which was founded in 1084, in the Chartreuse Mountain Range near the alpine vineyards of the Savoie. The Order received the original recipe for an “Elixir of Long Life” in 1605 as a gift in the form of a cryptic manuscript believed to have been written by a 16th century alchemist. A hundred and fifty-nine years later, the Order’s monks finally decoded the mysterious instructions and began to produce “Elixir Vegetal de la Grande-Chartreuse,” a medicinal tonic. The tonic’s descendant—today’s Green Chartreuse liqueur—still calls for a dizzying cornucopia of botanicals (including rosemary, green bell pepper, licorice, and lavender) to be macerated in alcohol, distilled to 55% abv (110 proof), and aged for several years in oak casks. Made at the Monastery in Voiron, it’s the only liqueur in the world with a completely natural green color. By the way, Chartreuse Day is Sunday, May 16.


Fantastic Tan-Plastic!

Tannin in wine provides two things: structure and ageability. Found in the grape’s skins, seeds, and stems, tannin is a natural preservative. Red wines, with considerably more tannin than white, can thus age longer. Tannins belong to a class of complex compounds called phenols, powerful antioxidants believed to give red wine its reported health benefits. Some scientists believe that antioxidants offer a way to also slow fresh food spoilage by reacting with chemicals that cause oxidation. Paul Kilmartin, a professor of wine chemistry at New Zealand’s University of Auckland, discovered that plastics impregnated with discarded grape solids during the manufacturing process retained the tannin’s antioxidant benefits. Testing their effect on packaging for various edible oils, Kilmartin was able to extend the oil’s shelf life up to 30%.


As If You Needed One More Reason to Love Wine

Asphalt is ubiquitous in our modern mobile lives, covering roads, parking lots and airport runways. So too, is the pernicious pothole. (Stay with me here; the wine part is coming). A mixture of liquid petroleum byproduct, stones and soil, asphalt undergoes a process of oxidation over time, becoming stiffer and prone to cracking and collapse.

In an effort to address this issue, Chilean engineers at the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Santiago, researched the high antioxidant qualities of the polyphenols in grape skins and discovered that grape skins could, when added to the mix, extend the life of pavements. In fact, they have been able to reduce the fatigue and cracking of asphalt pavement by 14% with the addition of dehydrated and powdered grape marc. (Marc is the mass of solids remaining after the juice is pressed from grapes for wine production). After experimenting with different grape varieties, they concluded that cabernet sauvignon grapes performed best, likely due to the higher content of polyphenols in their thick skins.


Wine Leather

A “Must”-Have for Eco-Conscious Collectors

Imagine the opportunity to own two uber-luxury products in one—a Louis Vuitton handbag made using leather dyed in Hennessy Cognac. What if the handbag used leather made of Hennessy Cognac? No longer a flight of fancy, “Wine Leather,” invented by Vegea, an Italian biomaterials company, is a fabric produced with the must (grape seeds and skins) leftover from wine production. The material is 100% vegan, sustainable, and can be recycled. The Vegea team debuted its prototypes made into dresses, handbags and shoes. It will soon be available for the furniture and auto industry—Bently announced it has chosen wine leather for the interiors of their new car model. Every year, 26 billion liters (7 billion gallons) of wine are produced worldwide, creating 6.5 billion kilos (14.3 billion pounds) of grape must. “We can potentially produce 2.6 billion square meters (28 billion sq ft) of VEGEA fabric every year,” he says. Unlike with animal-based leather, no toxic solvents or heavy metals are needed in the production process.


An Iron-ic Pairing

Any true Anthony Hopkins fan can recite the immortal line spoken by one of his most iconic and monstrous characters, Hannibal Lecter, in the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs:

“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”

I recall thinking at the time: “Chianti’s not what I would have chosen,” and it turns out that in the book, author Thomas Harris (who must be an oenophile) actually had Lecter enjoy an Amarone—incidentally, a much better pairing with liver. The film’s producers felt that movie audiences wouldn’t know what amarone was and changed the referenced wine to one they believed everyone would be more familiar with.


Environmental Pioneers

After decades spent witnessing harvests starting earlier and earlier, Champagne became the first wine-growing region in the world to carry out a carbon footprint assessment of their industry in 2003. (Harvests now begin on average 18 days sooner than 30 years ago). At that time, the region initiated an ambitious climate plan aimed at cutting emissions by 75% by 2050. Among the most significant initiatives: reducing bottle weight (packaging accounts for 1/3 of Champagne production’s carbon emissions), waste recycling (100% of winemaking byproducts such as grape pomace and lees, are now used by the cosmetics, healthcare, and agro-food sectors), and biomass conversion (80% of the 120k tons of annually-generated vine shoots, branches, and other prunings are now ground into the soil as natural fertilizer). From its efforts to date, Champagne has been able to cut C02 emissions generated by each bottle of wine by 20% over the last 15 years.