19 December, 2009

Staying warm, part deux.

There is always debris involved in the act of creation, and wine-making is no exception. White wine grapes are generally crushed and pressed to extract the liquid, leaving behind a greenish-brownish mass of skin, seeds and pulp. Red wine grapes are usually crushed and the liquid allowed to drain freely, leaving behind a blackish mess of solids, which also include traces of yeast cells and alcohol.
Wine-makers are thus left with substantive solids, which English cider makers long ago dubbed pomace. With this, they make pomace brandy, or what the Italians call grappa and the French call Marc. (In the photo, the three bottles on the left contain grappa, including the more well-known Alexander at the very end.) Parenthetically, if you want to say the 'm' word out loud and impress others by sounding French-ish, drop that 'c' at the end.

Wine-makers engage in their own sort of recycling in a number of ways. They use the leftovers--including the dregs, or sediment found in the bottom of the fermentation vessel. From this, they extract what is sold in powder form as cream of tartar (used to stabilize and add volume to beaten egg whites, to improve the texture of baked goods, for polishing brass and copper, and removing tough stains from your clothes and bathtub...). They also spread the dregs in the vineyard, returning nitrogen and other organic nutrients to the soil. But most notably--at least in my mind--they make that clear, robust brandy. Because what a pity to see any bit of what has so carefully been grown go to waste, right?So the Marc is simply a very earthy response to the challenge of making something out of that "nothing", and what resulted was a kind of moonshine that served as a fairly spine-straightening kick in the pants, a buffer against harsh winters and intensive labor.

The Marc has acquired some finesse and distanced itself to a degree from its fiery, peasant origins. Most Marc in France comes from either the region of Champagne (much of which is distilled in steam heated vats at Jean Goyard, after which the highly aromatic Marc is aged by individual champagne houses) or Burgundy. There are a variety of different stills and distillation processes found across the country, but Burgundian Marcs are oak-aged, and tend to be quite rich--or ample. Alsace is, to a smaller degree, also known for its Marcs (far right in the photo), as is the Jura (just left of the center bottle). There is no real difference between Marc and grappa, other than country of origin. Since Nonino's hugely marketed, transformative shift toward single varietal grappas in the early 70s, however, grappa has gone very high end, with gorgeous packaging that often costs more than the beverage within. Grappa has gained a certain cachet, especially in the US, its biggest export market, a chicness that Marc still lacks.

Marc is drunk as a digestif, taken after dinner to ease digestion, perhaps with an espresso or a good cigar for the aficionados. It is not, however, for the faint of heart. With an alcohol content ranging from 40% to 45%, conservative sipping, with extended pauses for conversation, is key to remaining upright. My favorite (so far) is the beautiful, supple vanilla and spice-scented Marc de Banyuls that I brought back from the marvelously rough-hewn (French Catalan) Cote Vermeille. This one is made from Grenache noir, gris and Carignan grape pomace.

Wind up your courage, give this brandy a try. As for me, my companionable little glass is now empty, which brings this entry to a close.

(With thanks to Charlene, for asking about it.)


  1. I learned something new today. Thanks for the Marc presentations!

  2. My pleasure...But of course now you have to try some!


Thanks for visiting my blog and joining in the conversation!

Related Posts with Thumbnails