15 March 2018

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]


“In the past, aligoté was planted at the top of Chambertin! Musigny blanc was half aligoté! It was half of Corton! After phylloxera, most replanted with easier-to-grow chardonnay and put aligoté on the other side of the road where no one ever planted anything but carrots and potatoes. This was the sad story of ruined aligoté.”
LAURENT PONSOT, to Alice Feiring *

Read the rest of this entry »

Alice et olivier de moor

17 February 2018

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]

Before we leave the Yonne entirely, let’s abandon Chablis’ classified vineyards & go a little further afield, to a couple making wines close to my heart and worth special consideration: Alice and Olivier De Moor.


Read the rest of this entry »

Chablis, or deadwood

21 January 2018

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal. Previously: Hatzidakis. Huet. J.B. Becker & Eva Fricke. Prévost, and Chartogne-Taillet. Lelarge-Pugeot, Brochet, Agrapart, Ulysses Collin, and others. More general stuff about barbarians, sugar, and coats-of-arms. A now-outdated introduction. Revisions.]


Let’s talk chardonnay for a second. Still known occasionally in Chablis by one of its many aliases, beaunois (‘from Beaune’), the white grape of the region didn’t start going by its modern spelling until the beginning of the 20th century. By then the name (original 17th century spelling: chardonnet) had converged with the village of Chardonnay down in southern Burgundy, in the Mâconnais. It may or may not actually have originated around there, but soundalikes have their own power. The village’s name comes from the vegetation: thistles (Latin carduus, Old French chardon). Chardonnet is also Old French for goldfinch, “a bird that haunts the thistle,” known also in German literally as the “thistle-finch,” or distelfink.

So, chardonnay: vine from the thistle-covered place.

Read the rest of this entry »

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]

Taking another crack at Benoit Courault’s chenin in Anjou, since I was never really happy with it the first time. (The translating, not the drinking. Very happy with the drinking.) Courault, origin name for “from Courand,” in Allier, I couldn’t quite hack with  the resources at my disposal, so I resorted to shitty workarounds: “From the Land that Gives Us Kings,” for the Duchy of Bourbon’s roots in Allier, and then “From the Territory of the God of Hot Springs,” since that’s the root of Bourbon (Brovo, the Celtic deity, from *brovo, “froth, foam.” There’s a whole Celtic thing of fountains and divinity being synonymous, with the roots for springs & gushing forth & water from rock and the roots for gods & creation kind of becoming the same, and also, concurrently, deified rivers, sacred springs…)

This morning I made the mistake of coming across someone who knows what they’re doing, a French Ph.D candidate in cognitive semantics with a specialty, basically, in Celtic words relating to time and place and seasons. In the blog post above, part of his brother-in-law’s website about very, very long hiking trips, he casually works through a whole list of Loire Valley placenames that his brother-in-law is walking through, like so:

14/05/13 Aurec Auriaco en 1030. Idem Blanzac pour –(i)aco. Soit nom de personne Aurius, soit gaulois auaria (attesté dans Avaricum, Aveyron, Avière, Yèvre). La racine au-,av- (=> breton aven) désigne divers « courant d’eau ». Il n’est pas exclu que Avara ait été divinisée, comme de nombreux noms de rivières celtiques. Soit pour Aurec : simplement le « lieu où coule une rivière » ou « lieu dédié à la déesse des rivières Avara » ?

It’s in French, but still a neat read even machine-translated if you’d like (note: there’s a whole thing about deified Celtic rivers in that excerpt! I’m not making this shit up!), and a reminder that it’d be nice if I got my hands on references like Stéphane Gendron’s 2008 L’origine des noms de lieux en France, or Pierre-Henri Billy’s 2011 Dictionnaire des noms de lieux de la France. (He leaves a bibliography. I weep, weep for my shitty internet scholarship.)

Anyway it’s a good reminder to keep trying. So let’s take another look at Courand (currently spelled Courant, apparently). Up there, a toponymy for the (different place) Cours-sur-Loire: “de l’ancien français curtis, latin cortem qui ont donné « cour » de basse-cour. C’est un nom de la ferme, établissement agricole.” If I squint halfway this sounds a lot better for Ben’s family name of origin: from a village derived from the old French curtis, Latin cortem, so the heart (courtyard) of a barnyard or stable. Pretty fitting for a guy who lives in the middle of his vines. Courant / courand also has a bunch of senses along the lines of “little stream,” “canal,” and, in one of the toponymic dictionaries I have “canal connecting two ponds, or one pond to the sea.” Now, we’re not really close to the sea down here in Courant (which isn’t even where Ben lives or makes wine, that would be Faye d’Anjou, one of many tree-name towns, from Latin fagea, “beeches”— and here’s some great machine-translated French wikipedia for you, “Part of church property in Faye are insane at the time of religious wars”), and we’re not even that close to a river. But little stream or canal, sure. Maybe I should just go with what’s staring me in the face rather than reaching.

It’d sure be nice if I had literalizations for his cuvées, though. He makes a bunch of different wines.

“Petit Chemin,” his little entry-level chenin, that one’s easy: a pun, somewhere between “narrow path” and “little chenin.” One year it was sparkling. His top white, his only single plot, a half-hectare called “Guinechiens,” is a perplexing word. There’s…”dogs” in there? It kind of sounds like “guinea hen”? (It’s not, guinea hen in French is apparently pintade.)

His reds are “Tabeneaux” (no idea) and “Rouliers” (cart driver?). A delightful little grolleau, “La Coulée,” is a word that gets used for a lot of different geological formations in different francophone places. It carries in French the senses of molten metal being poured into a mold, and the molten metal itself; a corridor or path worn by game through the forest; a lava flow; a mudslide; any slippery, flowing mass. It can be declivities worn by the action of water.  In Louisiana it’s a dry gully that runs flush in a rainstorm, or a stream smaller than a bayou. It can refer to glacial morraines in eastern Washington, or small, steep-sided valleys in Wisconsin. It’s hard to tell here whether Ben’s bottling is a reference to the land or more fanciful allusion.

And I still don’t know what Gilbourg means, but it’s got to be something about either a hill or a town. Just have to keep trying. Does the NYPL have a reading room for this sort of thing?

Maybe I should go back to school.


[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]

A few words on how to translate the grades of sweetness, which can be the sweetness of grape juice sugars left unfermented in wine, fermentation having stopped naturally; or the sweetness of sugars unfermented that stay that way because of temperature control and a sterile filter; or the addition of sterile-filtered unfermented grape juice to reach a certain level of sweetness (called Süssreserve, sweet reserve, in Germany, where it is legal & practiced in a surprising amount of respectable rieslings); or (as in champagne) the mixture of cane sugar or grape juice concentrate and finished wine added to disgorged sparkling wine just before bottling, where this mixture is called the liqueur d’expeditionthe finishing liquid, and the practice dosage, dosing.

In many of these cases, style, traditional practice, and law dictate how you label the resulting level of sweetness, which depending on acidity and other things may not taste very sweet at all. In others, though, such as the sneaky few grams of sugar left in big, modernist, high-alcohol reds for mouthfeel, or basically any table white wine in Alsace, you won’t know until you drink it, and maybe not even then.

What is “dry” wine? Almost all of them. Sweet wines used to be rarities, prized, reserved for popes and emperors. Then refined sugar became widely available, temperature control & filtration made cheap sweet wine on an industrial scale possible, and somewhere along the way “dry” acquired its current cultural connotation of prestige, seriousness, etc, so that the first and most useless question inevitably asked of a list of (uniformly dry) red or white wines is “Which is the driest?”

By the time it says dry on the label, though, sugar is often in actually in play, whether French sec (Vouvray allows up to 8 grams, as long as your acid is high enough) or German trocken (usually up to nine). Sec champagne (which gave the Germans Sekt, their generic word for sparkling wine) is not very dry at all, although it does reflect the fashionable norm of a century or so ago. To go drier than the 17 to 35 added grams per liter of sugar that sec means for champagne a new category, bruthad to be conjured up, with its connotations of savage or brutish; gross, as opposed to net; and raw or unfashioned, as in raw ore or wool, unplaned timber, unpolished gemstones, and unvarnished opinions.

Brut, ironically, still means that sugar has been added, so the new generation of untouched sparkling wines from Champagne needed to go even further in labeling: extra-brut, brut nature, or brut zero (more than raw, naturally raw, and the awkward raw plus nothing). A bottle might say non-dosé, undosed.

Meanwhile, alongside your dry chenins from Vouvray you’ll find demi-sec, or half-dry, which has something in common with the synonymous German halbtrocken (now practically extinct), or the slightly more common and melancholic feinherb, bittersweet.*

*See Stephen Bauer on Lars Carlberg’s Mosel wine site for more on that from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, if you’d like.

Some of the sweetest wines in France will bear the designation moelleux, from the low Latin medullosus, filled with marrow, with its senses, per Larousse, soft and elastic, as for a carpet or a pillow; tender, as in meat, or tone of voice; sweet and velvety to the taste, ear, or sight, as for example a soft chocolate, a babbling brook, or a fine drapery; in literature, who is graceful, flexible, soft and round, curvy, sensual.

A lot of label designations that suggest sweetness, but don’t necessarily require it, refer to time of harvest, or its conditions, such as whether you’ve waited late in the season for the grapes to begin to raisinate on the vine, or for their water to be sucked from them by a fungal rot, or for a cold snap around the winter solstice to freeze them overnight. You might dry the grapes on wooden racks or straw mats to concentrate the sugars, as the ancients did in Roman Italy, Spain, and Greece, and name the wines, dry or sweet, raisined, straw, holy, or forced.

(The Italians have an intricate and incoherent regional profusion of sweet wines, all of which have names, and we’ll talk about them some other time.)

In Hungary, the sweetness levels of Tokaj, puttanyos, are an old measure of the number of 25-kilo baskets, puttony, of boytrytized grapes dumped into a wine barrel.

The Germans are obsessed with the specific gravity of grape juice as a measure of quality, with a tiered system they railroaded into law in 1971. The entry-level, confusingly, appropriates the word, kabinett, for what used to be the highest quality wines in the old days: wines saved for the cabinet. Afterwards: spätlese, late harvest, (the French literal equivalent, Vendages Tardiveswill be much sweeter), and auslese (selected harvest), refering to a process of selection which you also might see referenced in French as a trie, a sweep or pass through the vineyard. And with that we’re well into dessert wine territory. Spätlesen, even auslesen, may be either dry or sweet; the  guarantee do you have when a producer puts it on the bottle is that no cane sugar was added during fermentation to prolong it and raise the alcohol content (a process named, in France, after the chemist Chaptal who invented the procedure, and in German, Trockenzuckerung, dry sugaring). 

In the Austrian Wachau, they classify sugar ripeness along the same lines as the Germans, but in their own allusive code: the lighest Steinfeders, named for the Steinfeder-gras growing near the vines, scientific name Stipa pennata, common name feather-grass (and, in Hungarian, orphan maidenhair); Federspiel, a falconer’s glove, and the taming method in the falconry beloved by local nobility known as the feather-game; and the ripest Smaragdmeaning literally an emerald, and by extension the small, emerald-colored lizards basking in the sun of the Wachau’s terraced vineyards.

Venture deep enough into the American heartland and you’ll see a proliferation of back-label sweetness bars on table wines, dry to semi-dry to semi-sweet to sweet. Your sommelier’s earnest protestations to the contrary (“There’s no such thing as a red that isn’t dry!”), you’ll see $8 to $14 supermarket retail bottles, some of them regional wines, like the 12.5% alcohol “Grand Traverse Select,” a “sweet, 100% vinifera red wine grape blend” from northern Michigan. You’ll see reds from Yellowtail in Australia, which tend to end up at around 10 grams of sugar after grape concentrate has been added.  You’ll see, everywhere, Gallo’s immensely popular Apothic red blend, described by the UK wine critic and Master of Wine Tim Atkin as “undrinkable,” and by its own sales reps in the mid-aughts as a “Menage-Killer,” with its 16+ grams of sugar and total lack of transparency as to additives or sourcing, and your attempts to find out anything useful about this high-volume national brand will instead be met by pages upon pages of wine review blogs written by people subsisting on samples sent by PR flacks, all posted sometime around fall 2012, which must have been around the time Gallo started its charm offensive, most of them quoting or paraphrasing the same press release language and back label copy, which includes the comically arch claim that the brand is inspired by “a mysterious place where wine was blended in 13th century Europe.”

Nothing there fun to translate, though.





Even more champagne

1 January 2018

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]


It’s New Year’s Day and I’ve been awake since a decent hour of the morning looking up French village names, so sure! Let’s drink more champagne. It wasn’t so long ago I was too. (And I got to have a glass of Prévost last night. That was nice.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Alta allela (cava)

15 December 2017

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]

This one’s going to be a quick note about a small victory: in this case, an organic cava producer called Alta Alella. Good wines, coming, as most cava does, from Catalunya. They’re close to Barcelona, between the towns of Tiana and Alella, hence the name: Above Alella.

But where does Allela’s name come from? Time for a trip to Catalán wikipedia!

Documented for the first time in 975 AD in a contract for the sale of land “marking the limits of the west”, a nice machine-translated turn of phrase, then two decades later there’s a saint named Feliu from there mentioned during a land swap, something something marriage something something monastary. Eventually purchased by the monarchy and a royal town (“royal” here meaning Kings of Aragon, who were also the Counts of Barcelona) for a long while thereafter.

Fine fine. Nothing terribly useful so far. But wait: here’s the coat of arms! And here I learned something I didn’t know, I don’t think, which is that coats of arms often sounded out the names of the places or people they represented, which makes sense in a preliterate society. These are called in French & Spanish armas parlantes, armes parlantes, speaking arms, and in English, canting arms, which is to say singing arms, from Anglo-Norman canteventually from Latin cantare), which I think is kind of lovely. Go back far enough and these are often thousand year-old clues in heraldry to shifts in dialect, pronunciation, accent.

The town of Alella is carried into battle (or, today, marked on taxis) by the sign of a—oh ok, I’ll let them say it:

«Escut caironat: d’atzur, mig vol abaixat contornat d’argent; la filiera d’argent. Per timbre una corona mural de poble.»

That’s the language from the most recent municipal ordinance in May 2001, but the important thing is the wing, ala, silver & lowered in midflight (medio vuelo bajado, mig vol abaixat), from whence Alella, more or less. The town of the silver wing lowered in midflight.

The Alta Alella bottling on the list, “Bruant”, is a general French (Catalán too?) word for any bird of the passerine family, the same way we’d say songbird.

Cava, by the way, is what happened when the Spanish were forced by the French in 1972 to give up calling their century-old tradition of champagne-method sparkling wines “Champañas.” Vino de cava, the newly-invented legal term of art, referred to the caves (cavas) in which the bottles slumber during secondary fermentation & aging.


Some notes on style drift

15 December 2017

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal.]

A consequence of this taking so long, aside from a certain loss of momentum around the holidays, is a perceptible shift in style that I’ve been thinking about recently.

The original literal wine list was supposed to be shorter, in general, and snappier; more along Thunder Mountain Chardonnay lines. In my head I’d always pictured an imaginary audience of my Midwestern countrymen (& relatives), who look for something on a wine list that reads like Frog’s Leap Merlot—varietally labelled, an eye-catching cute brand name (and by the way I’m throwing no shade at Frog’s Leap, it’s a pioneer of organics in Napa, I’m just saying)rather than, say, Vieux Château Certan Pomerol, which, what even is the grape? how do I pronounce this? fancy foreign things are suspicious they have the ring of the gilded and meretricious to them

(By the way, I say ‘Midwest’ not to indulge in regional stereotyping but because a) I’m from there, and I’ve see this play out, and b) in a market like New York, people have been cultivating east-facing Francophilia in their fine dining for decades and there’s a lot more aspirational ‘I know what Pomerol is’ going on.)

So initially some rules in my head that I’ve since thrown out were: don’t literalize international grape varieties (keep it chardonnay, riesling, cabernet franc); Americanize all first names (Cathy & Peter “Cabernet Franc” for Catherine et Pierre Breton); be happy with cool-sounding nonsense (Jurassic Cream, which does sound awesome, mostly because dinosaurs).

Against that would be what I’ll call the Atlas of True Names tendency, baroque sonorous Tolkeinisms (Pearls of the White Mountain, Valley of the Moon) that reach their peak with chenin rendered as the Plant of the Place of the People of the Place. Which still delights me.

As it got longer, though, and especially after I started writing little notes to keep track of all of the snap decisions I was making & the sources I was using (notes that may interest most people more than the ostensible project itself), things…changed. One thing I noticed myself doing was editorializing a little bit more. The last name Lafarge, literally “The Forge”, is a metonymic surname for blacksmith, so I rendered it Man from the Forge. For some reason I decided in the moment to render the Meursault vineyard Les Perrières, literally “The Quarry”, into the more explanatory So Much Limestone It’s Like A Quarry. Rather than call pinot noir “Black Pinecone”, it gets the longer notation, Cone-Shaped Clusters, Black.

I’m pretty sure at the outset of all of this I said specifically this wasn’t supposed to be an educational gloss. And it probably still isn’t! But I think I just got bored with the idea of stringing a bunch of nonsense words together. When it works, it works, but when it doesn’t… Barley Field Great Renown “Pinecone” Moon Valley is nobody’s idea of a good time.

If you had asked me when I started doing this whether I was planning to basically reenact the entire discourse in translation around the benefits and limits of literalism I would not have said yes, but here we are, learning the lesson the hard way.


J.b. becker

6 December 2017

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal. Previously: the round one, the people of the place, wines of mind + spirit, sparkling wines of mind + spirit, Gauls, the reason why.]

Let’s take a detour into riesling, undoubtably one of the world’s greatest white wine grapes (right up there with chenin).

Read the rest of this entry »

Prévost, chartogne-taillet

30 November 2017

[Working journal while I continue to obsessively assemble a project of dubious interest & limited appeal. Previously: Greeks, chenin on schist, chenin on limestone, Champagne tribals, Thunder Mountain Chardonnay.]

A blurry picture of a great map of Champagne.

Read the rest of this entry »