January 10 Roundup: Sherry Redux, Working on a Grape Gang, and a Wine-Grammar Lesson

Each week I review a wine with my “Sip It!”-or-“Skip It!” recommendation. All Vintages and product numbers refer to the LCBO.
Sip It!
Lustau Almacenista Vides Palo Cortado de Jerez 

LCBO #: 431940 | 500 mL bottle | $37.00
Alcohol: 15.0%
Sweetness: Dry
Wine Type: Sherry

In my crash course on sherry last year, I called Palo Cortados the “unicorns of the sherry world” for their reputed rarity. Far from a Fino, which is how it would have begun its fortified wine life, Palo Cortados have the “aromatic refinement of Amontillado [sherries] combined with the structure and body of an Oloroso.”

Sherries age in one of two ways: biologically or oxidatively, the former occurring under a blanket of indigenous yeast called flor, and the latter the result of air contact over time in the cask. Sherrynotes.com explains it well:

…a Palo Cortado would originate as a Fino that started to deviate: unplanned yeast activity, specific characteristics of the grape juice, a slightly off-beat cask or certain ambient conditions that influenced the flor. These casks would then be taken out of the Fino solera: its Fino mark, a vertical line or palo, would then be crossed or cortado by a diagonal line. Its flor would be killed by fortifying the wine to 17-18 degrees and it would continue its life as a barrel that ages oxidatively.

This inexplicable switch from biologic to oxidative aging is what makes Palo Cortados so rare: there is no guarantee of the result and, as such, it is estimated that fewer than 10,000 bottles of authentic Palo Cortado are sold each year. “Commercial” Palo Cortados, on the other hand, are the skillful blend of Amontillado and Oloroso sherries

Lustau is a great entry- and mid-level producer for authentic sherry. Founded in 1896, and relocated to the historic quarter of Jerez de la Frontera in the 1940s, the label began exporting its sherry in the 1950s, though the market was dominated by British tastes for sweeter fortifieds. Decades of innovation and expansion followed Lustau’s initial export market entry and, aided by a resurgent interest in more authentic Spanish sherry, gained increasing market share in the 1980s

Nestled amidst the limestone “albariza” hills of Jerez, Lustau’s two vineyards–Montegilillo and Las Cruces–grow traditional sherry grape varieties for production of both dry and sweet wines. Palomino, Muscatel, and Pedro Ximénez grapes are exposed to an average of 3,000 hours of sunlight, and relatively heavy rainfalls, helping the ripening process

Lustau’s Bodega in Jerez de la Frontera (from Wikipedia)

Made from Palomino grapes, Lustau Almacenista Vides Palo Cortado de Jerez is a light amber-coloured wine that, when poured, recalls the appearance of light maple syrup. Aged in American oak in the traditional solera system, the product notes describe “nuances of vanilla, coffee and dark chocolate,” though I only picked up the vanilla. Instead, my nose detected aromas of brown sugar, short pastry crust, and cinnamon–the smells you associate with the baking of a great apple pie. On the palate, nutty warmth, a saline-minerality, toasted almond, and warm baking spices were intense and luxurious. Not exactly a fan favourite with guests, though it was preferred to last week’s Fino, I rather enjoyed this for the unique playfulness of the myriad flavours. Lustau recommends serving this between 14-15° C (which I did), alongside consommés, game soups, cold and smoked meats, foie-gras, and many spicy Asian dishes (none of which I tried, the cold, smoked meats excepted).

Dispatches from the world of wine – a roundup of blog and news articles of the week.


United States


Putting that graduate degree in history to use…looking at wine through the ages.


I was racking my brain this week, wondering what to blog about. I had fun with my last post (one that a faithful reader called “whimsical”)–though, truth be told, I’m wondering how much mileage I can get out of this before the so-called well runs dry on this mash-up of history and wine.  There I was, sitting in a Starbucks, puttering away on my other big writing project this week, texting with Faithful Reader and long-time friend, Dean, when I mused (in less than 160 characters): Isn’t there a part in A Tale of Two Cities where a cask of wine spills onto the streets of Paris? It’s been over a decade since I’ve read Dickens’ tragic tale of love, death, and betrayal in revolutionary France–in fact, I think I read it in the seventh or eighth grade, when I went through my “French Revolution phase,” lapping up novels like The Scarlet Pimpernel (and the film adaptation, with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour, of course, not the remake a few decades later), but I digress…This weekend, I dug up the copy I’d read back then–the Penguin edition from 1971, now with yellowed pages, dog-eared and worn since I was not the first reader. I wasn’t up for doing the whole cover-to-cover thing, so I opted for thumbing through to the chapter called, “The Wine Shop,” in search of the passage I remembered. There it was on page 60, the cask of red wine that “stained the ground of the narrow street in the suburb of Saint Antoine…where it was spilled,” a metaphor for the savage, unrepentantly bloody revolution that France would wage on the existing social order. All this got me thinking, if the French Revolution was so fundamental in altering the political, economic and social structure of the country, what was the deal with wine?

A Tale of Two Cities, The Wine-Shop, Gaspard, Madame de Farge, and her publican husband, by Fred Barnard.” (Another Wikipedia “labelled for reuse” picture.)

Grape cultivation across France, as in most of Europe, predates recorded history. The Celts, Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, and others travelling to and from what is now present-day France, whether temporary sojourners or permanent migrants, cultivated the humble Vitis vinifera plant. At the height of the Roman Empire, when demand was arguably at its peak, vines were planted throughout Gaul (areas that now make up the present-day Loire Valley, the Paris Basin, Champagne, and Brittany). As the Roman Empire crumbled, and the region fell prey to invading Germanic tribes, grape cultivation entered a quasi-Dark Age, only to be reinvigorated by the Carolingian Renaissance, and the rise of the medieval wine trade. 

It should come as no surprise that one of the key forces driving wine production during this period was the Catholic Church (as an example, see my post on Châteauneuf-du-Pape from 2015). However, viticulture and wine-making was predominantly a small-scale, monastic affair–think of the Cistercian order in Burgundy, or the Benedictine monks in the Rhône Valley. There is some dispute over how much of a role the Church played in preserving the tradition of viticulture from the Roman period, with one camp arguing that private enterprise, as permitted, for instance, under the Carolingians, was responsible for shepherding vine cultivation through the Dark Ages.

Ancien régime blues: Something rotten in the state of France

Dickens famously begins his novel, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” but, for the peasants of France, it truly was the worst of times; there was absolutely nothing remotely redeeming about the ancien régime. A contemporary Frenchman witnessed the plight of the peasant first-hand:

Certain ferocious animals are to be seen in the rual districts, males and females, swarthy, livid, and sunburnt, and attached to the soil, which they dig with indomitable stubborness. They have something like articulate speech, and faces resembling those of human beings; and, in fact, they are men. At night they retire to dens, where they live on black bread, water and roots. They save other people the trouble of sowing, ploughing, and reaping, and thus deserve not the lack of bread which they themselves have produced. (La Bruyère, quoted in R. H. Dabney, The Causes of the French Revolution, 86-7.)

Indeed, it sucked to be poor in pre-revolutionary France. Another account, a century earlier, perhaps fortelling the consequences of abject poverty, recalls the “signs of a growing misfortune; all the dismal indications of an overwhelming calamity. [France’s] fields were uncultivated, the villages unpeopled, the houses dropping to decay.” By the eve of the revolution, the resulting stagnation from an indigent populace saw almost a quarter of agricultural land laying fallow, wages of those fortunate to count themselves among the labouring popuation dropped to below-susbsistence levels, and taxation, both direct and indirect, was the greatest source of popular discontent. 

Taxation was a real bummer. According to R. H. Dabney, approximately 53 per cent of the income earned from the peasant’s farm was absorbed in direct taxes. After paying the government, another 14 per cent was slated for the seigneur (or landlord), and another “to the tithe-owing clergy.” When everyone had been paid, the peasant proprietor had about 19 per cent of that remaining for himself and his family. But we’re not done yet. As if the state hadn’t bled the poor peasant dry, he and his entire family had to pay indirect taxes, too, on salt, as an example, and wine–“one of the most heavily taxed commodities by the end of the ancien régime” according to Noelle Plack, senior lecturer at Newman University College in Birmigham, UK (N. Plack, “Liberty, Equality and Taxation: Wine in the French Revolution,” Social History of Alcohol and Drugs 26: 1 (2012), 9). Get this – even gifting a bottle of wine to someone, like a sick relative, was a punishable offence, and the state could, at any time, demand to see a wine-grower’s inventory to determine how much he was permitted to drink before taxing the balance of his cellar. Outrageous! It’s no wonder that, when the Estates General–the last-ditch effort to save the unravelling social and (soon enough) political order–was convened to review the grievances expressed from French people across the country, tithes and other taxes from both Church and state were raised as the most crushing.  

The times – they are a changin’…

I think we pretty much know what went down, from the Bastille to the guillotine, without going into gruesome detail. Taxation, though recognized as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, was not immediately abolished by the National Assembly, despite their recognition that the approach to collection, as well as the steep amount, needed to be changed. Riots ensued, revolts sprung up, and havoc was wreaked by those refusing to pay anymore taxes. By May 1791, taxation on a range of consumer goods, including meat, tobacco and wine, had ended (through through a more complex series of reforms than I am able to describe in this blog post). According to Plack:

 On this day [April 30-May 1, 1791] there were prolonged and exuberant celebrations in Paris and throughout France, which commemorated the event with much fanfare. Carts filled with barrels of wine and other goods lined up on the roads outside the Capital, waiting for the stroke of midnight to pass through the customs barriers free of charge. According to the journalist, Camille Desmoulins, 431 wagons filled with wine and over 270,000 livres worth of brandy (eaux-de-vie) entered Paris along with 1600 chickens, 1672 turkeys and 90 cattle during the night of April 30-May 1, 1791.1 Desmoulins estimates that these goods would have carried a value of 3,568,254 livres of which two million would have gone to the General Farm in the form of indirect taxes. (Plack, “Liberty,” 5.)

Perhaps this is how the cask of wine in the pages of Dickens’ famed novel got to Paris–in the overnight transport of tax-free goods from country to city? 

A new vino order… 

An interesting by-product of the rhetoric of wine and revolution was increasing demands of the flattening of wine prices, regardless of quality. In the spirit of égalité, it was argued that “affordable wine was a right of the people and that they should have access to it wherever they lived… ‘It is deplorable,’ [a] winegrower deputy lamented, ‘that in a free nation, the poor should pay as much tax for their mediocre wines as the rich pay for their bottles of Burgundy or Champagne'” (Plack, 16). According to Plack, moderately priced wine was a “tangible outcome” of the revolution, though it’s certainly not the only change affecting French wine into the next century.

According to Julian Hitner, reflecting on the work of eminent wine gurus Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, “the single greatest change that the…Revolution in France made to the ancien régime of wine was to dispossess monasteries and the Church of their enormous holdings.” Nowhere was this perhaps more significant than in Burgundy, where, Hitner reviweing several secondary sources writes, “Clos de Vougeot…established by the Cistercians around 1100 CE and  [covering] about fifty hectares, was confiscated [in 1791 as part of the Biens Nationaux, the nationalization of monastic lands] and divided into sixty privately-owned properties with about one hundred owners.” 

In southern France, according to the scholarship of Noelle Plack (you can tell I was totally enthralled by her work – does she have a fan page?), the privatization of common land, to which no individual had previously held property right, gave peasants “land for the vineyards that transformed wine production in the nineteenth century,” helping pave the way for the “viticultural revolution” taking place in the region in the nineteenth century into the next century.

Still with me? I know, this was an exceptionally long entry this week (even my proofreader got tired!), but hey, informative, n’est-ce pas? In the end, the French Revolution played a pivotal role in democratizing wine, from the system of vineyard ownership to the affordability and access to it by the general populace. Indeed, more than the social order underwent a profound and enduring transformation. 

Each week we explore the exciting language of wine, deciphering those cryptic wine reviews, and helping consumers expand their libation lexicon.

Do you have a favourite variety…or is it a varietal? Is it a single variety wine or a blend of several varietals? Variety, varietal, shmariety, schmarietal — I often see these two terms used interchangeably, though, like any grammar enthusiast, I know there is both a correct, and an incorrect usage. This week, I set the record straight, with a little help from our trusty friend Google.

Va•ri•e•ty / vəˈrīədē/

  1. the quality or state of being different or diverse, the absence of uniformity, sameness, or monotony.
    “Variety is the spice of life.”

  2. a taxonomic category that ranks below subspecies (where present) or species, its members differing from others of the same subspecies or species in a… blah, blah, blah. Varieties are more often recognized in botany.
    “Sauvignon blanc is a variety of the vitis vinifera plant family.

Va•ri•e•tal / vəˈrīətl /

  1. (of a wine or grape) made from or belonging to a single specified variety of grape.
    “A varietal wine made from Pinot Noir.”
  2. (in botany and zoology) of, relating to, characteristic of, or forming a variety. 
    “Black berries and thin skins are characteristic of the varietal.”

“Variety” is the noun, “varietal” is the adjective. When describing the wine, opt for “varietal”; when describing characteristics of grapes, opt for “varietal”; but if you’re identifying the grape without any attributive qualities, “variety” is the best choice. So, when you pick up that GSM blend for your next dinner party, you can confidently state that you’ve selected an excellent varietal wine for your host, made from Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre varieties.


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