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Copyright © 2012
by Fred McMillin
Winery of the Week
University of Dijon
Chartreuse is the most famous liqueur in the world still made by a religious order, the Carthusians. In fact, the French name for a Carthusian monestary or charterhouse is "chartreuse." The first monestary of the order is known as the Grande Chartreuse. The formula for creating the cordial from some 130 herbs, spices, etc. has a very long history, and is still secret. Here are a few highlights.
1080—The Church wanted theology teacher Bruno Hartenfaust to become Archbishop of Reims. He refused, and instead with two companions went to a rocky valley high in the Alps, about 20 miles from Grenoble. There they built the Grand Chartreuse.
1132—An avalanche destroyed the monestary, killing seven fathers.
1371—The re-built Grande Chartreuse burns down.
15??—An unknown alchemist creates the original elixer.
1605—By now the Marshal of the French Artillery, Francois d'Estrees, has come into possession of the formula and gives it to the Carthusian fathers in Paris.
1737—The Paris charterhouse made no use of the treasure, but finally turns it over to the Grande Chartreuse, where friar-chemist Jerome Maubec added "three stages of refinement, but suddenly died in his laboratory." (from Desmond Seward) Luckily, he just managed to tell his improvements before expiring.
Up until now, the Grande Chartreuse was known for its 11-blast-furnace iron production. However, their methods became obsolete, and happily, they turned to the commercial production of the modified 1605 formula.
1848—The Yellow Chartreuse had been created in 1840 but sales bombed. Then 30 French officers stopped by, tried it, spread the word, and soon the monks were selling several million quarts a year! Since then, the monks have never looked back.
So for a sip of history, serve either the yellow (84 proof) or the green (108 proof) poured over ice after dinner. My panel gave the yellow a HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, the green an EXCELLENT. (Either is $20 for 375 ml.)
The Grande Chartreuse fathers also made wine. A visitor in 1739, poet Thomas Gray (the Elegy), wrote that the monestary "was one of the most astonishing scenes I ever beheld; 100 fathers and 300 brothers make their clothes, grind their corn and press their wine."
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Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.
This page created January 2000