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by Fred McMillin
for February 8, 2001

 

The Thrust of the Saber


Prologue

With a powerful backhanded slash of a heavy saber, M. LeLievre clipped off the neck of the bottle of sparkling wine. Then, he poured it with the oldest of French brandies, Armagnac, producing Gascony's unique aperitif, Pousse Rapieré, the thrust of the rapier.

Castle Plaque

The plaque on the castle read (in French), "Here d'Artagnan was born, about 1615, under his real name, Charles de Batz."

Liver Toast Flamed with Armagnac

This stack of liver toast was flamed with Armagnac and served with Gascony game hens.

We were in the land of the swordsman d'Artagnan (see photo of castle), immortalized by the great cape-and-sword novel of Dumas. Later, M. LeLievre would climax the feast by serving a 1914 Armagnac (photo)...pure satin. Whence this magnificent brandy? Let's go back six centuries.

 

Gastronomy About 1400 A.D.

The French government officially recognizes the unique character of a blue-veined goat's milk cheese aged for six months in local caves. It forbids rivals from other areas the use of the community's name, Roquefort!

In Italy, the Grand Duke of Tuscany officially recognizes that only a certain, superior portion of Chianti country may use the name Classico.

A future fan of the trencher (a platter made of bread) is born in 1412. Later, she would break off a piece of the trencher and dip it into wine. Her name was Joan of Arc. (See December 7, 1999 WineDay titled "A Trencher Quencher".)

1411 A.D.—The oldest known reference to a brandy made in a landlocked area southeast of Bordeaux. It's Armagnac. (Cognac, France's best-known brandy, will not be created for another two centuries.)

So, when I think Gascony I think d'Artagnan, the swashbuckling hero of The Three Musketeers, and Armagnac, that in France I found many treasured over that "newcomer," Cognac.

These magnificent brandies are made by distilling wine, and collecting a certain portion for aging in oak. In Gascony, the process has been improved significantly. I have a witness, the "Prince of Gastronomes," Curnonsky, born in Anjou in 1872. In 1961 he wrote, "Today Armagnac has attained its highest point of quality...Sages of all nations will agree on this: Any friendly feast will be crowned of it concludes with an Armagnac of a good year. Dawdle over it...inhale...taste. You will remember!"

 

Enter Monsieur Sempé

At age 20 Henri Sempé bottled his first Armagnac for the Gascony company he founded in 1936. Progress was interrupted when he helped with the Allies landing in France in World War II. In fact, he was given a special citation by General Dwight Eisenhower. (My only personal claim to fame is that in Tacoma, Washington, my high school chemistry partner was none other than General Eisenhower's bright son, John.)

A man of many skills, Henri did more than run the House of Sempé; from 1955 to 1989 he served in the Upper House of the French legislature. But now let's talk about his brandy.

 

Our "Distilled Wine" of the Week

French TV filming M. LeLievre

French TV filming M. LeLievre pouring us a 1914 Armagnac.

Sempé V.S.O.P. Armagnac
Stature—France's oldest brandy.
V.S.O.P.—Very Superior Old Pale
Historical Debts—The Romans brought winemaking to the area, and the Moors brought knowledge of distillation.
Comparison with Cognac—Armagnac uses grapes that impart more fruit flavor. Uses a distillation method that also gives a very broad range of flavors.
Slow Start—As late as 1961, critic William Massee wrote, "This headiest of brandies is little known outside of France." The purpose of this article is to help cure that.
Importer—Caravelle Wine Selections, Avon, CT.
Contact—Office of Lorraine Raguseo, (212) 765-7279, FAX (212) 765-7303.
Price—$45 range

 

Postscript

We didn't ever get to see the program on our visit produced by the crew of French Cultural Television. But about the aroma and tastes of that 1914 Armagnac, as Curnonsky predicted, we remember!

 

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers. For information about the wine courses he teaches every month at either San Francisco State University or San Francisco City College (Fort Mason Division), please fax him at (415) 567-4468.

 
 


 

This page created February 2001

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