Paris in the Spring Time (of 1889)

Sepulchritude Forum: The Absinthe Forum Thru December 2001: Paris in the Spring Time (of 1889)
By Wolfgang on Tuesday, August 21, 2001 - 08:50 am: Edit

I`m going to Ottawa this weekend, I will look if I can find it there... If you have an address in the capital where I can get your wines, send it to me.

By Oxygenee on Tuesday, August 21, 2001 - 12:32 am: Edit

Yes Wolfgang - we own a country hotel situated on a wine farm called SylvanVale, just outside Stellenbosch in the heart of the Cape wine country. We make a full-bodied oak-aged Pinotage, a crisp dry Chenin Blanc, and in certain years also a dry Tavel-style rose. Last year we also made for the first time an intensely sweet and luscious dessert wine from Chenin. Our production is tiny - just 3500 cases in 2001, but increasing slowly as newer vineyards come on line. We employ a viticulturist and a winemaker, but I've now worked 4 harvests alongside them, with a view to taking over the winemaking entirely myself at some stage. Our wines have won lots of awards, but because of our tiny quantities we have chosen to largely stay away from the North American market - our European distributors are already all on allocation. We do have a distributor in Ontario though (Lamprecht International), but not unfortunately in Quebec.

The Fleur du Cap wine you tasted is a mid-quality wine made by a large co-operative type company here - rather look for single vineyard wines if you want to get an idea of what our wines are like at their best.

Botrytis (Botrytis cinerea or Gray-mold rot) incidentally, is not a type of mushroom, but a type of fungus that causes the grapes to rot on the vine. Its caused by humid misty conditions at harvest time and is generally highly undesirable. In certain areas however, and with certain grape varieties (principally semillon, riesling, furmint and chenin) it's actively encouraged, as its possible to make extraordinarily concentrated and intense dessert wines with botrytis infected grapes. The rot causes the grape skins to crack and the berries to turn into a sort of brown, moist raisin with an extremely high sugar content (30 to 40 percent). All 3 of the worlds greatest families of dessert wines (Sauternes from Bordeaux, the Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese German rieslings and the Hungarian furmint-based Tokay wines) are, in good years, made from botrytis infected grapes.

The very finest of these can, incidentally, last far longer than 50 years. The Tokay's are particularly remarkable for their longevity (probably as a result of their very high acidity)- I've tasted one from the 1840's that was still as fresh and alive as if it had been made only two or three decades ago.

By Don_Walsh on Monday, August 20, 2001 - 01:49 pm: Edit


I wasn't thinking of Sauterne but I know the famous one well, Chateau d'Yquem.

Thanks for reminding me...

By Perruche_Verte on Monday, August 20, 2001 - 01:13 pm: Edit

I tried Death in the Afternoon using Segarra and a Spanish cava by Freixenet, demi-sec. I have to say it was very disappointing.

By Wolfgang on Monday, August 20, 2001 - 10:59 am: Edit


Do you work in a vineyard in S.A. ? If yes, do you know if your wine is exported to Quebec, Canada ?

There's not many S.A. wines available here. I only recall of a very good one called Fleur du Cap. It was a 1991 cab. I tasted in 99. It tasted a little bit like bitter black chocolate with a blueberry core. The nose was all cedar and dryed orange peel. Very nice wine at such a low cost (about 17 CAN $, half of it beeing those damn taxes).


Fermentation does not take place on the vine but maybe you read something about botrytis (some kind of mushroom) growing on the ripe grape in some regions. This process is used to make Sauterne, a sweet white (or should I say yellow) Bordeau wine.
Some of those wine are pure hedonistic nectar and can age for over half a century.

Talking about wine and connecting this post back to absinthe, I think mixing absinthe with Champagne is just pure snobbery. It will ruin both the Champagne and the absinthe. If someone want to try it, use cheap sparkling wine instead (the strong anis taste will ruin the subtlety of a good Champagne anyway).


By Dr_Ordinaire on Monday, August 20, 2001 - 07:02 am: Edit

Don, thanks for the info. I was under the impression that wine alcohol meant just that, alcohol made from wine itself.

As far as alcohol made from cane sugar is concerned, those of you homebrewers who live near the border can find 96% cane ethanol in pharmacies in Mexico for about $ 6.00 per liter.

That must be wino's heaven! Dilute with some water and you get vodka for $ 2.50 a quart...

By Don_Walsh on Monday, August 20, 2001 - 03:00 am: Edit

PS to below: Mario seems to make a credible absinthe product from cane juice (sucrose water).

Mari Mayans, according to their own website, is made from a mixture of wine spirits and rum.

The ONE feedstock that is undesirable for making liqueurs, other than Irish-cream types, is whey lactose. Alcohol made from this allegedly contains some very off flavors, although it is much less expensive than grain or grape spirits. Source: Prensel Liqueurs in NZ.

By Don_Walsh on Monday, August 20, 2001 - 02:54 am: Edit

Art, I was sure you knew the difference, but I was clarifying pour l'encouragement des autres.

Dr O., the 19th century european liquor landscape simply didn't include a lot of grain based spirits other than the whiskey made in Normandy, and various Scandinavian and Russian vodkas. The prejudice in favor of wine spirits was economically based, as wine spirits (not the same thing as brandy in any usual sense) are a byproduct of wine making. Wine spirits aren't distilled from WINE, they are distilled from wine LEES and stems and grapeskins after pressing, these are fermented for several months to about 1% alcohol only, and distilled to spirits aka pomace brandy aka marc aka grappa. That is is economically feasible to have a 1% is due to the simple fact that the feedstock is the trash leftovers of winemaking. As such they are free. Distillers of wine spirits may or may not be artisnal or 'industrial'. Only a tiny amount of wine spirits production is destined for bottling as marc or grappa for consumption. Most end up as wine vinegar (an INDUSTRIAL use). Some get rectified (fractionated) into NEUTRAL grape spirits and that is used for fortifying (upping the alcohol content) cheap table wines (a very common practice!) or for the stopping of secondary fermentation early to leave sugars behind in port making.

Marc/grappa is pretty raw stuff and isn't aged at all. They contain a lot more fusels than do Armagnac or Cognac. They are closer to 'cooking brandy' for the kitchen.

I'd be interested to know whether Senor Segarra, a brandy maker, makes his gin from wine spirits (probably well rectified) or from grain neutral spirits. Probably the former. He'd be going way round the block to be buying grain spirits and I doubt he'd be mashing his own grain.

As to absinthe, the old sources (like Dick's) don't say that absinthe can't be or wasn't made from alcohol from feedstocks other than grapes. They said (and probably just repeating what someone else said) that wine spirits were preferred. And that reflects the prevailing European attitudes of the times (and probably now).

Absolutely, if alcohol from any feedstock "of agricultural origin" (not synthetic from ethylene) is fractionated and carbon treated ENOUGH, then it loses all organoleptic character and becomes, more or less, 'neutral'. In practice, this costs money to achieve, so makers select alcohol from feedstocks that produce the sensory qualities they need, purified to the lowest level consistent with their goals and the economics of their products. Vodkas and gins are made from the most neutral spirits that their makers can get, again with caveat of cost.

As to absinthe, the issue of traditionality will get you a different answer if you ask us or if you ask, arguendo, Absintheur.

In the USA, you can buy neutral grain spirits, and you can buy if you look hard enough, neutral grape spirits (usually of a grade rich in methanol intended for making wine vinegar) but you'd be hard pressed to find what the 19th century writers meant by 'wine spirits'. NOT the same thing at all. It simply isn't an article of commerce any more in the States, not in the condition they were talking about in the quotes we are concerned with.

(Sorry if I am being a bit dodgy, I cannot discuss what spirits we use.)

By Artemis on Sunday, August 19, 2001 - 08:45 pm: Edit

"Artemis, industrial ethyl alcohol is synthetic, a natural gas product ... "

Don, please note that in the post to which you apparently refer, I placed "industrial alcohol" inside quotation marks. It was a phrase I was quoting, not my own words. In other words, "industrial alcohol" was what *somebody else* said, not what *I* say.

In French texts of the period, "industrial alcohol" seems to be used in blanket fashion (and usually as little less than an epithet) for *any* alcohol which was not derived from grapes. It's apparent from those old texts that this blanket term included (as far as the writers were concerned) everything from true industrial alcohols as you've defined them to wood alcohols, to perfectly harmless alcohols derived from molasses and beets. There was an obvious (and irrational) prejudice on their part against any alcohol other than that from grapes, but given the fact that some of the alcohols used by unscrupulous absinthe makers at the time were not fit for human consumption, I can understand their concern.

I appreciate your clarification, but there was no misunderstanding on my part as to the nature of industrial alcohol. I suppose I could have been more clear, but not without getting wordy, which I wasn't inclined to do at the time. So much for that.

By Perruche_Verte on Sunday, August 19, 2001 - 06:57 pm: Edit

This has become a very entertaining and informative thread. Thanks, guys, for all the information, including the stuff about cognac
and armagnac. I like a nice cognac but have always suspected its price to be inflated.

On the wine spirits vs. grain alcohol issue: People here have mentioned that the use of wine spirits was supposed to be a mark of quality, because they were the "cleanest" form of alcohol available at the time. I have no idea why this would be true. France and Switzerland produce grain, don't they? Would it have been cost-prohibitive to buy grain and ferment it?

By Dr_Ordinaire on Sunday, August 19, 2001 - 06:17 pm: Edit

The question is not so much whether wine alcohol is better (or worse) than alcohol obtained from other sources: beets, sucrose, whatever.

The question is whether an absinthe made with alcohol distilled from anything other than grapes can still be called "traditional".

It's not a matter of quality, or of using inferior materials. One could use extremely expensive, chromatography grade pure ethanol, and the situation would be the same.

It is my understanding that every source of ethanol contributes a different "character" (read impurities) to the final product. Otherwise cognac would equal gin would equal whisky would equal vodka, etc. (Besides the aging procedures.)

I'm quite sure that Pernod could have used excellent quality "other-than-grape" alcohol when Phyloxera hit, but they thought that their product would not have been the same.

By Don_Walsh on Sunday, August 19, 2001 - 04:04 pm: Edit

Oxy, it was the big names seen in airport duty free shops that I was referring to. Advertising-driven products of indifferent quality aimed at the indefatigably status-conscious Asian market, where the assumption is that price and a fancy bottle means it has to be good.

I will have to see if I can find the Frapin, and the 14yo KWV. Now if I could only get my hands on some biltong...

By _Blackjack on Sunday, August 19, 2001 - 03:30 pm: Edit


Advances in enzyme biochemistry are enabling alcohol for fuel purposes to be produced from cellulose stocks such as agro waste and even municipal waste like paper and cardboard, but this ethanol won't be for drinking.

Y'know, I bet there would be a market for Garbage Liqueur tho...

By Don_Walsh on Sunday, August 19, 2001 - 01:50 pm: Edit

Artemis, industrial ethyl alcohol is synthetic, a natural gas product made by making ethyl sulphate from ethylene gas and then hydrolyzing it. As ethyl sulphate is very toxic, such synthetic alcohol is not fit for human consumption, nor is it used in cosmetics or perfumes or pharmaceuticals.

Only alcohol 'of agricultural origin' is used for these purposes. The feedstocks vary from starches such as corn, wheat, rye, rice, tapioca, etc to lactose from milk whey, sucrose sources like beets and cane, to fruit and vegetables (jerusalem artichokes for example.)

Advances in enzyme biochemistry are enabling alcohol for fuel purposes to be produced from cellulose stocks such as agro waste and even municipal waste like paper and cardboard, but this ethanol won't be for drinking.

You might be interested to know that in the next 5 years up to 30% of US grain production will be diverted to synethic fuels purposes. And China is now making a start down the same path. The removal of this much agricultural capacity from the food chain is going to have some interesting impacts down the road.

19th century industrial alcohol was probably highly impure and contained a lot of methanol, isopropyl alcohol and other congeners and fusels but, it was originally of agricultural origin as the synethic processes from ethylene were only introduced later.

By Oxygenee on Sunday, August 19, 2001 - 01:44 pm: Edit

Glad to have mutually clarified things Don!

Yes, the KWV make some fine brandies, under many different labels. The standard 10YO is the most widely available, but the best, and worth looking out for, is the "Oude Molen" 14YO - it won the "Best Brandy in the World" title at last years IWSC, against formidable competition from Cognac and elsewhere. It has the cognac-like fruitiness that many SA brandies lack.

Talking of Cognac by the way, not all are absurdly overpriced and poor value - there are some producers who deliver real value for money - they are just harder to find and of course exclude all the big names. Look out for instance for Domaine Frapin - a simply stunning Grande Champagne cognac packaged in an plain Armagnac-style bottle, for less than you would pay for entry-level Remy Martin.

By Don_Walsh on Sunday, August 19, 2001 - 01:01 pm: Edit

And I would be a poltroon not to concede the issue of grapes fermenting on the vine. I don't pretend to know anything about wine making, I ferment for alcohol only, as opposed to making wine per se. I could swear I read, or maybe misread something, on a wine site, about fermentation occuring on the vine, but I'd have a hard time finding the site, and I could have misconstrued what they were saying. I am happy to stand corrected.

By Don_Walsh on Sunday, August 19, 2001 - 12:54 pm: Edit

Oxy, yes, thanks, I found the same information, but you posted back faster than me.

Yes, all plants use sucrose for (energy) storage and transport.

It is in the first stage of grape berry maturation that sucrose is fed to the immature berry via the ploem. Enzymes in the intact grape berry (mainly invertase) hydrolyze the sucrose into glucose and fructose. So, glucose and fructose are the sugars to be found in the intact fruit. But sucrose in the vine itself.

So in the end we are both half right and half wrong, and I have learned something interesting. Many thanks!!

Are you working with KVW down in the Cape? Good brandy, that. I used to be agent for DENEL (formerly Kriegskor) and my colleagues used to bring some over to Bkk when we had something going on here.

"From an enological perspective, veraison should be subdivided into different sub-stages based upon berry metabolism and the continued transport of substances to the vine (Figure 1). During veraison, water, sugars, and nitrogen compounds are transported to the berry via the phloem. Sucrose is hydrolyzed to glucose and fructose in the berry. Berry flavor and aroma compounds are synthesized within the berry. It is not clear whether the synthesis of these compounds is controlled by hormonal signals from the rest of the vine or occurs in the berry independently of other vine influences."

By Oxygenee on Sunday, August 19, 2001 - 12:43 pm: Edit

Don, I hesitate to argue chemistry with an expert such as yourself (my winemaking knowledge is entirely practical, not academic in nature, and I don't have my reference books to hand at the moment), but, to clarify my earlier post, my understanding is that sucrose IS indeed the sugar initially produced in the vine (through photsynthesis in the leaves) but that this is hydrolised by the action of the enzyme invertase into (overwhelmingly) glucose and fructose in the grape berry itself. The ratio of glucose to fructose varies enormously over the ripening period of the grape. Thinking about it, I was incorrect in saying that the invertase is only present on the skin - its inside the grape itself. The yeasts though, are certainly only found on the exterior of the grape, and its for this reason that fermentation begins only after crushing in the cellar, not while the grapes are still hanging on the vines. This was the practical point I was taking issue with.

By the way, Colombard is indeed the more normal spelling, although it is often spelt with a "u" here in SA (and the final "d" is often omitted as well).

By Don_Walsh on Sunday, August 19, 2001 - 11:58 am: Edit

Correction to last: 'sugar in wine' should read 'sugar in intact grapes'.

By Don_Walsh on Sunday, August 19, 2001 - 11:56 am: Edit

Oxy, thanks for the information. I am not at all involved in wine making. However, I believe you are in error regarding the sugar present in wine. Grape sugar is glucose aka dextrose. There is no sucrose in grapes. You are correct that sucrose can be broken down into a molecule each of fructose and glucose, enzymatically (by invertase) or by acid inversion, this produces 'invert sugar'. But this process does not take place in grapes, because there is no sucrose present to be 'inverted'.

Sucrose occurs in sugar cane and in sugar beets.

Glucose occurs in fruit (incl grapes)
and corn. Fructose, in some fruits and in honey.

There are six principle grapes employed in cognac making, you mentioned two of them (but indeed they are the most important). The others are chenin blanc, cinsaut, and palomino. Prior to the phylloxera blight, however, the principle grape in Cognac making was the Folle blanche, which is now used rather sparingly, as it is a rare grape.

Colombard by the way is usually spelled without a u and is also known as Trebbiano.

I have double checked my source (Merck Index 12th Ed.) regarding glucose and sucrose biosynthesis and distribution. I will go triple check in other sources, but so far, I'm sorry to say you are looking mistaken on this point.

By Oxygenee on Sunday, August 19, 2001 - 11:05 am: Edit

Don, as someone professionally involved in winemaking, I'd take issue with you that "some wine is fermented on the vine" - this is just not true, or certainly not true to any measurable extent. The sugar in a ripe grape is in the form of sucrose - the yeasts (which in their natural form are found on the outer skin of the grape) cannot feed directly on this. The sucrose must first be broken down into fructose and glucose - this is accomplished by the action of enzymes also found on the grape skin. So until the outer surface of the grape skin is brought into contact with the juicy interior (exactly what happens when the grapes are crushed), the conditions for fermentation do not arise.

If grapes are left until rotten on the vine, and a significant number of skins split entirely, then in theory this type of contact COULD take place in individual grapes - but there is so much other bacteria active in a vineyard, that the fermentation process would stop essentially before it really started. If you walk through a vineyard where the grapes are rotten you won't get any fermentation smell, but you might get a whiff of acetic acid.

The overwhelmingly popular grape for brandy making(and especially for Cognac) incidentally is Ugni Blanc. Here in South Africa we also grow much Columbard for brandy making, but its much less popular in France and essentialy not used at all in Cognac, where its typically high-toned fruit flavours are regarded as undesirable. Grapes for brandy making are picked very green - they must first and formost have high acidity (essential as a preservative, because, unlike the case with wine, sulphur can't be added - it reacts with copper of course so can't come into contact with a pot still ). Secondly, the grapes must ferment out at about 8 - 10% alcohol - higher alcohols result in the release of certain flavour components that are not desirable in brandy.

By Don_Walsh on Saturday, August 18, 2001 - 03:43 pm: Edit

Let me be a little more precise.

Some wine is fermented on the vine and some is fermented after pressing. Oenologists monitor sugar content on the vine among other things to make decision as to when to harevst, and this further depends on applications.

Brandy grapes are not harvested at same time as wine grapes nor are they all planted in same sorts of soil. The very best brandies are made from the 'wrong' grapes in the 'wrong' soils and harvested at the 'wrong' times.

Cognac and Armagnac are almost exclusively made from a half dozen white grape varieties, there is only one red grape species incolved as far as I know.

Wine spirits are primarily produced from BY PRODUCTSD AND WASTES of winemaking: lees, grapeskins, etc. While grapejuice can be fermented to 14-18% or better in a few days, or a few weeks, the byproducts are fermented to 1% in about 90 days. Wine spirits are thus only economically possible where winery waste is available in bulk and free or filthy cheap. That is the basis of the vinegar, marc, grappa, pomace brandy and wine spirits business in Europe, esp Italy (#1), France, Germany, Switzerland, but also everywhere else where wine is made. As mentioned a lot is taken for wine vinegar making, and of the rest, some is highly rectified (purified) to 'neutral grape spirits'. NEUTRAL GRAPE SPIRITS is not the same as the WINE SPIRITS mentioned in the old literature. But the former is all you can buy today, unless you wan to buy unaged marc brandy or grappa.

By Artemis on Saturday, August 18, 2001 - 03:21 pm: Edit

I don't know the answer to the wine spirits question, except that most absinthe was probably made with "industrial alcohol" (made from grain or beets or sugar cane). Pernod prided itself on using wine spirits, but they may have been an exception to the rule.


Crowley was only 14 years of age at the time of that article, so his heyday at the Chat Noir would have been at least 10 years later.

The article actually says absinthe was not a big thing until forty years previously, so that would have been 1850 rather than 1840 as I first wrote.

By Don_Walsh on Saturday, August 18, 2001 - 03:18 pm: Edit

The following is specilative.

'Wine spirits' covers a lot of ground. This ranges from inferior brandy to marc, grappa, and pomace brandy. It hardly matters what grape varietals or regions are involved. A lot of wine spirits is nowadays diverted to make wine vinegar. Some is processed into 'neutral wine spirits' and some into very pure wine alcohol for the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. Some is used to fortify certain cheaper wines.

I don't know how selective the phylloxera bugs were, but clearly they didn't eat all vines from everywhere as the European vintners were eventually able to introduce resistant vines from the Americas (north, and south). You might like to know that of the 100 or so species of wine grape, more than half were native to the New World prior to the arrival of Colombus, and no one really knows why.

Wine producing regions like Europe, produce little grain spirits (Normandy and the UK notwithstanding). Wine spirits were the spirit of choice for absinthe making mostly because they were at hand in France and Switzerland.

Absinthe was not produced using expensive aged brandy. Unaged, colorless wine spirits (marc, grappa, pomace brandy) is pretty unpalatable, grappa is an 'acquired taste' and is never aged in wood, only in glass.

So I am guessing that enough wine spirits could be had from table grapes, inferior varietals etc or imported from places unaffescyed by phyloxera, to get by. If not then the supply was augmented by ethanol from other feedstocks.

Maybe that's why lesser absinthe makers adulterated their products with tainted alcohol of industrial origin and methanol etc?

To summarize, 'wine spirits' does not always mean BETTER than ethanol made from other feedstocks as much 'wine spirits' is really shit. Once again the old sources must be interpreted intelligently. It is a bad mistake to assume that any wine spirits = better than any grain spirits. And spirits does not equal neutral spirits. And neutral is a relative term.

By Perruche_Verte on Saturday, August 18, 2001 - 02:49 pm: Edit

One question boggles me: Pernod was made with wine spirits, and the pamphlet Artemis translated from the French mentions that they had trouble obtaining the necessary quantities due to the same blight that ruined French wine production.

So why didn't the price of absinthe go through the roof as well? Were they able to use grapes that would not have been suitable for wine?

By Artemis on Saturday, August 18, 2001 - 02:19 pm: Edit

"However the author certainly sounds biased, what is his nationality?"

American, I assumed, but I don't know for sure.

It's actually quite informative (and probably accurate), for all the sarcasm.

By Chevalier on Saturday, August 18, 2001 - 02:17 pm: Edit

Baiting the Frogs (and not without reason) has long been a Yankee bloodsport. Mark Twain made mincemeat of the French. Can anyone imagine Twain preferring an absinthe frappé to a whiskey?

By Don_Walsh on Saturday, August 18, 2001 - 02:11 pm: Edit

That is probably a fair assesment of absinthe's popularity prior to the phyloxera blight.

However the author certainly sounds biased, what is his nationality?

Faux-medieval is still all the rage in a lot of french restaurants worldwide.

By Artemis on Saturday, August 18, 2001 - 02:02 pm: Edit

Last night I read Characteristic Parisian Cafes, by Theodore Child, from the April 1889 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, a copy of which was kindly provided by Oxygenee.


The writer treated his subject as a day at the zoo, with thinly disguised contempt for the whole business. His contempt for “bohemians” in general is not disguised at all. They lived out their usefulness in the 1830s, says he. What would he think of the Beats, or the Hippies????

Some quotes:

Why the Frenchman wants to go to a cafe is a complex question which can be answered only roughly and incompletely by noting the triple attraction which the cafe exercises ...

... it satisfies the need of public life and life in public ....

... it takes the place of family life, which the conditions of modern existence have profoundly undermined ....

... it flatters a certain taste for degradation and lowness which is peculiar to male humanity, and which the wisest legislator will never be able to suppress.

Substitute “Absinthe Forum” for “cafe”, and has anything changed? The only thing I can think of is that the women now share the taste for degradation noted in item number three. And probably always did.

Absinthe itself is mentioned only in passing in this article, and always in somewhat derogatory terms:

But strange to say, the Parisian does not drink wine at a cafe: he drinks deleterious distilled liquors, such as vermouth, absinthe, various bitters ....”

Of all the cafes, the one treated with the least sarcasm is the “Chat Noir”, a haunt of Aleister Crowley in his youth. Crowley (not mentioned in the article - he was a nobody at the time except in his own mind), perversely mentioned this cafe in his memoirs as the “Chat Blanc”. It was furnished in a faux Medieval style which was all the rage in Paris at the time, according to the article. You could ascend to the inner circle on the third floor if your artistic credentials were high enough. Utter pretenders couldn’t even get seated on the ground floor.

Also, the article says that nobody in Paris would have even considered drinking absinthe much before 1840, except as medicine.

Fascinating article.

Thank you, Oxygenee.

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