The Glass That Cheers And, With A Bit Of Luck, Inebriates.


The rain clouds – and the accompanying ravening insects – caught us before we had finished supper outside this evening so we went indoors, applied calomine lotion to the parts every insect could  reach and settled down to chat  over  slices of goat cheese  and a glass of epine.

Both items had returned with me in my suitcases…accompanied by spices impossible to obtain here, marmite and kippers. Luckily, Aeromexico surpassed themselves and did not lose my luggage as otherwise it could probably have walked home unaided.

I remember a suitcase loaded with cheese which Iberia managed to lose for twenty four hours in the summer heat of Madrid. The gentleman driving the van which delivered it to the house handed it over with alacrity and asked me if I were sure that nothing had died inside it.

Surely, I said, the customs would never have let it pass if anything had…

You don’t think that customs are going to open anything that smells like that, do you?

Still, this time all had gone well: the goat cheese had become a little deliquescent but was not yet in attack mode and accompanied the epine with brio.

The epine itself dates from a batch made in 2005, while we lived in France: it traveled to the house in Spain when we moved and thence, a few bottles  at a time, to Costa Rica.

I think I can say that we are probably the only people in the country to possess it. Even the French embassy gets its wine from Chile….well, at the far from exalted levels at which I encounter the said embassy it does and I can’t see it serving an old fashioned country aperitif at its more glamorous receptions. Apart from anything else it would  have the guests half seas over after a sniff at it.

The recipe is simple.

To one kilo of sugar you put one litre of eau de vie and four litres of wine – red is usual but should you have a supply of white wine for which the term cats’ pee would be a compliment you can use that too. To this you add a large handful of the new pink shoots of the blackthorn – or the mirabelle plum, or wild cherry – and mix it all up to dissolve the sugar. Keep for a couple of months, strain and bottle.

After the first batch we made – from a supply of Merlot which would have removed the enamel from your teeth – we turned to the wine made by our friend and neighbour, a retired vigneron who had kept back just enough vines to make wine for himself and friends.

He had sold the commercial parcels of Cabernet Franc grape but had retained his pride and joy – the lines of Oberlin and Castel from which he made wine strong enough to knock your socks off – and decidedly palatable even if it was as well to visit him on foot as he was a hospitable soul and enjoyed sharing a bottle or two.

Given the strength of his wine as compared with the regular sort of stuff we used to up it to five litres in place of four in the recipe – and the results met with universal approval among our rural neighbours.

You will no doubt be accustomed to seeing wines made from Merlot and Cabernet Franc on the supermarket shelf, along with the Syrahs, Cabernet Sauvignons,  Chenin Blancs and Chardonnays – but you won’t see Oberlin or Castel, any more than you will see Baco or Tete de Negre though at one time these and similar varieties like Othello and Noah were common in France.

After phylloxera ravaged the French vineyards in the nineteenth century solutions were sought, and the eventual winner was the idea of grafting french vines onto phylloxera resistant american vine stocks but in the meantime hybridisation was popular, mating french varieties of vitis vinifera with american vitis riparia or vitis rupestris and the results were vines giving wine of varying quality – but with a trailing habit which made restocking a vineyard simple – and cheap. Let the trailing stems root, and, hey presto, a plant for nothing, resistant to anything.

As French wine production revived the powers that be decided that only the grafted stuff would be authorised for the production of wine to be sold commercially, so the hybrids began to disappear, surviving only as relics preserved by people who remembered them fondly.

But every dog has its day. As vineyards succumb to the effects of the pesticide and herbicide levels imposed by the authorities interest in the hybrids has been revived. They are tough as old boots, resistant to just about anything, don’t need to be sprayed with poison and with modern winemaking techniques their quality can be more than acceptable.

No doubt we will not see it, but with a bit of luck people in the future will be able to buy their Castel or Oberlin as opposed to acquiring it by stealth – and make an epine worth the name.

Tchin tchin!


36 thoughts on “The Glass That Cheers And, With A Bit Of Luck, Inebriates.”

  1. . . splendid! I have heard that a half-bottle of brandy/Calvados added to the steep will raise the status of even the stalest of cat’s pee. It also beats sitting about with a pile of sloes and a a needle! With Blackthorn missing from our ‘hedgerows’ a trip to the Black Sea region might be on the cards!

  2. I’ve never made épine, although I’ve had other people’s a couple of times. It can be very good, a bit like port.

    I hadn’t realised that you couldn’t commercialise wine made from vines that weren’t grafted.

      1. They had esca coming to them…but as the A.O.C. regs insist on so much herbicide and pesticide being used what were people who wanted to retain their A.O.C. rating to do?
        For the consequences of not going with the herd check what happened to Olivier at Martigne Briand in the Maine et Loire…sheer persecution.

        One of the arguments against the hybrids was that they were dangerous, and a chemist acquaintance of mine did tell me that Noah when fermented produced small amounts of diethylether, the ether of anaesthsia of old, which with prolonged use can lead to premature dementia.
        Given the alternative i think I’d take my chances.

        We had a Baco on the house wall which produced quite a respectable vin courant.

        Climate change was showing its effects before we left France…the Cabernet Sauvignon was ripening reliably in the Loire Valley and producers were using more of it in their wines which for me ruined the quality…I prefered the fresh Caernet Franc wines to the sub standard Bordeaux types being produced latterly.

    1. That was what local vignerons – all with their private rows of Oberlin – told me, though I have just seen a Baco being offered for sale in bottle.
      Their view was that having to use grafted vines cut the legs from the small producers as they could not afford to replant their holdings in that manner…

      1. I’ve been reading up on the subject as it has intrigued me. It is definitely illegal to commercialise wine from vines on their own roots. That is French law and now European wide law.

        I remember the case of Olivier Cousin. In the end he got a token fine I seem to remember. That’s an indication that things will change.

        This subject is so interesting I feel a blog post coming on. There are sort of three levels of banned grapes. There are 6 varieties which are outright banned, all hybrids. You can’t plant them, sell them, make wine from them. Then there are the hybrids or direct producers which you can plant for personal consumption but not commercialise the wine. Then there is the business of having to use only V. vinifera varieties, which must be grafted on to rootstock, such as V. riparia. I need to quiz my local vignerons 🙂

        1. Oh good! I’ll look forward to that! And what a super research project which involves visiting vignerons…many, many vignerons…

          I do hope that change is in the air…that poor chap really suffered – they even froze his bank account to try to break him.

  3. Have a feeling that ‘The Powers That Be’ are the reason why often French wine is loosing ground to that of other countries.

  4. The French tend not to mention the replacement of their vines by US ones.
    I wonder why…?
    having read this I am now sitting with a bottle of cheap red, no idea where from, supping it through a straw. Thanks for turning me into an alkie!
    I would like the goats cheese mind, lovely stuff!

    1. Some of the red wines i had been offered in my time would need to be drunk through a straw to avoid losing my tooth enamel…
      Ever tried the Red Infuriator from Algeria? It used to be used to bulk up Rhone wines…which in their turn were used to bulk up Bordeaux….but on its own was lethal. Turned your mouth red.
      Yes, the goat cheese was super!

  5. Speaking of “every dog has its day” how’d you manage to get a dinner setting outside? You didn’t move the poodle over did you? Doubtful I’ll ever forget that image with the two views: dog and horizon, in that order. Love the post and once again you’ve managed to put a smile on my face. 🙂

  6. A fascinating insight into local wine production. Clearly you have access to some powerful varieties! I always suspected that local vineyards kept the very best stuff for themselves and only sold the slightly inferior stuff to the unsuspecting general public.

    1. I put up this comment and it disappeared…probably appear twice now…
      The thing to watch out for is wine which has won a medal….vignerons have a habit of making a special cuve for the competitions but the wine you buy will be something else….despite having the medal on its label…

    1. Leo has to stick to one glass…and, to be fair, with epine one glass is enough for anyone…
      The cheese was super…I bought it in Spain as only goat cheese i can get here is either made hard, like a tomme, or is an anaemic log imported from the U.S. which costs a bomb.

    1. Corse it is….
      The vogue for organic wine interests me…using wild yeasts. It was exactly what the local boys were doing when I was first in France – and the first one to use a commercial yeast made it up by testing the temperature of the mixing water with his elbow…just like bathing a baby.Scientific, wuntit.

  7. I send a parcel of cheese to my daughter in Malaysia when I first lived in France. In the box also were a couple of pair of shoes she had left with me and an envelope of ‘important papers’. Despite paying and absolute fortune to send the parcel recorded, swift jet driven pigeon it never arrived. The only thing she still moans about is that she never got the cheese (this was over 3 years ago). I’m pretty sure if I follow your good advice to make some Épine I can re-set her head once and for all when we are together at Christmas!! Great piece and I will show it to my husband who is wholly wedded to the idea of growing vines and make a few bottles of our own vintage …. 😉

      1. I shall speak to our extremely elderly and roguish friend B in Grenoble – he makes superb Walnut eau de vie … I’m sure he can give us a clue. Now off to read the piece you have pointed me too. Just the ticket today when I seem to have about as much motivation for anything useful as a drugged slug!

      2. I take it back … this was FAR more useful and doing housework, writing or weeding the path (Indian Summer here) …. thank you -I have bookmarked that little gem for future reference 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s