Tuesday 19 November 2013

The Green Fairy's new wings

I haven’t written about absinthe in a while, not least because the last time I did it revealed just how weird the absinthe world can be. I reviewed the whole of the La Fée range at the time, presenting what I thought was a pretty fair summing up—the high-end “XS” products are excellent, while the more mainstream “Parisienne” was OK for what it was, but I railed against the suggestion on the La Fée website at the time that its artificial colouring was a normal part of the absinthe tradition. The green colour of traditional absinthe derives from the fact that some of the botanicals don’t distil well, so they are infused into the spirit after distillation, and so leave their colour from the chlorophyll.*

Such is the craft, mystery and voodoo associated with absinthe and its romantic history, that it’s a divisive field. Many seemed to revile La Fée’s creator George Rowley, seeing him as a betrayer of the true spirit of absinthe. Unfortunately I had not been able to speak to George before writing it (apparently he never received my emails), but he later gave me an interview in which he answered some questions and denied rumours I had heard that La Fée was compounded from flavourings. I revised my review to put across these points—and incurred the scorn of the absinthe mafia. Some people genuinely seemed to think I had been bribed to update the review.

Old La Fée Parisienne on the left, new La Fée Parisienne on the right
So I will be interested to see what that camp makes of the latest development in the La Fée stable. I heard rumours earlier in the year that the new La Fée Blanche expression was very good—none other than Ted Breaux, of the high-end Jade range and the massive Lucid brand in the US, told me so. And now the brand’s signature Parisienne mainstream absinthe has been completely reformulated: the new version is all natural. Whereas the XS products are made on George’s behalf by boutique distillers (François Guy in Pontarlier makes the Française and Claude-Alain Bugnon in Couvet makes the Suisse), the new Parisienne is still made by its old producer, Cherry Rocher near Lyons.

When I spoke to George back in 2011 he was at pains to point out that he had tried many times to get natural colouring into his absinthe but it simply wasn’t stable enough. Producing something that was shipped to 38 countries in a variety of climatic conditions, he didn’t feel that his customers would accept the batch-to-batch variation he would get from natural colour.

Old La Fée on the left, new La Fée on the right, this time louched
When I met George more recently at the Boutique Bar Show, he seemed excited more than anything about the new bottle that La Fée Parisienne comes in. Instead of being clear glass, revealing the synthetic green colour of the old Parisienne, it is now an opaque green, with a high-tech UV-proof coating.** This apparently protects the colour of the new liquor.

But if you taste new Parisienne against a sample of the old stuff, the difference is vast in more ways than just the colour.*** Yes, the new drink is a paler, softer, more olive green, but the flavour profile has changed completely. Old Parisienne has a brassy nose of strong green anise with a stab of rooty wormwood, quite simplistic and one-dimensional. The palate is sweet with rubbery anise, some wormwood and a slight bitter edge on the finish.

Straightaway new Parisienne is different: much less green anise is used and the nose is delicate with dusty, woody dried spice, fennel, caraway, orange peel and liquorice.**** It’s complex and fascinating, drawing you in. It reminds me strongly of the smell of Aviation gin. The palate carries on the profile of the nose. It is sweet enough on the tongue but not really anise-driven. To me it is more about spices—fennel seed, coriander… It is not especially floral compared to some, especially the blue styles, but there is a hint of parma violets.

I have a couple of other comparisons to hand, Jade’s Nouvelle-Orléans and Artemisia’s Butterfly. Nouvelle Orleans has a sharper nose with floral high notes and pungent, aromatic layer like tarragon. The palate is lighter, drier, with less of the orange notes that strike me in new Parisienne. Butterfly has a bright nose of fresh mint and watercress and a weighty bitter-sweet palate—it makes me realise that new Parisienne is not heavy but ultimately fresh and refreshing. Back in the early days of its popularity absinthe was drunk as an aperitif by the middle classes in the “green hour” after work, and I can imagine this recipe working well in that role.

I’m actually surprised that the new Parisienne is so different from the old one—there are other natural absinthes out there that I think are closer to the flavour profile of the old one. I wonder what loyal consumers will make of it.

The new La Fée Blanche was actually released before the new verte. Tradition has it that colourless absinthes are a Swiss thing—more usually known as La Bleue over there—deriving from the fact that, not being green, they were easier to disguise after absinthe was prohibited. But in fact colourless absinthe was being made in both France and Switzerland before the ban. The La Fée family already has a bleue in the form of the XS La Suisse (around £80 a bottle), but the new one is made on an industrial scale by Cherry Rocher and as such can be had for about £35 a bottle.

The label describes it as being made with more fennel than most vertes and as such being sweeter and softer. It’s true that most bleues do seem sweeter and to me often more floral. But La Fée Blanche strikes me, like the new Parisienne, as marked by dried spice, pleasantly pungent with savoury hints almost like onion, but also with both mentholic freshness and wafts of mint and cucumber. (OK, it’s beginning to sound like a curry dinner.)

I try it up against two other white absinthes, La Clandestine from Artemisia and an obscure bottle called La P’tite (a fairy reference, I think) that I must have picked up years ago. This last example has a sweet, floral nose, quite understated, and a palate that is likewise sweetish, offering anise but not much else. La Clandestine is more hefty, with a nose of rubbery “overripe buttercups”—I smell I get from a lot of white absinthes, though I’ve no idea what it is. It suggests alpine wildflowers. Unfolding also are vanilla and banana, plus perfumed, floral notes—altogether more complex than La P’tite. This carries over on to the palate, which is sweet and weighty.

By comparison, La Fée Blanche strikes me as lighter and drier. As with the new Parisienne, it is more about high spicy notes, fennel seed, coriander, even turmeric, and less about green anise sweetness.

I think that both of the new absinthes are splendid additions to the market, but my favourite is probably the Parisienne. It’s the sort of absinthe that you keep coming back to as new aromas and flavours unfold. (Try coming back to an empty glass that has had neat absinthe in it and give it a sniff…) If this is going out at the old Parisienne price of about £38–40 then it could be game-changing.

* Colour is one thing that never passes through distillation—any spirit is colourless as it comes off the still. Whisky is only brown because of the years it spends in contact with wood after distillation. Absinthe is made by taking an alcoholic spirit and soaking a blend of plants in it; then the spirit is redistilled, taking the flavours with it. In this respect the process is exactly like that of making gin. But traditional green absinthe then macerates further botanicals in the spirit after this stage, hence the colour.

** I assume it also offers some thermal protection, because in my last interview George was saying that it was temperature variation as well as light that damaged natural colouring in absinthe.

*** For the record, I tried all the samples with a ratio of one part absinthe to 2½ parts water.

**** The label says there are nine herbs and spices involved, but only reveals four—Grand Wormwood, fennel, green anise and star anise. (The website adds hyssop and coriander seed.) The label for the Blanche only says that it uses more fennel than a typical verte, though the website elaborates that there are 11 botanicals—the same ones as for the verte but adding mint and lemon balm.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Brimstone and bubbly

“Contains sulphites” (or “sulfites”, if you are American). These two words are like a clang of doom on many a wine label. The fact that wine-makers are obliged to print this notification probably contributes a lot to our growing wariness of sulphites and the belief that they poison our bodies—and give us hangovers.

So I was interested to be invited to try Laurenti, a Champagne that has been popular in France for 90 years but which is new to the UK: the main selling point seems to be that it is low in sulphites and therefore less likely to give you a headache the morning after.

As you know, here at the Institute we like to take a rigorously scientific approach, but I couldn’t think of a way of really putting this to the test. Do you drink a load of Laurenti one night and then an equal amount of a rival brand the next, and see how you feel? Do you get a pair of identical twins to match each other glass for glass across a table and see who feels worst in the morning? In the office of the PR company the girls mulled on this and decided that drinking just the one bottle wouldn’t be enough to give them a hangover anyway. And as one bottle is all I had, I had to give up on the idea of empirical testing.

Sulphites are used in wine to kill bacteria and combat oxidation. I guess we think of the use of them as a regrettable modern industrial technique for mass production, but in fact the yeast that creates the alcohol in wine naturally produces sulphur dioxide during fermentation, so even a wine without any added sulphites will still contain some. Wines that are made virtually sulphite-free tend to come with instructions to store them at low temperatures at all times and consume them very quickly, so you can see why most wine-makers use sulphites. My sister and brother-in-law went to a tasting of sulphite-free wines and pronounced that some of them tasted very peculiar indeed. I wonder if this is just because of the difficulty in stopping them going off at the drop of a hat, rather than any suggestion that we are used to the taste of sulphites? For I get the impression that under normal circumstances we wouldn’t taste sulphites anyway.* In my brief foray into home wine-making (which lasted until the first batch was ready to drink, and I realised how repulsive it all was), I dutifully added sulphury-smelling Campden Tablets (sodium metabisulphate), but could never detect any whiff of them in the finished wine.

The use of sulphur in wine probably goes back to ancient times and was mentioned in a German legal document in 1487; by the 18th century it was being used on an industrial scale. But thanks to advances in wine-making technology, modern wines actually contain less than in the past. Moreover, red wine, which most people probably feel is more likely to give them a hangover, tends to contain less sulphite than white, because the tannins from the grape skins are a natural preservative (and red wines are often more alcoholic, which is also preservative) so less sulphur is needed. The legal EU limits are 160 parts per million for red wine and 210 for white, but any wine containing more than 10 parts per million must feature the warning on the label. Sweet wine actually contains the most (EU limit of 400 ppm), because some of the added sulphur binds with the sugar and loses its protective effect. Presumably for the same reason, dried fruit contains even more—the EU limit is 1,000 ppm—and it is also used in fruit juices made from concentrates.

Some people are allergic to sulphites (the US FDA estimates 1% of people are sulphite-sensitive) and it can be dangerous for asthmatics, but for the rest of us there is not, as far as I am aware, any proof yet that sulphites give you a hangover—although the World Health Organisation does have a recommended consumption limit of 0.7 mg per kilo of body weight. (If a wine actually contained the upper allowance for white wine, the average man would apparently exceed this after drinking just a third of a bottle.) I gather that sulphites are known to destroy vitamin B1, which is needed to metabolise alcohol, so perhaps this is where the hangover idea comes from. If you find that red wine gives you a hangover it may be the naturally occurring tannins or histamines that are doing for you.

If you nevertheless want to avoid sulphites, you could try drinking only very old wines—the sulphur breaks down naturally over time—or switch to spirits, of course.

Or you could drink Laurenti. Founded by Joseph Laurenti in 1923, the house uses only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes grown on its own estates in the South Champagne district. In addition to low sulphites (just 7 ppm free SO2), the Grande Cuvée that I was tasting is relatively low in sugar, featuring a modest dosage (the sugar added to the wine before the secondary fermentation in the bottle that creates the bubbles). It is a pale gold colour and has a lively mousse that gives it a full but velvety texture on the tongue. The nose is sweet and fruity, but with dark, warm notes in there too; quite complex and balanced. On the palate it is clean and very appley, with a sweet finish on the tongue. Rather than woody depth, it seems to be all about a fresh, juicy hit. I can see that it would be ideal for parties—a good “session” Champagne, if you will. I suspect this is how they are pitching it, hence perhaps the emphasis on low sulphur and the suggestion that this will lessen hangovers…

The Laurenti range is available from Wine Direction. The Grande Cuvée is £34.99 a 70cl bottle, the Grande Cuvée Rosé £36.99 and the Grand Cuvée Tradition (aged for 12 years as opposed to the Grande Cuvée’s three years) £39.99

* Although this organic wine website claims that normal people can taste it at 11 ppm.