The Talented Mr. Ripley of Forgotten Grapes
Patricia Highsmith’s amoral literary creation Tom Ripley had his talents: telling lies, forging signatures, and impersonating almost anybody. Trebbiano/Ugni Blanc has its own talent as well: in this case, producing tons and tons of grapes from a single vines that can be crafted into sharply acidic wines. And while Tom’s talents only got him so far until he convinced a wealthy businessman that he’d gone to Princeton with his son Dickie, Trebbiano/Ugni Blanc found itself in the same meager rut – seen as nothing more than an unremarkable country wine until it began to rub up against high society. Once they both got that taste of how the elite lived, then and only then did Mr. Ripley and Trebbiano/Ugni Blanc truly realize what their lives’ destinies were to be.
For Trebbiano/Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano is the Italian name for the grape, Ugni Blanc the French name), that destiny was becoming the primary grape used in the production of Cognac and Armagnac, two of the most prestigious and expensive spirits in the world (and a favorite to Tupac, Jay-Z, and hundreds of other hip-hop stars around the globe). The Trebbiano/Ugni Blanc grapes existed long before brandy distillation was first discovered (and if you’re not familiar with the distillation of brandy or its Cognac or Armagnac forms, we’ve got a primer for you down below), but were perceived as lesser grapes that produced only average wines, wines that were considered too acidic and not structured enough for single varietal wines. In most cases, Trebbiano and Ugni Blanc grapes were often blended with other slightly less acidic grapes from the same region. For Ugni Blanc, it was Colombard and Folle Blanc; for Trebbiano, it was Malvasia Bianca. Some producers, most notably in Italy, did make single-varietal Trebbianos (there are six DOC designated regions in Italy that produce single varietal Trebbiano, although the grape is used in blends in over 80 different DOCs), but despite being the most widely-planted grapes in both countries, finding a single-varietal expression of the grape became as hard as trying to find the good in Tom Ripley.
That all changed, though, in the mid-1600’s when a group of Dutch merchant settlers wandered down into southwestern France looking for goods to trade and decided to take some of the local wine back for the long journey home. The problem was, the settlers knew the wine wouldn’t keep during the entire journey and this being part of wine’s pre-bottle era, lugging an entire barrel or cask back was nigh impossible. To solve the dilemma, the Dutch decided to distill the wines, which would give them exponential life; they soon discovered that the best wines to distill, which would produce the smoothest tasting by-product (soon to be called “eau-du-vie”) were the wines with higher acids and lower alcohol contents.
Enter Trebbiano/Ugni Blanc.
The grape was a perfect match for distillation, and soon the locals in this region of France discovered that if the eau-du-vie produced underwent a second distillation, it produced an even smoother, higher quality spirit. And so Cognac was born in the town of...Cognac (for more on the Cognac making process and rules governing production in the region, see the primer below.)
But this isn’t Forgotten Spirits or Forgotten Liquor, this is Forgotten Grapes, and the problem with Trebbiano and Ugni Blanc’s rags-to-riches rise in the world of brandy was that the still white wines produced from the grapes got lost in the shuffle. Well no more. That’s why we’re here. Not much has changed since the pre-Cognac early 1600s – the quality may have risen but the grape has not changed its skin. Trebbiano/Ugni Blanc still produces wines with high acidity, lower alcohol, and clear, fresh, bright, sharp citrus scents and flavors. They are wines that pair nicely with the fresh vegetables and seafood of the neighboring Atlantic and Adriatic. And the grapes still remain the most prevalent in two of the hearts of Old World winemaking. If you’ve never experienced a VSOP or XO snifter of Cognac or Armagnac in your life, you owe it to yourself to try one, and ifyou’ve never tried a glass of Trebbiano or Ugni Blanc in your life, you owe it to yourself to try one as well. If you call yourself a true Friend of the Forgotten Grape.
How Do You Pronounce Ugni Blanc/Trebbiano?
OOO-nee BLAHNK or TREB-bee-ahn-oh
Ugni Blanc/Trebbiano Looks Like:
Whether Ugni Blanc from France or Trebbiano from Italy, the wines typically have a bright, fresh, lemon chiffon yellow color to them. Since they are not fermented or aged in any oak, it should be a light, bright, translucent yellow color, slightly paler in some bottles than others, but generally with a yellow hue that falls in between a Napa Chardonnay and a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. If you remember our discussion of Semillon from earlier in the year, it’s not too far off from that, color-wise.
Ugni Blanc/Trebbiano Smells Like:
Remember Sprite’s old commercials where they claimed their soft drink had the power of “Lymon”? Well, Trebbiano/Ugni Blanc wines are tremendously full of Lymon. Also Lirange and Lempricot. As one might expect from a grape known for producing sharp, tart, acidic wines, most Trebbianos/Ugni Blancs have strong aromas of citrus fruit – lemon, lime, Mandarin orange. These scents might also drift into the softer realm of stone fruits such as apricots and peaches, but of the unripened variety, where they still have a stronger, sharper flavor. But expect bright, clean lemon-limey citrus scents the minute you pop open the can, er, I mean uncork the bottle.
Ugni Blanc/Trebbiano Tastes Like:
Hmmm, a grape that produces bright, sharp, clean acidic wines with lots of unripened and citrus fruit on the nose? I wonder what that is going to taste like? I wonder what flavors will be present in my mouth when I take my first sip? I wonder...I wonder...Here’s a hint in case you haven’t figured it out yet – it’s citrus. Yep, those same lemon, lime, and orange flavors will be there on the palate just like they were on the nose. Normally the flavors should be bright and clean in regard to the citrus, but occasionally you may get a trace of a darker bitterness, akin to the rind of a lemon, lime, orange, or even a watermelon. And there are those Trebbianos that will have a bit more residual sugar, so occasionally in some bottles you’ll get a slight sweetness to the wine in. But that is typically a rarity. You want an acidic wine, you’ve got it in Trebbiano/Ugni Blanc!
● The Gascony region of France (as Ugni Blanc)
● The Abruzzo region of Italy (as Trebbiano)
Cindy’s “Did Juneau?”:
In case you’re unfamiliar with Cognac or Armagnac, here’s a short primer how on these particular spirits are produced. Cognac and Armagnac are both types of brandy, a spirit produced by distilling wine. Cognac and Armagnac are two of only three officially demarcated brandy-producing regions in the world, the third being the town of Jerez, Spain, where they primarily make sherry-style brandy. The town and region of Cognac lies just north of the Bordeaux wine region, in the Charentes-Maritime department of France, along the right bank of the Gironde estuary; Armagnac lies to the southeast of Bordeaux, halfway between the towns of Bordeaux and Toulouse. To be a true Cognac, the spirit must not only be produced in the region from grapes grown in the region, but 90% of the grapes used must be either Ugni Blanc, Colombard, or Folle Blanc (though Ugni Blanc is almost exclusively used in this day and age), the spirit must be distilled twice in copper pot stills called alembics, and the spirit must be aged for a minimum of two years in Limousin oak from the Limoges region of France. Armagnacs are only distilled once and allow any percentage of ten different grapes to be used in the production, though again, Ugni Blanc is still the preferred grape.
To make Cognac, Armagnac, or any brandy for that matter, you must start with a white wine possessing a lower than normal alcohol content (typically 8-12% ABV) and a high acidity, hence the reason Ugni Blanc is the preferred grape in Cognac and Armagnac. The wine is distilled in either a traditional column still for Armagnac and other brandies or the aforementioned copper alembic for Cognac, and the resulting by-product is a spirit called eau-du-vie (French for “water of life”) and is sometimes bottled on its own without aging. Germans refer to eau-du-vie as Schnapps and often distill them from fruit wines. In Armagnac and other regions, the eaux-du-vie is then aged in oak barrels to soften the alcohol and add sweetness and structure to the spirit. In Cognac, though, the eaux–du-vie are then distilled once more before they are aged in new oak for the two-year minimum. This makes Cognacs smoother and more complex than Armagnacs and other brandies. Most brandies have an ABV between 36% and 60% depending on the amount of time they age (alcohol will evaporate naturally from the spirit during aging). Cognacs and Armagnacs are then classified based on their aging as VS (Very Special – minimum 2 years aging), VSOP (Very Special Old Pale – minimum 4 years aging), and XO (Extra Old – minimum 6 years but typically 20 or more); there are also other levels and designations that exists between these primary categories, such as Napoleon and Vieux.
Because of its piquancy, goat cheese is a perfect match with an Ugni Blanc. It’s a traditional French ingredient, and if you’re using a nice strong, chalky picodan or chevre, the sharpness of the cheese is really going to match up well to the wine. But I’d take it even a step further and add in either some fig compote or maybe just some straight figs right off the tree. The sweetness and slight earthiness of the fig is really going to balance out the higher acidities of the wine and cheese, and I think all of those flavors are going to mesh extraordinarily well into something that’s going to taste super yummy.
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