Be Thankful For Your Friends But Avoid The Friendship Cup

The object above isn’t the holy grail, an objet d’art, vase, fancy pipe or some kind of crazy teapot, it’s a friendship cup.  As Thanksgiving approaches, one of the things we are most grateful for this year is all of the friends we’ve made in Switzerland.

A friendship cup (also known as Coppa dell’amicizia, grolla or grolle ) is a round container with a lid and multiple spouts made of turned wood.  It is used for drinking special hot adult beverages with friends.  There’s a saying, “he who drinks it alone, will choke.”  Here’s how it works.

Gather your friends, or nearby people you want to become friends (because after you finish one of these you will be.  Traditionally you have at least one more person than the number of spouts on the cup.  Why?   You end up sharing and drinking from a different spout as the cup gets passed around the table.  People don’t worry about the germs for two reasons.  First, it’s your friends.  Secondly, what they put in the cup is strong enough that it could probably be classified as some sort of disinfectant.   You pass the cup around your group, not setting it down until it’s empty.  Trust me when I tell you that this is easier said than done.

We first encountered it when we visited the Aosta Valley in Italy.  Thank goodness no one whipped out a camera that night…  The friendship cup is an after dinner (or later) tradition in Lombardy and the rest of the Italian Alps.  It comes from the “Soldats de la Neige” (which translates into Soldiers of the Snow) who acted as guides to travelers in this rough terrain.   They needed extra “energy” to survive in the cold.   Having had some, it does seem to warm you up.  The drink’s popularity spread to include everyone who needed a little pick me up to brave the cold.

What’s in a Friendship Cup?  Valdostana coffee, a liquor ( usually Génépy, but it can be plain or fruit grappa, cognac, Cointreau, red wine or cum), sugar and spices.  Sometimes people add butter and orange peels.  Just make sure you have friends around to drink it with you.  It sounds delightful.  It’s not.  It’s Trouble.  That’s right, trouble with a capital “t.”

So as Thanksgiving approaches, thanks guys, we’re raising our glasses (or beers from the snow) to you and giving thanks, just don’t expect us to bust out the friendship cup.   Here’s to you, Cheers!  Kippis!  Chin Chin!  Santé!  Prost!  Slàinte!  Skål!  L’Chaim!  Na zdrowie!

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Weingut Otto Laubsenstein

While the Rhine Valley is filled with wineries, when we went wine tasting in Germany, we went to Weingut Otto Laubstein in Hochstatten (in the Nahe region near Bad Kreuznach and Bad Münster am Stein-Ebernburg).  We were spoiled becasue the wine was so good.  Every wine we tasted after that, was disappointing.  Don’t get me wrong, they were fine wines, they just weren’t as good as what we had at Weingut Otto Laubstein.

It is a family business.  They have been making wines on the property since 1860 and are in their fourth generation.   Torsten Hashgagen and his wife Marita Laubenstein-Hashagen took over from her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Otto Laubstein.  We were lucky enough to meet them all.

They are passionate about it, take it seriously and are focused on quality.  When we met Torsten, he joked that quality control is his favorite part of winemaking.  Images of him enthusiastically tasting wine out of barrels popped into my mind.  Microscopes and test tubes did not.  We’ve done several wine tours and tastings, but this tour was the first time we saw a chemistry lab.  He uses the technology in his lab to gather as much information as possible about his grapes and wines as well as to compare them year after year to produce the best quality.

Torsten is committed to continuous improvement and has an exceptional focus on quality.  Signs of it were everywhere, from the small batches to exercise more control over the grapes, to the textbooks within arms reach, to being organic.  When I remarked on the books, Torsten enthusiastically opened them and told me how he still uses them and the pleasure he takes in reading about winemaking.

The winery has Ecovin designation which means that it meets strict, constantly updated (beyond regular EU or association) requirements for quality and ecological consequences.  Ecovin wineries work toward healthy ecosystems in the vineyard by conserving soil and water, encouraging beneficial insects, and refraining from using pesticides or chemical fertilizers.  Winegut Otto Laubstein sees their Ecovin (aka Bio, Organic) efforts as a part of producing superior quality wines.

They’ve even got wind power!

We got to taste some wine at the fermentation stage.  See the difference in the pictures?  The finished wine is lighter, clearer and higher in alcohol.  The fermenting wine is still cloudy and has sediment.  It was interesting to taste the wine in progress.  In case you were wondering, it tastes a lot like the finished product, but is rougher and not as clear.  The flavors aren’t as distinct.

Mr. and Mrs. Otto Laubenstien biggest treasure isn’t their winery; it is their five lovely daughters.  Three of them became Wine Queens (the only time in Germany that so many have come from the same family).   Wine Queens use their knowledge of wine growing and production to promote their region’s wine at events like fairs, business conferences, wine festivals, and openings, both at home and abroad.  Essentially, they serve as an ambassador of their region’s winemaking industry.  I learned that queen is Königin in German; it became my nickname for Marita (who still looks like a wine queen).   Torsten named their upper tier, highest quality wines “Princess” after her and her sisters.   How sweet.

The winery has a wine cellar that is over 400 years old.  It stays at a cool, constant temperature.  The old brick arch of wine cellar was beautiful and if I’d had a sweater, I would have spent hours in there taking pictures.  The wine tour ended in the wine tasting rooms (note the Wine Queens on the walls) where we drank wine and spent hours asking Torsten questions.  Torsten clearly loves his work.

So does this guy.

Wine Museum In Châteauneuf-du-Pape

When we visited the very rocky Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we stopped by the Brotte Wine Museum.  It was started in 1972 and updated in 2000.  It centers on the history of wine growing and AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée which guarantees the wines‘ origins).

The AOC designation is very important to them.  It makes their wines more recognizable and promotable (and more expensive) abroad.  For educated consumers, it makes it easier to understand what they are getting.  It also means that producers have tons of rules.  The museum had just about everything used it to work the vines or in wine making, except the AOC rule book.  I want to get my hands on a copy because I hear that they have some pretty stringent rules.  For example, the lengths of the vines are measured repeatedly during the year to ensure they don’t exceed particular lengths at different points in the year.  Some are easier to follow.  You aren’t allowed to land a flying saucer in your field…um, okay.  I think I could manage that one.

The museum displays of barrels from the Middle Ages, wine presses, old tools, baskets, equipment, old photos, plows, bottling apparatus and many other items.

People always note that they have a 4,000 litre chestnut wine barrel from the 14th century and a 16th century wine-press.  We liked some of the more us usual items, like a chain maille glove for removing insects.

We also snuck a peek through the window at their bottling operation.  It looks remarkably like a brewery’s bottling operation.

While the museum isn’t as much fun as a wine tour with Jean-Michel, it is free, informative (if you read the English pamphlets) and the old implements are pretty cool.  At the end, you are invited to taste Maison Brotte’s wines.  I think our visitors (Magglio, the Luger and Sneaky Pete) had fun and came away a bit wiser.

 

What The Heck Is A Tastevin?

Until we met Jean-Michel on our wine tour of Burgundy, we had never seen or even heard of a tastevin.*  It’s a small, shallow silver cup traditionally used by wine makers, sommeliers and wine merchants to judge the maturity, quality and taste of a wine.  Jean-Michel showed us a wall of them at the Chateau du Clos de Vougeot on the wine tour.
The wine is poured in the tastevin over the shiny silver, allowing them to accurately judge the color in the faint light in a wine cellar.  They are made of silver because it doesn’t taint wine’s taste or character.
 
A tastevin’s surfaces aren’t flat, they are convex and concave to allow the maximum possible light to be reflected. The stripes and circles reflect the light differently.  As a result, wine sellers traditionally had stripes/flutings on theirs because it made the wine seem to have a deeper hue, indicating a higher quality wine.  Wine buyers had concave circles which made the wine appear more ruby in color.  This indicated a less mature, and therefore less expensive, wine.  Some cups have both.
  
Now (with the advent of electric lighting in wine cellars), they are novelties, nods to tradition or just plain old good souvenirs.  They make a great souvenir and our visitor, The Sweetest Girl in the World, bought some for her family.  If you can’t make it over here to buy one, you can order one from the J. Peterman catalog!
If you are enough of a wine enthusiast, you can join the Burgundian Wine Society, La Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin.  They wear these bad boys around their necks, have big dinners with amazing food and drink a bottle or two.

Burgundy Part Un – A Geology Lesson?

See this guy.  His name is Jean-Michel.  He has ruined wine for us. Before we took the best wine tour ever with him, we were happy drinking almost anything.*  The other night after a long day of work, he passed on a (free) red because he didn’t like the smell. I rest my case.

Jean-Michel (a tour guide par excellence) said that to understand Burgundy, we must understand its geology.  Burgundy doesn’t produce tons of wine, but it produces very good wines and some outstanding (ridiculously expensive) ones.  Why? Geology.

Millions of years ago, Burgundy was the seaside.  Over time, as pressure from the African and European plates, caused the layers of soil to bend and fracture.  Glaciers further shattered them.  The vineyards still follow this fault line.  There is a narrow strip with great soil (for growing wine) whose diversity is due to the breakup of these layers.

The shakeup of the seaside yielded the  perfect mix for growing wine in certain really specific areas (the dispersed bits and pieces combined with microclimates are the main reasons for Burgandy’s notorious complexity).

Burgundy is in France.  As a result, it didn’t take long for people to realize and exploit its wine growing potential.  Jean-Michel explained that the monastic orders became the first major vineyard owners.  With land, time to study and a dedication to physical labor, they quickly learned how different vineyard plots consistently gave different wines.  When popes took a liking to their wines, the monks had a powerful bargaining chip that they used and keenly protected (keeping the quality high).

Making a valuable commodity like good wine made the monks rich and powerful.  This is just one of their several wine presses.  they meant business.  The monk’s summer residence.  Clearly, they weren’t hurting.

After Burgundy became part of the France, the power of the church decreased and many vineyards were sold.  During the French Revolution, the church’s remaining vineyards were seized and sold.  Napoleonic inheritance laws caused the continual subdivision of the most precious vineyard land.  As a result, many modern day growers only hold a row or two of vines!  The different colors, stakes and markers at the end of the rows below differentiate the rows of different owners!

*Except for maybe Boone’s Farm.

 
 

 

Panache – The One Beer That Can Make Him Do This

In the Summer here, people find Panache refreshing.  It is beer with some lemonade, kind of like a Shandy. It is a bit too sweet for me, but I can understand it.  He did this.