Getting Flack for Floc

Earlier this summer our little Sonoma Coast family gathered with the rest of the Peays for a momentous trip to the southwest of France. Before we left for the journey, I opened up my wine atlas of France to check out what wine regions we would be in or nearby. I studied the map with its red blotches marking Bordeaux and its pink splotches indicating Burgundy and discovered that in the Gers, the exact locale of where we would be staying, there was no color-coded spot representing a wine region. How can that be? I thought they grew grapes everywhere in France, even Paris, so I’ve heard. To me, a proper holiday would not be complete without a little bit of agri-tourism in the form of traipsing through vineyards.
I vaguely knew that Armagnac was produced somewhere near this southwest region unofficially known as Gascony. Flipping to another page in the atlas, I discovered that the area recognized as producing Armagnac straddled the departments of Landes and Gers. Aha! So there are grapes sort of close to where we would be staying-even if they are turned into a distilled spirit not actually classified as wine according to my atlas’s main viticultural map. Eager to learn more before getting there, I found an excellent book on the subject of Armagnac written by wine importer, Charles Neal. I read up on the vines, people and the distillation of Armagnac. I got excited. We were headed for the land of duck confit(!), foie gras(!) and floc(!) Floc? What is floc? I think I just like saying the word, it even looks like it sounds funny. FLOC! Floc de Gascogne is an aperitif made from a blend of unfermented grape juice and Armagnac that has been aged one year. I had visions of sipping chilled tumblers of the stuff whilst basking in the sunshine that washes over the rolling, sunflower-bedecked, Gascon countryside. Armagnac itself would be too hard to drink during the daytime and who knew what sub-classification local wines there were to be had in this land of la France profonde, the deep France? Also, the very notion of floc conjured up fond memories of my first blending experience making Pineau de Charentes, Cognac’s version of floc.

It was the vintage of 1992 and I was a harvest intern at Château Lafite-Rothchild in Pauillac. I had spent the previous year studying at the University of Bordeaux and was in the Médoc for the vendanges. It was possibly one of the worst vintages in the history of Bordeaux in which I learned a great deal about grape-growing and winemaking, a crash course on how to try to make world-class wine in the worst-case circumstances. But that is another story. In between the days of frantic grape picking and pouring rain, one of my bosses (I had several) came up to me and told me that he needed me to help him. “Sure,” I responded, “What are we doing?” “We are going to make Pineau.” “Pinot?” I asked quizzically. Here we were in the middle of first growth Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot vineyards and yet he was saying that I was to help him make Pinot noir? But since I was the harvest lackey and did everything from check vineyards for ripeness and haul hoses around the winery for pump-overs to data entry to entertaining guests of the Baron de Rothchild whom he had invited to the château but wasn’t around to attend to personally, making Pinot didn’t seem beyond the scope of my duties I supposed. “Oui, Pineau,” he affirmed. He handed me three empty magnum bottles and instructed me to fill them from tanks 12 and 13, Cabernet sauvignon tanks from that morning’s grape harvest. I grew more puzzled by the minute.

I returned with the three bottles full of juice from the requested tanks and followed my boss, “Mr. B.” I’ll call him, to his Citroën. I crammed myself into the passenger seat with the bottles of juice in my arms. “Watch your feet!” he instructed. I looked down at the floor of the car and just avoided kicking over three magnums filled with a clear liquid that weren’t stoppered up with a cork. We peeled out of the Château’s driveway onto the D2, bottles clinking and liquid sloshing out of the vessels. I sniffed the air, “Smells like alcohol.” “Yes, it’s for the Pineau, y’know.” “Where are we going?” “To my apartment.” Okay, so I am going to my boss’s apartment with booze and juice where he claims we are going to make Pinot??? This is definitely not within the scope of my job!

I have to insert here that my boss, Mr. B., was a funny sort of man. He was at once suave and debonair and yet rather bumbling at the same time, kind of like a cross between Roger Moore and Mr. Bean. He was the #3 boss and in charge of the vineyard crew so consequently his office was next to the tractor barn rather than in the Château like the other bosses. And yet, because he was a boss, he felt compelled to dress nicely and was always well put together like most bon chic-bon genre French. Although respected by his vineyard staff, he was an easy target for their sniggering at his mincing demeanor. I found his ridiculousness a little endearing and felt a little protective of him. He was harmless after all, and he was our boss, though it was hard to get him to answer viticulture questions when we were walking in the vineyard since he seemed so preoccupied with the mud he was getting on his loafers.

In his apartment, we set down the bottles of juice and alcohol on the kitchen counter. Without explaining anything, Mr. B grabbed a bottle and poured out half of one of the bottles of juice then took one of the bottles of alcohol and poured it into the half empty bottle of juice to top it off. He poured some out into a glass and tasted it. His face screwed up into a grimace and cried, “Ah merde! I thought it was 50:50 but, this is too strong! Maybe it is _:_.” Grabbing another bottle of juice and roughly pouring out what he guessed was a quarter of the volume, he again poured the alcohol in to top it off. “Oh no, this is too weak. I cannot remember what the proportions are supposed to be! Maybe it is 1/3:2/3 !” I finally realized what he was trying to do and in an effort to arrest this comedy of errors I grabbed his hand holding the last bottle of juice mid-pour and yelped, “Wait, wait! Don’t mess it up, I mean, uh, let’s do this more systematically! We only have one bottle of juice left.” “What do you propose we do?” he asked imploringly. At this point I didn’t exactly know what but came up with, “Trials. . . let me put together little samples, taste size portions in something small.” I fished around cabinets for more wine glasses and hunted in drawers, “and we can measure out the amount of each juice and alcohol before putting the actual blend together.” So we put small doses of different proportions of juice and alcohol into glasses until we found a combination that closely approximated Mr. B.’s recollection of how a Pineau should taste and what I imagined it should taste like not having ever sampled this thing he calls “Pinot” before. We finally settled on a blend of 3 parts juice to 1 part alcohol which I put together using a straight-sided drinking glass as the most adequate method given the available kitchen equipment.

Not wanting to waste the previously failed attempts at making this concoction, I did some math and some quick blend trials to salvage the misbegotten blends. Mr. B. clearly seemed impressed and relieved. Looking at the leftover unused distilled alcohol I asked, “What are we going to do with that?” “Why do you ask?” searching my face for roguish intent. “Well, sir, it’s just that it is really flammable so we should put it somewhere safe,” I answered envisioning Mr. B. with his ever present cigarillo going up in a spectacular flambé. “Oh…right…then, let’s get all this stuff back to the winery and invite everybody to have un apéro. Phew, and I need a smoke.” Thus we headed back to the winery where we toasted with the cellar crew our spiritous creation and where I promptly consulted my dictionary for alternate meanings or spellings for the word Pinot… ah, Pineau. I felt pretty pleased at learning this new word and at the outcome of my first foray into the art of blending.

I am often asked about how I come up with blends such as La Bruma or Les Titans. In putting together cuvées, I have an impression in my mind’s palate of what I want to create. But it is in the tinkering and tasting of sample blends that I find the combination that tastes just right to me. Across vintages, the cuvées have a consistency that reveals a common thread of more or less the same vision but the vintage always has a voice. The 2006 La Bruma and Les Titans are both at once generous from the onset but are also still holding back a little. The structure of both wines require a bit of aging unlike the 2005 Syrahs that were giving and showed a delicacy from the get-go. The muscularity of the 2006 Syrahs will need time to show their finesse but these are our first really “great” syrahs. Our son Julian may even drink one of these on his 21st birthday.

“Floc, floc, floc! You keep talking about this floc, so we bought you some,” Andy and Nick proclaimed to me when they came out of the wine shop in Lectoure. We returned to the 18th century restored farmhouse in Mauroux where we were staying and popped open the slim bottle of Gascon drink. “Bleah!” Andy cried, “it tastes like high octane wine cooler!” Nick made a face and silently dumped the contents of his glass into the kitchen sink. I sipped and grimaced a little and then grinned a lot. I guess my mental souvenir of making the stuff was better than the stuff itself.

So the floc was a flop as were the visions of sunshine-y days. In reality we suffered soggy rolling bouts of thundershowers. Yet we still managed to have a lovely time with great gastronomy – the confit and foie gras did not disappoint, neither did the daube and cassoulet – and packed in good times with the family in this place where you find la vie douce, the sweet life, in the fields, the cuisine and the people, but not necessarily in the bottle.

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