by Paul Heidelberg
I’ve spent a lot of time and traveling – including dealing with bad cases of jet lag, and bad cases of wine – writing about wines and photographing vineyards and cellars for newspaper and wine magazine articles.
I’ve dine with billionaires – including one of the most humble persons I have ever met, Max Cointreau, whose ancestors invented the famous liqueur of the same name in the 1800s. The first day I met Max, I spent six hours with the gentleman, touring his vineyards and cellars.
The finest spirit in the world, without question, is cognac. The name is often used in other countries, such as Spain and Greece as a name for other grape-based brandies, but the only real cognac in the world comes from the Charente Region of France, just as the only true champagnes come from the Champagne Region of France.
The Charente Region’s two biggest towns are Jarnac and Cognac, hence the name cognac.
Courvoisier cognac comes from Jarnac, Remy Martin comes from Cognac.
Well, Max and I share an interest in art, so we both enjoyed each other’s company that day. The people of the Charente are farmers, but their crop isn’t cotton, or soybeans, it is grapes for the unquestionable best spirit in the world.
There are some fine scotches out there, but scotch’s base is the same as beer’s. Cognac’s cousins are grapes that goes into such fines wines as Chardonnay in Burgundy and Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in Bordeaux, which happens to be about 80 miles south of Cognac.
So many of Max’s acquaintances in the Charente are into their farming much more than they are into Fine Art. Well, Max does a good job of being into both.
So the first morning Max and I spent together, we started by my tasting a double distilled cognac straight from the alembic still, while I was researching an article for “Wine Enthusiast” magazine.
“Be careful with this,” Max warned. “It’s 140 proof.”
We then moved on to his using his glass “thief” to dip into 350 liter barrels of cognac to let me sample spirits that were 10 years old, then 20 years old and then, even older.
We followed up all this tasting with a great meal in the nineteenth century family chateau he has restored, Chateau Fontpinot. There are six levels of growing areas in the Charente, and the top is called Grande Champagne (if a cognac comes from the Grande Champagne region and the Petite Champagne regions of the Charente, with at least 50 percent coming from the Grande Champagne, it can be called Fine Champagne, such as Remy Martin VSOP; it has nothing to do with the bubbly wine, in this usage champagne refers to the type of terroir the Charente and Champagne regions share.)
Max owns the largest area of Grande Champagne vineyards in the Charente.
That meal with Max was one of the best meals I have ever enjoyed in my life, with sea bass filets about three inches thick and the best pureed potatoes I have ever tasted. With the meal, we had the excellent Gossett prestige cuvee champagne – Max happens to own that champagne house.
I am not trying to drop names by telling you this story, I am setting up the main point of this column, which involves a country girl named Alice Huebinger Heidelberg, who grew up on a farm not far from the little town of Marion, Texas.
This little country girl who spoke only German until the first grade, and didn’t have electricity in the farmhouse for the first 12 years of her life, or so, until they got the Delco batteries she used to tell me about, was my mother.
I have met people all over this world, first as a child in a U.S. Air Force family: my father James Martin Heidelberg, Sr., grew up in a Baptist orphanage in North Texas, Buckner’s Boys Home, it was called back then, but picked himself up by the bootstraps and entered the old Army Air Corps as an enlisted man before becoming an officer during World War II, before he earned a law degree from the University of Texas in Austin, before rejoining the Air Force as a Judge Advocate General. I knew the term JAG way before seeing that television program of the same name.
My parents met at a dance at Landa Park in New Braunfels.
Being a military family, we did a lot of moving around, and among other places, lived in Japan and Alexandria, Va., while my father was stationed at the Pentagon.
So, back to Max and my mother, who passed away in 1999. (My father passed away in 1985.)
I knew Max had money, but he seemed like some of the farmers I had met in Central Texas during part of my youth – down to earth and straightforward.
Max was the one who told me the old North Texas Teacher’s College in Denton helped save the Charente Region from the phylloxera crisis that devastated vineyards throughout Europe in the 1800s. I was living in Florida when I met Max, but when I told him about my family home of Texas, he regaled me with a story about the professors in Denton saving cognac by supplying the Charente with phylloxera-resistant root stalks.
So, the next day I am killing time at Remy Martin waiting for a little train that takes visitors throughout the cellars and some nearby vineyards – sort of like those vehicles I have seen in New Braunfels ferrying swimsuit-clad tourists around.
Passsing the time with an employee of Remy Martin, he tells me: “Max used to be Managing Director of Remy Martin for 35 years. He and his wife used to own about half of Remy Martin, Inc., until recently. He’s one of the richest men in Europe, probably the world.”
“Oh,” I answered. I just knew him as Max.
So, Max likes a good wine, and so did my mother.
One of my favorite drinkable-when-young, high quality wines is Chateauneuf du Pape from the Rhone region of France. It is made from 13 grape varietals, including syrah, also known as shiraz (You can get a feel of what the expensive Chateauneuf du Pape tastes like by purchasing a much cheaper bottle of syrah, whether it be from France. Australia, the States – wherever).
So there we were together one Christmas in San Antonio, about to enjoy one of my mother’s terrific turkeys, complete with other items including sunshine salad, the recipe for which my grandmother Frieda Huebinger, our Oma, had perfected in the early 1900s, great dressing, and mashed potatoes and gravy – the gravy being my mother’s exquisite gravy I have not seen duplicated anywhere, and that includes dining experiences with such people as Max Cointreau, in unbelievable fancy surroundings.
So, I open the always excellent Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf du Pape, imported by Kermit Lynch of Berkeley, California; my mother takes her first sip and says:
“Oh, do you taste the wood in it?”
Well, this was a few year’s ago, back before Americans became more adept at drinking wines and using wine terminology.
Some oenophile tasting a wine in Manhattan, San Francisco or Los Angeles might have said something like this, but I was surprised my mother had.
It was exactly the sort of thing that Max Cointreau might have said.
My mother continued: “I can taste the wood in the wine, just like my father’s.”
Her father was Oma’s husband, Ernst Huebinger, who died before I was born.
I had experienced his wine earlier, and I will tell you that story in a later edition of this column – it involves an enormous ceramic container we found in the back of Oma’s garage when it was being cleaned out in the 1960s. The wine was more than 20 years old, but quite drinkable.
My mother had told me stories about my grandfather making homemade beer and homemade wine, from wild grapes they called Mustang grapes, but I had never heard that he stored, and, therefore, aged, the wine in wood.
I was delighted to hear my mother compare this “snooty” some might say wine to a homemade libation made by a farmer in Central Texas.
That is one of the great things about drinking good wines – there are a lot of good stories that go with them.
Some provincial types who have never been anywhere, or certainly not anywhere worthwhile, might dismiss drinking good wine as something very snooty, that has no connection to real life.
Well, the first time you taste a Bordeaux that has been aged properly, so the harsh tannins have evolved into a indescribable smoothness, or a fine young wine like Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf du Pape, or some of the fine Texas wines that are being made by such vinters as Dry Comal Creek Vineyards in New Braunfels, you appreciate what drinking fine wine is all about.
So, this holiday season, get yourself some good wine to go with good cuisine, and prepare yourself for some good memories.
You might splurge and purchase a Chateauneuf du Pape, or spend much less for a Syrah from France, or the States, say, or try one of these new Texas varietals.
Wine making in Texas has become a red-hot activity – Texas is now the fifth-largest wine producing state in the country.
Have that wine with that meal, and prepare to make some good memories.