Gin from the vine
by Jo Lamiri - Tuesday October 24, 2017 12:10 pm
Gin made from grapes? Sacrilege for some, a smart drink for others. Jo heads out to France to meet the iconoclastic distillers. And drink some gin, of course.
G’Vine (a play on the French word for vine – vigne) has been wowing the super premium gin gang for around 10 years with a gin that’s more rounded and less harsh than many grain-based spirits.
Add in around 10 botanicals and vine flowers (the exact mix of blooms is a secret recipe, but it includes floral peachy Ugni Blanc and berry Cabernet Sauvignon), and it’s soon clear this gin is a cut of lemon above the rest.
The company is the brainchild of the charismatic Jean-Sébastien Robicquet, a maverick oenologist-turned marketer-turned master distiller who has also pushed the boundaries with his grape-based vodka Cîroc, vermouth, tequila and La Guilde Cognac.
But it was for his ‘Traditionally Unconventional’ gin that we drove through gold-tinged vineyards near Cognac in the still-sunny Charente in October to Villevert, an archetypally elegant 16th-century French shuttered house with an 18th-century distillery amid manicured lawns.
Used as the company’s offices and the venue for events and hosted lunches, the house is a testament to Jean-Sebastien’s passion for the grape: different rooms represent the various stages of production: the grape room has a series of huge steel orbs suspended above the dining table; the distillation room features a copper-clad wall by the fireplace. Everywhere, there are books on wine, vintage bottles, glasses, art…it’s quite something.
At the first poolside sip of Floraison, Fever-Tree tonic and ice from one of those modish, orb-shaped glasses that probably holds your weekly alcohol units in one hit, adorned with three grapes threaded on to a cocktail stick like a vinous Michelin man, it was immediately easy to taste the influence of the vine flowers and the softness of grape spirit. This would definitely be a great drink for summery cocktails or those who prefer a less junipered gin.
G’Vine produces two super premium gins, rated among the world’s best by the IWSR*: Floraison (flowering season), juniper-light and refreshing (good for vermouth cocktails and Negroni), and the spicier, more juniper-laden Nouaison (named after the point at which the vine flower starts to metamorphose into a grape). The latter is richer, stronger and with fewer vine flowers in the mix.
It turned out that both are a dream when it comes to food pairing. Brand ambassador Erwan Tonner suggested that G’Vine brings back floral and citrus elements to the food, pairing them expertly with an amuse-bouche of goats’ cheese, grape and cucumber where flowery Floraison accentuated the creaminess and tang, equally with a blini topped with mayo and trout marinated with orange, juniper and ginger. The spicier Nouaison was a great match for scallops smoked with juniper, ginger and cardamom, served with beetroot.
The gin is crafted in the nearly “Distillery 2.0”, a state-of-art facility with 2,500-litre pot stills each clad in a “copper dress” complete with vintage pinups of coy girls, each lending her name to a still. Here, water turns to steam, regulating the temperature of the 96-degree alcohol (“turn phones to flight mode to avoid the risk of explosion”);in huge steel distilling vats combine botanical and floral distillates with some water at the end and robots fill, pack and stack up to 30,000 bottles per day, destined for distribution worldwide (G’Vine is particularly popular in Spain, apparently).
Manager Jean Montarsolo, all big beard and twinkling eyes, told us that G’Vine is, unusually, double distilled, with botanicals individually infused (just as in perfume-making in France’s fragrance capital, Grasse) to create a heady whole with more complexity and layering than that found in other gin. The vine flowers are another important USP: few, if any, producers use vine flowers, but for Montarsolo it makes perfect sense.
“The flavours in the flowers are the same as those in the fruit, the grape. So by adding vine flowers you’re accentuating the flavours of the grapes that made up the base spirit.” His verdict on the company’s innovative approach was that “we make something new from the lessons of the past.”
We asked the urbane G’Vine founder and master distiller Jean-Sébastien (that breed of gallant Frenchmen who kisses your hand on introduction) how he’d decided to venture so far off-piste into the world of grape-based gin. “I studied oenology and law but soon decided lab work was not for me, so I worked in sales and marketing, for LVMH and Hennessy for Asia, travelling worldwide.”
In the early 2000s he returned home and found small growers focusing on quality but with no access to the wine market. “Wine is instrumental to love, poetry, the heart… We wanted to make gin in a different way from the way it’s done in northern Europe: it’s grape v grain; wine v beer; sun v cold.”
He scoffs at naysayers who deny G’Vine is really a gin. “What is the definition of gin? It is a spirit of agricultural origin with a character of juniper… c’est ça! Whether you use a base of grain, potatoes, sugar cane or grapes, the soul of the raw material is imprinted in the liquid – the harsher the raw material, the harsher the distillation. Grapes are much smoother, more neutral than grain (‘Do you prefer to chew on grapes or grain?’ he jokes).
For us, it was a blank canvas – every gin starts with a neutral spirit base, then you add the colours, which are the botanicals.” Indeed, during his fascinating masterclass where we tasted practically all the company’s products, comparing a G’Vine grape-based spirit against a standard grain-based spirit was a revelation: not surprisingly, the grapes provide a softer, rounded taste, less harsh or confrontational than the grain more commonly used by gin producers.
For Jean-Sébastien, G’Vine is simply the latest in a line of ground-breaking gin, with Bombay Sapphire leading the way in the 1980s, then Hendricks adding rose petals and cucumber a decade later, joined by G’Vine in 2006, which represented a change from distilled grain to distilled grapes.
But it was also the vine flowers that pushed G’Vine to the forefront of modern gin. “We started to harvest in the green – and the vine flowers smelt good. The combination of botanicals in the distillate – cassia, ginger, cardamom, lemon – with vine flowers bringing floral, green elements gives our gin its uniqueness.”
*according to the IWSR