Summer is finally over; despite the wonderfully warm weather we have experienced this month.
Autumn is here with the leaves turning and a chill in the air both morning and evening, with thoughts of sipping an aperitif in front of the first fire in the not too distant future. But before you reach for the bottle of malt, open the gin or pour a glass of white wine, there is a more unusual aperitif that is well worth considering, particularly if you have a sweet tooth.
The pre-dinner tipple has undergone a great many changes in this country during the last few decades. Martini, Cinzano, Dubonnet (‘Do ‘av a Dubonnet!’ as the advert went) are all largely consigned to the past for most of us. Sherry, in all its glorious forms, was the aperitif to be seen drinking in nineteenth century society. Its image was tarnished by the commercial semi-sweet wines of the 1960s, but dry sherry is now making a bit of a comeback. Other European countries -yes we are still part of Europe since, thankfully, we cannot change geography – seem to be more traditional in their choice of early evening drinks, perhaps partly because they produce them.
In Seville you drink sherry, in Oporto you drink port, in Roussillon you drink Rivesaltes and in Gascony you drink Floc de Gascogne. This is a sweet aperitif drink, sometimes referred to as a fortified wine. Fortified it is, wine it is not. Floc is made by blending natural, unfermented grape juice with Armagnac brandy. The result is a beverage of about 17 or 18% alcohol, with natural sweetness from the ripe grapes, and a kick from the fiery, earthy Armagnac. It should be served well chilled and can accompany some fruit based desserts as well as being appreciated on its own before dinner.
Floc de Gascogne is a quality product and the production is regulated by appellation laws, as with many wines. It can only be produced in the designated Armagnac areas, and the grape juice and Armagnac must be produced from the same vineyard. Although there is a rosé version, the most commonly encountered Floc is white. The main grape varieties are Colombard, Ugni Blanc and Gros Manseng, as with those principally used for Armagnac production. The finished product must be aged for a year after production, but it is not a drink that improves with age thereafter. Floc de Gascogne should be consumed within the year after it is put on sale. Once opened, it can be kept a month or two in the fridge, but then starts to oxidise.
The origins of Floc de Gascogne go all the way back to the sixteenth century and the ‘recipe’ is roughly two thirds grape juice to one third Armagnac. The name Floc is taken from the old Occitan language and means a bouquet of flowers, alluding to the delicate aromas of roses, jasmine, honey and almonds often detected. Other spirit producing regions of France have similar products such as Pineau de Charentes from the Cognac area and Pommeau from the Calvados region.
Floc de Gascogne remains very much a regional product, with only about 10% of the annual production of a million bottles being exported – mainly to Belgium, with a little to the UK. The smaller producers make some of the most interesting and characterful examples, such as that produced by Domaine Maouhum near Le Freche. The velvety smooth, sweet fruit from the grapes had a fresh, balancing acidity and a surprisingly complex aroma, combining floral elements, honey and deep, earthy notes from the Armagnac.