The genesis of my wine appreciation can be traced to two distinct periods in my life. The first was my time as a student in Strasbourg, France, where I lived with an Alsatian family who lived just beyond the southern limit of the city. My French mother was a reputable chef, specializing in the local cuisine and wines.
She was also an unabashed racist and xenophobe, which made her the more tolerant half of her marital unit. Luckily, her husband and her whack-a-doodle views did not make many appearances in the kitchen and I was able to learn how to prepare a few Alsatian dishes (Filet du pork en croûte with a side of spaetzle anyone?) without being offended or worse, indoctrinated.
She also introduced me to the quintessential French apéritif, the Kir (named after the mayor of Dijon who helped popularize the drink in post-war France).
I doubt there are any cocktails that are easier to make than a Kir: one part Crème de Cassis, five parts acidic white wine (a “Kir Royale” is made in the same fashion, but with sparkling wine). Crème de Cassis is a sweet, unctuous liquor made from black currants and one can make the Kir sweeter by increasing its ratio in the blend. The French, of course, even have a term to describe this concept: cassisé—as in “bien cassisé” or “moins cassisé” to describe the desired relative sweetness of the drink.
My French mother would often offer me a Kir once the heavy lifting of the evening’s meal had been completed and before her husband would descend, demanding his dinner, with malevolent grunt followed by a racial epithet (which usually was somehow related to the day’s news).
Fast forward a few years. I had graduated from college and I had begun my career in education as a French teacher at a school just beyond the north border of Baltimore, Maryland and I came across an ad in Bicycling magazine for a cycling tour guide in Europe.
I called. A week or so later, I took a train to New York, spoke with the owner of the company, and was scheduled to start a few weeks later (after finishing the school year, naturally).
I spent the first few days in Paris, before I was to head out to the Basque region for my first trip. On my very first day, after finding the office hidden in the city’s maze of small side streets, reading through countless guides and information about my upcoming trips, while still suffering from jet lag, I was handed a Kir.
Over the next couple of decades, the Kir became synonymous with my summer trips to France, and I often would return with a bottle of Crème de Cassis so that I could relive my time in Europe during the rest of the year.
This past summer, on a trip to Burgundy with the kids in tow, we were looking for an activity to hold my boys’ interest for longer than a nanosecond, and a visit to Le Cassissium at Védrenne, one of the leading producers of Crème de Cassis, was suggested. Billed as a “museum and tasting room dedicated to Cassis” I initially thought: “Oh, that should be a real barrel of monkeys” (well, that is the PG version, at least).
Nonetheless, I made the appointment and on a bright Friday morning last summer, we piled into the rental Citroën and made the short drive from Dijon south to Nuits-St.-Georges, home of Védrenne and Le Cassissium.
Upon entering, we were ushered into the interactive museum, while waiting for the introductory film. When my boys (aged 14 and 8) saw the various displays, they immediately left our side and started having a blast with the various installments.
After a short quarter of an hour, we had a private screening of the Cassissium’s film, which gives some interesting background on black currants as well as the origins of Crème de Cassis and the Kir. Sure, the film is “hosted” by a talking black currant called “Super Cassis” and is at times quite kitschy, but the boys thought it was hilarious.
Super Cassis, though, was the provider of several interesting tidbits:
- Cassis been around for centuries but first made into a Crème in 1841. By 1873 over a million bushes had been planted due to the craze for the liqueur.
- In 1901, the first cocktail with two parts white wine, one part crème (which would be exceedingly sweet) was created.
- In 1933 Joseph Védrenne registered “SuperCassis” as the name for his Crème de Cassis.
- There are over 150 different varieties of cassis around the world. The most aromatic is found in Burgundy: the Noir de Bourgogne.
- Poland is the largest producer of black currants in the world, although none is made into liqueur there.
- The Loire Valley produces the most cassis in France followed closely by Burgundy.
- Cassis is harvested much earlier than are grapes, in first two weeks of July (compared to September for grapes).
After the surprisingly entertaining film, we had a tour of the Védrenne facility and accumulated a few more facts about Védrenne’s Crème de Cassis production:
- Védrenne has been in Nuits since 1923, and in the current structure since 1974.
- The company does not grow any fruit, instead purchasing from local farmers.
- Védrenne buys around 700 thousand tons of fruit a year and makes over a dozen different crèmes, including pear, peach, plum, blueberry, and raspberry.
- 70% of Vedrennes’ black currants come from Burgundy and 30% from the Loire Valley.
- There are two ways to make a crème: maceration (allowing the fruit to ferment) or distillation (adding spirits to the fruit juice). Most modern producers choose the latter, as does Védrenne—they add sugar beet alcohol to the must (96% pure) and there is no fermentation of the currants whatsoever. They steep the currants in the alcohol for 6-8 weeks before bottling.
- The best liqueurs are around 20% abv.
- Védrenne produces 2 million bottles a year.
- 98% of all crème de cassis is produced in France.
We took several bottles of Védrenne Crèmes back with us (SuperCassis, Blueberry, Peach, and Pear) and have made our way through most of it. So much so that when I was back in Burgundy in November, I was commanded to get another couple of bottles.
Védrenne Crèmes are available across the US.