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15 May 2016

The water of life that’s a memento of death

The apparently unappetising remains of good wine take on new life when distilled into marc.

By Nina Caplan

There is no better punctuation to a fine meal than a digestif, the strong liquor that reminds us of our mortality – everything is fleeting, even dinner – as well as aiding an impressive repast in its ultimate task of nourishing the diner. Still, it’s not all grim musings and intestinal gurgling in the postprandial parlour: these potent beverages also offer a promise of redemption. After all, if distillation can make nectar out of nature’s leavings, perhaps we, too, can triumph over fate – or so muses the gourmand over her whisky or eau de vie. Keep everything moving and you will keep moving, goes the digestive logic of the digestif: it is no accident that the names of both drinks translate as “water of life” (“whisky” from the Gaelic “uisge beatha” – uisge meaning “water” and beatha “life”).

With marc, my favourite digestif, both the mortality and the miracle are there in the glass: sip it and you taste the pulverised remains (stems, grape skins, pips) of the wine refined to make it, as well as experiencing resurrection through distillation, in those unpromising oenological afterthoughts given new life. A marc is like a vanitas, the skull that artists once included in paintings to deliver a warning that no pleasure, however great, can last. Behind the smooth sophistication of strong, well-made alcohol, there is the musty hint of old grape skins – a pungent reminder that even the magic of alcohol cannot make a grape, or a drinker, eternal.

There is a wonderful story by the American food writer M F K Fisher, in which she takes a gourmand to a restaurant, having boasted to him of its credentials, including the flawless service of Charles, the perfect waiter. But something is wrong, and the wrongness is encapsulated in the superb marc that Charles digs out for them from some obscure corner of the cellar. It is “the cleanest, smoothest distillation” that Fisher has ever tasted – but Charles serves far too much and then refills the glasses over their protests. A wonderful endpoint becomes endless, as in one of those fables where treats are prolonged until they become a punishment. If the digestif goes on for ever, how is one ever to have another dinner?

Pleasure should be transitory – and there are times when it should be illicit. There are different rules and heftier taxes for products high in alcohol, so winemakers who make marc because they can’t bear to see anything that has alcoholic potential, even leftovers, go to waste often do so unofficially. The resulting liquor, an expression of the thrift of the local peasantry as well as the final product of the soil they work, can be offered only as an act of disobedience or as a gift.

Marcs come principally from Champagne and Burgundy, sometimes Alsace, occasionally Provence: I once drank a Provençal marc so good, I really could have carried on drinking it for ever, if that had been an option. Recently, at the restaurant of Mas de Torrent, a former farm in Catalonia that is now a lovely hotel, I spotted marc on the menu. Unusually, it was Spanish: the superb cava house Gramona has clearly adopted Champagne’s distillation habits along with its methods of making sparkling wine. The idea of a peasant beverage, made by a premium winemaker, in an upgraded farmhouse, at the end of a very sophisticated dinner, was too enticing to pass up, and so we increased the load on purse and liver with a reminder of mortality that may well have hastened its approach.

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Pale and pretty in the glass, the marc was delicious, both elegant and boldly cellarish, like a farmhand treading grapes in black tie. What could be better than a memorable drink that is also a fine reminder of the unpalatable truths that drive us to drink in the first place? Gramona’s marc was entirely satisfying: an ideal complement to our gastronomic excursion, and the perfect place to stop.

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This article appears in the 11 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump