The joys of the wines from the Cognac region of France have been enjoyed dating back to Roman times. This place, in the western part of the world’s greatest fine-wine-producing country, is particularly renowned.  

Here the ability to create amazing results from the ugni blanc grape is defined as unique and desired. That’s most interesting since the less-than-critically respected ugni blanc grape is the most widely planted white grape in France.

There may not be a greater contrast between places on the planet than Denison in Texas and Cognac in France. By any measurement, these two spots could not be more different. There was, however, a time, maybe the only time, when what Denison had was what Cognac needed.

As Modine Gunch likes to say every month in New Orleans Magazine, “Let me explain.”

In the middle 1800’s the vineyards of France began to look very sick, and over a period of 10 years or so many vineyards withered and died. Even when the sick vines were removed and new healthy ones inserted into the field, those new vines soon denigrated into reduced crop quantities and then quit producing fruit and withered.

The French agriculture community was perplexed. What was happening? Above the ground, the leaves seemed healthy and the vines themselves were strong. But slowly over a period of years, the leaves, the stems and the vine sickened. All sorts of solutions were tried, including pesticides and organic materials, but to no avail.

Some vintners brought in frogs to eat whatever was devastating the vines, others allowed their chickens to roam freely. Nothing worked.   

Jules Emile Planchon, among other botanists, was called in to investigate. They noticed that around the diseased vines’ roots were “lice.” As news of the discovery of the lice spread to other of the world’s agricultural community, it was noted that the French lice were the same as the lice that attacked the leaves of oak trees in western Europe. Those recently named insects were called phylloxera quercus, and a similar insect in America was named pemphigus vitofoliae.

A suggestion was advanced that American vines whose leaves, not the roots, had been infected with the bugs be grafted together. Something in healthy vines with leaf issues among unhealthy vines with root issues could, it was suggested, be made stronger and more resistant to France’s sap-sucking pest. Also, the bug should have a consistent name across all infected countries since it was biologically the same insect. The name phylloxera vastatrix was settled on.

The problem was that some of the lice were always located at the root and others were on the leaves. It was too tempting for the botanical sleuths not to come to different conclusions about possible solutions. Nevertheless, a grafting plan was settled on and development of the new stronger, insect-resistant vines proceeded forward.

It was determined that the American vines would serve as the primary base for developing the vines bound for France. But when the vines from America, mostly Missouri stock, were planted in the chalky soils of French vineyards, they did not prosper. To be sure, they did not have the phylloxera issue but they were not happy and did not enjoy their new environment.

At this time, a Texan, Thomas Volnay Munson entered the picture, maybe drawn to the offer from the French government of a 320,000 franc prize for the solution, and he suggested that vines from his native area, Denison, Texas, about 75 miles north of Dallas, could work. The soil types and weather patterns of Denison well-matched those same factors in Cognac and the south of France.

And there was no phylloxera problem in Denison.  

French vineyards were, in the native Gallic term, “reconstituted” with root stock that had been developed and grown in nurseries in Texas. Those French botanists who performed the grafting were known as “Americanists.”   

Is there a happy ending? Not really. Within 30 years, those American vines became susceptible and were invaded by phylloxera. The plague goes on to this very day, both in America and in Europe.

Some people like to say that Americans made promises to the French and sent diseased vines overseas. Such is not the case and it is likely that the Texas-based vines slowed down the root louse for a while, but the louse maybe altered itself and came back against the French vines with a vengeance.

Neither Munson, nor other vintners who also advanced the cause of grafting, ever received the French Government’s monetary reward, even though in the short run it appeared the battle was won. Munson was awarded in 1888 the French Legion of Honor Chevalier du Mérite Agricole, the highest honor France can bestow on a foreigner. The Chevalier was presented by a representative delegation from France who traveled to Denison, Texas for the ceremony. 

There is more irony here, however. There is a phylloxera-free vine located in Europe very close to the wine producing regions of France, Italy, and Spain. The assyrtiko vine of Santorini, Greece is completely free of phylloxera. But there is speculation that the assyrtiko grapevine is not naturally resistant to phylloxera. Rather it’s the volcanic soil of the Greek island that inhibits the pest.

Okay, class, you have been very good today and you have paid attention. Most of you, not all, have not nodded off. As a reward, here are few recipes for Cognac-based cocktails that should be quite enjoyable with the cooler weather this time of year.

BONUS: These cocktails are all short-ingredient, short shake or stir projects. No use working hard during Carnival.

 

Cognac Cuba Libre

  • 4 ounces cola
  • 2 ounces Cognac
  • Lemon wedge

Pour the cola over ice, add Cognac, squeeze in lemon wedge, stir

 

Toddy

  • 4 ounces hot water
  • 2 ounces Cognac
  • 1 ounce honey

Add honey and Cognac to hot water, then stir.

 

Ode to Tiki

  • 2 ounces Cognac
  • 1 ounce orgeat
  • 1 ounce lemon juice

Shake all ingredients over ice and pour, unstrained, into a glass.

 

Cognac Manhattan

  • 2 ounces Cognac  
  • ¾ ounce red vermouth
  • 2 dashes bitters

Stir all ingredients together with ice until chilled, strain into a glass, and serve straight up.

 

Thanks to Thrillist for doing the heavy lifting with the cocktail recipes.

 

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Read Happy Hour here on MyNewOrleans.com every Wednesday, and listen to The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, hosted by Tim, every weekday, 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. on WGSO 990AM and streamed, as well as stored, at www.wgso.com. Also check out Last Call, Tim’s photo-feature every month in New Orleans Magazine. Be sure to watch "Appetite for Life" every Thursday evening at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 5 p.m., on WLAE-TV, Channel 32 in New Orleans. Previously broadcasted episodes are available for viewing at http://www.wlae.com/appetite-for-life/