Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Of Salt and Wine – The Philosopher Winemaker's Story


The Gironde is famed for being the home to Bordeaux's wines of the Medoc but in times gone by the great estuary was a source of salt. There are still salt marshes and salt pans along the estuary, although most of the land in the Medoc was transformed into vineyards in the 17th and 18th centuries. Salt and wine have been transported by boat up the estuary for centuries and I have a lovely tale about the discovery of 'Les Rubis de Valentine', a salt infused with wine, and its reinventor, the Philosopher Winemaker.

In the early 1900s, thanks to the vagaries of the waves and weather a sailor in Libourne discovered, to his horror, that his shipment of salt had become stained with wine that had spilt from the barrels. The white crystals of the salt were now ruby red and he was at a loss as to what to do with it. He could not trade it so he offered it to Valentine Cornier, a cellarman's wife. Captivated by its colour, Valentine infused the salt with spices and used it in dishes prepared in her family kitchen. The salt became a family secret and was named after her 'Les Rubis de Valentine' which translates as 'Valentine's Rubies'.

Valentine Cornier was the grandmother of Pascal Delbeck, a 5th generation winemaker. Pascal must have inherited some of his grandmother's instinct for innovation as he is one of its unsung pioneers when it comes to inventions. Known as the 'Philosopher Winemaker' and the 'Leonardo da Vinci of Viticultural Research' Pascal worked with Madame Dubois Challon at the prestigious First Growths Chateau Ausone and Belair in Saint Emilion. Pascal turned his mind to developing inventions to assist in winemaking and it was he who introduced the first sorting tables, gravity flow systems and helicopigeurs to Bordeaux.
Belair flourished under Pascal's care and in 2003 Madame Dubois Challon left it to him when she died. It was a fantastic gift but Pascal had no personal fortune of his own to maintain such a grand estate and he sold it to JP Moueix in 2008 due to the huge inheritance tax demands imposed on him by the French government. However Madame Dubois Challon also left Pascal her smaller, less well known vineyards, which he was able to keep: Chateaux Tour du Pas Saint Georges (Saint Emilion), Tresor du Grand Moine and Ame de Musset in Lalande de Pomerol and La Grave Moustey and Dubois Challon (AOC Bordeaux). These are now run under his company Delbeck Vignobles et Developpements.

Pascal's other great passion is marrying food and wine and his work has taken him overseas to Spain, the USA and Turkey. Not surprisingly he has turned his attention to recreating his grandmother's salt recipe. He takes the natural sea salt of the Ile de Ré and infuses it with wines from his own vineyards and spices. The result is Seldevin, a salt made with Merlot and Cabernet wines.

These wine infused salts bring flavour and originality to many dishes: from duck, lamb, beef, gravy and casseroles to seafood, salmon, scallops, squash, salads, pasta, pork and poultry. They are fantastic if used as a marinade rubbed over steak. 
 
Salt and wine make an amazing combination and who would have thought that their rediscovery would lead to such a fascinating winemaker!