The French are renowned and appreciated the world over for their many traditions born of a unique perspective on life that forms the foundation of their culture and that has even contributed to an extent to our own way of life here in America. Who doesn’t love a French press coffee complemented with a buttery croissant on a lazy Saturday morning? A visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the impressionist works of Monet and Cézanne? Although we as Americans promote our own daily hustle and bustle, I think we in some measure deeply appreciate that someone on the other side of the pond has taken a little more time to perfect a few of the finer things and are so willing to share. Vive la différence!
Two of these traditions mean a lot to my family personally and professionally: Wine and Plaster. My wife Angela is a professional chef trained in classical French cuisine (by Jacques Pépin among others!) and a wine consultant specialized in wine and food pairing whereas I am a plasterer who has made numerous working visits to France to improve my skills in traditional plastering moulding and ornament under guidance from Les Compagnons du Devoir. Angela and I talk at length regarding our respective interests and have perceived a philosophical constant, a shared sophistication to product development that these ostensibly distinct craft traditions in France appear to share.
This essay begins the synthesis of these reflections of commonalities among French wine and plaster traditions framed in a most wine-oriented vocabulary.
Varietals in Wine
As you likely know, a varietal is a wine made from a single grape variety. Varietals are very popular in the United States, especially where we used to live in California. I think we as Americans like the simplicity of having a wine from a single grape variety that we can learn about and expect to have certain characteristics. By contrast the French generally prefer wines that are blends. For example, the prized and often very pricey Châteauneuf-du-Pape may contain up to 18 distinct grape varieties!
Throughout our wine and plaster comparison we are going to concentrate on the popular and less complex Bordeaux blend. A Bordeaux blend can have up to six grape varieties. Typically though, the following three grapes dominate most Bordeaux wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot & Cabernet Franc. Interestingly, in the United States we grow and blend these grapes in a similar way. More about that later! For now let’s take a closer look with Angela at a couple of the varietals that she and I love to drink, Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot.
Native to Bordeaux, the Cabernet Sauvignon grape is the love child of the Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. You can recognize the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes because they are quite small, their skins are very thick and are dark blue in color. They cling to each other in very tight clusters and bond tightly to the vine with their strong stems. Many of these physical characteristics express themselves by producing a powerful, complex and masculine wine. The skins, large seeds and stems give the Cabernet Sauvignon wine a dark, almost inky color and strong tannins which can be overwhelming in a young wine, but mellow beautifully with age.
With regard to aroma and taste, the flavor profile will vary greatly depending on where the grapes are grown. In new world production, Cabernet Sauvignon is typified by bold, jammy mouth-filling flavor. Up front you may taste over-ripe blackberries and plums or dried currants gently blended with notes of chocolate or coffee. By contrast, old world productions, particularly French, are lower in alcohol and much less fruit-forward. As a result, earthier and more complex notes of mushroom, leather and tobacco are given their chance to shine.
Merlot, sometimes called “cabernet without the pain” is a perfect foil for its partner. Where Cabernet Sauvignon is bold, powerful and angular, Merlot is round, soft and voluptuous. Merlot grapes are larger than cabernet sauvignon and their skins thinner and almost violet in color. These characteristics produce medium-bodied wine with lower tannins. Although, Merlot is an integral part of the orchestra that is Bordeaux wine, it does quite well on its own with a remarkable range of aromas. In the new world Merlot shows notes of plump and perfectly ripened dark-skinned fruit while old world Merlot displays deep notes of vanilla or coffee beans and earthy aromas of damp grass and leaves.
Varietals in Plaster
Plaster has its varietals as well. Whereas varietals with wines start with a single grape variety, varietals in plaster begin with a single mineral. A few of the popular minerals that historically have been used to make plaster are: gypsum, clay, limestone, marl and silica.
Paralleling our tastes in wine, plasters made from a single mineral are very popular in the United States. We generally manufacture and use clay, lime and gypsum plasters mixed only with sand. I think the American approach to plaster manufacture resembles our wine production. We like the simplicity of having a plaster from a single mineral that we can completely understand and expect to have certain characteristics. It probably comes as no surprise that the French have a long history of developing plasters that are blends of many minerals.
During our wine and plaster comparison we are going to examine parallels with the aforementioned Bordeaux blend with a historic French plaster blend, Terre de Séléné. As with our Bordeaux blend three minerals dominate this plaster blend: gypsum, limestone and clay. In the United States we have deposits of these minerals and mine them aplenty. Now it’s my turn to take a closer look at a couple of these minerals.
Pure limestone is a carbonate of calcium or calcite having the chemical formula CaCO. Lime is the main component of many materials familiar from everyday life: teeth and bones, chalk and marble are common examples. It is this type of limestone that is used to make the lime for Terre de Séléné.
Plasters made exclusively from pure limestone always maintain certain characteristics. For example, lime is a very white, reflective material which makes it a great base for creating colored plasters. Lime is highly alkali and inhibits mold growth. Many lime plasters such as Venetian plaster, Tadelakt and marmorino are have become very popular in the United States.
Gypsum and limestone are geologically related. Whereas limestone is a carbonate, gypsum is a sulphate of calcium having the chemical formula CaSO. Like its cousin, pure gypsum is a very white, reflective material that is easily tinted with mineral colorants. At the same time it has some properties that are unique. Gypsum plaster can be manufactured at a very low temperature (and corresponding low environmental impact), starting at about 150 °C or 300 °F. It also has a fast set with no shrinkage which makes it very useful for moulding and casting.
As with all grapes, including our Bordeaux varietals Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, geology makes a considerable contribution to the qualities of a wine. Geology makes an even bigger impact in the world of limestone and gypsum. In the next essay it’s time to go full French and talk Terroir! – Contributed by Patrick & Angela Webb