As I mentioned in my previous post, I have begun to interview women who work in the wine business in the United States as well. One of the people who was nice enough to have a chat with me about her work in wine was May Matta Aliah, owner of Red Dot Solutions. I met May some years ago when she taught a class on Sherry at the International Wine Center (IWC) as part of the WSET Diploma program. I later discovered that May was not only a wine educator but also a fabulous graphic designer. This is a very long post without photos but I haven’t yet been either to Armagnac or Lebanon and have no nice photos to share. Must remedy that.
In fact, May has been my graphic designer for the past few years and I am very happy with the results at Vigneto Communications and another website I have which focuses on something completely different, Gold Communications. Working with May can be difficult because I like all of her designs and sometimes it was hard to choose which one I preferred.
In addition to being a friend, I wanted to interview May because of her work with Armagnac in the New York area as well as her take on the Lebanese wine scene. May was born and grew up in Beirut.
In addition to teaching at the IWC, May has also worked retail at Astor wines, an experience she says taught her an enormous amount about wine. She has also worked in house as an Art Designer at a major importer designing very well known brands, including the redesign of the Yellow Tail Reserve label and labels for George Duboeuf. She became Armagnac ambassador in 2009 and has been promoting Armagnac on and off premise every since.
Armagnac from France is little understood, May said, with many people thinking that is a type of Cognac. Instead, Armagnac is the oldest spirit in the world from Gascony and is over 700 years old, 150 years older than Cognac. May does staff training and consumer tastings and has found that if people try Armagnac they love it. “The secret is to get them to try it.”
There are three important regions where Armagnac is produced in South Western France, Bas Armagnac, Armagnac Tenareze and Haut Armagnac. Armagnac has a a wide range of styles. When selling a Armagnac compared with a Cognac, May pointed out that there is a big difference in price. She noted that Armagnac of about 12 years is at its peak.
Some 10 grapes are allowed in the production of Armagnac but most use Ugni Blanc and Baco 22A as well as Colombard and Folle Blanche. Distillation in Armagnac is done in a Column still
In terms of flavor profile, May said that Armagnac has more of a fruity and dried prune aromas with forest flower and coconut and spice notes while Cognac has more citrus notes. Another fact that she underlined was the sheer difference in production between the two brandies: 160 million bottles of Cognac are sold a year while only some six million bottles of Armagnac go to market. This means that there are many, many artisanal producers of Armagnac, about 500. There are also some 300 coops and 40 negotiants. The Cognac region is closer to the sea and therefore to shipping than Armagnac. Armagnac is 100 chilometers south of Bordeaux.
The three Armagnac regions produce different aromas and flavors in the product thanks to their soils. In a presentation earlier this year, May told us in a webinar that Armagnac from Bas Armagnac was the most elegant and approachable and the most significant in terms of production figures. The soils in that area are a mix of sand and clay. This produces wines with high acid and low sugar which is ideal for making Armagnac.
At the moment, May represents 10 brands in the United States.”I’ve found the industry to be very receptive to Armagnac. There is a real affinity between wine drinkers and potential Armagnac consumers,” May said. Armagnac is made from a base wine and is then distilled as are most brandies. “One thing that is hard is that there are not a lot of great books on Armagnac out there nor libraries of brandies to taste from,” she added.
May said that most people approach Armagnac thanks to a French friend. About 60% of all Armagnac produced remains in France while the remaining 40% is exported to 130 countries. Armagnac, May confirmed, is a hand sell, just like so many fine wines. May is confident that once people begin to really discover Armagnac, there will be strong growth. She also said that it is a great drink for mixologists to work with to create new cocktails.
In addition to Armagnac, May will also be teaching the French Wine Scholar program at Artisanal cheese starting in April. I have yet to take this class but am sure that I will do it soon. The program focuses on a number of the most important regions of France.
May and I also spoke about what she has seen in Lebanon in the past few years. “The wine industry has really been growing and it is very exciting. Chateau Musar is the most famous of the Lebanese wineries of course and put Lebanon on the wine map,” May said. “There is also a new generation of wine makers who studied and lived abroad and are now bringing that knowledge back home to Lebanon,” she added.
May mentioned a variety of wineries including Massaya, owned by two brothers one who had lived in France and the other in the United States. They reclaimed there land and began making wines.” Wine tourism is also alive and well in Lebanon, May said. Another winery she mentioned was Kefraya, still part of the old guard but they have a young and dynamic manager. Chateau Ksara is also a very well known and large winery in Lebanon. May said there is a lot of interest in boutique wines now in Lebanon including in both stores and restaurants. The newer wines are being made with international varieties mostly.
Another winery to watch, May said, is the Chateau Belle-vue.. They have a female winemaker who had previously worked in Burgundy.” Lebanon is an old world wine country but is embracing the new world ways of wine labeling according to varietal. “Even in my mother’s village of Richmaya, wines are being made.” May exclaimed, “it’s an exciting time.”
Lebanese wines are not that easy to find in New York stores or on wine lists but I did notice a few in a wine shop in Brooklyn. There are also a couple of interesting Lebanese restaurants to try, one is Naya where I tried my first Chateau Musar and had a wonderful meal. I also started getting information about Ilili on Fifth Avenue. They were showcasing a different Lebanese winery for one week in January and February. I imagine as they become more well known, we will see a proliferation of brands in stores and on wine lists. I hope the same will be true for Armagnac. I know May is doing her part to make that happy.
Oddly enough, my Mother has always favored Armagnac, so I grew up with a bottle often in the house. Perhaps it is this warm memory that makes Armagnac so dear to my heart.