The Puysaye is a region sitting at the limit of Burgundy (Yonne département), the Loire and the Nivernais. It's name has Celtic origins, meaning in the Celtic language both "humid country" and "forests" (it was all forests then). Although this map may make it look part of the Loire, it is often said that it's the door of Burgundy. It has a long tradition of cider making like you could see in an earlier story. But like many other regions in France, it has also its distillation culture, with mobile distilleries still scouring the region in autum to distillate alcohol for local people. In France, anyone owning fruit trees can have his fruits distillated in a registered distillery. People often use these mobile distilleries because they settle a few days near their village and this makes a shorter distance to transport the containers of fermented fruits (which can be quite heavy). Before going there with Gérard who had some stuff to distillate, we stopped at the charming village of La Ferté Loupière nearby to eat in a restaurant. The area seems to be ignored by tourists and many villages are lovely. The achitecture is very different compared to the Burgundy that we know, and here they use red bricks in old buildings.
As you may have learned in a previous family-harvest story (part one and part two), Gérard own a small vineyard near Joigny, and he has been making wine every year for fun, for himself and his friends. He uses to bring some of his grape must at the distillery, which is what he is doing this day. He almost didn't press this particular batch of must, in order to keep the maximum of juice within. It has been fermenting in this blue barrel since october, and now it's the right time to distillate it. He was helped that day by as friend of his (also named gérard) who lives in the area permanently and also gives a hand for the vineyard tasks. Gérard2 drove the blue container to the mobile distillery and we took a couple of containers of white wine that Gérard says didn't turn well. We uncorked and emptied a few dozens of bottles of this chard in order to have it distilled along with the must that day. I tasted one of the bottles, it was indeed spoiled, it was oxydized at some point, and not in a beautiful way. Every established winemaker distillates a cuvée now and then when it turns bad, so there's no shame to do it if you don't like the result.
But what is important is to distillate the two separately, the best result being brought by the distillation of the fermented must. The must looked like a packed compote and to make the filling of the alambic easier, Gérard emptied the plastic barrel with a pitchfork, filling smaller reconverted trash containers instead.
Régis has an old van parked on the side with lots of wood inside, but clients can bring their own wood and they will pay less at the end for the distillation.
Régis fills the hearth with wood from time to time, and you feel like you're on a steam locomotive, except for the lack of noise.
Even indoors artisanal distilleries use wood sometimes, especially when they still use vintage alambic inherited from the family like it'soften the case for this profession. You may remember an earlier story of mine about a bouilleur de cru in the Morvan. Morvan is a wooded area in central Burgundy (a bit further east from here), which was sort of remote in the past, little inhabited, cold and poor. The Puisaye was also densely forested in the past, not now anymore.
You may think that people would just drop their fruits or cider/wine and come back a couple of hours later, but there's a convivial tradition to just stay with the bouilleur de cru and help if necessary. It's also that you've been preparing your fruits for months (even if it means just letting them ferment in a side building), and you want to see the whole process from A to Z.
When a distillation is over, Régis opens the drain valve underneath the boiler and all the must get flushed in a big cloud of steam. Then he unlocks the lid which lets another burst of steam go away, after which you just wait that it all clears off.
The green tank on the right is full of water and that's where the steam gets condensed by going through a cooling coil. It's conveniently placed on the outside, far from the heat to stay cold, and easy to refill.
The trailer in the background belongs to another client, and the cans in there seemed to contain cider and wine. This cider may not have been spoiled, but some people around here make so much cider every year that they may make room by dumping their older stock.
You can see on this picture how these pressure cookers look like on the top, it's pretty simple to lock and unlock. I'm not familiar with the trade but I don't think they may explode, even though Régis told me that they're 3-millimeter thick, which doesn't seem that thick. But he says that the steam has a way out, the cooling coil through the water, and that it's never on the verge of exploding.
This condensation coil (pic on the right) is pretty basic, the water is as I understand renewed continuously so it can stay cold, and when some water is need to clean a tank or complement the raw material being loaded, it is taken from there and replaced by tap water.
There's always a bunch of men hanging around, this is like an ephemeral café where you can chat about everything, no women around, a men's thing. We raise our glass and enjoy the warmth of the drink. You can exchange recipes for the making of you ratafia, as there's not a uniform way of making it, from the blend share to the choice of the juice (usually around here either apple juice or grape juice).
This profession is highly regulated and you have to go under the scrutiny of the law before being allowed to operate a distillery such as this one. Being from a family where a father or a grandfather did this sort of job may help. You have to keep your books straight so that in case of need, the authorities can see who made what volume of spirit and from which sort of raw material. Also, there are distillation hours, you can't distillate after 6pm, I guess it has to do with and old law where you couldn't distillate after dark, probably to avoid the production of undeclared spirits. Also, you must wait 6pm to take away your alcohol, and this must be also a way to allow a rapid check by the Douanes (the French customs are the ones who are in charge to enforce alcohol laws) of the alcohol production of a given distillery on a given day.
My friend Gérard got 29 liters of distillated alcohol that day, at about 50 proof, part of which came from the fermented must, part from the discarded white wine (they keep the too separate). He payed 3 € per liter for the service, and he didn't pay the tax because his mother still has a distillation right. Since shortly after WW2 if I'm right, no new droits de distillation (which make you exempt of tax) are issued. Only the people who got these rights after WW2 and are still alive today can be tax-free in their private distillation. This tax is about 4 € for a liter of 100 proof alcohol, or maybe 7,5 € for one liter at 50 proof. Having no tax to pays allows you to have an excellent spirit for a mere 3 € a liter, a rare priviledge...
Gérard will probably use part of this spirit to blend it next year to his home-made grape juice and make a good volume of ratafia...
Here are a few close-up pictures of the mural