Finding Terroir in the Water of Life

Eau de vie has long been considered a rustic peasant spirit unworthy of serious consideration. But a handful of small, progressive producers are showing that these fruit brandies are capable of expressing terroir. Tess Bryant on Hans Reisetbauer and Laurent Cazottes.

pear orchard eau de vie

In the wine world, Austria is known firstly for grüner veltliner and riesling—two legendary grapes that reach great heights along the steep riverbanks of the Wachau and the gentle slopes of the Wagram.

But grapes don’t grow in the northern region of Axberg. So in 1990, when Hans Reisetbauer was indulging the idea of becoming a farmer, he planted an apple orchard instead. With these trees Reisetbauer soon became one of the most prominent distillers to explore what terroir means in the realm of eau de vie—a distillate oft considered to be a rustic peasant spirit produced from leftover fruit scraps and deserving of little attention. Nearly 25 years later, Reisetbauer—along with other smaller producers, including Laurent Cazottes—is setting the record straight by proving eau de vie can be just as noble, elegant and expressive of terroir as wine.

When my husband and I visited the Reisetbauer orchards and distillery last year we were weary, our tongues numb from acid after weeks of tasting riesling and grüner. We drove hours through rural northern Austria, past an endless parade of weathered barns and open fields before arriving at a sleek wood-and-glass paneled building placed, unexpectedly, in the center of a large orchard.

We were greeted with a communal lunch, a daily ritual for the office staff, the orchardists and the distillery workers who all eat together with Reisetbauer and his wife, Julia, who both switch off as acting chef. Amidst the chatter of the day’s business, fresh juices from the orchard (apple, carrot) were served alongside large bottles of bubbly mineral water from the region’s spring. The meal ended with a small slice of almond cake, espresso and cigarettes before the orchardists re-donned their muddy overalls and the secretary returned to her computer.

Much as one might compare the fineness of Burgundy’s pinot noir bottlings to more unctuous red wines in the southern Languedoc region, both Reisetbauer and Cazottes offer two important interpretations of what eau de vie can be.

We tasted almost 20 fruit distillates, two whiskeys, and one gin—a multi-hour snapshot into the almost maniacal pursuit of perfection and place that has become synonymous with the name Reisetbauer. From raspberry (both elegant and untamed in equal measure) to rowanberry (think green almonds and warm earth) to ginger as spicy and tangy as chewing on the fresh root (yet far more enjoyable), each showed a purity and intensity that almost superseded the experience of eating the fruit or vegetable itself. Carrot remains a favorite, capturing the perfect sweetness of a freshly dug up garden root, so unusual in spirit form, yet so familiar at the same time.

We ended with elsbeere—a fruit from southern France that produces not only Reisetbauer’s most expensive eau de vie, but, according to him, the most expensive eau de vie in the world. Elsbeere trees take 40 years to begin producing fruit and each tree bears so little that he can only produce a maximum of 499 375ml bottles per year. (His elsbeere eau de vie is sold out for the next ten years.)

We quickly learned it takes a staggering quantity of fruit to produce each bottle of eau de vie. For instance, Reisetbauer requires 77 pounds of perfectly plucked wild raspberries to produce one liter of eau de vie. To achieve the clarity of flavor so characteristic of these eaux de vie, oxidation of the fruit is avoided at all costs. As such, stems and seeds are not removed so as never to expose the flesh. Further, any fruit with a single blemish or bruise cannot be included in the distillation process.

Once sorted for imperfections, the fruit is gently churned to a slurry and fermented before being distilled in small copper stills that Reisetbauer designed himself (he also designed nearly all of the equipment in his facility, as well as the building itself). Finally, a significantly larger portion of the distillates’ heads and tails than is standard is discarded in order to retain only the most aromatically pure segment, known as the “heart.”

“Nearly 20 years ago, I started with 100 bottles, and the idea was the same—to be the best distiller in the world,” says Reisetbauer. “I can never do this because, well, who decides who the best in the world is? But part of our goal is to make products that other people can’t because it’s too much work.”

Reisetbauer considers the fruit of the Williams pear tree to be the most expressive of his regional terroir. “It is representative of our soil,” he says. “You smell the fruit and you smell the place—and it smells different each year, like the same wine from different vintages.”

Such a notion might seem shocking for those who have thought of fruit exclusively as food, not a product capable of translating a place. But Reisetbauer’s life work has been to challenge assumptions of what these spirits can achieve in the pursuit of expressing terroir.

And he is not alone. In a small corner of southeastern France, Laurent Cazottes produces eaux de vie of a very different nature with similar goals in mind.

Cazottes learned the art of distillation from his father, who traveled their native region of Gaillac distilling the various fruits harvested throughout the season. In 1997, he began to take over his father’s business, but decided to stick closer to home. Using fruit only from his own organic orchards—pears, greengage plums and two native grapes, prunelard noir and mauzac rose (a mutation of mauzac blanc)—Cazottes produces eaux de vie of richness and weight that act as counterpoints to the delicate, ethereal nature of Reisetbauer’s distillates.

Cazottes picks his fruit at high ripeness levels and lets it dry slightly on mats to round the tannins and concentrate the sugars. Removing the seeds, skins and stems also allows for a small amount of oxidation. The result is a spirit that is round, rich and fruit-driven, which—though it might lack some of the elegance of Reisetbauer’s style—shows as powerful a vision of Gaillac’s southern terroir as Reisetbauer’s northern vision of Axberg.

Much as one might compare the fineness of Burgundy’s pinot noir bottlings to more unctuous red wines in the southern Languedoc region, both Reisetbauer and Cazottes offer two important interpretations of what eau de vie can be.

The connection between these high quality spirits and the wine world has been further established with the involvement of winemakers like Burgundy’s Jean-Marc Roulot, who was so inspired by Reisetbauer’s efforts he began to produce his own eau de vie, as well as sell Reisetbauer small quantities of fruit from his favorite vineyards at harvest.

Roulot’s rarified Meursault ‘Les Charmes’ bottling, depending on vintage, can run in the high $300 range on a retail shelf, though I’d bet money you won’t see one there. On restaurant lists, at least double that would not be surprising. And yet, Roulot is selling select parcels of this vineyard to Reisetbauer to produce his ‘Les Charmes’ eau de vie. Likewise, Cornelius Dönnhoff of Germany’s Nahe sells him fruit from his Oberhäuser Brücke vineyard. And Reisetbauer’s best friend, Bernhard Ott of Austria’s Wagram region, not only supplies him with biodynamically grown apricots for his apricot eau de vie, but also sells him a selection of grüner veltliner grapes that normally go into his ‘Qvevre’ bottling—a wine so rare fewer than 24 bottles reach California every year.

Whether the humble apple, the greengage plum or the elusive elsbeere, the ingredients—in the hands of these two producers—are allowed a multi-tiered voice that speaks about more than just a boozy digestif. Rather, it teaches something about apples, or pears or carrots that—even if known intuitively or nostalgically—might not truly be understood without tasting these spirits.

“These winemakers want to make the best wines in the world and to find the symbiotic relationship between the fruit and the product,” says Reisetbauer. “Every day we wake up and have the same idea.”

Tess Bryant Casey has been working and drinking in the Bay Area wine industry for the past five years at Hirsch Vineyards and Arlequin Wine Merchant and now mans the western helm for T. Edward Wines. She lives in Oakland.