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What is cassis, and why should we care?

The word cassis is a common descriptor of red wine and a very annoying one. Just ask 25 of your best friends if they know what cassis is, and you will get 25 blank stares followed by several wrong answers. This habit of equating wine flavors to other fruits, vegetables, woods, tobacco, and dirt has always struck me as questionable anyway. I taste for balance to evaluate a wine, the balance of fruit, alcohol, acid, tannin, and oak, all of which I can explain and demonstrate. But I, too, can succumb to the occasional use of florid language when describing a wine although I’ve never used the word “cassis” because I had no idea what it was and simply relegated the word to junk talk. You can imagine my surprise when I learned that cassis is something real.

Recently in the home of a friend, I spotted a 750 ml bottle of G.E. Massenez Crème de Cassis de Dijon, Product of France, 20% alcohol, importer Drefus, Ashby & Co., New York. I was instantly on it. Here was the opportunity of a life time, a chance to taste real cassis without any effort whatsoever. It appeared before my eyes, seductively beckoning, and at the same time accusing because I had never made an effort to get acquainted even though I make my living selling and talking about wine.

Cassis turns out to be deliciously intriguing. First of all, it’s the deepest red color that you’ll ever see, and it tastes like an intense berry, which it is, but it also tastes like liquorice, maybe Cuban cigar, and probably cherry cough drop. Honest. Altogether, it’s astonishingly delicious, strange, and compelling. And I finally get what they mean when they say that a particular red wine tastes of cassis. And by the way, if you’ve never smoked a Cuban cigar, you’ve never lived. But if you’ve never tasted cassis, you haven’t lived either.

So what is cassis, you ask breathlessly. First, cassis is the French name for “blackcurrant,” a species of the Ribes berry native to central and northern Europe and northern Asia. If you still don’t recognize this edible fruit, which grows on a small shrub, it’s because this once popular berry was banned in the United States in the early 1900s when it was considered a carrier of white pine blister rust, which threatened the logging industry at the time. As late as 2003, blackcurrant plantings were banned in New York State. Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire still ban its cultivation, probably because the legislatures haven’t gotten around to un-banning it. In other words, writers are describing red wine by equating it with a berry that doesn’t exist in the United States, which is decidedly unpatriotic behavior and maybe deliberately deceitful. I wonder what Sarah Palin would have to say about this.

In Europe, the berry is common and consumed in various ways because of its nutritional content, especially vitamin C, potassium, phosphorus, iron, and vitamin B5 as well as healthful phytochemicals. The English make a blackcurrent cordial and mix it with cider or Guinness. The French macerate the berry in the aperitif crème de cassis or mix a bit of crème de cassis with white wine and call it Kir or Kir Royale if mixed with Champagne. New Zealanders make cassis or blackcurrant into jams and jellies, while Russians use the leaves to flavor their tea and sweeten their vodka. The Germans and Danes use it in desserts, and in Belgum and the Netherlands, cassis is a soft drink.

The easiest way to experience the taste of cassis or blackcurrant here in the United States would be to purchase a bottle of crème de cassis, making sure that the liquor is from Dijon where the best cassis is made. You will be astounded by how delicious it is and will thereafter never be duped or dismayed by irresponsible wine writers, who tell you that the Cabernet Sauvignon in your glass tastes like cassis or blackcurrant, expecting that it’s a safe descriptor because you won’t know if they’re right or wrong.

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