Cartron Eaux-de-vies: The Last Bastion of French Authenticity
The Cartron Company, which has been manufacturing spirits in Nuits-Saint-Georges since 1882, continues to defend its land and tradition through the spirits it still produces today. Their Marc de Bourgogne and Poire Williams des Monts de la Côte d’Or are still distilled using the last mobile distilleries of the region, a choice based on quality not budget.
With Judith Cartron as a guide — today she is at the head of this business founded by her grandfather — we invite you to the heart of this traditional Burgundy which is working to preserve its values and heritage now more than ever.
"Since the company was founded in 1882, our family has been working in close association with the various parties involved in producing high-quality eaux-de-vies," Cartron says. "The fruit growers who provide the fruit and the mobile distillers who distill our Marc de Bourgogne and Poire Williams have been working with Cartron for several generations. They are the guardians of a unique expertise that is unfortunately in the process of disappearing."
Our journey, which will follow all the steps of the preparation of Poire Williams and Marc de Bourgogne, begins with a visit to the orchards of Jean Laforet, a fruit grower like his father, in Baubigny. Twelve acres of his land are planted with pear trees (Pyrus communis Williams), and the 100 to 120 tons of William pears that it produces each year are exclusively reserved for the preparation of Cartron's Poire Williams eau de vie.
Jean Laforet watches over his fruits like a treasure and loves spending time amongst his trees, a true devotion to this hard profession that demands a great deal of sacrifice. The fermentation of the pears is also carried out in-site, to limit the transport and manipulation of the fruits, as this variety can be easily damaged. It also means that the fermentation remains under control. The fruits are pressed and put in casks to obtain fruit juice. The fermentation takes place when the yeast naturally present in the skin of the fruits transforms the sugar into ethanol. The process can take several weeks, depending on the temperature and quantity of sugar and yeast.
To guarantee that its eaux-de-vies are of an irreproachable quality, Cartron calls upon the expertise of the last mobile distillers still active in the region. Christian and Robert Passerotte distill Cartron's Poire Williams eau-de-vie. At this moment, their still is parked next to the Jean Laforet's orchards, cutting down on transport and giving as much control as possible over all the phases of preparation. The equipment will remain there until the end of Cartron's distillation period.
In France, the eau-de-vie distillation process was traditionally carried out by a small-scale distiller called a bouilleur de cru using a mobile or stationary still, but this occupation began disappearing with the advent of industrialisation as production costs became more competitive. Since the law passed in 1960, distilling is no longer a privilege to be passed from father to son. The bouilleur de cru with a mobile distillery is a dying breed. Every year, several of them disappear, and their privilege is vanishing with them. Today there are only four mobile distilleries left in the Côte d'Or area and just fifteen in all of Burgundy.
The privilege of the bouilleur de cru dates back to Napoleon, who granted a privilege of tax exemption for the distillation of ten litres of pure alcohol or 20 litres of 50 percent alcohol by volume. This privilege was hereditary until 1960 when, in an effort to limit the scourge of alcoholism in the countryside and under pressure from lobbies of large importers of spirits and French producers, the government put an end to the transmission of the privilege from one generation to the next. The spouse could continue to use it until his or her death, but the descendants would no longer inherit it. Since then, bouilleurs de cru who do not hold this privilege can have their alcohol manufactured by a mobile distillery but must pay a customs tax on it.
Once distilled, the Marc de Bourgogne and Poire Williams eaux-de-vie are sent to the Cartron in Nuits-Saint-Georges to be 'given the time to age and mature'. The Marcs, which come from several producers, are blended and put to age in locally manufactured tanks of a capacity of 2500 to 5000L (549 to 1099 gal), where they will age for ten to 20 years. The Poire Williams is aged in the attic in 30L (6 gal) wicker demijohns where they will remain for nearly five years. They will undergo the enormous variations of temperature between summer and winter (0° to 40°C, or 32° to 104°F), and it is this "thermal shock" which ages the eau-de-vie. Cartron is the last company in France to age its eau-de-vie in such a small-scale, authentic way. This is the pear spirit that will take on the official destination of origin 'Poire Williams des Monts de la Côte d’Or'. Authenticity takes on a whole new meaning through the Cartron Family and their business.