Vin de Noix de Martel (Walnut Wine)
January 8, 2022
In 2000, during a holiday in southwestern France, we happened upon the village of Martel in the Lot region on the day when their local walnut mill happened to celebrate its annual festival. They were offering a celebratory menu at their restaurant for just 99 francs (around $20) that we could not pass up. Every course featured walnuts in one form or another, including a pre-lunch apéritif that was called “vin de noix” (walnut wine). We had never heard of such a thing, but were intrigued, and we certainly weren’t about to pass it up. It turned out to be delicious, and we asked the restaurant if they would share the recipe with us, which they happily did.
We had to wait a year to try to make the wine ourselves, since it is made with unripe walnuts (which are traditionally harvested on the feast day of St Jacques, in late June). We happened to have walnut trees where we were living at the time in northern Virginia, so we duly harvested a few dozen walnuts and made up our first batch. When the six-month maturation process was over, we were very disappointed to find that our concoction was utterly undrinkable–not only did it smell just awful, but there was an unappetising oily film on the surface that resembled an oil spill.
Undeterred, we decided to try again the following summer, but once again, after the six-month wait, we found the result completely disappointing. So I wrote back to the restaurant to ask if we might have made a mistake somewhere or misunderstood their instructions. They came back with a simple question: “Are you sure you’re using the right kind of walnuts?” Well, as it turns out, we were not–the recipe relies on sweet English walnuts, and what we had growing in our Virginia garden turned out to be bitter black walnuts, completely unsuited to the recipe (or indeed, to most any kind of cooking).
We did not give walnut wine another try until 2010, by which point we were living in New Zealand and sweet walnuts trees were more accessible. Our first batch was a success, just the way we remembered it from that holiday in France. So now, every summer in late December or early January, I collect unripe walnuts and mix up a batch, offering it either as a pre-dinner apéritif as in France, or (more often) as a post-dinner drink to accompany dessert. We have also added a step that our friends in France do not do–to give the drink a certain additional je ne sais quoi we age it in small 5-litre oak casks for a year or so, resulting in a drink that resembles a port or a fine sherry.
If you have access to walnut trees, we highly recommend you give it a try. And if you don’t, just ask for a glass when you’re visiting us next time!
Vin de Noix de Martel
- 40 unripe walnuts (you should be able to pierce one with a needle easily)
- 1 kg sugar
- a handful of walnut leaves
- 5 litres red wine (no less than 13% ABV)
- 1 litre cognac
- cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, or whatever spices catch your fancy
Wearing gloves to prevent staining your hands black, and using a cutting board that you don’t mind staining, cut your walnuts into quarters, and place in a food-safe container or bucket. The greenish liquid that comes out will stain whatever it touches, so be sure to wear clothes that you are not too fond of, and an apron. To the cut-up walnuts add the remaining ingredients. When it comes to the optional spices, we generally stick to a few cinnamon sticks and a vanilla bean, split to expose the seeds (or a few used vanilla beans from making something like vanilla ice cream). Stir the mixture well to dissolve the sugar, cover, and let sit for six months in a cool spot. Every so often, stir the mixture to make sure the sugar does not settle at the bottom. After six months, filter the wine to remove the sediment and spices, discarding the solids. Bottle the wine, or age in oak barrels (you can also just use oak chips from a home distilling shop and bulk-oak the mixture in your container). Enjoy as-is, or pour over ice cream.