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The Chloé Grandpierre Column no6

Vodka Pyla

Sometimes seeing is believing. This is exactly what happened to me with Vodka Pyla!

This notion of this spirit is far removed from the Bay of Arcachon is it not? When you're talking to me about vodka, I take on a Russian accent (I'm blonde, so no one will think anything of it), I think caviar, freezing cold, snow, matriochkas, ouchanka, Kremlin ...

In fact I'm thinking about a lot of things but not about golden sand, the pine forests of the Landes, a shimmering blue ocean, small boats gently bobbing on the swell, or oyster beds. But you could well say to me 'what do you know anyway?’ Remember Grey Goose which is made in Cognac by H.Mounier'? It's true!

Eymeric Bernard, CEO of Valdronne (he’s the fourth generation at the head of the group created in 1928), launched the crazy idea to produce a spirit ‘made in Aquitaine’ – one which would be full of the region’s flavours with an evocative taste between marine freshness and sandy heat. In order to pull off this incredible gamble, Eymeric needed the trusted support of two specialists: oenologist Doctor Gilles Arramon and the alchemist Lucien Viaud.

"It is better to drown one’s sorrows in vodka. As it is Russian one can be sure that they will not resurface!"

The Bernard family became the leader in the production and sale of brandy in Europe which is sold under private labels. There is significant difference with this brand: Vodka Pyla is their own creation with two other spirits (the grape-based ‘Aqua’ and lemon liqueur ‘Kypris’). The background to this vodka is to link Valdronne – a group from Bordeaux trading with international markets – with its roots.


In his laboratory, alchemist Lucien Viaud invented a process of natural water filtration through layers of earth. For this new vodka he adapted the technique in order to use sand from the famous Great Dune of Pyla. The sand named the vodka: coupling ‘silicium’ (the French for silicon) and ‘excellence’ gave birth to ‘Excellium’. Created in 2011, production was initially set at only 10,000 bottles per year for this seemingly illogical vodka.

The production process has 5 stages: the goal is to gently reduce the alcohol level during to each one. The sand actually comes from the Bernard family property at La Teste de Buch on the Bay of Arcachon. Its origin is confirmed by a lawyer. Certified French wheat is used – it is gluten-free as this removes the bitterness. Water, which is an essential part of the process, comes from a deep aquifer dating from the Eocene period (ie. 50 to 33 million years ago!).

Wine has its oenologists but vodka has ‘kipers’1! The tasting technique for vodka is different from that for wine. The alcohol, which seems to be fiery and dry at first, eventually displays finesse and delicate flavours when one knows how to taste it.

How vodka is drunk in Russia

At first, I thought vodka was not very interesting but I was so wrong. Before my tasting notes, let’s see how vodka is drunk in Russia.
First, you have to get a vodka glass. In Russia a little glass is adequate, but you can find real vodka glasses at Riedel for example. Your vodka has to be clear like water with nice ‘tears’. Don't forget to put the bottle in the freezer (don’t worry, because of the alcohol it will not turn to ice) as it is best to serve this spirit really chilled.

Russian people drink vodka with greasy food but also with a simple meal like smoked herrings or jacket potatoes with butter and dill. Just before Lent prior to Easter, vodka is served with blinis and a choice of butter, cream, smoked salmon, soft-boiled eggs, smoked herrings and caviar (black from sturgeon and red from salmon). Each time there are guests, Vodka is offered: guests have to accept and drink it straight down accompanied by gherkins in order to reduce the effects of the alcohol.

The taste

In general on the palate there might be a sweetness and a balance in the mouth. Four groups of flavours can usually be discerned: seeds, toast, solvent and butter. These flavours help the kipers to recognize the origin of the vodka and even its base components.

Now, let’s see now what Vodka Pyla has to offer …
Vodka Pyla ‘Excellium’ - 40%

This vodka is clear, misted by the freshness of the freezer. The drops are numerous and quite oily. The nose is powerful but less forceful than for other vodkas made for a 'common consumption'. I feel ethanol for sure but also aniseed, mint and pepper.

It's in the five first minutes that a vodka opens. It's not like a wine or a whisky which need more time. For the vodka tasting, if I understood everything correctly, you have to inhale the aromas with the nose then down the liquid in one. You can however spit, it depends on the vodka tasting school. To conclude the tasting process you exhale with the mouth. The alcohol is less powerful but the flavours are more potent.

In the mouth, I detected fennel, aniseed and a hint of liquorice with a lot of freshness. After a while, some green plum and cherry plum appeared. This vodka has an intriguing freshness. A class act ... and a very nice surprise!
Not being a vodka taster I compared other tasters’ comments with my notes. It was reassuring to find that my tasting technique was not unreasonable. Flavours such as pepper, pine cone and Mediterranean aromatic herbs were identified to my surprise by the tasters I consulted.

Only available in France for the moment, you should count on spending circa 35 euro (US$45) a bottle. What’s more, to do really do justice to this quality vodka, you should buy some fine caviar – also from Aquitaine!

Chloé Grandpierre, Professionnel du Vin
Website for Vodka Pyla:
1 An expert vodka taster, a kiper is generally used by Polish vodka producers to ensure the quality of each batch. The kiper is responsible for controlling on a day-to-day basis the quality of production. But he must also be able to recognize the raw materials used and the general origins of a particular vodka.

Views of the Dune of Pyla and the Bay of Arcachon