Water of Life: World of Cognac

The great thing about making Cognac is that it teaches you above everything else to wait — man proposes, but time and God and the seasons have got to be on your side.” Jean Monnet / Diplomat, “The Father of Europe

On the west coast of France, about 3 hours north of Biarritz, exists a medieval village rising from the shores of the river Charente. As the birthplace of François I in 1494, the King widely recognized as spearheading the French Renaissance, the once sleepy town of Cognac witnessed an explosive growth that made it one of the wealthiest cities in France. The reason? The soil here is unique, arid, making it the ideal terroir for the eponymous spirit that elevated this small town to global renown.

The picturesque village of Cognac is worthy of visiting simply for its gilded architecture and idyllic charm. Every building is hewn of limestone, white, pristine. The cobblestone streets are lined with chocolatiers, terraced bistros and lingerie shops. Behind them secret courtyards hide, covered in ivy. Through it all the slow-rolling river flows.

This hallowed ground is where one of the finest spirits known to man was born. A nectar perfected over the centuries, analyzed and pruned and refined from growing the sacred grapes to fermenting them into wine to distilling and masterfully aging that spirit in French Oak casks. The process is studied, the men who have perfected the art elevated to great status. In Cognac, the Cellar Masters enjoy a prestige equal to nobles of old.

As the only major fruit-based spirit, cognac is bestowed with a unique profile making it coveted the world over. These green and ocher hills are home to more distilleries than all of Scotland, yet they still can’t produce enough to satisfy demand. The pride locals feel for this golden liquid — one of the most valuable in all the world — resonates from the soil itself to the cooper toasting barrels to the waiter pouring you an after-dinner snifter.

THE SOIL OF THE LAND

As previously stated, what makes the region unique is its terroir — that nebulous but singular combination of soil, climate, and light, with a dash of what the French dub savoir faire, or local “know how”, thrown in for good measure. The growing region is divided into 6 areas, or crus, producing white wine. The best crus are considered Grand Champagne and Petit Champagne, whose soil consists largely of shale and limestone (Champagne literally means “chalky soil”). We drove out to the fields and ran our fingers through the dirt — a white, hard chalk rich with minerals. It didn’t take long to find tiny seashell fossils from the post Jurassic period when this land was under the Atlantic. Other crus, like Fin Bois, have soil of clay and limestone, more brownish in hue, which produce a wine with a fruitier nose.

The reason this limestone soil is perfect for cognac is because the grapes — mostly Ugni blanc (aka Saint-Emilion) — are low in alcohol and high in acidity. This acidity is crucial in keeping the wine fresh, as since it is distilled the wine cannot contain any sulfates or preservatives; it must remain all-natural. The purity separates cognac from other brandies.

The cloudy white wine is quite tart, appearing almost like lemonade. It is then carefully double-distilled in copper pot stills into eau-de-vie. This “water of life”, as the French so eloquently put it, is the raw spirit that will eventually become cognac.

THE ALCHEMIST

In whisky the distillation process plays a major role, the artful procedure differentiating the various houses and their product. It is why in whisky the distilleries themselves are the heart of each brand, and the head of each label is known as the Master Distiller. Not so much in cognac; 70% of the distilling is outsourced to 120 independent professionals in the area. That’s not to say the wine and distillation are not critical ingredients to the final product, but the individualization of each house is performed in the aging and blending of the eaux-de-vie into cognac. This is where the alchemy happens, and why the Cellar Master is so revered.

Once distilled the raw white spirit is poured into casks cut from oak harvested in the nearby Limousin Forest. Just like whisky, great care is taken in the cooperage; things like grain size are monitored and carefully selected, as are toasting levels. Almost every variable from here on out has a nuanced effect on the spirit inside: age of barrel, its location, even the type of cellar it is placed. In dry cellars water evaporates before alcohol; in humid cellars alcohol evaporates first. The House of Otard, who also make D’Ussé, claim a great singularity of their cognac because of the proximity of their cellars to the Charente, and the unique thickness of their fortress walls. All things matter.

So, the Cellar Master can fine-tune the spirit in the barrels by playing with many variables. And all these different barrels — differing in type of eau-de-vie (what grape, region, distiller, etc.), how long they’ve been in the barrel, how old the barrel itself is, what cellar, where the barrel is placed in that cellar, et al. — all become diverse and highly nuanced ingredients for the Cellar Master to play with. He must then use his otherworldly tasting abilities to artfully blend these various barrels into a collage that will be aged yet again in giant vats for up to three years. Think of it as the secret elements a revered ramen chef will blend to create his proprietary broth. Yes, the ingredients matter, but so do proportions.

TASTING COMMITTEES

It must be noted that while a great responsibility falls on the well-tailored shoulders of the Cellar Master, he is not alone. Each House utilizes a Tasting Committee of about a dozen members who influence the process every step of the way. They rate and approve the various eaux-de-vie, which can come from hundreds of farmers and distillers. They taste the barrels as they age, and of course they help the Cellar Master blend the perfect final product.

Becoming a member of a Tasting Committee is a long and arduous journey. Once tapped as apprentices, young Tasting Committee members are not allowed to speak for their first 10 years of service. Or rather they can, but their comments will probably be met with a French rolling of the eyes (are there any worse kind?). Imagine: it takes 100,000 tastings to earn respect. That’s 10,000 tastings a year for 10 solid years before your opinion will be heard.

THE GREAT HOUSES OF COGNAC

There are four Great Houses of Cognac, and beyond that several other venerable Châteaus and numerous single estate distillers. But Rémy Martin, Martell, Hennessy and Courvoisier are the pillars that built the spirit into the widely coveted luxury item it is today.

RÉMY MARTIN

The House of Rémy Martin distinguishes itself in many ways, perhaps most saliently by only aging Fine Champagne — an eau-de-vie strictly from the Grand and Petit Champagne regions. This is because unlike other brands whose entry-level offering is a VS (Very Special), Rémy Martin only makes VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), XO (Extra Old) and higher. When you know you’re going to age your eau-de-vie longer than three years, you want to start with a Fine Champagne.

Rémy Martin is also led by the youngest Master Blender in the region, Baptiste Loiseau. At age 38 Loiseau is precocious, but he lives by Rémy Martin’s motto of “Terroir, People and Time,” leaning on the likes of Master Distiller Jean-Marie Bernard. Bernard is the fourth generation Master Distiller in his bloodline, since 1981 running the same farm and distillery his great grandfather once did.

Bernard’s vineyard is a pilot location for Rémy Martin, informing other distilleries how to refine every year’s particular harvest to great detail. “We are like an old couple,” he laughs, describing the level of communication between he and the other local distilleries. “It would be a shame to have the best grapes and the best wine, and then not take care of them as well as possible.”

EXPRESSION TO LOOK OUT FOR:

_2nd edition of Carte Blanche _ Given carte blanche to select a single barrel that best defined the brand’s rich legacy, Baptiste Loiseau scoured the Merpins Cellars to find this treasure. Aged at least 27 years and bottled at cask strength (44.1%), only 2,000 of the 9,650 bottles will make it to America, with a price tag of $500 each.

HENNESSY

Hennessy is the only major cognac house started by a non-Frenchman. Founded in 1765 by an Irishman, Hennessy is now the largest cognac producer in the world moving some 50 million cases of their VS per year. In fact, if it were its own standalone brand, Hennessy VS would be the best-selling cognac on the planet.

The brand’s spiritual home is the Château de Bagnolet, a sprawling estate with an even greater lawn unrolling down to the riverbed. Built in 1810 in the style of American southern plantations, the Château de Bagnolet embodies opulence in ways that Vegas casinos cheaply simulate. It is the apotheosis of luxury, and if you have the means of securing a dinner here (perhaps by purchasing your own barrel of Hennessy X.O), then do so.

If that is outside of your means, instead take part in Hennessy’s tour. By far the most technologically driven of those in the area, the elaborate walk-through is flushed out with films and laser-illustrated maps to compliment the tour. From the limestone headquarters in the heart of town you have to take a boat across the Charente to enter the cellars, making the short journey a Styx-like crossing into another state of mind.

EXPRESSION TO LOOK OUT FOR:

_Hennessy Paradis Imperial
_

Paradis Imperial blends rare 19th and 20th century eaux-de-vie into one of Chateau Hennessy’s most consistently exceptional cognacs. If you’re looking for a truly special edition, however, search for the even more rare Paradis Imperial Prestige released in 2011, and bottled in a stunning Balini-designed crystal decanter. $3,000


COURVOISIER

When you have a handwritten note from Napolean Bonaparte personally requesting your spirit as reward for his soldiers, you have a matchless piece of heritage. Such is the case with Courvoisier. Launched in the early 1800’s the label quickly gained renown throughout France. In 1889 they were the one cognac handpicked for the christening of the Eiffel Tower.

Considered the most “European” of the Great Houses, Courvoisier’s headquarters / museum just outside Cognac in Jarnac is a destination in and of itself. There you will find priceless Napoleon memorabilia including his famous hat, a lock of hair, handwritten correspondence, a gorgeous overcoat and vest. In case you haven’t noticed, that symbol on the Courvoisier label is an abstraction of Napoleon. Clearly Courvoisier doesn’t want you to forget the endorsement.

EXPRESSION TO LOOK OUT FOR:

_L’Essence de Courvoisier _

Initially launched exclusively at Harrods, L’Essence for the last time united Courvoisier’s previous Master Blender Jean Marc Olivier with new Master Blender Patrice Pinet. Selecting a beautiful collection of eaux-de-vie, Olivier and Pinet blended and further aged their concoction in barrels for another two years before bottling it at cask strength (42%). The crystal decanter is also a work of art, modeled after a ring of Napoleon’s an American Courvoisier fan found for sale in Miami. The ring, one of only ten, was a gift for the French conqueror’s bravest soldiers. Only 3,000 bottles are made every year at $2,000 to $3,400.

MARTELL

Founded in 1715 by a young merchant named Jean, Martell is the oldest of all the great cognac houses. Their Cordon Bleu label, created for the first time in 1912, is deservedly their most famous expression — but the Château Martell is perhaps best renowned in Asia. As it has been sold in China and Macau since the 1860s, stories of grandfathers breaking out the Martell from their secret drawer at holidays are commonplace. Unsurprisingly Martell is now the #1 prestige cognac in China and all of Asia.

EXPRESSION TO LOOK OUT FOR:

_Martell Extra Cohiba Cognac _

There are many worthy expressions from the House of Martell, but one of the more interesting recent options is their Extra Cohiba Cognac. No, there is no note of smoke or questionable infusion, but rather the Extra Cohiba was blended as the ideal profile to pair with one of Cuba’s finest cigars. Bold, rich and quite complex, the Martell Extra Cohiba Cognac features a blend of Grande Champagne eaux-de-vie aged between 40 to 55 years