FRANCE AND TEXAS have a lot in common: a balmy and breezy ocean, dense forests, occasional mountains, unpredictable weather, food with unexplainable sauces, flourishing vineyards and caravans of wide-eyed tourists.
But in France, unlike Texas, we found a discernible starting line: Paris, the point from which everything else springs. The nucleus. Virtually all trips begin and end in the City of Light. It is both the heart of and the gateway to the rest of Frankdom. All of the autoroutes converge on this gigantic metropolis, home to more than 11 million people and one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. And among those populous ranks, it truly is one of the most spectacular.
But we’re not going to tell you about Paris-this time. What about shopping, you ask? What about sightseeing? And, mon Dieu, what about that most French-of-all-French things, eating? We know you want to wander through the Louvre, stroll the bistros and wear out the gold card at Galeries Lafayette. But a trip to Paris is not a trip to France. Use your feet for seeing more of the country and save the last tango for Paris. We did.
Many of the pleasures of France are less obvious than a quick ride up the Eiffel Tower or lounging on the beach at St. Tropez. We wandered into the quiet valley along the Charente River in Southwestern France and found one of the most widely recognized but often misunderstood treasures of Europe: cognac.
The ancient Cognac region is definitely off the beaten path. But the sense of history that pervades these villages makes it well worth the trip, and half the fun is in getting there. Leaving Paris, you’ll drive through some of the highest-priced residential real estate in Europe. Palatial chateaux dot the countryside of the Loire Valley. The most shining example is Chambord, built in the 16th century by King Francois I. (The grounds cover a whopping 13,600 acres.) For centuries, the Loire Valley has been renowned for Vouvray, the wine that Rabelais called “the good September soup.” You’ve probably had a bottle of Vouvray. But do you know that it’s produced among the little villages and towns that nestle among hills of these Loire Valley? Take your pick. Within two hours, you can go from Paris to any of the valley’s major cities-Tours, Orleans, Angers or Le Mans -and all of them are more or less on the way. Or you can overshoot Cognac to the south, as we did, for a quick peek at Bordeaux before going inland.
THE QUICKEST WAY by car to tour France is on the autoroutes, but you’ll miss a lot. We got off the autoroute in our Avis rent-a-car and took the scenic, meticulously groomed (albeit narrow) national highways. On National Highway 10, we sped through the winding cobblestone streets of small villages, watching shopkeepers sweeping their front steps and old men playing endless hours of boules, a game of strategy similar to horseshoes but played using steel balls instead. On the two-lane national highways, passing is a necessary art form. Maneuvering like James Bond in a surprisingly zippy Ford Fiesta, we passed every truck in France on this stretch of road. But we soon forgot the trucks and roads. Two aspirin helped us forget our Bordeaux hangover and take in the rolling vineyards of fame, fortune and fable.
On our approach to the villages of Cognac, we began to see the mysterious calling card of the area, a black “soot” that covers many of the centuries-old buildings. It’s not soot, but rather a specialized fungus that lives on the fumes of the cognac that is being aged in oak casks in musty warehouses all over the region.
Cognac, in addition to being the largest town in the area, also denotes the small region made up of several villages, many of which end in “ac.” That suffix is an old tribal word that means water, the staff of life here. On the banks of the Charente River, these peaceful communities quietly go about the business they have conducted for centuries: harvesting in late October the sweet grapes that eventually produce one of the highest-priced spirits in the world.
Cognac hasn’t always been the lucrative drink that it is today. The unique double distillation process used in the making of cognac has only been known for a few centuries. Before cognac was discovered, the sweet wine that cognac is now made from was the main product of the region. No one is sure how long the vineyards have flourished in Cognac, but neolithic remains in the area indicate settlers were here at least 4,000 years ago. The Gauls who originally occupied the region were later conquered by Caesar. But Rome was much more interested in Bordeaux, just to the south. It served as an ideal strategic seaport for supplying Rome’s conquest of the British Isles. In order to protect Bordeaux’s commercial interests, Rome outlawed the cultivation of vineyards and the production and export of wine anywhere north of the Gironde River. This included Cognac nestled in the Charente val- ley. But late in the third century, Emperor Probus granted all Gauls the right to produce wine, and that’s exactly what they did. For the next millenium, the Charente valley produced and exported wine. After the fall of Rome, Cognac was overrun by roving bands of barbarians: Vandals and Visigoths, Franks, Vikings and Sarrazins. The Vikings sailed up the Charente in the ninth century to sack nearby Saintes and Angouleme.
The influx of foreigners to the region didn’t stop there. Many of the great cognac-making houses were founded by foreigners, The house of Martell was founded by a family who moved to France in the 18th century from the British island of Jersey. When King James II went into exile after the Stuart’s defeat by William of Orange, Baron Otard of Scotland followed him and set up shop in the Chateau de Cognac where the Otard firm operates today. Richard Hennessy was an Irishman from County Cork, Ireland. In 1765, Hennessy was a captain in the Irish brigade fighting for King Louis XV of France when he decided to give up sabres for snifters. Today, Kilian Hennessy and his family still watch over the business-from the 17th-century Chateau de St. Brice on the edge of town, a stunning castle that has been a visiting spot for royalty. The Martell brothers keep a watchful eye on their family business from each of their respective chateaux. And don’t forget the folks at Remy-Martin-they’re big league players, too. And that’s just in Cognac. Venture to the smaller town of Jarnac and find the houses of Cour-voisier and Delamain or visit Bisquit in the nearby town of Rouillac.
THE RESIDENTS OF this small region in the southwest corner of France have recognized the powers of the vine for centuries. There’s no argument here about what the elixir of life is. Cognac residents live longer than those who live elsewhere in France. (Women live to an average of 81 in Cognac as compared to the 75 years for a national average; for men it’s 75 to 69.) And almost everybody attributes their long lives to the power of the highly charged spirit. Drinking cognac is not a privilege in Cognac, it is a ritualistic part of life. A belt or two of cognac is reputed to cure just about anything. And since we couldn’t move permanently to the picturesque villages of this southwestern area, we contented ourselves with the next best thing: savoring each and every drop we came across. (After all, each sip may have been worth a minute or two.)
All cognac may be brandy, but all brandy is definitely not cognac. Cognac, in the journalist’s vernacular, is an exclusive. It is only produced in Cognac. And they mean it. The hundreds of independent cognac growers and producers are strictly regulated and controlled by the Bureau National Interprofes-sionnel du Cognac. (It’s not cognac until these folks say it’s cognac.) The bureau started during WWII when the region was controlled by German authorities. The locals feared that the Germans would tamper with the centuries-old process, so the French convinced the Nazis that it was in their best interest to keep the cognac supply controlled.
According to the bureau, this small region is the only place in the world with the right conditions and soil to produce the proper grape for cognac. Most good cognac is much older than you are-and exceptional cognac can go back to your grandfather’s earliest recollection. Some very, very old cognac will completely eclipse the 20th century.
That means some harvests have lain in dank warehouses, biding their time and gathering their amber-colored tannin through the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Revolution and the Sexual Revolution. Generations of cognac growers have since passed on their fields to their offspring, who in turn are teaching a new generation the old ways. And there, on the side of each oak cask, the chalky evidence of history is borne: The year of harvesting and the alcohol content of each cask is duly marked in white chalk. One cask at Hennessy dates from 1815, although many feel that about 50 years is the maximum that cognac should be left in oak. After that, it needs to be transported to an airtight glass container. (Glass prevents oxidation, so cognac can remain in it indefinitely without aging.) But during aging in Limousin oak casks, the cognac slowly evaporates while it absorbs the tannin from the oak, which imbues it with the rich amber color. This evaporation is believed to be the “angels’ share.” The angels are certainly not timid. Twenty-three million bottles of cognac simply evaporate each year. The house of Hennessy alone loses two million bottles a year.
As consumers, we’re used to seeing such designations as V.S., V.O., V.S.O.P., Reserve, etc., on bottles of cognac. These labels refer to the length and manner of aging. Each Cognac producer uses his own terms for labeling different grades of cognac. But perhaps the most commonly used are V.S., V.S.O.P. and Napoleon. V.S. stands for “very special” and V.S.O.R stands for “very special old pale.” It seems strange that a French product would have an English acronym, until you consider the English ancestry of many of the founders of the original Cognac houses. But the important thing to remember is that while these designations refer to the quality of a cognac, they do not necessarily reflect a cognac’s age. Cognac, unlike wine, is a blended spirit. It is a harmonious mix of several different ages of cognac that will produce a V.S.O.R or a Napoleon.
Blending of different ages of cognac is also crucial for attaining the exact desired alcohol level. As cognac ages in the cask, it mellows, and its alcohol content lowers with age. Cognac that has aged for one year usually has an alcohol content of about 75 percent by volume (150 proof) and could probably be used as jet fuel (at least it tastes like jet fuel). Consequently, if a blender finds the alcohol level too high, he must blend in older cognac to lower the percentage of alcohol.
And picking the right combination of aged cognacs to blend together is, perhaps, the toughest job in the entire industry. It is a job for the master blender, known to the French as the maitre de chais, a revered position that is steeped in tradition. The master blender is the seed from which the rest of the industry grows. He oversees the blending of all cognac, and he is also the cellarmaster of the firm. He is responsible for all of the cognac aging in the casks. He must taste it and make sure it is aging properly and blend it before it has aged too much.
Considering that Hennessy produces about two million cases a year and has much more aging in casks, blending can be quite a job for Maurice Fillioux, master blender at Hennessy. But whether it’s Hennessy or Delamain (where they only make 40,000 cases a year), the nose and the taste buds of a master blender can only be inherited. That is why, almost without exception, the master blender succeeds his father, who succeeded his father, who succeeded his father. If a blender has no sons, he trains his nephew. Like a mother who can recognize her infant’s cry in a roomful of toddlers, all cognac makers know the individual perfume of their product. They must be able to blend together different vintages of cognac to make it taste the same every time. A blender who bottles a V.S.O.P. in 1985 should make it taste the same as a V.S.O. P. bottled and blended by his father decades earlier. But strangely enough, tasting has relatively little to do with judging the quality of cognac. “The mouth is to enjoy the cognac, not to taste it,” says Delamain’s Patrick Perilongue. “You use your nose to determine the right blend of cognac.”
DELAMAIN COGNAC IS produced in the same place it always has been, a house that dates from 1715 in the small town of Jar-nac, just minutes away from the larger Cognac. Few things in this tiny operation are automated. Workers wash out each bottle with cognac before it is filled just to ensure that bottles are really clean. Then each bottle is inspected to make sure that it is flawless. Workers at Delamain bottle only so much cognac at a time, then move to a table where they tie gold tinsel fishnets around each bottle by hand. After putting each bottle in its own box, they begin bottling again. The warehouses of Delamain are quite different from the scrubbed sterility of the bigger concerns. Here, you can see the centuries at work in the form of the cognac fungus, which covers the walls and floors and between the casks piled upon one another. The Delamain master blender, a gnarled old man, pops the cork on a cask from 1947 and dips a glass tube into its depths for us to taste the 38-year-old spirit. He says, as he pours it into the crystal snifters he has brought for us, “Smell the flower of the vine. It’s not as mellow or round as I expected, and it has more alcohol content than it should for this age.”
From a cask of 1930, he says: “Smooth. It must not bite. It must not burn. It’s very different from what people think cognac must be.”
And from a cask of 1924: “Very smooth. Very drinkable.”
Says Patrick Perilongue, “Quality is the only way for us to survive. We can’t compete in price.”
JEAN NOEL RIVIERE is a sixth-generation independent cognac grower and ager. He lives in a 16th-century house on the outskirts of Cognac and produces 400 hectre-litres a year of 80-proof cognac. That’s 90,000 bottles a year. Some 10,000 bottles go to the public (Belgium, Germany, California); the other 80,000 go to Remy-Martin and Courvoisier. All his cognac is produced in the Petite Champagne and Grand Champagne regions. He has only four hired hands plus his family to help him harvest his 70 acres.
Jean Noel knows intimately the hardships and perils of growing cognac-producing grapes. The vines require five years to produce grapes. Every 30 years, the fields must be entirely cleared and the process repeated. It takes five litres of wine to produce just one bottle of cognac; more than one kilo (250 grams) of grapes to make one litre of wine. So, it takes seven kilos for one litre of cognac. This is the production of one vine-producing tree.
DURING THE 19th century and before, grapes were crushed by hand-operated wooden presses. Today, grapes are crushed automatically with centrifugal force. The first liquid produced from the fermentation is pineau, a sweet grape juice that is mixed with wine or cognac. (We-like the locals-drank it before meals.) After a double distillation, the fermented grape juice is called the “eau de vie” and put into the oak casks. Mystery and romance surround the making of these casks. They are all crafted by hand, and no two are alike. While coopering is a dying art elsewhere in the world, here tradition lives on. This is the one process in the making of cognac that cannot- and will not-be automated. From the forest to the cask, it takes seven years for the wood to age properly. No tools are used in the cask-making process except for hammers, anvils, fire and water. No nails are ever used. Once a year, the contents of each cask are tasted for quality.
In 1974, the Martell company learned an expensive and dangerous lesson about the perils of storing cognac in wood casks. A spark from a loading vehicle ignited a fire that consumed an entire warehouse. It was, says a Martell exec, “a giant flambé.” The fire spread to the nearby river, which then became engulfed in flames. Ten thousand barrels were destroyed in just four hours.
Although there is an ongoing rivalry between the large cognac houses, competition is set aside in times of crisis. The Hennessy fire trucks were some of the first on the scene of the Martell fire. That was more than a decade ago, but the episode has left a lasting brand on the community.
Cognac can’t be hurried, and neither can life here. In fact, the residents of Cognac are often called “cajouille,” which is the local term for snails. And they say, as they take a sip, that’s okay. Patience is clearly the byword in the cognac industry, for both the ultra-modern houses such as Hennessy, Martell, Courvoisier and a small, family-owned and run business like Delamain or Jean Noel Riviere. Some cognac producers will never live to see the fruits of their labor. This year’s harvest, finished in late October, may well be aged into the 21st century, although the minimum age required for the youngest brandies in the blend is four-and-a-half years. However, in practice, these blends contain a percentage, often very high, of cognac that has aged 10, 15 or 20 years or more in Limousin oak casks. The terms V.S.O.P, Vieille Reserve, Grande Reserve, Royal, X.O. and Napoleon apply to even older cognacs. (Hennessy X.O., for example, is a century old.)
The amber-colored spirit has become recognized the world over as a drink for lovers and big spenders. But that is changing. In recent years, there’s been a five- to seven-percent increase worldwide in the consumption of cognac with all other spirits declining. This is seen especially in the Orient where cognac sales have skyrocketed, making it one of the spirit’s prime markets. Closer to home, consumers are picking up on the trend of drinking cognac. In fact, Texas accounts for 53 percent of some cognac producers’ market. The world over, the amber-colored spirit is now being mixed with a variety of mixers, most notably Per-rier water or orange juice. (Yes, you really can mix fine cognac with orange juice, and, for all you disbelievers, it’s quite tasty.)
The larger Cognac houses offer daily tours in several languages. (Hennessy has a film narrated by cognac lover Peter Ustinov exclaiming the virtues of the eau de vie.) Company execs believe that these public visitations are the best form of public relations. But they don’t leave everything to word-of-mouth. Both Hennessy and Martell have large advertising campaigns worldwide. The much smaller Delamain, however, relies strictly on word-of-mouth. “Our advertising,” says Perilongue, “is in the bottle, not on the walls.” And that’s some advertising. Their limited production doesn’t mean limited distribution. Delamain distributes to major markets all over the world-including 20 unlikely cases that journey to Zambia each year.
Leaving the peaceful villages of Cognac was hard to do, especially since we were convinced that we’d live longer if we didn’t.
Good to the last drop
How to taste cognac
FIRST THINGS FIRST. Cognac cannot be appreciated in a hurry. It was made to be savored. Cognac, like wine, says Alain Braastad-Delamain, can best be enjoyed in the right glass. The head of the house of Delamain has very definite thoughts on how to taste cognac. The glass, first of all, should be a thin, tulip-shaped glass (crystal is best), not too deep or too narrow, which will fit comfortably in your palm.
The glass should hold a good measure of cognac when filled one-third or one-quarter full. It should be slightly narrow toward the top so the fragrance is trapped and directed toward your nose. An oversized snifter releases the powerful aroma of the cognac too violently for it to be appreciated, often overwhelming the sense of smell. Aficionados also emphasize the thinness of the glass, as the subtle perfume of cognac is at its best when released by the warmth of your hand. And most importantly, you should be able to cup the glass easily in the palm of the hand with the short, slender stem extending between your second and third fingers.
Most lovers of well-aged cognac take great pleasure in cupping the glass with the hand to warm it, turning it slowly to enjoy the aroma as it is gradually released. Even when the glass is empty, the fragrance will linger for several hours. Cognac glasses should be washed in clear water without detergent and allowed to dry in the air. Rinsing the glass out with a drop of the same cognac just before tasting is the best preparation possible and is used by most of the professional tasters and cognac houses.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
The color of a cognac is not an accurate indication of its age. Many houses add caramel or sugar syrup to deepen or equalize the color of various blends and to soften the somewhat harsh qualities of a young cognac. Although these practices improve appearance and the flavor of young cognacs, they can leave a false impression of age.
A good indication of a rich cognac, which has matured naturally over the years, is the presence of “legs” or “sheets” on the side of the glass after the cognac has been swirled. This implies a high glycerin content, a natural component of a well-aged, mature cognac.
Both professional tasters and aficionados agree that there is no better way to appreciate cognac than with the nose. When sniffing cognac, do not put the nose directly in the glass-the powerful aroma can deaden the sense at such close distance. Start by holding the glass several inches away and gradually bring it closer. Take very small sips and “chew” the cognac so it can be experienced through both the mouth and the nasal cavity behind the mouth.
Unlike wine, cognac does not profit from “breathing.” Exposure to air will cause evaporation and oxidation, so the bottle should be recorked after filling the glass. It’s not a good idea to keep a partially full bottle of fine cognac around for a long time. And very old Grande Champagne cognacs are sensitive to cold. They should be kept at room temperature.
Cognac is regarded as a digestive, and devotees enjoy it best at the end of an excellentmeal with or without a cup of good coffee,with the finest chocolate (slightly on the bitter side) and perhaps a great cigar. (Even ifyou don’t smoke, we suggest that you don’tblow the image.)
FRANCE AND TEXAS have a lot in common: a balmy and breezy ocean, dense forests, occasional mountains, unpredictable weather, food with unexplainable sauces, flourishing vineyards and caravans of wide-eyed tourists.