Travel News

Spirit of the age

Rob Ingram journeys to the heart of Cognac and discovers, among the medieval architecture and postcard-perfect countryside, that there’s more to this bucolic corner of the world than just brandy.

By Rob Ingram
There comes a time in men's lives - usually around midnight and after a few cordials - when poetry comes easily. We're in the ancient candlelit cellars of the Rémy Martin family estate of Le Grollet, drinking Louis XIII Cognac out of casks made from 150-year-old oak. Louis XIII is the ultimate expression of the Cognac blender's art and my host just happens to be Vincent Gere, director of Rémy Martin Cognacs and Estates.
I hear myself saying things like, "The Louis XIII is almost Rubenesque in its voluptuousness" and Gere makes similar murmurings in French. The Louis XIII Visit is the ultimate tasting tour offered by Rémy Martin. Visitors seldom encounter the elegant Gere in the cellar, but on this occasion he has turned out because of his affection for Australia. Between 1987 and 1996, he was chief winemaker at Victoria's Blue Pyrenees Estate - originally named Château Rémy - and he retains interest and interests in Australia.
Food and wine tours feature heavily in the travel industry, and Cognac appreciation is about as far up the luxury product ladder as the serious imbiber can go. In all fairness, have I ever suggested that you go to Hamburg for a hamburger, Jerusalem for an artichoke, or Brussels for a sprout? But Cognac is a different proposition.
The French have long maintained that wine tastes better when enjoyed on the estate on which it's grown - and maybe this is another dimension to the mysterious effect of "terroir". For just as the Champagne region is dedicated to the production of the most elite sparkling wines, Cognac in the Poitou-Charentes region is dedicated to the noble brandies that bear its name.
At first, Cognac makes the traveller a little disoriented. The region, not the drink. France's TGV (high-speed rail) makes it just a two-hour journey from Paris, but there are other factors. The curved terracotta tile roofs - many blackened by a fungus sustained by the evaporation of the Cognac spirit - are the same as you see in the south. Churches are Romanesque and local rugby sides team up against those of Toulon and Toulouse in a sport that is traditionally at home in the south. Can the Sud Ouest really begin just two hours from Paris?
Cognac itself is a solemn medieval town with a population of about 22,000. There's no forgetting that King François I was born here: a huge statue of him astride a rampant horse dominates the town square. On the left bank of the Charente River, you'll find old cobbled streets, the 12th-century Saint-Léger Church with its famous rose window, traditional timbered houses and an impressive indoor market. On the right bank lies the quarter of Saint-Jacques with its boat moorings and open-air market. A long history of prosperity and social status is reflected in the formality of the town's appearance but today it's a modern, lively commercial centre with busy banks, bistros, brasseries and boutiques.
The surrounding countryside is one of wide horizons, and even the most modest elevation offers expansive views. The lookout point at Chez Allard in the heart of the hallowed Grande Champagne district is a mere pimple on the landscape but offers views halfway to the Atlantic coast. The vista is bathed in a strange luminescent glow that visitors all remark on and locals all boast about. Reflection from the chalky soil, the natural high humidity of the local microclimate and evaporation from the ageing Cognac are all given as explanations.
It's a landscape dotted with tiny villages, the names of many reflecting the surname of the first inhabitant followed by the letters "ac", signifying a spring or water source. Each village tries to outdo the next for the best bistro, the most beautiful example of Romanesque architecture and the most lurid historical anecdote.
The many churches and abbeys reflect the formidable impact religion has had on the history of this region. Their detailed decorations served to warn against the temptations of life on earth and glorify the hereafter. Today, these religious edifices are situated on 80,000 hectares of vineyard that are dedicated to the production of one of life on earth's great temptations.
The beautiful Charente River cruises serenely through Cognac's countryside - a surprising mosaic of wooded hillsides, sudden valleys and those vast expanses of vineyard. The mood of both the river and the people is one of restraint. This is partially from respect for the soaring status of the product that has made the area famous, but also from the cautious nature of Cognac's locals. The caution, I suspect, is lifting, but it was reinforced a decade ago when production and demand got out of kilter and the major Cognac houses temporarily suspended purchases of eau-de-vie from their growers. Restraint and caution on the part of growers were also temporarily suspended; they built blockades and gave vent to their anger at the Cognac houses.
Today, the best brains in the business have the task of balancing reserves and production, and at Rémy Martin this is Gere's role. "Not as stressful today as 10 years ago," he tells me. Cognac consumption is on the increase again, thanks to two very different markets. China appears to be toasting its new love of capitalism with lashings of Cognac, and a youth market has emerged universally but particularly in the US.
Cognac - once warmed in huge brandy balloons by old wallies with gouty feet - now makes a cool fashion statement in the hip-hop world. In the US, it has apparently become one of the most familiar words in rap lyrics even if only as a rhyming partner for "smack", "crack" and "backpack". Actually, that's not fair. Rap artist Busta Rhymes went to the top 20 in the US charts with a number titled "Pass The Courvoisier". Hennessy, the top Cognac brand in the US, once boasted that young black Americans made up 60 per cent of its US sales.
Today, the old digestif, traditionally drunk neat, shares cocktail glasses with cranberry juice, lemon peel, cucumber and ginger - and conservative old Cognac houses pretend they don't mind at all.
It's surprising to find that Rémy Martin alone receives base eaux-de-vie from 1200 growers, its own four estates producing only three per cent. These suppliers are now also partners, each holding a parcel of shares in Rémy Martin. On estates averaging about 40 hectares, they grow the ugni blanc grapes that produce a thin, low-alcohol, high-acid wine distilled to create the base eau-de-vie sold to Cognac houses. Many also produce and age their own Cognacs for local consumption.
There are six crus (growing areas) within the Cognac region, the most prestigious being Grande Champagne and the second being Petite Champagne. The use of the word "Champagne" to classify Cognac vineyards is of Roman origin and actually describes the fertile, undulating landscape of Campania. Later, it came to be associated with the chalky soils of the Champagne-producing estates around Reims, which has the same limestone soil profile that produces the best Cognac spirit.
To protect its reputation as the world's number-one producer of premium Cognacs, Rémy Martin uses only Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne material. All Cognacs in the Rémy range have at least 50 per cent Grande Champagne in their blend, and the hallowed Louis XIII is made from 100 per cent Grande Champagne material, hence its rarefied reputation.
The Grande Champagne vineyards benefit from the microclimates in the hills and hollows around Segonzac. This area has the chalkiest of the soils, and the green belt of woodlands surrounding the highest points serve to trap humidity in the vineyard slopes. Gere paints a portrait of today's growers being sophisticated, technology-savvy businessmen but says their greatest gift is their empathy with nature and their ability to respond to changing conditions. This is just as well because global warming has not exempted these privileged parts. Overlooking his vineyards climbing the slopes behind picturesque Saint-Preuil, one grower tells me that the grape harvest is getting earlier each year in order to maintain the acid level in the grapes.
Acid and alcohol levels in the grape determine the quality of the eau-de-vie sold to the big Cognac producers. All growers are competing for bonuses of up to 10 per cent for eau-de-vie of exceptional quality. When distillation is completed, the best of the best will be set aside as a possible future component of Louis XIII, which, Rémy Martin ambassadors are fond of saying, "is not a Cognac, but a moment." Each bottle of Louis XIII is a blend of 1200 eaux-de-vie, each up to 100 years old. A 700ml bottle costs about $2500 in Australia. Some people think it's almost Rubenesque in its voluptuousness.
The Cognac sales crisis of a decade ago was partially blamed on the growing popularity of malt whisky and its reputation for complementing fashionable foods. Today, Rémy Martin's program of visitor experiences includes tastings of various Cognacs accompanied by appetisers. The Asian habit of drinking Cognac throughout the meal has established Cognac as a partner to, and sometimes an ingredient in, rich dishes of pork, duck and pigeon.
Crème brûlée and a Rémy Martin VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) is a marriage made in heaven. Likewise Roquefort cheese. Chilled Rémy Martin XO (Extra Old) elevates langoustines in saffron. It also succeeds with fresh fruit desserts. Louis XIII and chocolate mousse are a celestial pairing. And Michelin-starred La Ribaudière presents the ultimate classic combo - an egg cooked for an hour at 63 degrees served with a pinch of Sichuan pepper, accompanied by a slug of Rémy Martin VSOP.
Education is perceived as having a vital role in widening the appeal of Cognac. When Cognac had established itself as a noble digestif, it found a new market by promoting itself as an apéritif as well. Today, the laws controlling how it's made are as stringent as ever, but rules as to how to drink it have disappeared altogether. Mind you, drinking Cognac "long" is something of a return to its origins. The distillation of wine into brandy was invented by the Dutch back in the 17th century because distillation helped imported French wine to travel better - and water could be added on arrival to boost the volume and save on shipping costs.
Rémy Martin offers six half-day and full-day tours, plus two Louis XIII experiences that transport visitors into a world of luxury and privilege that money can't buy. Only it can. Included in these tours is a meal at Le Grollet and a wander through the cellars.
Not surprisingly, an exceptional food and wine culture has grown up around the Cognac legend. Both Thierry Verrat of La Ribaudière and Pascal Nebout of Château de l'Yeuse point to the region's location as the reason for this phenomenon. It allows easy access to fresh seafood, river fish and the produce of neighbouring Dordogne. Ludovic Merle of Restaurant du Château explains that just as wine can reflect terroir, so can food. Cognac is one of those locations, he says, and the best local restaurants are those which allow the produce to express itself. "Not always the French way," he adds.
  • undefined: Rob Ingram