After a whirlwind day with a small producer, I thought we should contrast that with one of the biggest producers in the Cognac business. At last count Rémy Martin was the #2 producer of Cognac, battling out for that spot with Martell and Courvousier, who are all neck and neck and tend to hand the salutatorian position to one another each year. Bigger than all three of them put together however is Hennessey, a giant whose footprint is visible everywhere in this region, including a dominating edifice right in the center of town.
Rémy Martin — a cornerstone of the Rémy Cointreau spirits brand — is as Old School Cognac as it gets. Celebrating its 300th anniversary next year, the operation is busily renovating its properties and building new ones to prepare for the inevitable festivities. We spent a day with global brand ambassador Maxime Pulci, touring not just its facilities but also the land itself, where we began. The heaviest rain of our trip coincided with a trek into the vineyards of Grande Champagne. Many get confused by the appearance of the term Champagne in relation to Cognac, but it has nothing to do with Champagne wine-growing region, which is hundreds of miles away from here. “Champagne” means “chalk” in French, and when you’re in the Grande Champagne area, you can understand the name fully: The ground is loaded with the stuff, to the point where you can reach down just about anywhere and pick up a chalky stone, crushing it between your hands, even if you’re tromping around in a downpour wearing borrowed boots.
So Grande Champagne has lots of chalk. The surrounding Petite Champagne region has somewhat less of it. Spreading out from there, like a bulls-eye, are regions called Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires, each considered to be of incrementally decreasing quality for growing Ugni Blanc, which comprises some 97% of the grape harvest in Cognac. (The Borderies area is a special case, which we’ll discuss in the next dispatch.) Folle Blanche and Colombard often appear in Cognac in tiny proportions. The other three approved grapes — Montils, Sémillon, and Folignan — I’ve never heard of being actually used by anyone.
Rémy-‘s eaux de vie come from Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne exclusively, with 50% minimum coming from Grande Champagne. Like most producers, Rémy does not have nearly enough land holdings of its own to distill its own brandies, so it partners with hundreds of small farmers to procure most of its eaux de vie. At least 97% of Rémy’s base spirits are purchased rather than distilled in-house, and I was surprised to discover that — like everyone in Cognac — it doesn’t buy grapes or wine but rather eaux de vie, already distilled. It’s hard to imagine, but 60 percent of the 800 to 900 tiny farms here have their own pot still which is used to distill spirits based on the house style of the purchaser. The blenders taste samples before agreeing to purchase the lot; some will provide a bonus for eaux de vie of exceptional quality. It’s all a matter of economics and efficiency: It takes 12kg of grapes to make 9 liters of wine, which in turn makes 1 liter of eau de vie. That’s a lot less liquid to cart around, and a lot less work for the blender.
Fun fact: The wine used to make Cognac is very low in alcohol — about 7% abv — and must be distilled quickly after fermentation. That’s because the wine isn’t sulfured before distillation, as this would ruin the finished brandy.
Like Ferrand, the Martin family came out of winegrowing, not sales, which is what you’ll find at most of the large houses. Today Rémy owns 280 hectares of vineyards and operates 8 small stills used to turn its own wines into eau de vie. It takes only a week for the acidic Ugni Blanc to ferment into a wine that can be distilled into eau de vie, and all of Rémy’s wines are distilled on the lees — with the yeast and sediment remaining in the still. Rémy says this gives a bigger, rounder quality to the finished spirit, and that you can see this quality in action in the “legs” of the brandy running down the side of the glass.
Somewhat akin to the wine world, Cognac revolves around the age of the vines used to make its brandies. After about 7 years, an Ugni Blanc vine is ready to be harvested for Cognac production. After about 45 years, it is considered spent and must be replanted. Vines young and old are scattered all over Cognac, with no real rhyme or reason except that, clearly, at some point the vines eventually had to be torn out and planted anew. (The Cognac AOC dictates total acreage that can be planted at any one time; a few decades back it had to pay farmers to rip out vines in order to decrease supply and thus inflate the price of Cognac.) Pulci also stresses that great Cognacs are made from a combination of old and young vines, blended in the right proportion: “Cognac has a relationship to time that is complicated,” he says — not just in the barrel, but in the soil, too. Even the barrels themselves are the products of complex time machinations, as a combination of old barrels, used barrels up to 50 years old, and frankensteined barrels featuring both old and new wood are all ubiquitous. It’s up to the blender to figure out what eau de vie should go into what type of barrel, and when it should move to another one — or into a monstrous blending vat.
Unlike Ferrand, Rémy has just a handful of products — and it notably does not sell a VS expression. The classic “black bottle” VSOP, which was designed in 1972 as a way to stand out on the shelf and to obscure any color variations in the Cognac from one bottle to the next, is its entry level expression. At the top of the line is, of course, Louis XIII, the $3500 ultra-premium Cognac that is so precious we were only given the chance to smell it from the cask instead of taste. I was lucky to taste the fresh and fruit-forward Tercet — which Pulci says he enjoys on the rocks — and came home with a bottle of Rémy Martin Club, an effusive Cognac that is otherwise sold only in Asia. We tasted these treats over an amazing private lunch served in Rémy’s new welcome center; I’m not sure what you need to do to get an invitation to a meal like this, but if you do land one, make sure you accept it.
Rémy has aging warehouses all over Cognac, including one in the center of Cognac where we wandered the racks to ogle the Louis XIII casks. It’s so precious and guarded that cell phones had to be disabled before entry for fear of creating a catastrophic spark. Pulci says the company has 150,000 barrels of Cognac aging at any given time, but the most mind-boggling stat is that it loses the equivalent of 8000 bottles per day to “angel’s share” evaporation. Turns out that, in these parts, the spirit of Cognac really is all around you, in the air.
If you go:
Rémy Martin Cognac, 20 Rue de la Société Vinicole, 16100 Cognac, France
Rémy Martin has a wide range of paid visitors’ experiences. Learn more and book on its website at remymartin.com.
Previously: Part 1: Maison Ferrand.
Up next: Part 3: Camus.