When Rémy Martin offered us the chance to go to the Cannes Film Festival, hang out on the French Riviera, and drink some top-shelf cognac, we jumped at the chance. Who wouldn't?!
But the trip was more than fun in the sun (though there was plenty of that, too). We also learned a lot about cognac, what makes it unique, and why it should be in your liquor cabinet, like yesterday.
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Cognac is made from grapes
Let's start with the simple stuff: You might be fooled by its reputation as a serious liquor, but cognac starts its life as a light-bodied, acidic wine. That wine is then distilled into what are called eaux-de-vie, which literally translates to "life water," a pretty accurate term. These eaux-de-vie are carefully selected by the cognac house based on their potential to develop through the aging process into high-quality cognac.
True cognac has to be aged in oak barrels from the Limousin forest
Particularity is key; the nearby Limousin forest provides the oak for the barrels in which the eaux-de-vie spend most of their time. The oak helps impart the cognac with distinctive flavors, and since it's not charred to the same degree you often find in American whiskey production, the notes are typically more vanilla and nuts.
Cognac has to come from Cognac, France
It's a small town northeast of Bordeaux, and it's lovely! The region around Cognac is divided into areas where grapes can be grown to produce cognac; anything outside of them, and you've got plain old brandy. In Rémy Martin's case, they produce only what's called Fine Champagne, which means the grapes come from two small areas just outside of Cognac, Grand Champagne and Petite Champagne. These are typically the highest quality grapes.
"Fine Champagne" has nothing to do with "Champagne"
You may be confused, understandably so. Grand Champagne and Petite Champagne are so designated because the chalky soil they grow in is similar to the soil in Champagne, France. The sparkling wine region is in Northeast France, though, a completely different part of the country.
Every step of production is important, making cognac a vineyard-to-table experience
For all the popularity of whiskey in America, you rarely hear talk about ensuring the corn used be of the highest quality. Not so with cognac -- farmers and scientists from Rémy Martin, for example, will work together to ensure the house receives grapes that will produce excellent eaux-de-vie.
The cellar master has to make sure the standards are up to snuff every step of the way
From the grapes to the eaux-de-vie to the aging and blending, the cellar master has to keep track of the cognac at each stage in the process. It begins when "tasting" the eaux-de-vie, done only with the nose because they're around 70% ABV. The cellar master will even pay extra for eaux-de-vie he or she thinks are of particularly excellent quality -- it's essential at this stage to decide which eaux-de-vie will become the various grades a house produces. The best might get set aside to see how they develop, which may wind up in a special release. This was the case with Rémy Martin's Louis XIII, which comes from cognac aged 100 years.
Yes, that's right: 100 years. Eaux-de-vie a cellar master selects now will make it to market long after he or she is dead. As you might expect, it's insanely difficult to become a cellar master. Rémy Martin's current cellar master, Baptiste Loiseau, is the youngest in the world at age 37... but he had to study for seven years directly under the previous cellar master before he got the gig, and that doesn't include the time he worked for Rémy Martin before that, or the advanced agronomical engineering degrees he has.
Those letters on the bottle actually mean something
VSOP? XO? They're abbreviations: Very Superior Old Pale and Extra Old. VSOPs have to be aged for a minimum of four years, while XO must be stored for a minimum of six years. Those are actual laws (the French are picky about their alcohol), though the best cognacs are usually aged for much longer. We saw barrels of cognac that had been sitting in the Rémy Martin cellars since before World War 2.
Blending is a mark of quality in cognac
For Scotch or whiskey, connoisseurs often look for single malt, single cask, or single barrel editions. The complexity of cognac's flavor profile, though, which comes from both the eaux-de-vie and the aging process, requires the cellar master to select a huge number of casks for blending. In some cases, that can mean more than 200 casks wind up in a finished product, creating a range of notes that could come from literally decades back in time.
You get what you pay for
The best cognacs can be a hit to your wallet, but consider what you're paying for: the attention to detail, expert blending, and year after year of aging. It comes through in the final product.
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