Spirit of France

Spirit of France

The Cognac region–birthplace of the esteemed brandy–resembles a page from a French novel: narrow cobblestone streets wind between 18th-century houses and spectacular churches embellished with striking sculptures and frescoes. Most cognac producers delight in providing tours, demos, and historical recreations. I’ve always associated the auburn hue of cognac with hard, throat-scorching liquor; I never noticed its distinction. The indulgences on my six-day itinerary certainly elevated my perception–and my palate.

My education begins in the vineyards and distillery at Hennessy (www.hennessy.com). The vineyards of the Cognac region have more than 5,500 growers who produce white wine for cognac making. Harvesting begins and ends in October. Pressing and fermentation, an age-old process, are closely monitored as they greatly determine the quality of the eau-de-vie (a colorless fruit brandy). And chaptalisation, the addition of sugar, is forbidden by law. Over a period of 24 hours, a master distiller delicately cuts the three liquids produced by the second distillation, separating the heart from the heads and tails–the heart is a clear spirit that will be aged to produce cognac.

My first sips of L’or de Jean Martell, a limited $3,600-a-bottle ultra cognac introduced by Martell last year, are over dinner at Chateau de Chanteloup, Maison Martell (www.martell.com). Some general tasting principles: a tulip glass retains aromas and reveals them with great delicacy; the temperature of the cognac should match the ambient temperature; a white background should be used to examine color and nuances; and the glass should be rotated to aerate and accelerate the release of aromatic compounds.

At Rémy Martin (www.remy.com), cellar master Pierrette Trichet steers our hands-on blending session. Rémy is known for its fine champagne cognacs, meaning its eau-de-vie–more than 700 of which were blended for Rémy Martin Extra–come from the prized Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne growing areas within Cognac. The four-hour “Rendez-vous Rémy Martin” offers a tour through the House of Rémy, a tasting session, and a sumptuous meal.

During my overnight stay at Chateau Courvoisier (www.courvoisier.com), I encountered “cognac paradise”–an 1892 vintage with floral, truffle, licorice, and vanilla notes. In developing its eau-de-vie, Courvoisier uses only French oak barrels in the aging process. When humidity, dryness, and temperature are in balance, the spirit mellows and ages harmoniously. The oldest cognacs are kept in a select dark cellar known as “the Paradise.” Courvoisier works closely with more than 1,000 winegrowers who harvest from the top four growth regions, each distinguished by soil characteristics. A cognac must age for at least 24 months after the distillation period before it can ship to market; these earn the very special, or V.S., designation. A very superior old pale (V.S.O.P.) is aged for four years, and an X.O. (extra old) at least six years.

The experience of a divine cognac, its complexity and the history it embodies, commands respect. Visit www.tourism-cognac.com or www.cognac.fr to enhance your appreciation of this fine spirit.

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.