We’ve all heard the motto, “Do what you love,” but when you encounter someone who’s actually doing it, it’s pretty awe-inspiring. On our recent trip to France, I got lucky, and got to participate in a tasting with David Meil, the president of Les Antiquaires du Cognac, an artisanal cognac distillery.
Les Antiquaires du Cognac takes what is already a rarified art and raises it to a level that’s – yes, dear reader, that word again – truly obsessive. It also produces what I’m sure is the purest expression of this liqueur I will ever taste. And whatever you think of cognac, when you meet someone so dedicated to doing a particular thing the absolute best way it can possibly be done in this world (or the next) – you gotta be impressed.*
Cognac is a brandy that’s produced in the Charente and Charente-Maritime regions of France. Even at the mass produced level, it’s an esoteric product – the quintessential locavore spirit or eau de vie. To earn the name, it has to be made from particular grapes (Ugni blanc is the most common) grown in one of six defined geographic zones (Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois, and Bois Ordinaire), distilled twice in alembic, or pot, stills (from wine to eau de vie and then from eau de vie to more concentrated eau de vie), and aged at least two years in French oak barrels. The towns of Cognac and Jarnac are home to the “big guys,” which most Americans have at least heard of – Martell, Hennessy, Remy Martin, and Courvoisier. Together they produce millions of bottles of blended cognac per year, rated VS (very special), VSOP (very special old pale), reserve, or XO (extra old) or Napoleon.
Distillation is alchemy: it’s basically taking a liquid and heating it to turn it into vapor and then condensing it to turn it back into liquid. Distilling cognac is an ancient, perfectionist art that involves tossing “la produit de tête” (head) and the “produit de queue” (tail), using only “la coeur” (the heart). And the entire process has to be completed on a very strict schedule – to qualify as cognac, distillation must be entirely completed by the 31st of March, using grapes from the previous vintage.
Here’s what the stills look like.
It’s hard to even figure out how to compare Les Antiquaires du Cognac to the big five, but if you had to, you might land on The French Laundry vs. McDonald’s – in other words, completely, totally different. It’s a labor of love that produces just a few hundred bottles per year. Each is made from a single vintage, and aged a minimum of 40 years.
Why 40 years? That’s the minimum time it takes to bring down the natural cask strength of alcohol, which is about 70 percent, to bottle, or drinkable, strength, naturally. Mass produced cognacs achieve this quickly by adding water (and often caramel coloring, sugar, and other additives as well, in a process known as dosage, which creates a consistent “house style” year over year). Getting to bottle strength without artificial intervention takes much longer. The natural evaporation rate of 0.5 to 1 percent per year of alcohol from the barrel puts the cognac into a “drinkable” range of 43 to 49 percent in 40 years. The reality is that depending on humidity and cellar conditions, this process can take much longer. As a result, each of Les Antiquaires’ vintages is distinct – like a wine, shaped by the weather and conditions of its particular birth year, tempered by decades of aging in oak barrels.
Here’s what the barrels look like.
Vintage cognac, from a single barrel, made from grapes from a single vineyard, is a VERY serious thing. The barrels are sealed with sealing wax and a string. Each time the barrel is opened, it has to be in the presence of a lawyer and notary, who oversees the removal of cognac for bottling, catalogs how much has been removed, and re-seals the barrel with wax and a seal once the bottling or sampling is finished. If ever the seal is broken without an official present, the barrel loses its pedigree and can’t be sold as that vintage.
Odds and ends – essentially what doesn’t come out even – are kept in five-gallon glass carboys called a “demi-jean” (hence, “demijohn”).
While these can’t be sold as vintage cognac, they can be just as amazing. Like any vintage cognac without a pedigree – missing documentation, or different years blended together – these odds and ends are called “Hors d’âge” (which literally means “beyond age,” or off the normal age chart).
When a sample is taken from the barrel, it’s taken with a “topette” – a hand-blown glass test tube on a string.
There are millions of other particular words and tools, but I’ll spare you. Instead, here’s a photo of the tasting – from left to right, the youngest, a “Fine Bois” from 1973, then the 1968 “Petite Champagne”, 1952 “Borderies”, the 1968 “Grand Champagne”, and finally the oldest, on the right, was a “Grand Champagne” from 1935 (without full documentation, this is a perfect example of an hors d’âge cognac).
Let’s be real: most of us aren’t fortunate enough to inherit a cellar full of 40+ year-old cognac, and most of us can’t afford to drink it. But even with that caveat, it’s always great to see what real passion for a job or product is – that absolute devotion to making something the best it can ever be. That’s something we can all aspire to – even if it doesn’t come with a topette.