Sunday January 27, 2013
By Michael Cheang
Our columnist discovers the finer things in life by checking out some champagne cognacs.
IT is well-known that cognac can only be made in the Cognac region of France, and champagne can only be produced in the Champagne region. So what about champagne cognac then?
No, champagne cognac doesn’t mean cognac with bubbles in it. Simply put, champagne cognac is cognac made from grapes grown in the Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne crus, which are considered two of the best grape-growing zones in the Cognac region. About 17% of all cognacs produced are champagne cognacs (though to be classified as “cognac fine champagne”, a cognac must be made of at least 50% Grande Champagne eau de vie), and the biggest producer of this particular type of cognac is the House of Rémy Martin.
One of the so-called “Big Four” of the cognac industry (the other three being Hennessy, Martell and Courvoisier), Rémy Martin produces almost 80% of all fine champagne cognacs, and have been making their cognacs exclusively out of Grande and Petite Champagne grapes since 1948.
Founded in 1724 by a young winegrower named Rémy Martin (obviously), the company first started making fine champagne cognac in 1830, when it released the Rémy Martin Grande Champagne Cognac. It subsequently released its first VSOP bottling in 1927, which was then repackaged into its now signature, iconic black frosted bottle in 1972.
According to Rémy Martin’s regional marketing manager Laurent Soulat, Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne grapes produce an excellent eaux de vie that has a much greater aromatic intensity and is also more expensive than other grapes.
Apparently, the terrain in these regions consists of a unique type of chalk-flecked soil that reflects light, which helps to ripen the grapes perfectly. The Grande Champagne soil in particular, consists of chalk and porous limestone, which, according to Andre Domine’s book The Ultimate Guide To Spirits And Cocktails, is perfect for drainage while “absorbing water like a sponge”.
As a result, eaux de vie made from these grapes have great finesse and “astonishing ageing potential”.
“That is just one of the reasons our cognac is so fine,” Soulat said during a tasting session at the Hilton KL’s Senses restaurant.
“We also use small copper pot stills to distil our eaux de vie, and we keep our production relatively small ... only about 250,000 litres a year.”
After distillation, the eaux de vie are then matured in barrels made from fine French Limousin oak, which is considered the finest wood in France, but is also one of the most expensive.
“We age our cognacs for a very long time, almost twice as long as our competitors,” said Soulat. “It can be very expensive to hold the liquid for so long, as we lose about 3% of it to the angel’s share (evaporation) each year. That’s roughly 8,000 bottles a day!”
The final piece of the puzzle comes when the cellar master has to blend the various eaux de vie of different ages together to create the cognac house’s signature profile. There have only been four cellar masters throughout Rémy Martin’s history, and the current one, Pierrette Trichet, is the only woman to hold that illustrious position. In fact, she is the first woman to ever reach this level of expertise and is also the only female cellar master amongst all the cognac houses in Cognac.
So, what does cognac made using the most expensive grapes, matured in the most expensive wood, and kept for the most expensive time, taste like?
There are three expressions of Rémy Martin currently available in Malaysia, namely the Rémy Martin VSOP, Rémy Martin XO and the Rémy Martin Club.
The VSOP, which consists of 55% Grande Champagne and 45% Petite Champagne eau de vie, is a vibrant gold liquid with velvety vanilla, apricot flavours, and a silky, long fruity finish.
“The VSOP is a very elegant, well rounded cognac. It contains more than 200 eaux de vie, all aged between four and eight years,” said Soulat.
Moving on, Soulat introduced us to the Rémy Martin Club, which is apparently a huge favourite amongst consumers in Asia because of its compatibility with Asian food. Made from over 300 six- to 25-year-old eaux de vie (70% Grande and 30% Petite), it’s easy to see why it appeals to Asian palates so much. It has a sweet honey richness that transcends into a slightly spicy, raisin-y velvet smoothness, before ending with a sweetly intense finish.
The highlight of the tasting, however, was the Rémy Martin XO. Containing more than 400 eaux de vie aged from 10 to 37 years (85% Grande and 15% Petite), this was a simply divine spirit. On the nose, it smelled wonderfully of jasmine, wood, cinnamon and nuts, while on the palate, it is a viscous, rich spirit full of oak wood, nuts and fruity flavours tempered with an intense honey richness, that segues into a long, lingering, satisfyingly wonderful nutty finish. While the VSOP and Club did much to educate me on what a fine champagne cognac is, it was the XO that truly convinced me of exactly how “fine” a champagne cognac can be.
> Michael Cheang wonders what champagne made from cognac grapes would taste like.