The story behind the world’s most exclusive cognac
It takes 100 years for a drop of Louis XIII cognac to make it from grape to bottle. We visited the world’s most patient cellar masters to ask how their age-old outlook connects to generation ‘right now’
I am standing in a long, light room lined with tall copper stills. This is the high-tech vinification facility at Juillac-Le-Coq, Cognac, where Rémy Martin produces its most exclusive cognac, Louis XIII, and it feels more like a research lab than a distillery. Vats each holding 71,400 litres of strong spirit tower over us. The smell of alcohol mixes with the cool air. In front of me are two clear, unassuming liquids in small crystal glasses. Gingerly, I sample a drop of each. The first tastes like soft, cloudy lemon juice – this is an undistilled wine, ready to be made into eau de vie, the base ingredient of cognac. It’s about ten per cent ABV. Add a drop of water and it tastes a little more like toffee, pear or butter. The second is unaged eau de vie. It’s 72 per cent. Allegedly, this is the only thing Rémy Martin’s oldest living cellar master, André Giraud, will drink. Giraud retired in 1990, but at 95 he’s still going strong. “It’s like tasting a perfume,” says our guide. We’re warned to go slow. Meanwhile, a trio of Russian journalists are sipping away happily, enjoying watching everyone else splutter and cough.
For anyone not expert in the stratified world of cognac making, the process can seem deeply arcane, wrapped up in the byzantine mythology of terroirs and appellations. In a nutshell, cognac is a brandy that uses grapes grown in one of the six grand crus of the Cognac region and meets other requirements needed to use the legally protected name. These grapes are turned into a raw form of wine, which is itself distilled into strong spirits called eaux de vie, which are then aged in oak barrels and blended. You can see the Rémy Martin eaux de vie sequestered in cellars under Cognac: darkened rows of hulking barrels with their volumes, strengths and terroirs chalked on their flanks.
Ageing usually takes place over a few years – usually between four and eight – but Louis XIII is made with eaux de vie that are over a century old. A hundred years of ageing means the barrels are as important as the eaux de vie itself: get the wrong balance of tannins, smokiness and acidity in the wood and your great-grandchildren will spit-take and curse your memory. Hence the maison’s latest project, which is to commission hundreds of new tierçons (oversized barrels) from a local cooperage in which to age Louis XIII. The smaller of Rémy Martin’s barrels hold about 250 litres of future cognac – a tierçon holds closer to 550. The earliest tierçons in Rémy Martin’s cellars date back to 1744, just 20 years after the house was founded, and no new ones were built between 1917 and 2017.
Such is the history behind this time-intensive process that all those involved in Louis XIII fervently believe in the brand’s mythical attributes. Florian Hériard Dubreuil, a member of the family that owns the Rémy Cointreau group, tells me a story about a client who claimed that “the only time his wife would let him come to bed without brushing his teeth” was after drinking Louis XIII. At lunch in the airy, stone-vaulted rectory of the eleventh-century Bassac Abbey, near Cognac, Dominique Hériard Dubreuil, the matriarch and chairwoman of the brand, tells us how the future Henry III of France spent the night before the battle of Jarnac in 1569 in the abbey. The Prince Of Conde, his enemy, spent the night in what’s now the Hériard Dubreuil family home at Le Grollet. The Louis XIII bottle is closely based on one found at the site of the battle in the 19th century.
Baptiste Loiseau, the current Rémy Martin cellar master and youngest ever, has his own compelling origin story. Born in nearby Genté, a small village of 800, Loiseau trained as an agricultural engineer in South Africa and New Zealand’s Marlborough Valley. He joined Rémy Martin in 2007 and, after being hand-picked to succeed the previous cellar master in 2014, now heads up a committee that smells and tastes each eau de vie produced by local growers. He also consults on the chemical balance of the tierçon wood, which is grown in local forests in Charente. In 60 years, the most robust trees on Rémy Martin’s plots of land will be chosen to continue to grow to at least 100 years old. The others will be cut down. Of 800 planted in October 2019, only 40 will ultimately be made into tierçons by whoever runs the local cooperage in the first few years of the 22nd century.
It’s an effective reminder of the history and time that goes into the cognac’s production and the custodians of Louis XIII are staunchly proud of its longevity. In 2015, the brand produced a film called 100 Years, which almost no one has ever seen. Directed by Robert Rodriguez and starring John Malkovich, the film was locked immediately after completion in a safe that will open automatically in 2115, a clear nod to the time it takes to make a bottle of Louis XIII. Phase two of the project, in 2017, saw Pharrell Williams record a song for the brand that will not be released until 2117. Printed on a soluble clay disc made from Cognac soil, it too is locked in a water-vulnerable safe and will be placed in Rémy Martin’s cellars. Described as “a call to action on climate change”, the song will be lost forever if sea levels rise and the cellars are flooded.
Both projects were masterminded by Ludovic du Plessis, the global executive director of Louis XIII, whose shoulder-length blond hair, suit-with-trainers ensemble and ability to hold forth on brand philosophy lend him the air of a tech CEO – one who likes to quote the chorus of Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” (“Louis XIII and it’s all on me”). Du Plessis explains how environmental disruption is a growing worry: grapes are getting more sugary as temperatures rise, making it harder for Loiseau to balance the tastes and aromas of the many eaux de vie he produces each year. The harvest is getting earlier and to keep the freshness and acidity of the grapes new varieties of the ugni blanc grape have been developed, but with the first results due in 30 years, the grape may already be a lost cause. With 100 Years, Louis XIII wanted to make a statement: we will be here, but only if you care enough about the ground, forest and climate that has produced these grapes for a thousand years.
As well as looking forward, Louis XIII has been helping to restore the past. To mark the completion of the Pharrell song, the brand handed out hundreds of gold disks as invitations to a listening party planned for 2117 (the invites are intended to be passed down the generations). One found its way to Martin Scorsese and, ultimately, resulted in the brand beginning a collaboration with Scorsese’s charity, The Film Foundation, to restore a film from 1919 called The Broken Butterfly. Its director, Maurice Tourneur, is one of 21 French people with a star on Hollywood Boulevard; he directed more than 50 films between 1913 and 1948, many of which are lost. But most importantly, the restoration of his film embodies the philosophy behind Louis XIII, says du Plessis. “It’s about heritage, transmission and asking, ‘How do we make sure that what we do today will be there in the next century?’”
Not unlike a medieval cathedral – Notre Dame, say – no one who begins working on a 100-year-old eau de vie will be alive to see it come to full fruition, assuming it’s judged good enough for Louis XIII. Perhaps that’s a bad comparison, considering what happened to the Parisian landmark, but du Plessis is confident and his dedication is total. “Time is our raw material. Louis XIII will be there in 100 years. That’s for sure.”
Source : gq-magazine.co.uk/