I take the car and start on my way to a “lieu dit” Château des Plassons on a Sunday afternoon in March 2010. I had heard that two young brothers took over a Cognac distillery nearby, which certainly perked my interest.
The estate is only about 15 kilometers away from our home, so it’s not too much effort to get there. Listening to Beethoven, I drive through the landscape of the Bon Bois growth region of Charente. It truly is stunning.
Arriving at the Chateau des Plassons estate
Arriving in Bors-de-Montmoreau, road signs lead me to my eventual destination. I get a fantastic first impression of the chateau; there’s a long tree-lined road leads to the entry of the courtyard, and it is pretty majestic. On both the left and right hand sides, the estate is lined with vineyards, which I assume belong to the property.
All I really know is that the building was built by a preacher from Aubeterre in the 16th century, which I read in a book found stacked near the fireplace at my father’s house.
The chateau was then handed over to Nicolas Raymond, and after that to Antoine Brides – a bourgeois of Montmoreau. It was then taken over by his niece Marguerite Gandillaud, and so on and so forth.
The domaine changed owners a few more times, and there was even a period when nobody really knows who the owner was – until it finally fell into the hands of the Hennessy family.
They later sold it to someone else, and in 2008 two young brothers appeared in Bors-Montomoreau and went on to acquire the 30-hectare Cognac property. I was interested to know what happened there.
I stop the car to take a couple of photos from far away. While concentrating on taking the picture, I realize that I forgot to put the handbrake on – and that the car has started rolling down the path! I run after it and manage to catch the car; hoping nobody has seen me from the chateau. How embarrassing!
I then enter the courtyard, and notice that the house is particularly striking – which I later learn dates back to the 14th century. While I’m parking up, I notice the architecture is dominated by several turrets.
Learning the story of the Pannaud brothers
It is at that very moment, that Julien Pannaud steps out of the door to welcome me.
The salle d’acceuil (for tastings or dégustation) is in the process of being built, as is the shop, which will open at the end of the year. So we go through to the kitchen, I get to know Julien’s lovely wife and daughter, and we all sit down in the living room. It’s a very private setting and I feel privileged to have been invited. David Pannaud is not there, but I only announced my visit only 24 hours beforehand.
David and Julien were both born in Cognac, and their father was involved in Cognac at Archiac. David became a history teacher, and Julien studied business and began working in the chemical industry.
One day, about 8 years later, both of them realized that something went terribly wrong. What were they doing there? Getting up every morning for something they do not even really support? They were dreaming about working for themselves, and creating their own products.
Teaching history and selling pharmaceutical products suddenly seemed far less interesting. It had to be Cognac, the family tradition.
“We are from the countryside, we know it from our childhood. Our father, our grandfather – they were wine growers and distillers.”
Julien’s very young daughter comes in, takes a piece of paper that I was making notes on, and with a big smile, simply runs off.
“The negotiations were tough, it took about six months – but finally we made it. My brother David manages the wine growing, all the work which has to be organized for the fields, the wine production – until distillation. My part is, more or less, sales and marketing. But for example, when it comes to distilling we all work together.”
Together with their father, the Pannaud family owns about 120 hectares of vineyard, there are two more wine properties in the family. The vineyard is situated in the Bons Bois area, which is not the highest quality grade (or category) regarding the soil. Nevertheless, a respected Bordeaux winemaker, called it “the most coherent wine area”.
Soil characteristics often change every hundred meters in the Charente – it is rare to find a many hectares with the same style of soil, let’s say argilo calcaire for example.
The Chateau des Plassons brand at home and beyond
The eau-de-vie, which is distilled at the Chateau des Plassons is used for their own brand, with the same name. What’s more, the eau-de-vie is also used for blending with other family eaux-de-vie, making up the brand Rastignac. Like so many producers, the Pannaud brothers sell a part of their spirit to one of the four big Cognac houses.
“Of course we want to become more independent. The goal is to produce for our own brand. It is true, the bigger Cognac houses do not really like that strategy. Today we export our Cognac Château des Plassons to the US and Canada, Belgium and perhaps others will follow. We know it is important to concentrate on China, they are a “brand country”, but it is not that easy to enter that market.
To give you an idea: If you want to make a deal with an American import company, you perhaps meet them three times. If you want to set something up with the Chinese, you’ll have to see them at least 10 times and still you are not sure whether the whole thing works out or not.”
Not only the brand and marketing plans are developing – a lot is still in progress at the Château: The roof of the distillery is about to be redone, and certain machines have to be replaced or repaired – it has only been a few months since the brothers took over.
Discovering the Château distillery
They are about to renovate certain elements. But one very important thing stays the same – the alembics (pot stills) from 1922. I had never seen ones like these before. There are three pot stills at the domaine: One new alembic at a capacity of 25 hectolitres and two old alembics at each 11,75 hectolitre capacity.
Julien tells me there are perhaps four people he knows who are able to make those old alembics work properly. And they do work – but totally manually, “a la main”. While the new alembic works ‘on its own’ as it is electronically controlled – those old alembics are difficult tools. One of those four persons is actually their father.
“We distilled 3 months now, from January on. The new alembic is easy, you get up at 6am, start it, come back at 11pm and stop it. With the old alembics you get up at 5am, come back at 7am, come back at 9.30am and so on. We were lucky, we had some support from our family – you have to learn how those alembics work, need to get familiar with them.”
Julien points at a blue tube coming out of the boiler.
“We had no idea what this tube was all about. Why would there be a water tube going into the chaudiere.. into the fire? I tell you why: Because at that time, they heated with wood, not with gas like it’s done today. They used the cooling water for finishing the fire. Pretty smart, right?”
Passing the newer pot stills we arrive at the cuve/vats, where the wine is fermented and largely produced. It’s quite an impressive atmosphere, each cuve appears to be huge.
I had forgotten the capacity of each wine cuve, but a few days later Julien reminds me via email: The “stockage de vin” has a capacity of 4000 hectolitres and there are 25 cuves.
Finally we enter another room. I see a huge silver-colored ‘cuve’ unit that says “XO” on it. This must be the good stuff. Actually, there are the coupes for the XO, the VSOP and the VS in the cuves.
In a corner I discover some pressing machines, which appear to be quite old. Retro Cognac fanatics would probably freak out at this place.
Julien points at a stocking and tells me that this is the eau-de-vie, which has been produced with the alembics from the 1920s.
At one of the “cuves inox” I discover some isolation material. Julien smiles and explains:
“Oh, that’s just something the former owner used to cool it down during the vinification process. We’ll use something else.”
Plans for the future
We head back to the house, to the temporary tasting room and grab a glass. I wouldn’t have minded, but Julien preferred to go back to the living room, he got himself a Pineau and I received a very nicely balanced XO Cognac the brother’s brand Rastignac.
Julien’s wife tells me about their plans to set up their own gîte holiday rental. This might be a good idea, as agrotourism and vineyard holidays have been becoming pretty popular lately. They tell me about how they make the most of the nearby town of Aubeterre, one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites; said to be one of the most beautiful towns in France.
I figure I like these people. They have big plans, stopped doing something they were not at all made for, and started something totally different.
“Sometimes it’s also a bit hard. Before we lived in Paris, now in the countryside. You also have to make some sacrifices. But it’s definitely worth it.”
I ask Julien how delighted their father must have been, when he was informed that the family tradition would continue. From his reaction, I saw that it must have been an incredibly enjoyable moment for father Pannaud.
Leaving the chateau is also quite beautiful. Looking up to the top of the hills, I notice a church peacefully overlooking the estate.
Château des Plassons products are strictly made from the vineyards which are planted around the Château. The Cognac is aged and bottled at the Château as well.
Range of products
Château des Plassons
F 16190 Bors de Montmoreau
Telephone : 0033 (0) 672745049