Organic Cognac: The house of Guy Pinard & Fils (Interview)
The “Domaine de la Tour Vert” is in the family (Pinard-Ranson) since more than 10 generations. In this article you find information about the house of Pinard, its products, and an interview we did with Jean-Baptiste Pinard.
Since 1969 the family produces organic, biological brandy: Bio Cognac.
Already at the beginning of the 17th century, wine growing and distilling were the property’s activity. The Ranson family was an important family in the region, and strongly involved in cognac trading as producers and merchants. Just to give you an example: Monsieur Ranson was the father in law of the Irishman James Delamain, who founded Delamain Cognac.
The “Domaine de la Tour Vert” is a small property in Foussignac, 15 km from from Jarnac in the Grand Champagne.
The vineyard is grown on the typical “terre de groie” of the Fins Bois area, a very chalky soil with hard stones from the Jurassic era. Vines have to plunge their roots deeper than usual, this is a quality because water doesn’t stagnate and infiltrates quickly. This is also an advantage for organic agriculture where chemical methods are not used.
The grape used by Guy Pinard is mainly Ugni Blanc, but the vineyard also boasts some rare Folle Blanche plants, Colombard (for Pineau des Charentes), and red grapes (Merlot and Cabernet-Sauvignon, for Red Pineau and wine). On the 17 ha, 15 ha are white vine, and 2 ha are red.
All the wine is distilled in 15 hl (medium size) alambic pot stills within a period of 1 to 1,5 months. This is a critical part that Jean-Baptiste performs using the family know-how.
A large part of teasing out the aromas is done by the distillation, but aging in oak barrels can add in a diversity of ways. In the family’s opinion, notes of oak and wood shouldn’t have to predominate the eau-de-vie’s aromas. “Fins Bois” eau-de-vie are known to be very expressive with fragrance of white flowers and fresh fruit. To be respectful of this, the company mostly uses “roux”/old barrels in which the cognac will gently get rounded and collect “rancio” (the aroma of oak) very slowly. The result is a smooth and well-balanced cognac.
The family company tries to keep their range of cognacs limited. On the labels they choose to put the ages of the younger cognacs and what their eau-de-vie consists of. It is a way to provide the customers with a maximum of information about the products. To claim “my XO is 30 years old” when it is mostly not controlled, is not very engaging for the producer. However, customers are intelligent, which probably explains the success of vintages and millesimes cognacs these days.
Guy Pinard also offers a range of Pineau des Charentes (white, red and “Très vieux/Very Old”). Other products are red, white, sparkling wine, and grape juices. They even produce an organic beer!
In 1896, Maurice Pinard (the 1st Pinard) married Zilda Ranson, and got the “Domaine de la Tour Vert”. He installed the first fix alembic on the property but the beginning of the “house” Pinard is only in 1969, when two major changes took place: the conversion to organic/biological agriculture and the direct selling of the production in bottles (until that, production were sold to cognac merchants).
In 1969, Georges Pinard and his son Guy converted the whole property into “Agriculture Biologique” and produced the 1st organic Cognac, since then, all the property is 100% organic.
At the end of the 80’s, Jean-Baptiste (the grandson), after studied oenology in Angoulême, joined his father Guy and his mother Chantal in the domain. His work (consisting of all the tasks) follows the production “from the soil to the glass”.
Since the death of Guy in 2006, Jean-Baptiste and Chantal continue, more than ever, in the same spirit.
About Organic Agriculture
Organic agriculture combines the best of the tradition and innovation. The cognac house is convinced that large parts of actual methods of organic agriculture will be used on all agricultural production in the future cognac. It is a fact that ecology has begun a marketing concept and more and more consumers are looking for organic products these days. A few cognac merchants try to ride the wave of organic cognac production. However, it’s often more about marketing efforts than actually producing 100% organic.
What is the position of the main cognac houses? Rémy Martin, for example, experiments with organic agriculture on part of its vineyards. There are no official results so far, but they seem reluctant to engage in organic methods since organic vine agriculture is 20% less productive than the chemical one. (As an organic producer you don’t have to pay expensive chemical products, but you need more employees and much more manual labor in the vineyard).
Rather than asking whether organic agriculture is more difficult than the chemical one, the better question is whether organic cognac tastes better? The answer is that organic methods don’t necessarily make a better taste, it is rather a philosophy and an approach to the product. The Guy Pinard family want to stay as authentic to the origin of Cognac as possible, utilizing only natural resources to control their crop and production.
Interview with Jean-Baptiste Pinard
Cognac Expert: Were you responsible for producing the first ever organic cognac?
JB: Considering that Cognac only can be made in Charente, I think I can say: Yes, my grandfather and my father distilled the first organic cognac at the beginning of 70’s.
CE: What is the difference between normal agriculture and biological one, and what impact has it on your cognac?
JB: In terms of the “vigne”, we prohibit all chemical and synthetic products. That is, all the products that could penetrate the plant and pollute it. So chemically speaking, we have the right to use them, but in organic agriculture its prohibited. We only use natural products, products that cover the plant without penetrating it. So this will protect the plant from things like mushrooms and insects. Then there is the second part which is also important when we talk about “vigne”, that is that we forbid all the chemical “desherbant”. So we use mechanical tools to clean the “vigne”, and that works just fine!
CE: Why is it a characteristic of your family’s ‘savoir faire’ to use most of the lees?
JB: In fact there are different ways to do distillation in Charente, we use the actual lees from the vine. That is to say, we will distill the lees in relation to the barrel.
For instance, Martell – which I assume you know?
CE: I do indeed.
JB: They forbid to distill the lees, for their eaux de vie, which produces dryer eaux de vie, on the other hand the Remy Martin house demands that their “viticulteur” distill a lot of Lee. This produces much rounder “eaux de vie”. We stand somewhere in the middle. Our eaux de vie are not to dry yet not to oily either, so we only use the Lee from our wines.
CE: You are a passepartout: you oscillate between established properties and characteristics, demanded by the main houses.
JB: Well, we don’t make our eaux de vie regarding any main houses characteristic demands and needs, but we just try to produce “Single Estate” well balanced cognacs, very even and subtle in terms of nose.
CE: That is a metaphor to say that you oscillate between established properties / characteristics, demanded by the main houses.
JB: Well yes, that is to say that our “Eaux de vie” are not very specific in character, but nevertheless they are very even and subtle in terms of nose.
CE: I can’t help but ask, are the local politics, so to speak, between Martell and Remy Martin, very dominant? Do they have a lot of control on the way that things are done in the region?
JB: Absolutely! In Charente between 80% and 90% of “viticulteurs” produce eaux de vie for the trading houses. That is to say, the big Cognac houses, a bit like with Champagne. So each “viticulteur” has its own characteristics – and they have to proof that they have distilled the “eaux de vie” in this and that way as to appeal to the big cognac houses. So every week the smaller independent producers bring to the big cognac houses their eaux de vie as to know if it is within their criteria.
CE: Which is your most popular product and who are your main customers?
JB: Well. We take adetour from Cognac for a moment, but our best seller is Pineau de Charente.
CE: I know it well.
JB: This is what we sell the most today. Then followed by the VS Cognac, that is a three year old cognac. Then follow the older Cognacs: They have a good quality / price ratio and this is why those products are easy to sell.
In terms of our main buyer, it is not one particular type of buyer but about 2500 all over France (laughs).
CE: How do you see the future of organically produced cognac in the region?
JB: During the last four to five years we started noticing that most middle to small producing houses start including an organic product. However, they produce it through buying from other wine growers who are already in the organic production. They simply cannot afford to produce an organic product which takes at least three years of “conversion” (of the grounds and distillation process etc..). It is simply too much time and money to convert their entire production into organic production, so they rather buy raw material from others.
Now, as the whole region is controlled by the big cognac houses, I honestly doubt that they are interested in producing organically, because if they did, it would be on the expense of their already existing production and consumer awareness. That is to say, how would they justify the change? How would they respond when asked if an organic product is better? It only means that their previous chemically produced ones wheren’t good?
CE: Sad but true. Where do you see the future of cognac?
JB: Well, personally I notice in our organic production that people start to move towards high-end more and more, towards the old cognacs. On the other hand, in the region they have always made sure that cognac remains a high quality product, however they also have existing markets that are based on a low profile product. So they play this two cards based on the economy of other countries of course, since 95% of Cognac is exported.
So it’s really the emerging countries like China, that will buy considerable volumes of Cognac. North America also used to import hight quantities of young cognac for cocktails and such things, but with the current economic crisis the voulume of consumption has lowered. However China appeared in the scene, and requests very high end products for that specific sector of their local consumers.
CE: Talking about sophistication and how it’s associated with the product: Do you think that the increase of demand for cognac and consequently the increase of its production will ultimately vulgarise the whole ethos of cognac as the sophisticated drink it’s meant to be?
JB: I really can’t tell. Cognac production exists since a long, long time and it has managed all along to maintain the vision of a luxury product. It would be good if we would sell cognac as we sell whiskey in France. There is as much cognac being sold worldwide as there is Whiskey being sold in France today.
That is enormous! Which means that if we could take a little bit of the Whiskey market it would be very productive for the cognac region. Now the future of cognac will always be dependent on the big houses, it is up to them to do what they should to democratize the product or not. But I strongly doubt there is a tendency for that today, because when you see a bottle that costs €3000, €4000 or €5000, it is difficult then to justify a product that costs €10 or €15, you see?
CE: Of course, basic market logic. Besides, it doesn’t really make you want to try what’s inside that bottle.
JB: Not really, no (laughs).
CE: Thank you very much for sharing your insight.
JB: No problem at all! If you ever pass by the region, please do not hesitate to visit us! We can have a longer discussion.
CE: Believe me I would love to! I could do with a little break and a good glass of cognac more often…
A look at the products
- VS – 3 years old: after 3 years in barrels, the younger cognac is quite round but keep all the best aromas of the eau-de-vie “out of the alembic”. It’s an intense and very expressive cognac “Fins Bois”.
- VSOP – 6 years old: well… VSOP. It’s the one which sells best: with the recent interest to organic products, lot of resellers are looking for “authentic” but not too expensive organic products to sell. It’s a middle-range quality product adapts to their markets. But for few euros more, you got a Napoléon!
- Napoléon – 10 years old: The best quality/price product.
- Folle Blanche (1999): no more than 100 bottles keep. We have 0,2 ha of grape Folle Blanche. On good harvest years, we can make a separate distillation, and ageing apart to make Folle Blanche cognac. Next available year will be 2004 (perhaps in 1 or 2 years).
- XO 1990 / XO “Vieille Réserve” (1979): both XO were mentioned, selected and well rated on the Gault & Millau wine guide 2010.
Find out about Guy Pinard products.