During our recent visit to the Charente, the Cognac-Expert team were lucky enough to be invited for a tour of Hennessy Cognac’s headquarters and cellars.
Arriving into a sumptuous reception area, we were met by Hennessy’s Ambassadeur de la Maison, Marc Boissonnet. Charming, smartly dressed and speaking impeccable English, Marc said he’d be delighted to drive us out to one of the cognac house’s distilleries and banqueting areas about half an hour from the centre of Cognac.
(We should mention here, that all this was organized by a man we met two days later, Hennessy’s head of Distilleries and Eaux-de-vie Olivier Paultes, we interviewed last year. Olivier couldn’t be there, as he was on vacation – but still, he was so kind to take time during his vacation, so we drove to the Atlantic coast to meet him for one of our video interviews. Stay tuned for this one.)
The sun was blazing down as, cosseted inside a deliciously cool air conditioned car, we blasted along deserted French roads that wound their way through the rolling countryside of Grande Champagne. Row after row of vines stretched as far as the eye could see, with every hilltop we breached displaying more of the same on the other side. Interspersed with the odd church spire, tiled roof and wooded copse, the dry brown of the summer grass was in stark contrast with the rich green of the vines.
2012 Harvest is a Late Starter
With the weather having been so extreme this year, the grapes nestled within these vines are, we were reliably informed, quite small. And whilst this might not affect the quality of the harvest, it is likely to affect the yield. Whatever happens, the 2012 harvest is highly likely to be a great deal later than last year; perhaps not beginning until the first or even second week of October.
After marvelling at the expanses of vines bearing the fruits that will one day in the future become part of a top notch cognac, we headed inside to the distillery. Stepping from the burning sunshine into the cool interior the temperature must have dropped 20 degrees. But the temperature difference wasn’t the only thing to ravage an assault on our senses. Because what really hit us as we walked inside was the smell – and oh, what a wonderful aroma it was.
The Scent of Eaux-de-Vie
Following Marc we entered what can only be described as a cognac lover’s dream room. Huge, burnished pot stills lined either side of a red flagstone tiled hall; indeed this is an area often used to entertain distinguished guests.
The large Hennessy marked barrels and stills lie quiet right now, awaiting such time as the harvest begins and the wine eventually makes its journey here to begin its magical transformation. However, to prevent the barrels from drying out, around half a litre of eaux-de-vie is left inside each one.
“Have a sniff,” said Marc, removing the small cork lid that sat atop one of the barrels.
Well, it was like a cognac sensation never felt before as pure eaux-de-vie vapours were inhaled. We all lingered a good few moments by that barrel. Not just enjoying the aromas, but taking the opportunity to actually touch one of the very oak barrels that plays home to eaux-de-vie for a proportion of its lifetime.
After taking the time to capture some photos and film, we headed back out into the heat of the day before taking the car back to the relative hustle and bustle of the centre of Cognac and Hennessy HQ. Of course, nowhere in this area of France is particularly frenetic, but compared to the stillness of the vineyards and the almost hallowed feeling of the distillery, the town of Cognac seemed somewhat of a metropolis.
With the cheerily waving red flag atop the Hennessy building saluting us, we walked along the side of the Charente river before arriving at one of the fabled ‘paradis cellars.’ This is where some of the oldest and most cherished eaux-de-vies are stored.
With much panache, Marc used his swipe card which allowed him to unlock the cage that protected the entrance. This was true 21st century technology combined with tradition of a bygone age, as he then pushed open the heavy wooden door that allowed us to enter the shadowy cavern housing untold treasures. It creaked to a close behind us, shutting out all natural light and we waited until our eyes became accustomed to the cobwebbed gloom.
Barrels and demi-johns were stacked along the floor and up to the low, beamed ceiling. Each one was carefully marked with both the name of the wine producer, because Hennessy purchases from many different growers, and the year of creation. 1940, 1912, 1861, 1830, even some from the year 1800 were quietly whiling away the centuries in the dusty shadows.
It was interesting to be told that it’s Hennessy policy to work with the wine growers, but allowing them a relative amount of freedom in the way that they produce their wine. As long as the end product is of the high standard that’s expected by the cognac house, then this is the main objective.
Out of interest we asked Marc about the danger of theft of such a priceless collection. Of course, he couldn’t go into any specific details, but assured us that these treasures were well guarded. And his answer was accompanied by that slight raise of an eyebrow that only Frenchman of a certain age and status seem able to carry off with aplomb…
Tasting, and a Surprise Souvenir
By now it was time for us to bid Marc farewell, as we’d taken up a good deal of his time. He drove us back to the offices where we were due to do a spot of cognac tasting. This was certainly the part of the day that some of us were eagerly looking forward to.
We were shown into what can only be described as a ‘cognac tasting university.’ Semi-circular, pristine white desks facing towards the desk at the front; the desk where our ‘teacher’ was going to sit. And we couldn’t have wished for a better person to guide us through our tasting experience. We shook hands with Renaud de Gironde, Member of the Tasting Committee and Responsible Relations Viticoles, and then took our places facing our ‘professor.’
Renaud has a job that most cognac aficionados would give their right arm for. Every morning he, along with the other members of the committee, spend about an hour and a half tasting various different eaux-de-vies. Every single one that’s sitting in the Hennessy cellars is tasted on an annual basis. That way they use their expertise to decide how and when each one is ready to be used in a blend and become one of Hennessy’s Cognacs.
Interestingly, Renaud explained that deciding when an eaux-de-vie is ready for use is a rather in-exact science, and is also subjective to the taster. Just because an eaux-de-vie continues to age doesn’t necessarily mean that it will get better. Each one has a slow slope upwards to when it’s at its best. And each of these is different. Some eaux-de-vies might be ready to use after six years, others after ten, others after twenty, thirty, forty years or longer. But once it reaches its peak, continuing to allow it to age needlessly will not make it any better. In fact, it can then go into decline.
We talked a while longer about various cognac related topics, and then moved onto the job in hand; the tasting itself. Already laid out in front of us were five cognac glasses, four of which contained eaux-de-vie.
We tasted the first three: A 1996, 1990 and a 1983. The youngest was a strong, robust and somewhat fiery little number, with the 1990 and 1983 being far rounder, smoother and with velvety, almost chocolaty tones. We dutifully discarded the golden liquid into the gleaming stainless steel spit funnels conveniently located next to each desk.
Master Blenders in the Making
After discussing and writing down notes of each one, Renaud then invited us to use the three eaux-de-vies to make a blend in an empty glass. This took a little doing, as just because you think A+B+C will equal to D, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s so. In fact, if ever there was an art that is described by the saying “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” then blending cognac is it.
Concentrating hard, the Cognac Expert team eventually declared that each were happy with their blend. Renaud then got out his calculator, worked a few sums with the percentages we used, and instructed us each to create our very own blend of Hennessy Cognac.
Now, this might sound a simple task. But if you’ve never tried pouring eaux-de-vie from a bottle into a narrow test tube without spilling it, then you soon learn that it’s not as easy as it looks. When Renaud showed us how, every single drop of his amber liquid ended up in said test tube. But for us? Well, let’s just say that the cleaning team would’ve had their work cut out after we left.
And the fun didn’t end there, because Renaud then gave us each a personalised label to place on the front of the bottles. We corked them and he advised us to wait four to six weeks before tasting them. A superb memento to take home after a fabulous afternoon.
But before we left, Renaud invited us to taste the cognac that was in the final remaining glass. A Hennessy XO that tasted just as good as it should have. Needless to say, none of us felt the need to make use of the spit funnels at this point.
We left the House of Hennessy feeling very spoilt, and definitely a little wiser about our beloved cognac. And just in case you’re wondering if any of us have yet tried our own bottle of cognac, let’s just say that it’ll probably come out at the Christmas dinner table. After all, what a wonderful day to be able to reminisce about, while partaking in a sip of your very own blend of cognac. But Yann Fillioux, Hennessy’s Master Blender, probably doesn’t need to be too worried just yet.