Just north of Bordeaux, forty-five minutes from the Atlantic, in Cognac, I found the July light, exquisitely blinding. As I drove through the countryside, the rays ricocheted off bleached soil chunked with terroir affirming chalk. Celadon green ugni blanc, folle blanche and colombard, grapes destined for the area’s eponymous spirit hung next to the bowed canary colored sunflowers, adjacent toast-tinted wheat fields. And that white soil. And that sun. Going to any other place with this kind of landscape I’d be looking for a wine of terroir, but fate had something else in mind for this region.
Cognac’s story started with those vine loving Romans who planted grapes in the third century. From the 12th to the 16th century salt was the main industry and the work intensive farming of vines took a back seat. When the salt trade dwindled, the Dutch persuaded the winemakers not to compete with their wine famous neighbor, Bordeaux and to distill its grapes. Was Cognac’s fate decided because it was caught between a salt and a merlot? Looking at that soil and looking at the weather, was it just a matter of luck that Bordeaux got the fine wine side of the coin while those magnificent soils of Cognac went to the distillery?
Grapes here are picked at eight degrees potential alcohol, acidic and unripe, and then distilled. Count five months and then the samples arrive. The big noses try to decide which ones they want. Distillation commences twice in copper pot stills and finished by March 31st. Two years later, aged in oak barrels, it can be Cognac, though no great house would dare do this to such neonatal fire water.
To be honest, I came down here in the summer of 2010 to pen a story for a fancy magazine on a fancy bottle. This whole thing gave me a strong case of the shakes because I am known for championing the David’s not the Goliaths. I like to write about the peasants, not about royalty. I had no choice. A writer must live and I was determined to get over myself and find the story with soul within. I had a hunch my quest would be found in a particular nose, the prodigious one that belonged to Yann Fillioux, seventh generation of blenders linked to one large and distinguished house. So that’s what I was thinking as I sat on leather psychiatrist couches in the reception when I was ushered into Fillioux’s office.
Whoa! I could have moved right into his romantic Belle Époque confection of a space, which I imagined was designed by a top Parisian hire. Intense sky blue woodword were lined with white shelves and hundreds and hundreds of apothecary vials of spirit, in a color field of hues, ranging from the clear unaged distillate to the darkened amber of a spirit with age, some reaching back to the last century. Fillioux took his own seat and motioned to me to take mine. I mumbled something about how gorgeous the room was, and he said almost as a rebuke, “This is a working laboratory.”
“Right,” I thought. Were was the mess? Where was the lived-in-ness about it all. Save for an old-fashioned ink blotter and the crystal Baccarat decanter fancy cognac, his desk was bare. He was lying to me unless he was Virgo.
Yet, he insisted. “This is where we do all the tastings. It is important to taste at the same time of day in the same place.”
Okay. I believed him. Definitely a Virgo. How else could he keep his aromas and tastes straight? After all he has to sample 1000 new spirits a season to decide which ones would make up his blends that thrive on consistency. He has to keep all of those vials on the shelves straight in his mind.
Tall, with a shock of silver hair, he is more modest than I could have imagined for a man who has created a cognac that sells for $2800 or so. He says he owes his knowledge and talent to his uncle Maurice’s (6th generation family nose) whose tutelage he benefited from over a decade. “Just like a perfumer it takes ten years to develop your sense of smell and taste, you have to have a library of scents up here,” he said, tapping his forehead.
Fillioux confided that he, like me, detests the smell of new oak, and considers it a crime to use it, especially for old stocks. In the warehouse right across the canal, there were no new barrels, most ancient and I lingered greedily (oh I didn’t hint too much) over one dated 1949. In a generous act, a large hammer delivers blows to it. One powerful bang on each side of bung, and it sighed its release. A petite glass vial is lowered as if drawing well water. Out came the 60 -year -old spirit. In the glass its smell was piercing, the taste, lingering. Sweetened with age, the power of butter, the grip of youth.
I asked him what he looks for when he makes a blend, either for one that goes into that Baccarat decanter or a $35 bottle.
“Consistency and elegance,” he said.
For a moment, I wanted to say, sure. Right. Marketing speak. Of course elegance! But I was deeply grateful that he didn’t go on about the complexity, the fabric, the aromas. Thank you M. Fillioux for not guiding me through the experience as others would have. My experience of that blend, the one who’s story I had come for, was quite finessed; layers of citrus and orange, more orange peel, twisted and released, hazel nuts pan toasted in brown butter, and orange oil. There was the structure that marks a great cognac. There was walnut skin tannin and ash, perfect for cigars- and then it just melts into that that brown butter and that thing called rancio, an elusive term that just signifies age, gorgeous, seductive age.
Fillioux might have said his mission was blending for consistency and elegance, but what got him out of bed every morning was more animalistic, it was heritage.
“At five years of age, all of the cognacs are still aging,” he said. “But at five years, like children, they can start to tell us something. We can tell immediately if a sample is worthy, if there is potential. When you find one with potential you put it aside and you wait. When you have forty on a table and one is exceptional, that is an emotional experience. I am choosing spirits that will last long after I die.”
(Why are these badges here? I've entered this piece in their competition.)