The 94th edition of the Tour de France came to an end last weekend, its loop finishing, as always, with a grand procession into Paris for a final few laps round the Champs d’Elysées. This year’s race marked both the emergence of some bright new talent and the near submergence of the race in the face of yet more news of doping and scandal at the sport’s highest levels. Whether or not you care for the competitive aspects of the race, one can’t help but appreciate the beauty of the ritual and the beauty of the landscape through which it passes. As any circuit of France which does not limit itself to the extreme North must, Le Tour inexorably passes through – or at least by – many parts of French wine country. As this year’s penultimate stage, the final deciding time trial, began in the town of Cognac, I found myself inspired to go back to the archives and write up an afternoon I spent in Juillac-le-Coq, a town located in the heart of the Grande Champagne district of Cognac, in February 2004.
Pulling into the courtyard of Domaine de la Pouyade late in the afternoon, the winter sun already in decline after unexpected delays at the lunch table and on the autoroute, we were a bit afraid we’d missed our appointment. The imposing chateau and outbuildings were eerily quiet. Finally, a pair of shaggy dogs bound toward us, followed shortly thereafter by the son of the estate’s current patriarch, Pascal Fillioux. Pascal himself was not far behind. I would be remiss in not mentioning that this was a wine biz trip; our stop in Cognac was not only an added little bonus, it also put us all on a very steep learning curve.
Our education commenced posthaste, as M. Fillioux led us through a quick tour of the estate’s distillation facilities. We learned that the onion-like shapes sprouting from the copper pot stills in the distillery are distinct to the better areas of Cognac – Grande Champagne and Petit Champagne – and are designed to extract a greater sense of terroir than are the olive shaped heads used in the outlying Fins and Bons Bois. Cognac always goes through two distillations. The first produces an end liquid of around 28-30% alcohol called the brouillis. During the second fermentation, a typical batch of 10 hectoliters is typically divided into three parts. The first hectoliter or so is the head, the last hectoliter the tail, in between is the coeur, the heart of the Cognac which will go on to the barrel aging caves. At la Pouyade, the head and tail are reused; one part is mixed with the wine for the primary distillation of the next batch, the other part is mixed with the brouillis prior to the secondary distillation. At the end of the second distillation – this must be completed by the end of March in the year following the harvest – the new Cognac averages 70% alcohol.
The Fillioux family farms 25 hectares of estate based vineyards, located completely within the Premier Cru of Grande Champagne (there is no Grand Cru classification in the region). The fields are planted overwhelmingly to Ugni Blanc, which makes up 100% of the base wines used for distillation, supplemented by a small quantity of red Bordeaux varieties for the production of their Pineau des Charentes Rosé. Vineyard management in Grande Champagne runs contrary, in many ways, to the techniques and measures typical in quality wine growing areas. The primary objective is to grow healthy fruit that will produce a wine of high acidity and complex aromas. Alcohol and body are not sought. Fruit is typically harvested at a ripeness level of only 9% potential alcohol. To help accomplish these goals, yields are kept high – at around 70 hl/ha – by quality wine growing standards. As Cognac regulations allow for yields of up to 120 hl/ha, Fillioux’s yields are actually low relative to the region’s standards. The yields are thus high enough to avoid surpassing the desired degree of ripeness but low enough to allow the terroir of the estate’s dry, rocky and chalky soils to be present in the base wines and in the finished Cognacs.
As we moved on to Pascal’s chais, the barrel aging rooms of the estate, I was struck with the same feeling I’d experienced earlier in the distillery. There was no ostentation, nothing overly shiny, nothing done to impress. But in all elements, I sensed cleanliness, importance of function and a tight organization. It is in the chais where the organizational control of Fillioux becomes most important, for all of his estate Cognacs start from the same base wine and the same base coeur. It is only through aging and blending that the differences are crafted from one cuvée to the next. Initial decisions regarding the type and age of barrel to be used will push each lot in the direction of a particular end point. M. Fillioux feels that the use of new oak, while giving dark, rapid coloration, is appropriate only for styles meant for long-term aging, as it takes at lest 15 years for the flavors imparted by the new barrels to move beyond, as he put it, “bad wood tastes.” He favors Limousin barrels but also includes about 10% of Troncais barrels in the overall mix as they can provide complexity in the final blend. To facilitate the overall needs of the estate, he purchases a mix each year of new barrels and once passed barrels and operates in five separate chais, each geared to a particular stylistic niche or likely aging regime. It is not uncommon for a barrel to be moved up or down the line as Pascal assesses its qualitative development over the years.
That daunting 15 year oak integration period started to sound like nothing when Pascal informed us that in a medium humidity cellar it takes 50-60 years in barrel for a Cognac to naturally reach the typical finished alcohol level of 40%. The evaporation rate of Cognac stored in barrels runs at approximately 5% per year, with 6% being the maximum allowed. To compensate for this evaporation, sometimes called the “angel’s share,” distilled water is added on an annual basis to top up the barrels. It is a delicate, time sensitive process, as adding too much liquid at a time can raise the temperature and speed of the chemical reactions caused by dilution and rob the end product of aromatic complexity. When the time for bottling arrives, reverse osmosis separated (as opposed to distilled) water is added to the spirit to bring the alcohol to the desired end level. What does this all mean? Among other things, older Cognacs will tend to have darker colors, richer textures and more evolved flavor components than their younger siblings, side effects both of longer periods spent in barrel and a lower proportion of dilution necessary during the final blending or bottling. Pascal was adamant, though, that older does not automatically mean better.
It is during the barrel aging period that the natural magic which results in the slow transformation of harsh young distillate to mellow old Cognac takes place. The real artistry, though, comes later. Pascal took the head position at the family estate upon the retirement of his father Jean (whose name still graces their bottles) not just because he was the next male in line but also because he had “the nose.” The ability literally to nose Cognac, to detect the subtle shades of its aromatic spectrum as well as any apparent flaws, is all important to the management of the aging process in the chais and ultimately to the final blending process. As interesting as vintage dated spirits Cognacs can be, it is in the blending of multiple barrels and multiple years that the best overall balance and qualities can emerge. Pascal was and remains the man for the job.
[Note to readers: This is a long one, folks. Stay tuned for Stage Two.]