Sunday, August 5, 2007

Le Tour de Cognac, Stage Two

This is the second installment of an entry detailing a visit to the Domaine de la Pouyade, the Cognac house of Pascal Fillioux. If you haven't yet caught it, you may want to begin with Stage One; otherwise, please read on....

The Proof is in the Tasting

Returning to the family residence, which was built in 1868, we gathered in M. Fillioux’s formal tasting room, ready to get down to the business of exploring what we’d been learning about.

Before proceeding too far, Pascal discoursed briefly on the proper tasting techniques for Cognac and other spirits. This part of our visit actually inspired one of my earlier posts, To Swirl or Not to Swirl. The preferred stemware for nosing and tasting Cognac is not, contrary to popular thought, the classic, large bowled brandy snifter but rather a small bowled, chimney-like glass. A small bowl combined with a narrow aperture allows the positive aromas of the spirit to concentrate while helping to suppress the volatile, alcoholic aromas which are more freely released in a large bowl. Taking that principle a step further, we learned that the positive aromas tend to be released at the lower lip of the glass, the alcoholic aromas from the upper lip. To test this at home, using a small stem with your spirit of choice, bring the glass down to your nose, inhaling gently as the lower lip comes into reach. Continue to lower the glass until the upper lip is in line and sniff again. The first whiff should give positive aromas; the second is likely to deliver heat. If you sniff too vigorously, the heat will actually burn, dulling your ability to experience subtler aromas. For similar reasons, we learned that it is important not to swirl Cognac too vigorously in the glass – something that’s tough to unlearn for a practiced wine taster – as overly enthusiastic swirling also releases alcoholic aromas which will overpower the beverage’s more delicate scents. Lastly, swishing and aeration in the mouth are to be avoided. Simply hold the spirit for a few moments, perhaps moving it gently across the tongue, before either spitting or swallowing. The same reasoning applies.

We were now fully prepped and ready to taste.

La Pouyade
A young, 8-year old Cognac named after the Fillioux estate, La Pouyade is aged in recently used casks and diluted to a final 42%. Though not vintage dated, it is always made from the fruit of a single harvest. Very ripe on the palate, it gave fruit forward flavors with hints of almond and praline on the nose. Pascal obviously considers it the casual Cognac in the line, as he prefers it served chilled with a splash of Pellegrino or Perrier. Though Fillioux produces an intermediate Cognac called Cep d’Or, aged in old cask for an average of 13 years, we skipped straight to…

Tres Vieux
Fillioux’s Tres Vieux bottling represents one of the greatest values in the world of Cognac. It spends approximately two years in new oak before being racked to older barrels for the remainder of its aging cycle. Averaging 25 years of age, the example we tasted that day was a blend of four vintages: 1974, 1976, 1978 and 1979. A beautiful amber orange color preceded a creamy texture, followed by vanilla, butterscotch and orange oil on the palate. Very good length. Pascal mentioned at this juncture that he believes that Cognac is driven by four basic, primary aromas – almond, clove, vanilla and coconut – all of them derived from wood. All other aromas, apparently, are more subtle, more subjective and hint at greater complexity.

XO Reserve
Until recently, the XO Reserve had been a style produced only for family consumption. Finished at a more powerful 44% and showing intense wood and vanillin aromas combined with a hint of bitterness from wood tannins, it represents a blend of vintages averaging 27 years, all spent in the original new barrels. Pascal considers it a cigar smoker’s cuvée. He should know as he enjoys it as such. Apparently, he was convinced to commercialize it at the behest of some fellow cigar aficionados in the Japanese and US markets; these remain the only countries where the XO is available.

Réserve Familiale
This is the tête de cuvée of the estate, a blend which averages 50 or more years of age. The bottling we sampled represented a blend of five casks: three from 1948, one from 1945 and one from 1937. Interestingly, Pascal commented that he does not enjoy the ’37 on its own but he feels that it adds tremendous complexity to the final blend. A silky, rich mouthfeel delivered peach, mango, baking spices, orange confit and vanilla but showed none of the heat or edginess of the XO Reserve. Again, purely new oak was chosen to fit the long aging regime. Pascal reiterated that he rarely produces vintage Cognacs, preferring to blend in order to marry the best aspects of multiple casks and multiple years. That said, we would finish the day’s dégustation with a trio of single year Cognacs.

“V” 1975
A non-commercialized single cask at 46.5% which, at the time, Pascal expected to eventually become a component of Tres Vieux. Its textures were thinner and leaner with more aggressive aromatics than in the finished Cognacs we’d tasted thus far. Loads of vanillin drove home its intense flavors.

“F” 1975
Another non-commercialized single cask, this one at 48%, selected from the same lot, year and row in the chais as the “V.” This spirit showed lighter color in the glass and was even leaner on the palate, yet its aromas were more high-toned and elegant. Very smoky, less vanillin, it was more complex but less powerful than its brother. The differences derived completely from the singular evolution in each barrel.

1924 Vintage Cognac
Having been moved from barrel to glass demijohns in 1973, this single year Cognac represented approximately a 50-year barrel aging process. Once a Cognac is moved to demijohn, evolution and development are halted. Very dark amber in color, the nose gave rancio aromas of vanilla and nut oils. In the mouth, it was far less fruity than the younger and blended Cognacs, more smoky, earthy, woody and nutty. Its length, though, was incredible. At the time, this was one of only two vintage Cognacs ever commercialized by the estate, the other being a 1948.

As you may have gathered from the length and detail of this post, I’m not sure I’ve ever come away from a winery visit with so much new experience and gained knowledge. The tasting required serious patience, practice and endurance but also delivered some intense pleasures. Since our visit, Pascal has released a 1983 Vintage Cognac, representing his first complete year, from vineyard management to vinification and distillation, at the head of the firm. Like the 1924, it is not as balanced as the Tres Vieux or as nuanced as the Réserve Familiale but it is nonetheless a fantastic expression of nature combined with one man’s vision and skill. I expect Pascal’s son will soon be ready to take the helm. He’ll have some big shoes to fill.

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