Ensuring a future for Cognac

This summer of 2015 was unseasonably hot in the Cognac region of France. It was one that is almost reminiscent of the heat wave that affected much of Europe back in 2003, except that it was thankfully punctuated by frequent heavy rainfall that helped ameliorate the stifling heat.

Now this kind of weather may be familiar to those of us who live in the tropics, but for any temperate region that grows grapes for winemaking it can be disaster. Heightened temperatures not only greatly accelerate the ripening of grapes but also dehydrate them, forcing growers to start their harvest earlier than usual. In fact, this summer the 1,000-odd growers in Cognac that work with the house of Rémy Martin kicked into gear on 10 September, harvesting their precious crop about a week or two earlier than usual so that the grapes maintained their acidity.

It starts with the grape

These, of course, are the growers whose vineyards supply the grapes that become the wine from which the house of Rémy Martin distils into the clear spirit known as eau de vie – literally “water of life” in French – which is then aged in French oak barrels to later be blended into cognac. Rémy Martin’s cellar master and master blender Baptiste Loiseau spends an inordinate amount of time talking to growers to ensure that their quality meets the house’s exacting standards. He sits with them to understand their challenges, and brings their reports back to the laboratory so that the boffins can look for solutions.

“Some people think that the quality of grapes doesn’t matter because it is ultimately distilled into eau de vie,” says Baptiste Loiseau, Rémy Martin’s cellar master and master blender. “They have to understand that distilling concentrates the flaws if the quality of the wine is compromised.” Essentially, rubbish in, rubbish out.

Cognac native Baptiste Loiseau may be Rémy Martin’s youngest-ever cellar master at the age of 34 – he took over Pierrette Trichet in 2014 as the venerated cognac house’s fifth cellar master – but he knows what he’s talking about. After all Loiseau is a trained agronomist who travelled through the vineyards of France, South Africa and New Zealand to learn about grapes before joining Rémy Martin in 2007. His grandparents, too, were horticulturists who inspired his love for nature and his respect for the people who cultivate the soil.

Baptiste Loiseau was officially appointed on April 10, 2014 at a ceremony in Cognac, in the heart of the terroir, as the fifth in a trusted line of cellar masters going back almost a century – with André Renaud, André Giraud, Georges Clot and then Pierrette Trichet before him – to being a new chapter that will continue the spirit and tradition of the House of Rémy Martin.

It’s the same reason why Loiseau also regularly invites the growers back to the distillery to taste the eau de vie that their grapes have been distilled into. These tastings, which normally take two hours per session, see the growers sit in with the master blender and his team to sample the eau de vie. The attendees appraise each sample both neat as well as half watered, and write down their tasting notes (in the recent past it was pen on paper, but now they’ve moved to using tablet devices). In particular they’re looking for fruity notes in the spirit such as pear, peach and tropical lychee.

These tasting sessions are reminiscent of Baptiste Loiseau’s own initiation when he trained under his predecessor Pierrette Trichet, tasting up to 2,000 new eau de vie in the house’s historic tasting room. He recalls that it was a humbling ritual, and one that reinforced the message that behind every glass is a winegrower who takes care of the terroir. “If (the growers) don’t taste the eau de vie and understand what we are looking for, how can they grow the quality of grapes that we need?” asks Loiseau, who adds that he also learns plenty from them. “Year after year, the Cognac winegrowers enrich my knowledge of eau de vie in a truly mutual exchange.”

Eau de vie

These sampling sessions normally start in silence; by the end of the session it can get boisterous. But if you think the attendees are getting too much into the spirit of things, you may be surprised to learn that they don’t actually taste the eau de vie; all sampling is done with the sense of smell. They only taste the eau de vie on the palate only if they suspect there may be a flaw, or if they think the spirit has the potential to be truly exceptional. In fact, the House of Rémy Martin can pay up to an extra 10% to growers for top quality eau de vie in order to encourage them to continue growing the best grapes.

Dealing with climate change

But Baptiste Loiseau concedes that one of the greatest challenges to his mission of preserving his cognac’s house style and maintaining its consistency is the threat of climate change. Unfavourable weather, as Cognac experienced this summer, can be brutal on grape production; prolonged unpredictable and detrimental weather could mean havoc for the future of cognac.

“Unfortunately, such climate – the hot summers – will be the ‘new normal’,” Loiseau shares. And it’s a new normal that he, the new and current cellar master of the house of Rémy Martin, has to prepare against. Those reports Loiseau gets from the growers that he sends back to the laboratory, for example, is to help research for hardier grape varietals, and he also works closely with the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC) – the agency that safeguards and controls the production of cognac – to innovate new methods while preserving the authenticity and uniqueness of the appellation.

louis xiii pipette

Now consider this: Rémy Martin’s premium Louis XIII Grand Champagne cognac is blended from 1200 eaux de vie that has aged in tiercons – old oak barrels that can be centuries old – for 40 to 100 years. Only the top 10% of eau de vie is ever used in this range. Loiseau has the momentous task of ensuring that the eau de vie he produces today and stores as future blending stock will many decades down the road be of sufficient quality and quantity to continue sustaining the Louis XIII range.

When Pierrette Trichet first handed the responsibility of maintaining the legacy of the House of Rémy Martin over the Baptiste Loiseau, he probably never had expected that dealing with climate change would be one of his priorities. But the future of cognac could be in worse hands; its new generation cellar master happens to be one who possesses the formidable combination of the venerated traditions and expertise of one of the most vaunted cognac houses in the world, as well as his training and knowledge of the latest of soil and plant sciences.

There’s a future in Cognac yet.