The French Icon: Ode to Cognac

By Clive Pursehouse | From Issue 103

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This year’s Tour de France makes stops in some of western France’s most important wine-growing regions. The Loire Valley welcomes the race after its initial four stages in Brittany and right before descending on Paris for the finish, an individual time trial unfurls among some of Bordeaux’s most prestigious vineyards. And, geographically, sitting between those two areas is the historically rich region of Cognac, home to the iconic French spirit that, at its heart, is really a wine.

Cognac is a wine eau-de-vie, doubly distilled in copper stills and aged in very specific oak casks; it drips with traditional significance, method and practice. Its most significant bottles fetch a handsome price, and many of the bottles themselves are equally handsome, although somewhat ostentatious in shape. Cognac is at first a wine, and then through distillation it becomes a brandy, but because of where this all happens it is called Cognac. The shipment of wines from the Charente region in the 17th century was rough on the wines; they arrived at their destination oxidized, off and undrinkable, but when they were distilled before shipment they became pleasantly smooth and well preserved—and the world renowned brandy known as Cognac was born.

the french icon
Image: Philippe Lopez/Getty Images.

The St. Émilion grape, ugni blanc (or trebbiano as it is often known throughout Europe) has moved around looking for its best possible home. This white-wine grape is the second-most widely grown in the world and its vigorous vines produce thick-skinned grapes that explode with acidity. While it’s made into many a white wine it has found its true calling in Cognac. The distilling process and long barrel-aging provide a perfect example of man’s ingenuity of making the most of nature’s bounty. The beautiful aromas of a well-aged Cognac prove that time and patience allow the vigorous acidity of ugni blanc to mellow into complex character. The time Cognac spends in the finest of oak mellows the wine and imparts it with flavors of toast and nuttiness and its color deepens.

The Cognac region appears on a map like a lopsided bullseye. As you move your finger toward the center of the region, you pass through Cognac’s various crus, or growing areas, from the Bois Ordinaires through the Borderies and into Grande Champagne. The soils, largely limestone and clay, provide the backdrop for the ugni blanc grape, and as the terroir becomes more exclusive territory, the grapes provide more finesse and proper acidity for the longer-term aging that awaits the region’s most prized brandy. The Grande Champagne Cognacs will very regularly see multiple decades in casks of oak that generally hail from the Limousin or Tronçais area of France.

The soil and its diversity within this fairly small area makes Cognac a special place, and the terroir here is what makes it no ordinary brandy. The Aquitaine Basin in Cognac’s epicenter, Grande Champagne, is a deposit of marine sediment and fossils that has over the millennia created chalky soils. As they move outward from the bullseye’s center, the soil types become less chalky and mixed with clay, flint and limestone. These different soils make for dramatically different characteristics in the grapes that grow there, eventually becoming Cognac.

the french icon
Image: Nicolas Tucat/Getty Images.

In the tiny commune of Éraville, the Pasquet family name has been associated with the production of Cognac since 1730. A small 7.5-hectare (18.5-acre) vineyard in the exclusive Grande Champagne designation has passed down from Albert Pasquet to his nephew Jean-Luc—who has inherited a Cognac house with plenty of cachet and historical clout. But, while honoring tradition, his focus is the future. He and his wife Marie-Franç oise have planted the grape, folle blanche, which was a traditional grape used in Cognac until the 20th century. The phylloxera epidemic wiped out the variety almost entirely; and when considering the grape’s sensitivity and difficulty growing it was easier to stick with ugni blanc, but folle blanche plays an important role in Cognac traditionally and Jean-Luc Pasquet is committed to that tradition.

For so many of the large, well-known Cognac producers, it’s about blending toward a formula or style for which they are known for—sometimes the brandy is tweaked with a bit of sugar added to the fermentation process or a chill filtration to provide a more polished color or clarity. At Pasquet, it’s really about the place: Éraville for sure, but also the small vineyard and its long history. There is no formula or style, but rather a family heritage and love of tradition.

Thinking of the stewardship of this region and the importance of maintaining the character of this special place, the Pasquet vineyards began a complete transition in 1995 to organic farming and viticulture. In respect for the land and the history of the family’s stewardship for nearly 300 years, the focus is a small-production approach. The vineyards are managed organically and the wine ferments using only native yeasts. The organic cognacs produced at Jean-Luc Pasquet, aged four, seven or 10 years, tell a story of spirits that originate in vines planted here and capture the essence of Cognac as a place and a cultural icon of France.

l organic 04 cognac

L’ORGANIC 04 COGNAC. The label VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) refers to a Cognac that has been aged at least four years, but the Jean-Luc Pasquet alternative labeling offers a window into its Cognacs and the aging process’ role in shaping the spirit over time. The 04 is a combination of four- and five-year-old Cognac aged in Limousin oak barrels that make for a pale and pretty spirit. Bright aromas and flavors of citrus, stone fruit and white flowers. $70.

l organic 07 cognac

L’ORGANIC 07 COGNAC. Jean-Luc Pasquet’s take on the traditional XO (Extra Old)-designated Cognac is a seven-and eight-year-old blend of spirits aged in 30-percent new Limousin oak. The additional aging offers an insight to the spirit’s maturation. Aromas of caramel, mocha and vanilla linger with flavors of caramel, honey and dried fig. $90.

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