Monday, August 18, 2008


So there we are, most of the D&M staff, sitting around Mike and Karen’s dining room table with the semi-legendary Alain Royer. He’s the man who saved Fussigny Cognac for a while, at least, among many other things. We’re going to blend a Cognac for an upcoming club under his tutelage.

He has a kit, with a graduated cylinder just like you used in high school chemistry, and a bunch of miniature bottles of cognacs of various ages and provenance. First we pour each into a glass and pass them around. Everyone takes a sniff and mentions something about what they smell. It’s too soon to start tasting.

We build the Cognac from a base that is a blend of a 40 year old and a 45 year old brandy. You’ve got to start somewhere. The cylinder shows 50 cls. of volume. We put a little bit in a glass and taste that, so we know what we’re working with. Next we add 10 cls. of a Cognac from 1900. This dramatically adds to the aromatics.

We pass that blend around, and then add another ingredient, another Cognac that adds a pretty, fruity note, but we decide it needs something for backbone. Another little bottle comes out, and we put 10 cls. of that into it. At this point Karen announces “Allspice!”

The advantage to doing this at our proprietor’s home becomes clear right away. Karen runs to her spice shelf and produces a jar of allspice and passes it around. We confirm her judgment. And we’re having fun.

Of course, through all of this, Alain is keeping up a running commentary about how this is done, and how long he’s been doing this sort thing (close to 40 years). He is, it goes without saying, a charming Frenchman with a rich accent and a wealth of stories.

Now all of the cognacs we are using are at cask strength. Well, not exactly, because most of them have been out of cask for a while, and been stored in glass demi-johns, which is the custom in Cognac. If that 1900 Petite Champagne had been in a barrel all that time, it would only taste like wood. Still, the point is these are powerful brandies, all over 45% alcohol by volume. As we stack the brandies in the cylinder, even taking the tiny sips we take while blending, we’re noticing that. Once we’ve achieved the flavor profile we’ve chosen, Alain produces a tiny bottle of distilled water to lower the proof, just a little. After tasting that, one of us points to an earlier ingredient, the aromatic brandy. We add 5 cls. of that one, and we think we’ve gotten the job done.

“Of course,” Alain tells us, “when I go back home and put this blend together for you, I won’t be using water to bring down the strength.” He chuckles. “That would be silly. I’ll be using older Cognac of much lower proof.”

We all taste our finished product, and pronounce it good. We have a miniature of our blend sitting back in the office. In a month or so, Alain will send us a full bottle of what he’s put together in France, and we’ll compare it to what we composed on that foggy day in San Francisco. If we still like it (and I’m sure we will) it will become an exclusive bottling for our Cognac Inner Circle members. We can’t wait!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


Last night, over a glass of Armagnac (Dartigalongue XO, if you must know—a sturdy, commercial Armagnac that represents real value) about my high school Latin. It was the famous first words of Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars--GALLIA est omnis divisa in partes tres—All Gaul is divided into three parts.

The line came back to me because Armagnac is divided into three parts. There’s Bas Armagnac, to the west, Tenareze, in the center and Haut Armagnac to the east. Two out of three of those regions wind up on the labels of a lot of bottles of brandy, of course. Bas Armagnac is probably considered the sexiest sub-region, because of its high concentration of sables fauves, or iron rich sand. This seems to produce the best grapes for distilling, although the boulbenes, sand with pieces of clay, is also good for long-lived spirits; Tenareze is blessed with a fair amount of that kind of soil. Haut Armagnac produces grapes for brandy, but they mostly go into blends offered by negociants.

Most of the vines that produce Armagnac come from the rolling hills where the Bas Armagnac meets Tenareze. This is picturesque country, dotted with bastides, walled villages dating back to the wars with the English in the Middle Ages. It’s pretty country, and good for agriculture, great for brandy; however, the industry seems to be dying. As we drove through the villages, you could see abandoned vineyards everywhere—gnarled, venerable vines suffering from neglect, just waiting to collapse back into the soil. Many of the healthiest looking vineyards, we were told, are not producing Armagnac, but wines from Gascony, which can be sold every year, without waiting for the long aging process that makes a profound spirit.

Maybe that’s why my rudimentary Latin came back to me over the glass. That language is long dead, but there are remnants still with us. It seems that Armagnac itself may be going that way. Certainly there’s enough to last a while, we saw chais holding row after row of barrels containing aging spirit, but it seems like it is fading fast. Maybe the Slow Food folk can put this stuff on their ark and save it. Meanwhile, I’ll sip mine slowly and ponder the lessons I learned long ago.