This story was first published in the February 2015 issue of The Life Magazine
COGNAC - A menu from the 1956 wedding dinner of Monaco’s Prince Rainier and actress Grace Kelly. Late 19th-century print advertisements evoking the good life. An 1808 letter signed by Britain’s King George III authorising the import of cognac from Martell to Britain.
The founder’s house at Martell in Cognac in south-west France contains a treasure trove of papers documenting the history of the oldest existing cognac house. The documents fill up enough old volumes and new files to line 5km of shelves.
Martell archivist Geraldine Galland said: “It’s a timeless history, a legacy which new generations add to.”
I had a rare glimpse into the archives during a recent visit with other journalists to the house where founder Jean Martell (1694-1753) lived.
The archives, which are closed to the public but open to students and researchers, are a lesson in 18th- and 19th-century meticulous notekeeping. If an original document could not be kept, it would be copied by the scribes of the day.
There are order forms, invoices, personal letters and business correspondence, handwritten in flowing script, officiated with seals and stamps.
The papers paint a picture not just of the company’s history, but the country’s too. Bottles were exported to Britain almost as soon as Martell, a native of Jersey, founded the company. The 1808 letter from King George III is evidence of Britain’s love for Martell cognac – the authorisation order came despite a ban on French alcohol when the two countries were at war.
There is a library of labels used for bottles exported to different markets through the years.
The Asian journalists with me flipped excitedly through the folders looking for paraphernalia related to their countries. I was surprised to see one marked for Very Old Pale bottles destined for Singapore, as well as Penang and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.
What intrigued me most were the late 19th- and early 20th-century print advertisements. Not only have the final creatives been preserved, but there are also copies of hand-drawn drafts.
Through the years, the advertisements evolved from informational posters to storytelling visuals evoking a sense of luxury, romance and style from eras past.
What we did not get to see were the house’s most valuable documents. “The cellar masters’ recipes, which date back to the mid-19th century, are locked up in a safe,” said Ms Galland.
The secrecy is unsurprising, since the blending of different eaux de vie (clear distillates called the “waters of life”) is what gives a cognac its refined flavour and complexity. It is an exacting process as a few hundred eaux de vie might be used to create just one blend.
Martell’s Cordon Bleu, for instance, is a mix of about 120.
Getting it just right, while maintaining quality and a brand’s distinctive style, is an art helped today by technology. The cellar master has the use of a computer file containing the blending notes on each eau de vie and its components.
Martell’s cellar master Benoit Fil emphasises science as a key factor in blending. “It’s about knowledge of the stocks, of interactions of the eaux de vie, the balance. It’s part science, part instinct and a lot of training,” he said.
Every year, Martell introduces about 10 new blends. Last year’s most celebrated: Premier Voyage (First Journey), a limited edition created for the brand’s 300th anniversary this year.
The archives played a crucial role in its making.
Ms Galland and Mr Fil ploughed through Jean Martell’s correspondence to identify the areas from which he bought wine between 1735 and 1742. Mr Fil sampled eaux de vie in the cellars that fitted the criteria and visited wine-growers whose families had supplied the founder.
Eighteen eaux de vie with an average age of about 80 – dating from the years 1868 to 1977 – were picked and aged for nine months in barrels made from a 300-year-old oak tree.
The limited-edition cognac comes in a Sevres crystal decanter “housed” in a steel artwork designed by French conceptual artist Bernar Venet, reminiscent of his steel arc creations. It is a modern, minimalist home for an anniversary liquor created from liquids stored in a dark, dusty and sooty cellar referred to as “paradis” (French for paradise), where the oldest and most precious eaux de vie are stored.
Only 300 bottles of Premier Voyage – each €10,000 (S$14,400) – will be sold. “Fruity,” I thought as I swirled the first sip in my mouth. The flavours of candied fruit and blackcurrant are soon overtaken by those of walnuts, dried fruit and spice.
The taste lingered and I reflected on how a travel companion had compared cellar masters with magicians – for their ability to detect scents, to remember what their predecessors have logged and accomplished, and especially to create complex yet harmonious cognacs by marrying different eaux de vie together.
It was not quite a magical moment for me, but for a cognac newbie, Premier Voyage was a pleasurable initiation.
I have to also admit to a slight thrill at the encounter with something that is extinct. The oldest eau de vie that went into the making of the Premier Voyage, from the year 1868, was distilled from grapes that pre-dated the phylloxera epidemic which wiped out most French vineyards in the late 19th century.
At the Premier Voyage reveal, the dinner created by the Martell chefs was inspired by the cuisine of the founder’s time, created thanks again to notes from the archives.
We tasted a quenelle of zander, a type of fish, in a white butter sauce; beef bouillon served with truffles; Poitou-Charentes veal loin with parsnips and vegetable balls; and, to cap it all, melon and strawberries with ice cream. The food was reminiscent of what courtiers enjoyed in King Louis IV’s court, and peas and exotic fruit were particular favourites of the monarch, the printed menu said.
After dinner, I stood under the chandelier at the Chateau de Chanteloup, a 16th-century castle outside Cognac where Martell holds events, and tasted glass after glass of refreshing cocktails. Cognac with ginger ale, cognac with lemon juice, cognac with cassis, cognac with Coke.
Never having been a fan of hard liquor drunk neat, I was happy with these diluted concoctions – something a cognac connoisseur might find sacrilegious. But the days of cognac being a drink for “the old fart in a bow tie”, as an American put it to me, are well over.
Mixing cognac with other drinks is in fact an old practice popularised by American rappers in the 1990s. Today, hip bartenders help to draw in a younger and trendier crowd, and the younger (and cheaper) cognacs that go into these cocktails are just as important to producers as the older, unadulterated brandies.
Martell heritage director Jacques Menier said: “We need both. The younger cognac is important for our turnover. The older ones are a bigger and longer-term investment.”
The financial health of the industry hinges on foreign tastebuds as more than 95 per cent of cognac is exported. But there is no doubt cognac is a quintessentially French drink – producers work hard to associate it with French style and heritage.
And luxury, of course. The nouveau riche in China and Russia, who favour the more expensive cognacs as they are often seen as symbols of power and wealth, have helped improve the balance sheets.
Savvy lifestyle-focused and aspirational marketing have also contributed to profits.
In Kuala Lumpur, Martell has partnered Elegantology, an upscale men’s fashion- cum-gastronomy space, to market its cognacs as classy drinks for fashionistas.
In duty-free spaces, it has “experience boutiques” to showcase the brand. Elsewhere, it throws private parties for influential clients and hosts events that create music, art and exclusive experiences for the public.
Just as life was good in vintage Martell Belle Epoque posters of the social elite in their elegant drawing rooms, the message is that life, too, can be good for today’s discerning, sophisticated urbanite who appreciates a good glass of cognac – straight up or not.
The writer’s trip was sponsored by Martell.
This story was first published in the February 2015 issue of The Life Magazine
Singapore IS second largest cognac market
Cognac is a type of brandy produced from grapes grown in the Cognac region in south-western France. It is made by double distilling white wines from specific grape varieties in copper pot stills. The distilled spirit – eau de vie – must be aged for at least two years in oak barrels from Troncais or Limousin. A cognac must have an alcohol content of at least 40 per cent.
Big producers such as Martell make their cognacs by blending a variety of eaux de vie (sometimes up to several hundred) from different vineyards and years, creating more complex brandies that are consistent in style and quality. Once a cognac has been bottled, its flavour no longer changes.
The large producers grow only a portion of the grapes they need each year and buy wine from local growers. Some of Martell’s suppliers have worked with the brand for more than a century and they grow and press their grapes according to Martell specifications.
Cognacs are graded according to age:
VS or three-star: Very Special. The youngest eau de vie has been aged for at least two years.
VSOP (Very Special/Superior Old Pale): The youngest eau de vie is at least four years old.
XO (Extra Old) or Napoleon: The youngest eau de vie is at least six years old.
Many houses use eaux de vie that are much older than the minimum years required and also create exclusive ultra- premium cognacs, for instance, from single distilleries or single vintages.
More than 95 per cent of cognac produced is exported. Singapore is the second largest market after the United States, with the equivalent of 24.8 million bottles shipped in the 2013/14 wine year (Aug 1 to July 31), according to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac trade board promoting Cognac and its producers.
There are more than 300 cognac houses today. Many offer tours of their facilities, with explanations of the brand, production process and tasting.
At the Musee des Arts du Cognac in Cognac, visitors can learn more about the liquor. Details are available at the website, www.the-french-atlantic-coast.com/food-drink/cognac- 2/cognac/.