The house still stands in Cognac, France. The house of Rémy Martin. Or rather, one of their family homes. It’s amazing that it still stands, given that it was built 300 years ago with dusty grey stones. It is L-shaped, a massive cobble-stoned square before it, wooden windows, palm trees upfront and a vineyard surrounding it.
The French are fussy about their grapes so it is the best or nothing and the best is the aromatic grapes that are grown in the highest quality growing regions or crus — the Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne. A soil that is exceptionally chalky is important because chalky soil reflects sunlight which ripens the grapes.
This home survived all the world wars, leprosy, measles and even its own French revolution. It may probably survive the Internet.
Smells 17th Century
At the tip of the horizontal wing, we slip through one of the doors after switching off our phones. It is a dour space and the first thing that hits us is the smell, an assaulting smell of 17th Century.
A meek overhead lamb burns overhead. There are ancient winemaking machinery that Rémy Martin was using to create his cognac. In 1724, we are amazed, he had machines to cock his bottles. Bottles in 1724! Complete with labels bearing brands with a logo — a Centaur — a mythical creature from Greek mythology because he — Paul -Emile Rémy Martin — was also a keen astronomer and a Sagittarius.
We found ourselves whispering in this museum-like space, because the environment commanded respect. Everything is so precise. There are no coincidences. It is amazing the man’s dedication to making cognac, in building a brand painstakingly, staying committed to it and knowing that it would outlive him. The cellars which we later visited were a lesson in patience, if not anything else.
First, the barrels are made from oak trees that are at least 100 years old and have individually selected by expert coopers (most likely bearded and smoking pipes) who then leaves them outside for two to three years so that the elements remove the less interesting tannins.
But these oaks are just not normal oaks, they are found in forests of Limousin famous for their quality. These oaks impart a rich vanilla flavour to the cognac. “I don’t think we’d have the patience to wait for three years to start using these wood,” I told a colleague.
“We want to make money tomorrow. Preferably, by midday.”
The cellars, one of the largest collections in the world features 140,000 cognac fine champagne eaux-de-vie. The cellars smell of wood and alcohol. (You obviously can’t light a cigarette there). During the ageing process some of the alcohol evaporates in the air called the “angel's share.” About 8,000 bottles evaporate daily.
We descended further down the cellars, the second floor below (no pictures allowed here) which looked like a dungeon. Barrels that have been in this dungeon for 100 years lie on their sides, and on top of each other, even the light down there looks old.
The people who started the cognac-making process are long dead, so are their children and their grandchildren. It is their great grandchildren waiting for this batch of the cognac to mature.
“Little wonder they call the drink “The nectar of the gods.” Imagine starting a project knowing fully that two generations after you will not enjoy it,” a Rémy Martin official told us.
We shook our heads at the concept, which begged the question; what is the price of 40 years, or 70 years or 100 years? How much would you pay for that kind of tradition?
Later, in that grey light of the first floor cellar, in the whiff of alcohol and the lingering “angel’s share” we tasted the revered and rare Rémy Martin Louis XIII made from baccarat crystal. (It costs Sh230,000 a bottle). The name was a tribute to King Louis XIII of France. The king was also the first monarch to recognise Cognac as a category in its own right in the world of eaux-de-vie.
The concept of the decanter is another history lesson to fill a book; originated in 1850 after Rémy came across a metal flask recovered from the battle site of Jarnac in 1569 which he later registered the rights for its reproduction. Today, each decanter is handmade. And it costs a leg and an arm.
The experience of going back to the 17th Century to see the dedication and passion fine alcohol, not just the taste of their drink, but it’s pricing.
So now every time I peruse a menu in a bar, I stop to look at the price of fine alcohol and whatever price there, I wonder if it reflects all the years and all the passion and all the sunlight of those grapes.