In the dusty crypt of a 12th-century abbey, where monks once prayed, I’m rolling a few drops of 1860 Cognac on my tongue.
Sumptuous layered flavors reveal exotic spices, the taste of warm honey, echoes of creme brulee.
This 1860 is pretty spectacular in its own right. But it’s just one of several elements in a luxury Cognac blend, the $4,000, Tesseron Extreme.
I’m at the small Tesseron distillery in Chateauneuf-sur-Charente to discover how it creates elixirs that make Cognac aficionados dig so deep into their pockets.
Founded in 1905 by Cognac collector Abel Tesseron in the Cognac region north of Bordeaux, the company produced eaux-de-vie from its two estates and quietly peddled its rare old stocks to big houses like Hennessy for nearly a century.
In 2001, it started a line of XO Cognacs (extra old) under its own name. Extreme, its longest-aged and priciest, was introduced more than two years ago.
Maitre de Chai Jacky Martial, 57 and looking dapper in a slightly iridescent gray suit and close-cropped gray beard, grabs a large ring of keys from a cupboard hidden under the stairs for our tour.
The first stop is the beamed ceiling distillery, where brick-based Charentais potstills crowned with onion-shaped copper heads are double distilling white wine into eaux-de-vie. The grapes include ugni blanc (for roundness), colombard (for depth) and difficult-to-grow folle blanche (for finesse) from the region’s top two districts, Petite Champagne and Grande Champagne. Almost all Tesseron’s Cognacs are from Grande Champagne.
Next we head down the street to the cellars, where after distillation, the eaux-de-vie spend decades mellowing in Limousin oak barrels.
“Great Cognac,” Martial explains, “requires aging and the blender’s nose.” He is constantly tasting, combining one barrel with another, slowly building Cognac blends.
There I sip a five-year-old with pear flavors and a caramel aroma that holds a hint of its future.
A 10-year example smells and tastes of candied oranges and flowers. In a 20-year-blend, I detect dried fruit, honeysuckle, and spice; in one that’s 50 years old, dark chocolate, espresso, tobacco.
Slow oxidation and natural evaporation through barrel pores in a damp cellar like Tesseron’s reduces alcohol and refines Cognac’s fire into softer, creamier, muted warmth. The equivalent of thousands of bottles - the poetically named Angel’s Share -- disappears into the atmosphere.
All these barrels find their way into Tesseron’s standard portfolio, including its delicious Royal Blend being introduced at Vinexpo Asia-Pacific in Hong Kong next month. They’ll have to age another generation or two before they make it into Extreme.
Martial finally unlocks a door to the Tesseron family’s ancient stocks, some of them more than 175 years old.
Rows of glass demijohns, each holding about 25 liters, are lined up on metal shelves. Some are wrapped in straw baskets.
This is one of three “paradis” locations, so that if there is a fire at one -- heaven forbid -- all is not lost.
“This collection is priceless,” says Martial, as he hands me a glass of 1900, then an 1865. (They’re “references” rather than vintages, as the eaux-de-vie in an old Cognac don’t always come from a single harvest.) The 1865 is powerful, zesty, and complex, with satiny layers of heady dried fruit. I decide it would be churlish to spit in paradise.
Behind a cobwebbed iron gate that creaks when Martial pushes it open is the oldest “paradis,” with hundreds of crusted jugs, including the 1860, carrying faded tags.
I try to estimate the value of the 2000 demijohns stored here. Last September a single bottle of vintage 1858 Cognac Croizet Cuvee Leonie sold at a Shanghai auction for $157,000. It took Martial a year to finalize Extreme’s blend of elements, each more than 100 years old.
Glass shelves in his office hold a bottled library of the company’s eaux-de-vie whose aromas and flavors he has committed to memory. Colors range from gold (youngest) to amber (middle aged) to mahogany brown (oldest). He mixed up five trial blends for Extreme in test tubes, and then let them marry for several months.
“Older Cognacs don’t always go together,” he explains. “They’re like people who get more opinionated as they age. When you put them all in the same room, their characters may clash.”
He considered 35 lots, and finally ended up with 10 including Cognacs from 1853 and 1906, which played well with others like the 1900, 1865, and the 1860. The resulting blend is considerably more than the sum of the parts.
Tesseron only makes 300 1.75-liter bottles of Extreme a year, with the lion’s share of about 70 percent sold in Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, and Singapore.
That’s dwarfed by overall Cognac consumption in 2011, when more than five bottles were sold around the world every second, according to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac.
After enduring a slump in 2008 and 2009, high-end Cognac is entering a golden age, mostly thanks to soaring Asian demand, up 20 percent last year in China alone, according to the BNIC.
The premium, longer aged sector of XO Cognac, (minimum 6 years by law, but typically much older) registered the fastest growth at 15.3 percent.
Cognac giant Remy Martin created the luxury category in 1874 with its Louis XIII (1.75 liter, $5,000).
The oldest element in the blend is more than 100 years old, says Pierrette Trichet, the only female cellar master ever at any major Cognac house.
Remy’s blend is fabulous, but I still give the edge to the sublime Tesseron Extreme. Too bad it’s way above my pay grade.
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
Today’s Muse highlights include book and wine reviews.