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In fine spirits

In fine spirits

The big-name cognac houses may grab all the headlines but the region is full of small producers making excellent and unusual cognacs. Teresa Hardy reports on the three-month festival that celebrates them... 

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Winter in the cognac countryside may seem a time of quiet contemplation, with the vines leafless and the tractors and grape harvesters left to rest in their sheds. Yet there's a heady aroma in the air and behind the stone walls of many a Charentais farm building there's frenetic activity.

That's because it is distillation time, when the season's fermented wine is distilled twice to produce the eau-de-vie that will then be aged in oak barrels to become cognac. Distillation is a long process, one that the bouilleurs de cru – as the cognac distillers are called – spend 24 hours a day managing from November to the following March every year. And during this time, while they're adjusting their pot stills and selecting which parts of la bonne chauffe (the second distillation) to keep and which to discard, many are happy to welcome visitors and share their passion.

They are part of Distilleries en Fête – formerly known as Les Bonnes Chauffes – which takes place continuously from December to March and is organised by the association Les Etapes du Cognac. More than a simple open day as it was in the past, Distilleries en Fête encourages small cognac producers to find an original way of showing their work to visitors so that each one presents a unique slant on their common livelihood.

Typically, during these special visits you can eat breakfast with a bouilleur de cru in his distillery, discover the sleeping vines in a jeep, taste exotic cocktails and visit the camels and yaks at one distiller's ostrich farm. Of the 180 members belonging to the Les Etapes du Cognac association, more than 40 have something memorable to share, including family co-operages that demonstrate how they make barrels plus restaurants that offer an exclusive menu during this time. 'You're not visiting a museum, but meeting a skilled craftsman in his own environment – this means that each visit is intimate and you get an unusual, often unforgettable experience,' explains Céline Damville from Les Etapes du Cognac. 'Traditionally, one generation has always followed another in this craft, so each distiller is making a product for his heirs and has inherited the legacy of his ancestors,' adds Nicholas Brimblecombe from Les Compagnons du Cognac (www.gccognac.com). Along with his business partner James Redhead, Nicholas set up Les Compagnons du Cognac to promote small producers after they realised how extraordinarily good the products are, and yet how little they are known. If you prefer not to go solo, Nicholas, a former tour operator, offers accommodation and transport holiday packages during which he takes visitors around the Grande Champagne producers, acting as a guide and interpreter.

These days a number of distillers speak English, though, so even if you're not confident in French you can still enjoy this very Charentais festival. So in these cold winter months, head out to a small distiller such as those featured here, and warm yourself up with a drink of the region’s most famous export.

THE BREAKFAST CLUB

Hugues Chapon works with his father Didier at the Chai du Rouissoir in the Charente-Maritime. The art of distillation runs in his blood given that his family have owned the vineyard for several generations. During Distilleries en Fête they offer an extremely popular event: a breakfast shared with the distillers beside the pot still, or alambic in French.

‘The moment of distillation is one of the highpoints of the year for the Charente distillers,’ says 37-year-old Hugues. 'Yet it's something that many people – even the locals – have never experienced.'

The first drops of distilled wine or eau-de -vie flowing from the still is a momentous moment. 'The first vapours are the strongest, and even an inexperienced nose can appreciate the range of odours, from the slightly acrid smell at the beginning to the pleasant aroma that comes later with the heart of the eau-de -vie,' says Hugues.

Distillers launch two chauffes (heating cycles) a day, one at 7am and another at 7pm, and it takes between an hour and 90 minutes for the first flow of eau-de -vie to begin. Visitors to Chai du Rouissoir, in groups of up to eight, arrive between 8am and 8:30am to share the traditional full breakfast, held next to the still, with the family. 'We like to use local producers, so the charcuterie comes from the Pelette free-range pig farm in Vibrac and the cheese from Champeau's neighbouring farm,’ says Hugues. ‘We add home-made jams, wholemeal bread, galettes and brioches – and everybody always tries a little of everything!' And to wash down the fulsome meal? A taste of the new wine from the 2011 harvest that is in its initial fermenting stage. 

Once the breakfast is over, the Chapon family head out to the vineyard. 'My favourite part is pruning the vines,' says Hugues.    'Most work on the farm has to be done at a specific moment, very quickly, so we're always in a rush to get it done. But with pruning it's different: we have plenty of time to check the plants and think how best to prevent disease, and it's calm, manual work.'

Hugues observes an agriculture raisonnée – almost organic – way of working which means he only sprays the vines when it's absolutely necessary. 'Vines are very susceptible to disease,' he says. 'This year has been very dry, so we've only needed to spray four times, as opposed to previous years when we've sprayed up to ten times. Spraying for vines is like antibiotics for humans – you should only take them when necessary, not in prevention of illness.'

Hugues Chapon, Chai du Rouissoir, 17500 Ozillac, http://chaidurouissoir.blogspot.com.


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COFFEE WITH COGNAC?

At 87 years old Guy Brunetaux is the grandfather of the cognac distilling world – he is also the creator of the delicious Brûlot Charentais, for which he has held the patent since the late 1970s. The Brûlot is a combination of coffee and cognac, flambéed with sugar and generally drunk at the end of a meal – and the only place to try the authentic Brûlot is here, served by Guy as you sit in his little kitchen and listen to his wonderful tales about his life as a bouilleur de cru.

Guy always wanted to be a winegrower so in 1946, aged 22, he began his search for American vine stock onto which he could graft the grape varieties suitable for making wine for cognac. There were plenty of vineyards that had been abandoned by the older generation, so with their permission Guy took cuttings, created his own nursery and planted his own vineyards from scratch. By the 1950s he had successfully planted seven hectares – but then disaster struck. In 1953 he suffered no fewer than three hailstorms, resulting in a complete failure of his harvest, and had to resort to raising cattle to make ends meet. The vines were recovering when, in February 1956, there was a sudden frost – the temperature dropped by 20°C in an afternoon – which killed 30 percent of his vines. In 1960 it was a spring frost that killed off three-quarters of his harvest, leaving him with only 40 hectolitres of wine. But Guy persevered, and in 1961 he produced the largest harvest in the community, at 900 hectolitres. This, however, created another problem - he didn't have enough equipment for the excess wine, and today he still remembers having to camp out with his father in the chai, pumping the wine into the vats.
‘You really had to want to be a winegrower to continue under those conditions,’ says Guy, who used the profits from the 1961 harvest to modernise his equipment and expand his business. ‘At the time, I sold my wine to distillers,' he says, ' Then I began thinking that it was ridiculous to work so hard only to leave the profit in the hands of others, so in 1970 I bought a pot still.’

The still was heated by wood and burnt a cubic metre of wood per day. ‘We had to go out and cut down trees, prepare the logs and then load them into the boiler during the five months of distillation,’ he says. ‘We burnt 150 cubic metres of wood per year.’ Later, like most distillers, he converted to gas.
Guy started to keep a fifth of his production for himself so when the petrol crisis of 1975 struck and the cognac merchants stopped buying wine, he decided to sell directly from his farm, starting with pineau and then adding cognac to his range. This was the point at which he discovered that his cognac, at 61 percent alcohol content, burnt very well. ‘We used to make what was called a “punch” during the harvest meal at the end of the vendanges: we would put my cognac and a lump of sugar on a spoon, then set a match to it to warm it up to drink with our coffee,’ remembers Guy. ‘But it wasn't practical to sell this idea, so I began experimenting with cups.’

Once he'd broken all the cups in the house, his wife pleaded with him to stop. It wasn't until a couple of years later, when he was visiting a local potter with friends that he came across stoneware cups that the potter guaranteed would resist the intense heat of a fire. He ordered 50 saucers with upturned brims on the spot, and the Brûlot Charentais gift pack was born.

While the method for making Brûlot Charentais hasn't changed over the years, the vendanges themselves have done so during Guy's working lifetime. ‘We used to harvest by hand until ten years ago,' he says. 'I had accommodation for 15 workers and it was a joyful period, with the workers singing all day and everyone enjoying the conviviality of the shared meals.’

The vendanges lasted a month, and they would collect 150 hectolitres a day - the grape-harvesting machine now takes just two days. ‘I cried when I saw the machine arriving,' admits Guy. 'It batters the vines to collect the grapes, and this makes sugar drip onto the leaves, which then burn in the sun. The leaves used to stay on the vines until December, but now they fall soon after the harvest. This creates a whole new set of problems.’
Despite his advanced age, Guy continues to distil. ‘It's a passion for me, and I can't imagine not doing it,’ he says. Today, however, he rents his land to an agricultural school in Barbezieux, which provides the wine that he then distils for cognac, pineau and the famous Brûlot Charentais. He is happy to welcome visitors for a Brûlot during Distilleries en Fête, but make sure you ring and reserve a place beforehand.

Guy Brunetaux, Chez Filhon, 16300 Montchaude. Tel: 05 45 78 14 71

 

cognac-tasting-charente-franceDISTILLING & STORY-TELLING

The Forgeron vineyard in the heart of the Grande Champagne is a family affair. Michel and Francine took over Michel's parent's farm close to 40 years ago. Back then it only had two hectares of vines – Michel and Francine planted more and set up a distillery and today the farm is a substantial 24 hectares. They bought their first pot still, second-hand, in 1965, and in 1977 their first cognac was ready to be bottled and sold.

Michel, 74, and Francine, 65, still work on the farm but it's their two sons, Christophe, 42, and Pierre, 34, who are now responsible for the day-to-day management. Pierre, who studied agriculture, looks after the vines and distils. Christophe, who was a telecommunications engineer in South Africa and America, came back to the vineyard in 2001 and takes care of the assemblage or blending of the aged eau-de-vie as well as the marketing of the cognac, pineau, blackcurrant liqueur and fizzy grape juice they also produce. He also looks after the regular visitors, people who have often visited a big cognac house but want to discover cognac made by smaller producers with 'their feet in the earth'.

‘It's not always easy working together,’ concedes Francine. ‘Our sons don't necessarily do things as Michel would have done them, but they have to learn by making their own mistakes. I try to pass on my knowledge without imposing my ideas, to make suggestions rather than give advice. We have had the experience of setting up the farm, and it's not easy for our sons to take over and assert themselves.

‘We've got an average-size farm for the area, and I suppose I'm its pivot,’ she continues.
Like many who own vineyards, the steady rhythm of pruning is her favourite part of the job. ‘It takes five months to prune the whole vineyard - I need up to two hours to prune an aisle, and there are 60 aisles in each field. The vine is a magnificent plant – each one is different and has its own personality, rather like children.’

It is Francine who visitors meet during Distilleries en Fête with her 'Les Tart'in de Francine'. ‘I serve a tea of home-made tarts and pineau or blackcurrant liqueur and tell visitors stories about life in the cognac vignoble,’ she says. Francine is a born storyteller and has collected local stories, researched the history of cognac from books and listened to older distillers, pulling all the information together to create her very own fables. She gives out a series of questions, such as 'What is a Phylloxera house?' or ‘Why we have cognac to thank for the discovery of America?' and visitors choose one that intrigues them, and which Francine then answers as a story while they eat. ‘It's something that children from 10 upward enjoy as much as the adults,’ she says.

Forgeron Cognac, Chez Richon, 16130 Segonzac., www.cognacforgeron.com 

Originally published in Living Poitou-Charentes  © All rights reserved