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May 15

A Few Days In France: Part 1

Our friend Jay Erisman, whom you’ll often find instructing wine and spirits classes at The Party Source, recently took a trip to French Wine Country. This is the first of a multi-part (I’m not sure how many parts) series he’s put together for us on his trip. Today, enjoy his adventures in Cognac!
– Michelle

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I departed for France on Sunday, March 18. Direct flights like the one I had from Cincinnati to Paris are overnight, so I arrived in Paris at 8:30 am. The plan was to go straight to Cognac — no rainy Parisian afternoons spent adjusting to jet lag, oh no, it was straight for the stills on this trip. I took a TGV (train grande vitesse, one of which recently set the world record for fastest train on rails) to Angoulème, and then a smaller and slower train to Cognac. These trains run like fine clockwork, with no waiting on the tarmac or departing the gate just to say we did whatsoever.

It was at the Cognac train station—not Charles de Gaulle airport, or the pigeon-ridden Montparnasse station—that I had the first of many pinch-yourself-I-am-in-France moments. It was a rather lonely and completely quiet reception as yet another stranger rolled into town. I thought I saw a tumbleweed roll by.

Château de l’Yeuse

My hotel in Cognac was Château de l’Yeuse, overlooking the Charentes
River. It turned out to be the best hotel of the trip, with a nice room
and effortless, smiling service. Great food, too. I was convinced,
after the first morning, that breakfast in France is much, much  better
than breakfast in Scotland. Some highlights from two dégustation
(tasting menu) meals at Château de l’Yeuse include:

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Maigre de la Cotinière et langoustine en tournedos, jus de carcasse
This striking dish features a slender piece of fish “like sea bass”
wrapped around a flawlessly cooked langoustine. The carcass of the fish
is cooked down to provide a frothy jus, and the whole thing sits on a
rectangular bed of finely chopped cabbage.

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Déclinaison autour du caramel à la fleur de sel de l’Ile de Ré
A “declension,” wherein a chef presents various preparations and
textures of a given ingredient, is a popular move on the culinary
cutting edge. At Château de l’Yeuse I enjoyed a declension of caramel,
five, count ‘em, FIVE kinds of caramel inflected with local sea salt.
Best of all was the caramel mousse (adorned with mint leaf in the
photo), rather like an airy ice cream at room temperature.

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Chariot de fromages fermiers et chèvres du Poitou-Charentes
Ah, the cheese trolley. As a former assistant cheesemonger, I have been
waiting a long, long time to have a whack at a true French cheese
course. From Camembert to fruity-pungent Livarot to a plethora of local
goat cheeses—and all of it from lait cru, raw milk—the selection here
was simply outstanding; when I mentioned Chateau de l’Yeuse to a Cognac
producer he replied, “Good cheese.” Indeed it was.

Daniel Bouju Cognac

I’ve been selling Daniel Bouju Cognac for some time now, and have
tasted the whole range of their dense, full-bodied single vineyard
Cognac. Repeatedly. So my visit to the distillery in Grande Champagne,
the best part of the Cognac region, was not about tasting, but about
meeting. Establishing a theme that would play throughout my trip, I
found the Bouju family the most amazing part of the visit. (The Cognac
is also very amazing.) I was met at my hotel by François Bouju and his
father, Daniel Bouju, whose name the house bears. A my creaky French
was met by tolerable English from François—in short, we all got on like
gangbusters. I told them all about Bourbon—it’s named for a French
king, you know.

The Bouju distillery is as small as I imagined, only one still in a
little room, one of the smallest in the Charente. Bouju distills “on
the lees,” meaning the wine is added to the still along with all its
yeasty solids, an inefficient technique that helps deliver more flavor
in the finished product. In between the brick-encased still and the
condensing tub is the large balloon-shaped chauffe vin, or wine-heater,
which heats the wines before they are sent to the still for a gentle
distillation.

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Daniel and François Bouju in front of their wee still.

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The chauffe vin. To the right is the condensing tub

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The well-polished copper receiving works at the end of the condensing
tub. The harsher parts of the distillate are sent back to the still,
while the tasty “center cut” is collected in a tank under the brickwork.

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Jay with the Boujus at the entrance to the chai, or warehouse. The
Boujus have several warehouses; this one is the paradis, where the
rarest and oldest brandies are kept.

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These large wooden foudres hold impossibly old Cognacs, without contributing to further aging.

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Do these barrels look old enough? I’ll take the one in the middle…

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The vineyard at Bouju ranges from four- to fifteen-year-old vines. This
is the famous chalky Grande Champagne soil—note the white specks
studding the earth—responsible for the greatest and longest-lived of
Cognacs.

Bouju is a “single vineyard Cognac”, or estate bottled, meaning all the
grapes for their Cognac are grown in their own vineyard. Big Cognac
houses such as Hennessy, Rémy Martin, and Camus buy most of their grapes,
or buy finished brandies from multiple distilleries, and blend them
into a brand. This is all well and good, but just as with blended
Scotch or négociant Champagne, the intrinsic flavor of the vineyard is
ameliorated in favor of a “house style.” Furthermore, these blended
Cognacs are nearly always “adjusted” with permitted additives such as
caramel color, sugar syrups, and oak extract (boisé) which allow a
producer to simulate the effects of age using a younger spirit.

Daniel Bouju does not use any additives (other than water) in his
Cognac; the very dark color of his bottlings is achieved naturally from
the oak cask. His Cognacs are notably dry, almost austerely so, when
compared with many subtly sweetened Cognacs from other houses. For the
40 year Tres Vieux or 15 year Royal, Bouju does not even add water,
bottling brut de fût, or cask strength at 50% or 60% alcohol. These
powerful brandies are bottled unfiltered, with the regular Bouju
bottlings receiving only a gentle filtration at room temperature.

Daniel Bouju Cognacs are famous for extended aging—the XO is 25 years
old—but also for their iconoclastic, almost controversial style. Most
Cognacs offer a relatively light, delicate, pale style of brandy.
Bouju’s Cognacs, on the other hand, are easily the biggest I’ve ever
tasted. These are as full bodied as most Bourbon whiskies, dry and
richly oaky in the best sort of way. In particular, they offer rancio,
that rare flavor complex found in certain aged spirits which tastes
hauntingly of earth, mushroom, cream, walnut, cheese, butter. It’s a
very Old World sort of taste which you just can’t find in most Cognac
today. Bouju is like a clinic in rancio, especially the older bottlings
but also in the 10-year-old VSOP. Capturing and highlighting this
rancio note is perhaps one of Daniel Bouju’s greatest achievements.

The other goody I sampled at Bouju was a bit of their Pineau des
Charentes. Typically drunk as an aperitif, Pineau is a member of a
class of French beverages called mistelle, which consist of unfermented
grape juice (or another fruit, such as apple in Pommeau de Normandie)
combined with a spirit. The spirit prevents the juice from fermenting,
thus preserving its sugar and freshness. In the case of Pineau des
Charentes, the spirit is, of course, aged Cognac, while the fresh
grapes and Cognac must come from an estate vineyard such as Bouju. The
Pineau is then aged further in oak casks, and must be approved by a
tasting commission before sale. Pineau des Charentes is sweet, about
18% alcohol, and irresistibly charming, one of the most fun things
you’ll ever drink. My wife  and I luvvv Pineau. While Daniel Bouju’s
regular Pineau is exceptional, and aged about seven years, the elixir I
tasted at the distillery was fifteen years old: absolute nectar of the
gods.

The Boujus generously spent the whole day with me, including a great
lunch and thorough tours and, in particular, cask tastings of the
several chais. I took away some homework in the form of single cask
samples for my future consideration. It was a special day for me, and
an honor to meet Daniel, François, and Madame Anne Bouju.

Château de Beaulon

The next day took me to another Cognac gem, in a different growing area
and like Bouju, a grape grower. Château de Beaulon is located on an
“island” of chalky soil in the Fins Bois, a good but not great part of
Cognac. Beaulon seems to effortlessly transcend the Fins Bois, and
judging from the many restaurants I found serving Beaulon Cognac and
Pineau, it’s evident that the French love it too. Proprietor Christian
Thomas (who was unfortunately in Belgium when I visited) runs probably
one of the top ten distilleries in all of Cognac. I discovered Beaulon
years ago in The Cognac Companion by Conal Gregory, who waxed at length
about the incredible Château de Beaulon. At the time it was unavailable
in America, but at length I tracked it down and happily stocked it for
my employer. So to finally visit this estate was the end of a long
journey.

The methods at Beaulon are entirely different from Bouju, but no less
unusual when compared to the Cognac industry at large. Perhaps you are
familiar with heirloom produce at American farmer’s markets, where
fragile old time tomatoes varieties have more flavor than those in the
supermarket. That is the essence of Thomas’ approach. He grows heirloom
Cognac grape varieties—Colombard, Folle Blanche, and Montils—together
with a bit of the standard Cognac grape Ugni Blanc. These heirloom
grapes were common in Cognac from the 16th century to 125 years ago but
today are rarely grown as Ugni Blanc represents about 99% of Cognac
grapes. These antique grapes are more difficult to grow, particularly
Folle Blanche, but just like our favorite tomatoes they have more
flavor than Ugni Blanc. Beaulon bottles a 100% Folle Blanche Cognac at
a mere seven years of age, and the effusive flowery-fruity-spicy flavor
is stunning. If that weren’t enough, Mr. Thomas uses all-natural
agricultural methods; Beaulon is organic Cognac in all but name.

The Château de Beaulon really is a château, featuring a very classy
building dating from 1480. Surrounding the château are gardens, and in
the gardens are “les Fontaines Bleu,” a series of spring-fed
luminescent pools which on a good day radiate a turquoise glow. On this
cloudy March afternoon the fontaines could offer only a feeble
blue-green, but they were charming nonetheless.

Though Christian Thomas was out of the country, I did meet Madame
Thomas. She showed me, with subdued pride, the many medals and rave
reviews their products have recently garnered. She seemed to regard
Château de Beaulon with a quiet excitement and joy, recognizing how
special it is to live and work in the context of a beautiful château
and blue ponds and old fashioned organic brandy and probably the best
Pineau des Charentes that has ever been made—

Ah, the Pineau. The tasting at Beaulon was very helpful, as they have
several new bottlings I had not tasted. Particularly impressive was the
new 1971 vintage, an extremely good Cognac. And the 20-year-old
Napoleon will hopefully soon return to America in a new package. But
the real revelation was the Pineau des Charentes, vintage 1982.
Arguably no Cognac estate is so obsessive about their Pineau. Christian
Thomas makes white Pineau as well as rouge, and both are from fine wine
grapes such as Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernets Sauvignon
and Franc plus Merlot for the red, all of which follow his all-natural
prescription in the vineyard. The result is bottled at five and ten
years of age, plus vintage-dated Pineaux which are upwards of 25 years
old. The 1982 Pineau—which tastes at once fresh/zesty and
aged/profound—transcends the category of “aperitif” and proceeds
directly to the hall of “legend.”

– Jay

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Posted by Michelle at 11:49 am in Guest Writers, Knowledge, Spirits, Tastings, Travel | Permalink | Comments (2)

2 Responses to “A Few Days In France: Part 1”

  1. Hi Jay,
    I had great pleasure to read your article about Daniel Bouju. Unfortunately, I did not have the possibility until now, to visit the Cognac Region and the Bouju Family. The Cognacs are famous and I really love them too. To sell and to drink ;-)

  2. Really informative and fantastic structure of content material , now that’s user genial (:.

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