Thursday, December 16, 2010

Crossing the river with Hennessy

You never forget your first, and Hennessy was my first real introduction to cognac. Through the vineyards, the river, the tasting, and even the estate, it was quite a first time.

The day started bright and early with a true French breakfast of croissants, fruit, cheese and yogurt at Chateau de L’Yeuse before we packed up for our next location. It was a beautiful summer day with temperatures in the 70s as we headed through the windy roads of Cognac to the Hennessy Vineyards. There we were met by Cyrille Gautier-Auriol, Hennessy's Ambassadeur de la Maison, who showed us the vineyards and the grapes, and explained how the grapes in this region don't make great wine, but they produce outstanding brandy and can be blended for the best cognac.
The vineyards we saw were more "test" vineyards for Hennessy than producers of product. The company-owned plants take up only 200 acres in comparison to the 26,000+ acres in the region. Hennessy uses nearly 2,000 growers in the area to make their product. The growers are all set to certain guidelines, including never to spray pesticides within a month before harvest and to use as little as possible at all times.
We also got an explanation of why cognac tends to cost more than wine. If you take a liter of wine, age it for 20 years, you have two thirds of a liter. An additional 30 years produces just half a liter. After a hundred years, there is only 10% of the original liquid left. It is the blending of those eau-de-vies (from the wine) that makes cognac, and the older liquid in the blend, the more expensive the cognac.
From the Hennessy Vineyards it was off to the Visitors Center where we saw rare bottles of the Hennessy products, as well as an exhibition on its history. It was Richard Hennessy, born in 1724 in Ireland, who worked in the spirits trade and moved to Cognac in the late 1750s, realizing it was the place the best brandies were coming from. In 1771, he began his own company and worked with John Saule (the Saule family still works with the Hennessys as master blenders) to blend cognac. Hennessy continued as a family business, modernized by Maurice Hennessy in the 20th century. In 1971, they joined with the champagne company Moet & Chandon and formed Moet Hennessy.
The trip from the Visitors Center to the distillery was a short one in the Hennessy boat that took us across the Charente River. The smells of oak, flowers and fruits that form cognac were undeniable as we approached the barrels and bottles that had been aging as long as 200 years. We were then whisked off to the Tasting Room, where the youngest Maurice Hennessy joined as we sampled. We were told to sniff and smell all the flavors as the tasting took us from 180° pure alcohol to the eau-de-vies and then a sampling of XO, Paradis (Hennessy's best-selling cognac) and finally Richard Hennessy, the most expensive in the line at $2,500 per bottle.
After the tasting, we were off to an incredible lunch at the Hennessy family estate (Chateau De Bagnolet) and -- after finishing the meal with some more cognac -- it was off to Martell, who Cyrille Gautier-Auriol explained were, "Competitors by day, friends by night."
The Hennessy Visitors Center is open to all guests. Tours are also available at the Hennessy distillery.  For more information on location and hours, call +33(0)545357268. Additional product information is available at the official Hennessy website.

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