Brandy, a saint, and merlot

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The entrance to Remy Martin

Today we went off on a two-hour bus trip to Remy Martin distillery to see brandy being made. It was fascinating. Brandy is made from grapes and heat. Rather than me rabbiting on about things I know little about, I suggest you read this article. I’ll just mention the bits and pieces which interested me.

Brandy is aged in barrels, where it picks up additional flavour from the wood. Before use the barrels are ‘toasted’ that is, the inside of the barrel is heated, providing extra flavour. Every barrel is carefully marked to indicate which cooper, how much toasting, as well as the vintage of the grapes used. Of necessity, some of the alcohol in the barrels evaporates. This is known as the ‘angel’s share’.

Louis XIII cognac – XO

The art of the cellar master is to blend all those brandies to achieve the right flavour, which must be consistent. Brandy does not age after being bottled. What you get from an old bottle of brandy is heritage – flavours from barrels. VS cognac (Very Special) has been in oak barrels for two years, VSOP (very special old pale) brandy for at least four years old, and XO is Extra Old, having been in oak for at least twenty years. The finest cognac is Louis XIII, which retails at around 3,000 a bottle. The bottle is crystal.

These bottles illustrate the aging process, with lighter being youngest

It is remarkable that the oldest cognacs and indeed French wines still existed after the end of WW2. It seems several young Germans who knew about the wine trade were enlisted by the Germans with the task of finding the best cognacs and wines and sending them to Germany. But they came from the industry and wished to preserve it, so they advised the chateaus and distilleries to hide their best stock, but released limited quantities to Germany, explaining they were still looking for the hidden bottles. The men were arrested after France was liberated but the leading lights in the industry insisted they be released. There’s a book about how France’s wines were saved – Wine and War.

The view from the top

After our visit to Remy Martin we went to Saint-Emilion, a lovely little village named after the local saint who ended his days living as a hermit in caves under the town. It seems St Emilion was something of a Robin Hood, stealing bread from his master to give to the poor. One day, when his master confronted him, he was forced to open his robe where he hid the bread. All his master saw was pieces of wood – which was apparently Emilion’s first miracle on his way to sainthood.

We were taken down into the cave where it was believed he lived and we were shown a very small part of the catacombs where the dead were buried – but we didn’t go far and saw only a token leg bone. Sorry, no photos. It’s claimed there are 150 miles of tunnels down there. In the past the monolithic church would have been full of wonderful art. If you look carefully, you can still see the hint of remains on the walls. After the French Revolution church belongings were no longer inviolate. Napoleon had the walls scraped (including the paintings) to make gunpowder. Learn more about the church and the caves here.

Needless to say, while in Saint-Emilion we had to taste the wines. We were driven to Chateau de Ferrand to taste Merlot. Helene was (as usual) a very knowledgeable young lady who knew we’d already had the wine making process described to us more than once. She gave us the rudiments of wine-tasting. Taste before you swirl, then add oxygen by swirling, then sip. Colour can tell you the age of the wine. And you see the colour by holding the glass sideways above something white, then look at the colour of the edge of the wine. Ruby is younger, with the colour maturing to russet over time.

We tasted a young merlot, then an older vintage. Me, I’m a Philistine. I liked the young wine. I can detect aromas in a sav blanc, but all that raspberry notes and old leather etc. Nup.

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