Gourmet Secrets: Meet the cognac connoisseurs
Cognac has always represented luxury and is the most sought after, after dinner drink. While in France a few months ago, I was invited to Poitiers and La Rochelle to meet the Godet family who own a boutique cognac brand, which is still family run. This is unusual in the world of brandy and cognac, most of which has been taken over by the big boys of alcohol - Courvosier, Remy Martin, Hennessey and Martel.
In good spirit
So, what exactly is cognac? It is a double distilled alcohol made from white wine grapes, in the region of Cognac in the south west of France. The alcohol must be aged for at least two years and the grapes are specific to this region (mainly ugni blanc) in order for it to be called a cognac. Otherwise it is simply ‘brandy’.
The grapes are grown by third party grape growers and the eau de vie or distillate is also made by distillers not the cognac blenders themselves. A staggering 97 per cent of cognac produced is exported. I ask the young Cyril Godet over dinner at their exquisite chateau in the Poitiers countryside, what the French drink if all the cognac is exported. “Whisky” he replies. They also drink local brandies, which cannot be called cognac since they don’t conform to the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) rules.
It was refreshing to see three young men, the 15th generation in their family to carry on a family business worth talking about. Since the business of cognac is mainly of export, two of the boys deal solely with the export market with Jean Edouard running the administration and cellars their newly launched Antartica. This is technically an eau de vie or wine spirit. The Godet’s are promoting this as a cocktail base.
A dinner which starts with oysters from nearby La Rochelle (where their cellars have been for centuries), followed by crayfish bisque and what the English call beef wellington where a fillet of beef is surrounded by foie gras and encased in puff pastry. The sublime four courses were accompanied by great wines of the region (not cognac) understandably! The cognacs were served as is tradition in the 18th century drawing room straight out of the bottles. No decanters and no great big balloon glasses. What did they taste like? Amazingly smooth and not the harsh burning sensation you sometimes associate with aged alcohol.
Of oak casks and stories
The next day I drive for a little over an hour through lush countryside to the sea side town of La Rochelle, which has been a thriving Atlantic port since the 12th century. The Godet’s have moved their cellars from the 16th century building which belongs to the family in the centre of town to a more modern facility nearer the ocean. We are surrounded by oak casks and stories.
The history of Godet cognac started in 1588, when salt merchants from Holland came to settle in this part of the world and started making brandy. The term brandy is a shortening of brandy wine, which was derived from the Dutch word brandewijn or gebrande wijn, which literally means “burned wine”. This became “British brandy” in the 18th century and later the “French Cognac” in the late 19th century.
They chose La Rochelle because it was a very busy port, which shipped all over the world and already had established links with the New World. La Rochelle also holds a unique position in the history of cognac because this is the place where distillation technology (originating from the Arab culture) met with locally produced wine (the wine of Aunis). The naturally deep and well protected harbour of La Rochelle welcomed maverick and innovative traders such as the Dutch salt merchants.
Story of the salt merchant
Bonaventure Godet, a Dutch salt merchant settled in La Rochelle in the second half of the 16th century, and was among the first traders of “Dutch burnt wine“ that would become so sought after for the centuries to come.
The sea air also contributes to the final result. Jean Edouard takes me through a tasting of some of their cognacs from the VS and VSOP (Very Special and has been aged two years in oak to Very Superior Old Pale aged for at least four years in the barrel) to XO (Extra old – stored for at least six years in barrels), the very masculine XO Terre in a more “serious” circular heavy bottle to their latest offering XO Organic, an elegant, refined Cognac which I love. They also produce cognac from a Single vineyard, Single grape variety and Single vintage, much like great wines. I notice a hand written label saying 1848 and begin to understand why cognacs have the reputation of being expensive habit.
Cognac gets its colour not so much from the barrels in which the liquid is placed but from the caramel colour, which is allowed to be added to maintain consistency. Cognac not only becomes complex and interesting with time and aging but much easier to drink I discover. After a designated time in barrels it goes straight into bottles where it ages further. The end result has an aroma bursting with toast, a hint of jasmine and honey and is very very smooth on the palate. The secret of Godet Cognac has been passed down from generation to generation.
“What makes our Cognac different, is the size of the production, which is relatively small, how we blend the various barrels from various vintages and various vineyards, the ageing and finally our experience,” says Jean Edouard. Cognac Godet is available in India at the Duty Free in airports, in Tamil Nadu and will be available all over India in 2019 and Rukn Luthra of Fermentras India represents the Godet family journey in India. It is really worth getting to know and breaks the myth that Cognac is a big “burned” spirit for men only.
(Culinary expert and explorer Karen Anand has been writing extensively on the subject of food and wine for 30 years. Apart from having her own brand of gourmet food products, she has anchored top rated TV shows, run a successful chain of food stores, founded the hugely successful Farmers Markets, and worked as restaurant consultant for international projects, among other things. Her latest passion is food tours, a totally curated experience which Karen herself accompanies, the first of which was to Italy.)
From HT Brunch, November 25, 2018
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