Monday, May 14, 2012

Time travel at Cognac Ferrand: 1976. 1776, 1840

Cognac Pierre Ferrand
1776 Cellars

Time is a malleable concept in Cognac.  The pace and focus can shift subtly from the now to the then before you’re even aware of it.  That’s not surprising when you can visit a maison and walk from the 21st Century into the 19th Century and then the 18th Century within a matter of minutes, traversing hundreds of years of history and culture in a few short steps.

For Americans, who tend to live in the moment, that sensation can be exhilarating. We tend to think of the days of our country’s founding as remote antiquity when in many ways it was merely the blink of an eye in European terms and part of a much longer and richer history that adds color and richness and resonance.

Here age has a taste, the taste of cognac.  It has a smell, the smell of old stone and mellow wood infusing, and being infused by, the sweet mingling of fruit and flower and spice summoned by alchemical fire from the grapevines and forests, transformed and contained and concentrated in the liquid that first becomes wine then becomes ardent spirits.

Such an evocative and perfectly descriptive name: ardent spirits.  It burns, yes, with the clear blue flame of intensity and purity combined, a liquid that is a vapor, that was entirely gas, but liquid before, a liquid that came from pure water and soil and captured sunlight in a process that, while scientifically defined, is still the most mysterious of nature’s magic, as if fire were captured in water.

New casks
mingle with old
Contain that precious and twice-transformed liquid in a massive, heavy, solid wood barrel—a barrel that is nonetheless deceptively porous to what it contains---that has been heated, cooked, toasted, all to caramelize the natural sugars, creating more transformation which will create even more transformation; hide it away in cool, dark and slightly moist cellars so that time works its secrets in the dim and dark, quietly, slowly, patiently; and after years, decades, lifetimes, decant the concentrated results and with infinite care nurse it back to balance with the slow drip and trickle of water, revive it from its long slumber, quench the fiery, thirsty heart to manageable levels; and capture the tawny gold and caramel colors in a genie’s bottle.

At Cognac Pierre Ferrand in the Grande Champagne it is possible to marvel at the glistening bright and meticulously maintained copper stills, the Alembic Cognacais required by law and custom to make the eau-de-vie, all very modern but emanating from grand traditions of countless grandfathers, all very tidy and ordered and above all, clean, pristine to the point of laboratory standards. Then walk across a graveled courtyard that once supported dray horses and now sports tractors and Range Rovers and into what appears for all the world like a delapidated ruin of gray stone and black fungus.
1976 Cognac
in a 1776 Cellar
But this apparent tumbledown is sturdier, far sturdier, than it looks. Alexandre Gabriel, the proprietor, a tightly contained, enthusiastic and likable man with restless eyes that flicker here and there, observing, annotating, extrapolating, brimming with ideas that defy the length of the day and keep him awake far into the night, casually tells us this cellar was built in 1776, without at first realizing the major import this has to Americans.  We all look around curiously, imagining the workers putting the cellar together, stone by laborious stone, as our American identity was being forged by men in gartered pants and elegant silken hose with silver and pewter-buckled shoes who courteously doffed their tricorn hats as they discussed their differences in the language of statesmen and savants.

The most noticeable thing about the cellar, though, is not the stones, impressive as they are in their settled solidity and lumpy fungus-encrusted mass.  No, the most impressive thing, instantly, is the dry biscuit smell of old, old wood mingled with the dark earthy aromas that emanate from the hard-packed floor.  The imagination creates an impression that the earth is breathing with excruciating slow breaths and there is the weight of mushrooms and black truffles hanging heavy in the air, mingling with the fragrant wisps of faint but present fruit---not apricot, not peach…ah, a white peach, the small squashed white peaches that sometimes grow further south, escaping from orchards to invade vineyards with outlaw trees, tricking the nose and the mind with the mixed aromas of fruit and flowers in delicate interplay.

Gabriel, playfully amused by our wide-eyed American response to the historical significance of the cellar, quirked his lips and pointed to one of the row-on-row barrels arrayed along the gray walls, saying, “We also have a barrel of Grande Champagne Cognac here from 1976,” rushing us forward two hundred years with the turn of our heads.  Before we could even comment, Gabriel suggested with his characteristic hospitality and grace, “Perhaps we should taste it?”

And suddenly we were clustered around the barrel as the Cellar Master thiefed the soft amber liquid with the fire inside and eased it into our glasses, releasing a gush of fruit and sensuous spices into the air in vivid, volatile contrast to the placidity of black earth and weathered oak.

We made a pitiful conscious attempt to, if not stop, at least slow down and extend the moment, but we eventually exhausted our glasses with the smallest sips and longest sighs possible, until there was only the spirit of the spirit, the ghost of the ghost, the faint but detectable echo and reverberation of that always-sought but not always-found essence called ‘rancio’.

This is why wine, and brandy, and in the finest way possible, cognac, captures the imagination as no other beverage can: it is the accumulated embodiment of all the elements---sun, water, earth and time---captured and suspended in the heart of fire, ready to be released, defying age by incorporating age, and bridging hundreds of years in a single glass.

An 1840 Cognac
and Ferrand "1840"
In a fitting coda, Gabriel invited us into his chateau for dinner.  During the tour we looked over his bedroom-turned-office---so he could jump up restlessly in the middle of the night whenever an idea seized him and work without disturbing his wife--- and saw a long row of bottles around the room.  His current project and fascination was the creation of a new version of Cognac Ferrand, the 1840, devised to revive the style of that past century when cognac was the standard drink of the bistros and the bôites, the drink of the common people and not merely some gentleman’s expensive plaything.  These were the bottles he had gathered methodically, antiques of the day but still vibrantly alive.

Standing next to the new creation of Ferrand 1840 was a single, dark bottle with a time-worn tattered label, barely legible, almost obliterated, but with a clearly decipherable “1840” in heavy black print. I glanced at the bottle, then at Gabriel in what I now know must have been mute question, not wishing to ask and impose, but he smiled, and nodded his head without hesitation, so I quickly uncorked the bottle and poured out the tiniest possible trickle of pale amber liquid into my glass, only a few drops redolent of fire and flower and fruit and spice, now mostly elegant spice and faded dried and pressed flowers and the eerie smell-sense of having opened the cover of a very, very old historical volume…which, in a way, it was, of course: a volume of time and taste-memory, a brief but vibrant ghost tenuously reaching over the chasm of 172 years to lightly brush my senses.

Only a relative few will be fortunate enough in their lives to taste a cognac from 1840. But thanks to Cognac Ferrand, they can experience the style of that period in the Ferrand 1840, now available in the market, a fitting hommage to a former time.

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