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Place, precision and time. The three great axes of Martell Cognac craftsmanship; an expertise and emotion passed from hand to hand since 1715.
The grape-growing region of Cognac is divided into six vineyard areas, or crus, in the Charente region near the Atlantic Ocean. This white, sun-blessed land has a mild ocean climate that encourages optimum grape growth. It is the richness and complexity of the crus that give the cognac its characteristic aromas: smoothness, elegance, flowery notes, candied fruit and soft spices.
It is Borderies that give the finest Martell cognacs their hallmark elegance and subtlety.
When Jean Martell founded the house, he already had his eye on the Borderies, the smallest and most sought-after of the crus of Cognac. The Ugni Blanc grapes that grow in the silica-clay soils of the Borderies give the eaux-de-vie distinctive floral aromas and an exceptional smoothness. It is this unique terroir that give the finest Martell cognacs their hallmark elegance and subtlety.
Bubbling away in copper stills, clear white wine made from grapes harvested in the crus, begins its transformation into eau-de-vie through distillation process.
To ensure authentic flavour, traditional copper pot stills are still used to heat the wine. As it simmers away, the vapour rises up through the still head, passing through the swan neck and into the coil, where it condenses to form a clear, warm liquor. Of the great cognac houses, Martell is the sole to distil only clear wines (where all sediments and impurities have been removed), to produce exceptionally fine and pure eaux-de-vie.
Martell is the only great cognac house to exclusively distil clear wines - a unique method that gives the final cognac a distinctive style.
Furthermore, it is a highly delicate operation that requires the close attention of the Master Distiller and his team. To change the fruity wine into a perfect eau-de-vie, the time and temperature of the distillations must be precisely controlled.
In the darkness and silence of the Martell cellars, the eaux-de-vie gently slumber. Days, months, years pass. Sleepy-eyed and lazy, time rolls on.
But a beautiful transformation is taking place inside the oak barrels. As a living material, the oak wood provides the eau-de-vie with its structure and handsome amber colour. Indeed, it is the wood that helps the eau-de-vie develop the last stage of its aromatic personality.
Martell has always opted exclusively for barrels made of soft, fine-grain oak - its special feature being that it transmits soft, well-balanced aromas to the cognac eaux-de-vie, lending them notes of vanilla, dried fruit, red fruit, chutney and dried flowers.
The oak wood used for Martell barrels comes from trees of the Tronçais style. This means that the oaks are planted closer together, leaving less light for each sapling and slowing their growth rate. The result is fine grain oak wood, called so since the rings representing growth are more compact. Barrels made from this type of wood give the eaux-de-vie aged within them a lighter and more delicate woody taste.
When transferred to the oak barrels, the eaux-de-vie are completely colourless. Only through contact with the rich oak do they take on their amber hue.
Along with the choice of wood, the type of barrel used also greatly affects the flavour of the eaux-de-vie. If made with completely new wood, barrels impart a strong wood taste, whereas barrels that have previously held eau-de-vie give a much subtler flavour.
A final, major taste element is ‘toasting’ - a process where the inside of the barrels are gently burnt to help release the complex flavours within the oak. This affects the wood taste - the more they are burnt, the more prominent the wood flavour. At Martell the cognac barrels are lightly toasted to preserve the flavour of the eaux-de-vie.
A question of time… Some eaux-de-vie mature at 2 years (the minimum ageing period for cognac), while some develop at 20, others at 70. It’s all down to the watchful eye of the Cellar Master to decide when the eaux-de-vie have reached their full potential.
At this moment the eaux-de-vie are removed from their oak casks and placed in demijohns. This stops the aging process, keeping the eaux-de-vie at their most perfect. The finest of which are stored in the Jean Martell cellar, where some eau-de-vie attain several hundred years of age, biding their time until, centuries later, they are used to make the rarest of cognacs.
Each eau-de-vie has a unique character, created by the choices made during ageing, such as the type of oak cask used, the length of time left to mature, and from which cru it was cultivated. Like a singular note in a complex symphony, the Cellar Master must know how to introduce and combine each tone to create a perfect harmony.
A cellar master can be compared to a parent raising children, able to recognise the qualities that will set them apart when they become adults.” Christophe Valtaud.
It is the blending process that gives cognac its inimitable, everlasting bouquet. During blending a complex palette of flavours stand before the Cellar Master, from which he must perfectly construct the personality of each product, following the original recipe. A task made even more complex since the eaux-de-vie naturally change slightly each year, depending of climate and harvesting.
The stakes are high. To nurture and create a flawless marriage, perfectly upholding the centuries-old cognac style of the house, in respect of a knowledge passed from master to master since Jean Martell himself. The perfect nose, an unparalleled palette and a near magical gift for alchemy. Yes, the responsibility that rests with Cellar Master Christophe Valtaud is formidable.