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Behind the scenes at the oldest Cognac house in France

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Only certain brandies can bear the name cognac, the luxurious amber-hued spirit cherished for its aromatic and floral qualities. French law has protected cognac production as an appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) since 1936, but as the oldest of the great Cognac houses, Martell Cognac has been making the spirit since 1715.

The process begins in the verdant rolling hills of France's Charente region, named for the river that flows through the town of Cognac. There, neatly manicured vineyards seem to line every road. According to vineyard manager Bernard Pineau, this lush area is particularly suited to growing grapes because it's a microclimate, so temperatures are usually more mild than those of the surrounding regions. "We're just 60 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, and there is never too much rainfall, nor too much heat," he explains.

Legal requirements dictate that only certain grape varieties (all white) are used to make cognac. Folle blanche was the most common grape used in cognac production until a blight decimated the crop in the 19th century. Today, 98 percent of Martell's product is made with Ugni blanc. Both varieties, however, produce a thin, acidic wine that isn't really suitable for drinking.

According to French law, the wines must be distilled by March 31 following the harvest in late September. The double distillation must be performed, following the traditional method, in copper stills. At Martell, about 2,640 gallons of the clear wine are poured into the glistening pumpkin-shaped kettle and heated over an open flame. The liquid is brought to a boil as quickly as possible, and the vapors flow through a pipe shaped like a swan's neck into a cooling tank.

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The liquid is then returned to the boiler for a second distillation called la bonne chauffe. During this process, the distiller is most interested in collecting "the heart," or the liquid produced during the middle part of the second distillation. "It's a very important moment for the distiller. It must be determined through smell and by checking for bubbles and alcohol content to achieve the most perfect sweetness and roundness," Laurent Nony, Martell's distillery manager, explains. This clear liquid collected from the second distillation is called eau-de-vie.

The spirit's familiar vanilla aroma is inescapable at the distillery. But the aging process will give the eaux-de-vie warmer layers of brown sugar and black currant, in addition to a lovely caramel color. According to law, it can be aged only in oak barrels made from wood from the Limousin or Tronçais regions of Central France. Martell uses only fine-grain oak wood, believing that large-grain wood imparts an unpleasant astringency. The eaux-de-vie must be aged for at least six months, but most are aged for much longer.

Benoît Fil, Martell's cellar master, is responsible for blending the aged eaux-de-vie to produce the final product. "I work with four other tasters. Twice a week we taste all the stock," he says. Cognac cellar masters must use their sense of smell and palate to maintain product consistency and the House's specific style. Distinguishing between subtly different aromas like chestnut, cinnamon and chocolate, and blending them appropriately, is key to producing a quality cognac.

Here's to 300 more years of French tradition. Santé.

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