Cognac and a game of the senses
Numbers are key to understanding Baptiste Loiseau, the cellar master of the House of Rémy Martin, and his work. At 37, Loiseau is one of the youngest cellar masters in south-west France’s Cognac region, overseeing the blending and ageing of more than 140,000 eaux-de-vie in 29 different cellars. His predecessor, the famed Pierrette Trichet, trained him for seven years. It was what he calls “a long history of transmission”.
Even now, when Loiseau opens a decanter of the Rémy Martin cognac fine champagne XO and pours a glass, you can see the admiration on his face. It feels like a ritual. Eyes closed, a deep whiff to experience the aroma and floral notes—only then are you ready for the XO, an excellent cognac that is a blend of 400 eaux-de-vie, aged for 6-40 years.
“When you want to take the position of the cellar master, it’s not you who decides, it’s the previous cellar master. Pierrette (Trichet) was confident that I could be the next cellar master. It’s something you can only learn through oral transmission because it is based on the senses,” says Loiseau, who joined the cognac house 10 years ago.
Understanding cognac has a lot to do with the senses. The first sip of the XO leaves a lasting taste on the palate: the fruitiness of the grapes lingers. The wine is double-distilled in small copper-pot stills. Once it has been aged, the cellar master makes the final blend to obtain the house style. It’s only when the taste—a delightful mix of spiciness and woodiness—starts filling the mouth that I gulp it. The explosion of flavours is complemented by a smooth, warm feeling at the back of the throat.
When he was studying winemaking in Montpellier, Loiseau used to carry cognac for friends. They would derisively describe it as “a grandpa drink”. But Loiseau thought otherwise. “When they see a young cellar master, it can help people identify with the fact that this can be a drink for the younger people as well,” he adds.
Just like there’s no age to appreciate cognac, there are no set rules on how you should drink it. What many perceive as a winter drink is actually a drink that can be had throughout the year. Loiseau says the best time to appreciate cognac is just before lunch—a time when all your senses are active.
This dispels the myth that cognac is mostly a digestive, not an aperitif.
“For someone who is having the XO for the first time, the first approach has to be neat. Then, you can play. I like to enjoy the XO on ice. On ice, I think, it is a good way to appreciate the fruitiness, floralness and spiciness you have inside,” says Loiseau. If you plan on having the VSOP, which is a younger cognac in the category, you could pair it with ginger ale and ice.
During his travels to China as a cellar master, Loiseau realized that people like to drink cognac during lunch or dinner. “That’s the case in India as well, with some spicy food. The different facets of the spicy food echo nicely with the spiciness in the XO,” he adds.
If you prefer your cognac after food, pair it with dessert or a cigar. Loiseau likes the XO with a chocolate cake or mousse and also with caramelized fruits.