Words by Joe Rogers
This small house in Grande Champagne was chosen as 2023 Rising Star for its bright, characterful Cognacs and its fundamental commitment to environmentalism. In a category so often defined by tradition, this relative newcomer shows how fresh thinking can revitalise a centuries old spirit.
When did the estate switch to organic agriculture?
Amy: ‘Back in the early-90s, Jean’s father had a plot of vines that wasn’t doing very well. His father hadn’t been a vintner, he’d inherited the vineyards from his uncle who was a banker and who didn’t really know how to work the vines either. So, he went to a meeting about organics at the Chamber of Agriculture here and he left the meeting thinking that if maybe 80% of what he heard there was right, then he was 100% wrong in what he was doing with his vines. That’s when he decided to go organic.’
Jean: My dad changed the production in 1995, so by about early-2000 he really saw the difference. He smelled the difference in the distillery, he said there were aromas he’d never encountered before.
A: He was lucky enough to have stock from the 1800s when he inherited this vineyard. So he was then able to compare and he said that he could smell things that were in that really old eau-de-vie. Unfortunately we don’t have any more of that, but what that shows is that we’re on the right road to finding our real terroir.
J: It’s really important to remember that Cognac has been made here for centuries and we’ve only really been using synthetic products since the Second World War. The crus of Cognac are all based on terroir and if you feed the plant directly with chemical fertilisers then where is the terroir? Because the terroir is the expression of the soil in the plants.
I notice you haven’t said organic farming is easier. What are the particular challenges of this way of doing things?
J: Less than 1% of the vineyards here use organic farming. The people here are a bit afraid of how to control the grass and weeds between the vines, that’s the first challenge, you have stop using chemical weed killer. The other aspect is that we are not that far from the ocean, it’s quite humid here – so we have to deal with mildew, odium and other natural diseases that affect the vines.
And then to make Cognac we ask the plant to produce more than if we were just making a normal wine. In Bordeaux they are limited to 55 hectolitres per hectare – but in the Charente we ask the plant to produce 120 or 140. When you push the plant to produce more, and you use a lot of nitrates in the soil, it is more sensitive to disease. In organic farming we have to find balance because we don’t have curative products like chemicals, we only use things that prevent disease.
The easiest way to understand the products we use is it’s like sunscreen – after you’ve burned your skin, it’s too late.
We mostly use copper and sulphur that helps to prevent mildew and other diseases and then we have natural plant infusions that help to boost immunity. Doing this helps us reduce the amount of copper and sulphur we use on the vines, because they’re not the best things on earth either.
A: You have to be incredibly vigilant when you use organics. You always have to treat your vines before the rain, so Jean has 12-or-15 weather apps that he uses regularly to make sure he knows what to do when.
J: We always spray before the rain because that’s when contamination happens. You also have to know which is the right product to use on a given day, it’s very important to be accurate because if you get it wrong you won’t get a second chance, you might lose part of your crop. This is what people fear most, because you know the big houses in the region ask the vintners to produce a lot because the market is growing, demand is growing. When we harvest, it’s for the next ten years, so there’s a lot to lose.
Is that why people might be reluctant to use organic methods? Is it a question of yield?
J: We’ve found a good balance in our production, but we have some colleagues in organic farming in the region who produce just as much as the conventional, chemical way. They prove that it’s possible to have the same crop, but the big houses aren’t looking for that.
A: You have to imagine that there about four clients for cognac in the region. I think about 85% of all cognac is sold by those four houses. So it’s difficult for people.
Do you think things are likely to change across the region in the future?
A: When I came here 15 years ago you could see entire vineyards where the grass around the vines was orange because in the winter they put weed killer all over the entire field, which is totally unnecessary, you don’t need to do that.
J: Things are changing, the new generation is saying they don’t want to use these crap products that give you cancer and so-on. Then there’s the pressure from the public.
A: People do vote with their pocket books and they’re saying they want more ecological products. Five years ago in France, people bought organic things only for their own personal health, but today I think people actually see that it’s also for the health of the planet and for the people that make it. I also don’t think people really thought of spirits as an agricultural product, but they are realising that they are and they should probably buy organic spirits.
So it’s perhaps more of a cultural shift in the region?
J: It’s for the health of the people working on the vineyards, it’s for the children, it’s for us – we live here in the middle of the property. So even if it’s more expensive, it takes more time, it creates a bit less in terms of production, I would never go back to using conventional products.
A: Organic agriculture also permits our terroir to shine through. It’s difficult to say you make a different Cognac from other people when you use the exact same products and the exact same fertiliser.
J: Sometimes when I taste a young eau-de-vie and say ‘wow, that’s very flavourful’ and then I smell another and it’s the same, I realise they’re made using the same kind of yeast. One is from Petite Champagne and the other is from Fin Bois, 60 kilometres apart and they taste the same. They taste good, but what’s the point if you don’t show the difference of the terroir?
A: So, that’s another important thing we do here is use native yeasts. We have different grape varieties on the property and do what they call in French a pied de cuve before the big harvest. We still stomp on them!
J: The yeasts are there naturally in the soil. People have been making wine for thousands of years and they didn’t always come by their yeasts in a shop. And what we’ve found is that if we look at a plot that has been planted with Folle Blanche for 20 years or something like that, there are specific yeast species there. There’s a specific relationship, an adaptation of the yeast to what’s growing there.
Do you feel there is a tension here between tradition and innovation?
A: I think we have lots to learn from our elders. We can look to them for methods of preventing frost, like late pruning for instance, they knew how to do that when they didn’t have any way to electrify the vine wires; they didn’t have a way to put up big windmills to protect from frost. They were much less dependent on energy sources than we are to make their product.
Our packaging says that we’re forward looking but I think there’s always things to save from the past. We’ve been making Cognac for centuries here, it’s obviously a quality product or it wouldn’t have that staying power. We can learn from oenology how to make better wine, we can learn from visiting other distilling regions how to distil better. At the same time, every little distiller here in Charente has their own techniques so it’s pretty cool to learn from other people in the region.
J: Distillation is a complex process, so I’m still trying to figure out what we do and why, how it affects the flavour of the Cognac. Because every pot still gives its own signature. It takes a life to be good at it and to understand it.
A: Philosophically, I think we’re looking to make the best Cognac we can with what we have. So if we can change our wine cellar to make better wine, to make better Cognac, we’re going to do that.
J: We’re still working on the barrels and the cooperage, trying different heat treatments and different cooperages to see what’s best. We’re still learning, trying to do the best we can.
You guys can’t be the only ones – is Cognac maybe a bit more progressive than we might think?
A: I really think it depends on the maker and the philosophy of the house, there are some that are very conservative and some that are much less so. For us I don’t think there’s any tension between keeping what’s good from the past and adding what’s good from the present.