300 Years of The House of Martell By Harriet O'Grady
Martell Cognac, steeped in history and glamour, is the reason why we gathered in the most beautiful surroundings, at the Palace of Versailles. Pernod Ricard, the owners of Martell and justifiably proud of this jewel in their crown, decided to pull out all the stops to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of the House of Martell and indeed, what an evening it turned out to be.
Our host Philippe Guettat, Chairman and CEO of Martell Mumm Perrier-Jouet, warmly welcomed us, explaining that the celebrations were taking place at Versailles because it is the embodiment of French art de vivre – Martell is similarly an expression of this, and so the two go hand in hand. Diane Kruger, Martell’s ambassador, charmed us all with her beauty and told us she is rooted in French culture.
The Gallerie des Glaces sparkled as the evening light filtered through the great windows and was reflected in the glass panels beyond. We stood outside on the main terrace admiring the endless views designed by Le Notre. From afar, we perceived a line of planes. Slowly they came in our direction and flew over us in perfect formation, streaming colours of blue white and red, to the sound of classical music. Again we saw them in the distance, and again they came back, and again. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
We then moved down to the Orangerie for a seven course dinner by Chef Paul Pairet and a multi-sensory experience of taste, sight, sound and smell designed around founder Jean Martell’s original journey to Cognac. Two cinema screens ran the lengths of the Orangerie with projections of various brightly coloured Martell ads. A black wicker basket had been put on each place setting. Once we were seated, the baskets were swiftly removed to reveal our first course: DIY Lobster roll with Martell Tricentenaire Cognac Cocktail “The Independent.”
At the same time, the ads were replaced by a bucolic scene of countryside and trees. When the first course ended, there was a roar and we felt ourselves moving down down into the earth because that was what was happening on the screen. It was the most powerful sensation. And so the meal proceeded. The evening ended with a magnificent display of fireworks followed by dancing. It could not have been more magical.
But let us go to where it all began, to Cognac. In the past, merchants from northern Europe came to Cognac in western France to buy wine to import into England, Belgium and the Netherlands. Often, by the time the wine reached its destination, it had turned and begun to decay. The Dutch, who had perfected the art of distillation, had the good idea to preserve it by transforming it into eau-de-vie. They called it brandwyn or burnt wine. This is the origin of the English word brandy.
In 1715, 21 year old Jean Martell came to Cognac. An Englishman from Jersey in the Channel Islands, he had been an apprentice in the wine trade for seven years and, perceiving a business opportunity, decided to found a distillery in Cognac. Hennessy, Hine, Remy Martin and Courvoisier cognacs go back hundreds of years, but Martell is the oldest of them all. For 40 years, Jean Martell created bonds with local growers that would last for generations. He also made a point of acquiring many of the best lands known as “borderies.” By 1775, a first shipment of cognac was sent to the US and in 1858 to Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Korea, setting Martell on its global course.
Martell’s famous Cordon Bleu was created in 1912 and launched at the Hotel de Paris in Monaco. In 1956, it was served at a gala dinner for Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, in 1957 to Queen Elizabeth in Paris and in 1977 on Concorde. In even appears in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, where Martin Sheen’s character is seen savouring a Martell Cordon Bleu.
We stand in a 35 year old vineyard in front of one of Martell’s two distilleries, a short drive from Cognac. Mr. Pinot picks up a handful of earth, a mixture of clay and flint stones, but in his hands, it becomes special. We are looking at it slightly mesmerised, as if it were gold. Indeed it is, because it is this soil that has produced the grapes that have made cognac one of the great success stories of the spirits industry.
One would imagine that in this aristocratic soil would grow the most aristocratic grape, but not so. A buxom, perfectly ordinary variety from Italy, called Ugni Blanc, is the plant of choice. But cultivated here, it will turn into a floral and fruity eau-de-vie of great finesse. The grapes are harvested in the autumn and turned into white wine, which is then distilled twice in copper vats. A particularity of Martell is that its eau-de-vie is free from sediment, which gives it a complex taste.
The distilled eau-de-vie is stored for at least 2 years in fine grained wooden barrels made from 30 year old French oaks. Some barrels are 300 years old and still in use. The fine grain has silkier tannins which are slowly released to produce a delicate eau-de-vie. The cellar master will decide when maturation has reached its optimum peak. At this point, it is transferred to glass demijohns when the maturing process immediately stops. Some eaux-de-vie are hundreds of years old. Not one is the same because so many factors will have come into play. The job of the cellar master is to know how to combine different eaux-de-vie to make a blend. Martell’s cellar master is 38 year old Benoit Fil. Mr. Fil has the nose of a perfumer, the memory of an elephant and the ability to imagine new blends. He is quick to point out that his work is very much a team effort but he does concede that each cellar master has his taste preferences and personality. He is also aware that there are 300 years of craftsmanship behind him. “I work in the same path as my predecessors,” he reveals. He recreates well known and loved blends. For example, he will not change the taste of Cordon Bleu – no easy feat as yearly climate and growing conditions will also have an impact on the taste of the grape.
One cannot but be impressed by the loyalty of those who work for Martell. Monsieur Bertrand Guinoiseau has worked for Martell for 36 years and his father for 42 years. I ask him if a rival offered him a fantastic sum of money, would he leave? He looks affronted. “Jamais. Never!” he replies emphatically. “Martell is in our blood; it is a part of us. There is something very special about working for Martell.” He proudly shows us, and we taste, feeling rather honoured, Martell’s Assemblage Exclusif de 3 Millesimes, created to celebrate Martell’s anniversary. This is made up of 3 blends: a 1957 full-bodied Grande Champagne symbolising the foundation of Martell and emblematic of the 18th Century; a 1982 Fin Bois for lightness and geographical expansion in the 19th Century; and a 1979 Borderies for roundness and the delicacy of the Belle Epoque.
He points out that cognac can be drunk at any time of the day and also with meals. It should not be warmed and it is a mistake to drink it from a balloon glass which allows the flavours to escape, but rather in a tulip-shaped one that concentrates and expands the aromas. Finally, a shiny cognac is an old cognac, which is a good thing. I will also add that the celebrated Parisian patissier Pierre Herme has developed a special chocolate macaroon to complement Cordon Bleu. The combination is utterly delicious. In fact, the French refer to the 4 Cs: Cognac, Chocolate, Cigars, Coffee.
Finally, we are allowed privileged access to the archives, which are not open to the public, which date back to the time of Jean Martell. His handwriting is even there in one of the ledgers – there is something deeply moving about seeing this. Did he realise how strong his legacy would be and that 300 years later, a party would be hosted in his honour at Versailles, no less? A party fit for King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette combined.