H. Mounier and Hardy with Cellar Master Mickaël Bouilly, Cognac
Words: Kirsten Durward Photos: Monica Tindall
We’ve been promised a visit to ‘Paradise’ to meet some of the oldest eaux-de-vie in existence, but first we are shown around the production plant and required to taste it at each stage of development. Oh the travails I must suffer in the search for understanding!
As we follow around the dynamic and energetic Mickaël Bouilly (Cellar Master for the H. Mounier Group), he expands passionately on the history and techniques of Cognac making. He tells us he is ‘not reinventing the job but doing what the ancient did. It is necessary the place, the money and the time also the right ingredients.’ Unusually for the Cognac area, the H. Mounier Group works as a co-operative together with a large number of grape farmers, around the region. The eau-de-vie comes directly from the wine growers, which the Cognac makers find gives more control over the quality of the produce. We learn of the different grape growing areas, of which the two most important are Grand Champagne and Petit Champagne. So called because the soil is the same composition as the famed Champagne region of France. The grapes are pressed and then distilled to create an eau-de-vie or ‘water of life.’
We taste a fresh eau-de-vie with trepidation, fearing its 69 proof strength. It is surprisingly pleasant, but then I did only manage the tiniest of sips. At the beginning of the Cognac making process the cellar master tastes the various eaux-de-vie and decides whether it is destined for a VSOP or XO Cognac, which brand taste profile the senses dictate. However, as we will discover, this decision can be reversed as the taste notes develop during the maturation process. We are encouraged to sniff some barrels and detect some vanilla coffee notes in the wood that is destined to flavour a toasty VSOP. Creating a great Cognac is definitely a work of the senses.
Before being placed in the barrel each eau-de-vie is reduced to 55 proof with the addition of distilled water. As different barrels produce different tastes, the process requires a lot of checking and the eau-de-vie may change barrel several times during the process. We taste a sip after six months of aging and even our untrained palates can already catch a the smokier flavour deepening in the liquor. Mickaël expands at length on the importance of the ‘marriage’ between the eau-de-vie and the wood in the process of Cognac making. After one year of maturation the eau-de-vie is reduced again to 47 proof. The liquors are tasted constantly by the cellar master and his apprentices and at around two years of ageing the final destination of the eau-de-vie is decided: will it be more suitable to a Polignac XO or a Hardy VSOP or designated for something more special and long lasting? We are told that Polignac is more structured with dense spices and a longer lasting hold, while Hardy is softer and round, with a more approachable taste.
The vast cellars are cool and host thousands of bottles, each carefully racked and marked according to date, time intention, type of barrel and more. It is clearly a very intensive and skillful process, which requires lots of monitoring and tasting. One year before the expected maturity time another reduction is made to 43 proof and the quality again is checked. Our tasting from a barrel at this point showed a huge development from the earlier eaux-de-vie. There is still one final reduction to be made before stabilization, and this takes the liquor to the regulation 40 proof required for bottling.
Having trekked around the vast premises, and listened to the complex processes, we now embark on the most historic, and to us, the most exciting part of the day. Winding down stairs to the small underground cellar known as Paradise, we are eager to sip the treasures encased in these ancient barrels and demijohns. Mickaël goes ‘fishing’ in the barrel with a slender tube on the end of a wire, bringing us just a sip of a 1956 Hardy style eau-de-vie. We are already at 60 years ago! This is pure pleasure, as we taste distinct orange notes and smoky undertones in this unblended liquor. The ancient eaux-de-vie in this cellar are used for blending some of the groups most prestigious and exclusive Cognacs. It’s back in time again to 1904 as we taste a second special Cognac, and our enthusiastic hosts expand on the region and the importance of the Charente River. Meanwhile our minds are boggling at the thought of drinking a 110 year old product, and I muse on the people who toiled away creating and laying down a product that would be consumed so long after their time.
Monica is quivering with excitement as our last taste approaches, as this is the oldest eau-de-vie in the cellar, and it is served from a basket-encased demijohn: 1854! It is something to be savoured, even if we have to agree with our experts that the tastes lose their complexity somewhat after 50 years. This is why a 50 year old blend contains a mix of older and younger eau-de-vie, averaging out the vintages to give the bottle age as this gives a greater resonance of flavour.
We’ve been entranced by Paradise and by the dynamism of our cellar master. We think he liked us too as we left with a very prized gift, a hand filled bottle of the 1914 ‘Cognac du Femmes’ the one made by women at the beginning of WW1: a piece of history then, for us to hold dear in times to come and look back on our time of discovery in Cognac. As with some of our other exploration, this visit is only available for industry experts, important clients and journalists, so we are extremely grateful to have this experience to share with you. With thanks to Mickaël for the gift and the experience, and to Gontran Bosteaux of H. Mounier and Hardy Cognac for arranging everything.
Reasons to try the Cognac: company commitment to excellence; resonant flavours and high quality products; Polignac for structure and tradition; Hardy for roundness and approachability.