If at all possible, everyone should spend a few nights of their life in a French château with a pebbled drive, a sweeping staircase and a rustic kitchen inclusive of a fridge stuffed with cheese. Some bottles of honest country red are mandatory as well. Bonus points for any wild lavender growing by the front door.
Coming from London you can almost feel your BPM dropping as the promise of good food, wine and a bracing digestive turn into a picturesque reality. For me, it’s always the first sight of the gnarled vines – whether stark against a winter backdrop or laden with dense summer foliage and clusters of grapes – that announces I can start to relax.
The beauty about visiting these stunning areas, apart from the fact you inevitably end up in a charming château, is that everything is so perfectly traditional. Menus in the local bistros and restaurants barely change, the same faces greet you at each turn and the wine and spirits being made all around you have been harvested, fermented and distilled each year in this same specific way for generations. You can visibly see the continuity and steady pace of life in the very soil of the vineyards. Which is perhaps why the sight of French vines restores some of the inner tranquillity London snatches away.
Vines in Cognac
Locals are fiercely proud of this history and tradition. When it comes to making cognac, armagnac, wine and even the local specialities such as floc de gascogne and pineau des charentes, the concept of ‘know-how’ is intrinsic to the area. These are a people who have seemingly always known the secrets of their soil, their vines and their stills. Master distillers and blenders talk about know-how as they talk about terrior, so much so that there are very tight restrictions around making brandy in its two most famous appellations – Cognac and Armagnac – and in all areas of appellation throughout the country. This is way France makes its spirits, the way it has been making them for years and the way it will continue to do so.
Except of course there’s always going to be a few black sheep, who, within this traditional world, are quietly innovating away. And what is life without a few mischievous souls along the way?
It makes perfect sense of course – if you’re going to make a spirit, why not make it in a region where distilling is in the blood. So while my last trip to Cognac featured a night in the quietly elegant Château de Rohâteauissac, which had been restored by hand, I wasn’t there to admire the grapes, or any by-product of them. Instead it was straight to the home of Miko Abouaf, resembling something of a modern laboratory meets rustic country library in the sleepy town of Gensac. It was here Miko perfected the recipe for Sauvelle vodka, a spirit made from soft winter wheat which is oak-smoothed through chêne du Limousin.
A glass of Sauvelle smacks of its origins. That specific oak – chêne du Limousin – used to smooth this delightful vodka is also exclusively used in aging cognac, meaning those delicate vanilla and caramel notes are found across both spirits. Its water comes from Miko’s town and it certainly goes down a treat served long with tonic, basking in the late afternoon Cognac sunshine.
Yet inside its designer black bottle with gold detailing Sauvelle fits into the international cocktail and bar scene perfectly, shaking off its country ways to resemble a sleek city spirit. It might have the country-crafted credentials but Sauvelle is out to play with the big boys from London’s top destinations to Ibiza’s thriving nightlife.
Miko – who is also the creator behind Pink Pepper gin – is himself a fascinating character and an absolute juxtaposition who exists in the heart of a Cognac, surrounded by tumbling houses and cold stone warehouses where old wooden barrels mellow the regions famed spirit, all the while inventing spirits, testing brand new flavour profiles and completely thinking outside of the box – Cognac’s AOC box to be precise. Even Sauvelle’s owners, French-born Antoine Gravouil and Olivier Carsoul, don’t exist within this traditional world. After all it takes a certain type of person to dream up a flashy vodka while looking over the vineyards of Gensac.
However Miko, Antoine and Olivier weren’t the first men in Cognac to think of harnessing the regions ‘know-how’ and turning it into an exiting new spirit. That honour goes to Alexandre Gabriel, already a master distiller and blender of cognac, who decided to create a gin using the same naked-flame pot stills that cognac does.
“Cognac only distils for six months of the year and must be finished by March 31st,” explains Alexandre. “so the amazing, traditional pot stills are just siting there and I though beautiful – why not use these to make gin.”
Alexandre’s expedition into the world of juniper spirits was well before the craft gin craze had kicked off so his step was bold to say the least. Cognac’s AOC certainly thought so too – tasked with protecting the appellation and keeping the spirit’s reputation they were initially reluctant to let Alexandre distil his Citadelle gin. Patience paid off however and today Citadelle is the only spirit made using cognac stills in their rest period.
“At the time I was looked at like a crazy guy. Now it seems so obvious to use our know-how to make other spirits. For me, one is like playing a classical instrument and the other is like jamming with your friends. I love distilling and aging but as my mother, who was an artist, said you can be modern and go crazy and throw paint at the wall but you’ll be better at it if you know how to paint and draw well.”
François Thibault, an ex-cognac maîte de chai, is an excellent example of someone who knew how to paint before they starting splashing it about on walls. And if his name doesn’t ring a bell then his world famous vodka certainly should.
Le Logis - home of Grey Goose in Cognac, surrounded by vineyards
Grey Goose, which launched in 1997, is an early example of a spirit ahead of its times in the Cognac region, and just because it’s now know across the world doesn’t mean it had an easy start. In fact François caused quite the stir when he announced vodka would be his next passion. However, no doubt the locals have rethought their initial doubts now that Grey Goose is such a success it has brought even more fame and jobs to the area.
Understanding the depth of knowledge in AOC controlled areas has certainly produced, and is still producing, some exceptional and exciting spirits of which players like Sauvelle and Citadelle are at the forefront. They have the luxury of existing outside the rules and regulations of every other producer while still hailing from an area that is essentially distilling royalty.
Across the rest of the country other exciting projects are coming to fruition as well, not least Vulson Rye which is aging to be an excellent French rye whiskey made close to the Swiss border. In the capital Le Syndicat is one of the most popular cocktail bars using only French spirits and liqueurs, a concept not many other countries could facilitate. France may be steeped in distilling history (and littered with charming châteaux) but it is taking bold steps into the modern spirit world, launching itself off the back of its own traditional and in-depth understanding – to which we can only applaud.