Nothing spells luxury quite like Louis XIII, the rarest and most expensive cognac in the world, first created in 1874 by the House of Rémy Martin.
It is the stunning Baccarat crystal decanter that will seduce you at first glance. Individually crafted, mouth-blown and numbered, with a fleur de lys stopper and 20-carat gold adorning the neck, it is undoubtedly, the most gorgeous vessel ever crafted to hold a spirit.
Not just any spirit but a precious blend of up to 1,200 eaux-de vie (raw brandies), aged between 40 and 100 years in Limousin oak barrels, sourced exclusively from the premier cru, soft chalky soils of Cognac’s Grande Champagne vineyards.
So cognac is not only a drink but also a town in South West France. For any spirit to be called cognac, it has to come from around this region, as mandated by French AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) laws. Grande Champagne is considered the best of the six cognac-producing regions of France and is not to be confused with the famous bubbly producing Champagne province of Northern France.
Years of ageing and blending result in the creation of this exquisite elixir. No wonder Louis XIII is called “one century in a bottle”. And since it is blended from grape distillations that are decades old, the role of the cellar master is absolutely crucial in getting that perfect blend, consistent with the signature house style.
It is the job of the cellar master (maître de chai) to choose and set aside, for his successors, the most elegant and complex eaux-de-vie, (literally meaning ‘water of life’ which are actually colourless raw brandies) that will be used by future cellar masters to blend and create Louis XIII.
Thus, in essence, each cellar master has to think a century ahead, and for this reason, his vision and role are vital to the making of this unique cognac.
In its 290-year old history, Rémy Martin has only had five official cellar masters. The current holder of this coveted title and guardian of Louis XIII’s heritage is Baptiste Loiseau, who took over the reigns in April 2014 from Pierette Trichet, the first woman cellar master in the history of Cognac. Baptiste was only 34 years old at that time and he too created history in the cognac business, by becoming the youngest cellar master of the House of Rémy Martin.
I was fortunate to meet Baptiste Loiseau on his recent visit to India and savour the ‘King of Cognac’ the most luxurious spirit in the world, at a tasting organised by Maxime Pulci, Brand Ambassador Louis XIII India and Prarrthona Pal Chowdhury, Country Manager Indian sub-continent Rémy Cointreau.
It was not a regular tasting but an experience of a lifetime and in the words of the cellar master “the ultimate experience of the mastery of time” akin to “riding a wave of time and aromas”. I was curious to hear the backstory of why ‘time’ figures so prominently while talking about this legendary cognac and what justifies its high price. Baptiste was only too happy to answer my queries.
The story begins with Ugni Blanc, the main grape used in cognac. The House of Rémy Martin works only with finest growers who own the best vineyards in the Grande Champagne region in Cognac’s heartland. Grapes are harvested once they reach aromatic maturity, pressed gently and the juice left to ferment for two weeks.
The fragile wine obtained is then double distilled with the ‘lees’, into eaux-de-vie, which go into new oak barrels for a short period, and later into older oak barrels for a long slow ageing, with each different barrel adding a layer of complexity. Some barrels (tierçons) made from Limousin oak are as old as 150 years. They have the perfect tannins and porosity which allows a delicate exchange between the eaux-de-vie and the air inside the cellar. Since each Rémy Martin cellar has its own micro-climate, this interaction between the air, the wood and the eaux-de-view creates the most outstanding flavours and aromas.
While regular cognac is aged for a minimum of 2 years, Louis XIII is aged for a minimum of 40 years and some eaux-de-vie left to mature for up to 100 years. The ageing gives the spirit complexity, concentration and colour.
During the process of maturation, some precious liquid is lost due to evaporation from the casks. This is called ‘angel’s share’. So now when you hear this term, also used in the production of whiskies, you know what it refers to.
According to Baptiste, it is the cellar master who has to oversee the entire process of making cognac, from grapes to glass. About his job he says, “it is an exacting one that begins with making wine good enough to produce top quality cognac, taste testing (often blind to remove objectivity) every batch of eau-de-vie for quality (the nose plays an equally crucial role here) and keeping away the best of the young cognac just produced, to be used in Louis XIII blend in 30, 40 or 50 years”.
“The toughest part of my job while testing the samples, is to tell the growers that their product is not up to the mark”, says Baptiste. Since Remy Martin only grows a small percent of their own grapes, most of the eaux-de-vie is bought from suppliers in the region.
I asked him what exactly he looks for in a sample, to which he answered: “If it has the rich, fruity aromas of pear from the Grande Champagne region, we know it will become a fine blend”.
At the end of the day, it is all about producing excellent cognac, and this link and collaboration with the growers are extremely crucial to the success of the brand.
However, for all his efforts, Baptiste will not see the result of his hard work in his life and get to taste the final product that he started blending. He merely passes it on for a future generation of cellar masters, while at the same time benefiting by the work done by previous cellar masters. Thus each decanter of Louis XIII is “the life achievement of generations of cellar masters” and speaks of “terroir, people and time”.
What does this coveted premium cognac taste like? If I were to describe it in two words, I would say ‘complex’ and ‘layered’. The flavours, that come in waves, are both delicate and intense and reveal layers of fruity, floral, spicy and nutty aromas. Reminiscent of spring, autumn and winter, what you get is dried roses, honeysuckle, jasmine, passion fruit, figs, plums, almonds, candied fruit, ginger, honey and tobacco leaf. It has the most persistent finish, often lasting for hours on the palate.
While the traditional, Louis XIII decanter comes in a 700ml size (750ml only for US market), it is also available in 1.5 litres Magnum, the largest crystal decanter for cognac in the world when it was first created in 1997. Each can set you back by thousands of dollars.
For a privileged few there is Louis XIII Le Jeroboam, four times the capacity of the standard Louis XIII decanter, where the spirit is drawn out with a pipette, a tool used by cellarmasters to draws out the liquid from a cask.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Louis XIII Miniature, that comes in a 50ml bottle, and is available at a fraction of the cost of the traditional 700ml decanter. Both are limited edition collections.
To sum it all up, in the words of brand director Louis XIII Cognac, Ludovic du Plessis, “every decanter is a proactive piece of art that explores the dynamic relationship of the past, the present and the future. Once you realize how much effort has gone into crafting this luxurious spirit, you will never question the price”.
By: Lavina Kharkwal.
This article first appeared in the latest issue Vol 4 – Issue 3 (Feb 2018-April 2018) of The Luxury Collection Magazine.