France – Day 4: Old to New

I rarely let it show in my online persona, but if you're one of our in-store customers and you've talked with me over the past few weeks, you might have noticed my burnout. I've been tired lately. Not just from the hard work and late nights, but also from the standard grind of the marketing machine. I've been finding it more difficult to maintain the same level of enthusiasm I've always approached wine and spirits with – partly because I'm getting older, but also because I'm becoming wiser. There are very few surprises anymore. I've tasted the trophy wines, the must-have bottles, and the legendary casks. They're great, but what really interests me now are the people who make alcohol. I needed this trip because there's nothing like a little time in Gascony to remind me of exactly why I love this job. Armagnac country is the last real place on the planet where you can still find authenticity, quality, value, honesty, and passion in the distilled spirits industry. There are no corporations, no brands, and no global portfolios – just farms, vineyards, fois gras, and great people. 

I absolutely love it here and I couldn't wait for the day's appointments to begin.

Our first stop of the day was to one of the largest and most-renowned wine producers in the Gascogne: Duffour and his Domaine Saint-Lannes. We actually didn't know that Monsieur Duffour had any Armagnac! Charles was just stopping by to taste the new vintage of vin blanc when we noticed some barrels stacked in the corner. 

"He actually has some brandy as well" Charles told us as we swirled our glasses. "We should probably taste them."

Two vintages really stood out: 1985 and 1988. If the price is right (which we think it will be) these might be absolute steals. The 85 was simple, but delicious – loaded with dark cocoa and chocolate with an aromatic nose of baking spices and toasted almonds. The 88 was more of Bourbon-type of brandy with the new oak playing more of a role in the lighter-fruited palate. We think these are two definite possibilities.

Our first real appointment of the day was a very important one. We were meeting with Pierre Laberdolive – perhaps the most-respected Armagnac producer in the region. The brandies of Domaine de Jaurrey have been imported to the United States in the past, but we learned they had just recently lost their representation. They are expensive and production is small, which makes them difficult to sell – even with their esteem. If there were a whiskey analogy, think Pappy Van Winkle in terms of pricing, availability, reputation, and quality. In terms of flavor, you might also want to keep the Van Winkle comparison in the back of your mind. After tasting the 1988 vintage around the table of Laberdolive's living room, I think you could fool many a Pappy 20 drinker into thinking this Armagnac was old Stitzel-Weller juice. The finish was magnificant – a five minute linger that left clove, pepper, wood spice, and vanilla coating my palate. I had never before tasted anything from Domaine de Jaurrey, but it was clear upon the first sip why they enjoyed a reputation for greatness.

We sampled a number of amazing spirits at Laberdolive – both from bottle and from cask. There are a few possible K&L selections in the works depending on their cost. Ultimately, we want value for our customers, but we also want benchmarks. To me, these might be the best Armagnacs I've ever tasted as a portfolio. Even if they're pricey, I'd like to have them for the diehards who want to experience this level of quality. Pierre doesn't talk cepage either, which is interesting. He won't tell you which varietals are in each expression. He only believes in great vintages, not great grapes.

We swung by Domaine d'Ognoas for a refresher, meeting up with some familiar faces at the estate. We've had great success with the 1973 and 2000 vintages, but we wanted to possibly put together a marriage of various casks that would offer a more streamlined selection for entry-level-minded customers. I think we found a winner. We worked out an XO blend that should clock in around $49.99 on the shelf. For fans of simple, straight-forward, rich and tasty Armagnac, this one's for you.

And, of course, how could we not stop by Baraillon and see our old friends: the Claverie family. They're always waiting for us with a table full of samples and a plate full of bread with meat on it.

Laurence was at the helm, per the usual, and I think this visit was our best yet. We've been monitoring the maturation of a few casks in their warehouse and we're really happy with their development. We'll likely be taking an entire barrel of 1974 and 1984 vintages, along with some new 100% folle blanche expressions and a 20 year old assemblage. I absolutely adore the Claveries. They're so down-to-earth and humble about their craft. Baraillon Armagnac is one of the most honest and authentic spirits in the world, in my opinion. It's so rustic and emblematic of who these people are. Kyle was overcome with emotion when we left.

We stopped at a few other properties along the way back to Montreal and met more lovely folks who populate the countryside of Gascony. We're off to dinner now (at 9:30 PM) and we'll probably eat until 2 AM. It's a different way of life here in Armagnac country and that's what I love about it. I can't say that I could ever make two pounds of duck fat, four bottles of wine, and a few slugs of Armagnac part of my daily routine, but I enjoy the opportunity to partake in it once a year. And I enjoy the people. Even with the language barrier between us, I still clearly understand what they're about, and ultimately that's what I wish we could bottle up and ship back home.

Not so much the booze, but the character of the people who make it. This is truly a magical place. I'm fired up.

-David Driscoll


France – Day 3: Across the Heart

Today was a travel day – we drove twelve hours from the south of Burgundy, through a few wine producing regions, and eventually to the far southwest and the town of Montreal. We're posted up at our usual spot and the village is lively with post-rugby fever. We've had a few beers, a few bottles of wine, and a few pieces of fois gras. 

Tomorrow it's time to get real. 

-David Driscoll


France – Day 2: Booze les Beaune

Just outside the town of Beaune – the spiritual capital of Burgundy – is the sleepy hamlet of Bouze-les-Beaune: a collection of old stone dwellings that looks much like every other small village in the area. As you make your way there, through the well-known communes of Pernand-Vergelesses and Aloxe-Corton, you see signs pointing the direction to every producer in the area. Burgundy is one of the most highly-regarded wine regions in the world, if not the most. Yet, amidst the rolling hills of chardonnay and pinot noir vines sits one of the most unsuspecting collections of Scottish single malt in existence; a veritable treasure trove of mature whisky aging in top-quality sherry casks. 

Not many Americans have heard of Michel Couvreur, and even fewer know that he passed away last year after more than five decades of whisky production. Within the booze business, however, he's a bit of a legend. A Belgian-born wine lover who moved to Burgundy for the wine trade, yet vacationed in Scotland where he developed a taste for sherry-aged single malt. Believing he could possibly improve upon the quality of his beloved whiskies, he built an expansive cellar beneath his house and travelled through Jerez in search of the finest old sherry butts. He then contracted new-make spirit from his favorite Scottish distilleries and aged the whisky in his own private cave.

Again, there are no signs pointing the way to Michel Couvreur's facility and there are no signs posted upon it when you finally locate it. This is by design. They do not want to be found. With the demand for whisky what it is today and the tourist trade that has developed behind it, the small staff doesn't have the ability to serve as a public relations department. Getting an appointment isn't easy either. There is a series of screening processes guarding that path. Nevertheless, we made a special effort to connect with their cellar master, and an even greater effort (our own version of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles) to get to their cellar. It's a destination we've had great interest in for some time.

Jean-Arnaud Frantzen has been working at Michel Couvreur for sixteen years and he couldn't be happier. He adores single malt whisky and its potential for greatness when you have respect for its process. He's carried on in Michel's absence and continues to build relationships in Spain where he travels frequently in search of the finest barrels. Unlike Scottish producers, he drives the butts back himself so that they are as fresh as possible, thereby eliminating the need for sulfur and inoculation. Couvreur has always been just as interested in the sherry itself, rather than just the whisky that was aged inside its former receptacle. 

"Every wine has its own story and each cask is different," Jean-Arnaud said. "We prefer to only use old casks, in which the sherry has sat for thirty to forty years."

Because of the Scotch Whisky Association's strict rules about single malt classification and labelling, Couvreur has always had a difficult time calling itself what it is: Scottish single malt whisky (or sometimes blended single malt whisky) aged in France. Today, many of the labels simply say "malt whisky" without any other designation. While the industry has sought to protect itself (and consumers) from imitators and frauds looking to capitalize on Scotch whisky's reputation, Couvreur is not a threat. In fact, his whiskies are so good and so innovative that they serve as inspiration for many of Scotland's best producers. Because the cellar is located in the heart of French wine country, Jean-Arnaud and his team treat whisky like French wine – they're looking for nuance and delicacy, not big alcohol and power.

Part of what allows them to achieve this nuance is the condition of their cellar, which is just beyond this unassuming door and down the steps.

Most people, when they think of a wine cellar, imagine a small room under the home where wine is stored that's no bigger than the square foot area of the house itself. Couvreur's cellar is not such a cellar, however. It's built into the side of a mountain and is absolutely gigantic (and full of aging whisky stocks). Imagine one sixty by sixty foot room, and then a hallway leading to another, and another, and another. The conditions are moist, the floors wet with pools of cave secretions, and the temperature is constant. The whisky ages very slowly, but certain parts of the cellar are dryer and warmer, creating the potential for different speeds of maturation. Casks are frequently moved from one part of the cave to another because of this.

There's a lot more to tell you about what we tasted, what we saw, and what we're planning, but that will have to wait until later. There's not enough time at the moment and we're not ready to devulge all our surprises yet.

And if you thought we were coming all the way to Burgundy just to drink whisky, you're crazy. With the rest of the afternoon off we went and got some food, a few bottles, and set out for a roaming picnic through the best Grand Cru vineyard sites. We spent the evening with a producer in Beaujolais and ate Beef Bourgignon with about ten different bottles of gamay.

What a day.

-David Driscoll


France – Day 2: Underground Whisky

There's a lot to talk about from today's events, but right now I've got neither the time nor the bandwidth. Let's just say that we didn't come to France for just brandy. And let's just say that those barrels in this gigantic underground cave aren't full of Cognac.

More soon.

-David Driscoll


France – Day 1: L'Artist de Route

First we boarded the plane, still rubbing the sleep from our eyes, moving down the steps of the terminal into what was not a plane, but rather a bus that would take us to the aircraft. In we packed ourselves, like cattle, unwittingly standing in the cold morning air as it whipped across the Edinburgh runway. We waited for a solid ten minutes before the wrangler closed the gate, and sent his herd moving towards the slaughter – us unable to object to our fate.

We stepped into the strangely-shaped CityJet – wings spanning over the top of the fuselage like a T with the cabin hanging underneath it. We sat. We sat some more. We sat until it was clear we would not be leaving for Paris that morning. Mechanical failures abound.

We disembarked. We again boarded the cattle bus. We returned to the terminal chairs in which we had earlier sat. We were tired, maybe frustrated, but not disheartened. Another bizarrely-structured CityJet would be landing shortly and whisk us away to the City of Light. What was another three hours?

Except for the train connection. Dammit! We would miss our reservation from Gard de Lyon to Dijon and leave Charles Neal dangling. Could we make the next one – the last to arrive at a reasonable hour?

We landed in Paris at 2 PM. This would give us enough time to catch the final express, so long as everything fell into perfect order. But when does that ever happen? Especially in France?

We were first off the plane, the first ones through customs, and our bags were first off of the luggage dispenser. These were all important strokes of luck that could not be overlooked. But we still needed to get from CDG into downtown with a bit of Friday afternoon traffic standing between us. Was it possible? Could someone drive us from the airport to the train station in time for our departure?

We approached the taxi stand, but it was surprisingly vacant. Construction at the terminal had thrown everything into disarray, leading to all types of misplaced services and attendants. 

"Taxi, monsieur?" asked a man leaning against the wall, looking at his phone. His eyes dazzled behind his dark features and unshaven face. He was young, mysterious, and he seemed to come out of nowhere.

"Oui," David OG replied. "We're in a hurry. We need to get to Gard de Lyon as soon as possible," he explained in flawless French. "Can you take us?"

"Of course," the man replied, "but we need to hurry so I can get back before the real traffic hits."

It wasn't until we loaded our trunks and fastened our seat belts that we realized we were not in the car with a true taxi driver. 

"You want how much?" David OG exclaimed after asking about the fare. "That's ridiculous."

 But the man softly insisted, explaining that he was not much more expensive than the standard courier. 

"What can we really do?" I said to David from the backseat. "We're already on our way."

The best things in life are rarely free, nor are they cheap, and we soon discovered we weren't simply being taken by a rogue chauffeur skimming customers from the queue. We were in the car with an artist of the automobile – a magician of the road who could maneuver through traffic like a cat traversing the ledge of a building. It was unreal, magical even, and awe-inspiring. Once we had agreed to pay the incredibly high tariff, our driver – l'artiste du route – relaxed his back, composed himself, and began a dance through the Parisian highway that I will never forget.

He weaved in between trucks and trailers like a seamstress leaving perfect stitches in his wake. He shaved the corners of fenders and breezed the back of bumpers as if he knew the precise measurement of each vehicle by heart. Never did l'artiste break a sweat and never did he question his decisions. Each movement was more than an act of faith. Every turn was taken with certainty and never did we fear for our safety or experience any sense of discomfort. Just when I thought he couldn't outdo himself, he would raise the bar, leaving any hope of crescendo to languish further.

"NO!" I screamed from the back, a smile on my face, daring to believe in his abilities.

"Yes," he answered back silently, squeezing himself into a narrow nook or cranny, sending my exhilaration into a frenzy.

When we pulled up to the station, not only were we on schedule for the train, we had extra time to spare (which we spent drinking a beer).

"You see," he told me in English as he handed me my suitcase from the back, "it was expensive, but you are here when you needed to be."

"It was worth every penny," I gushed, barely able to contain my emotion. "You're not a driver. You're an artist – seriously. I've never seen anyone drive like that. Being in the car with you is like watching a master painter create with a canvas. You're incredible."

He smiled politely and waved goodbye. And we made our train.

-David Driscoll