The True Spirit of France

When you're trying to develop a niche category like grower/producer Cognac or rustic, artisinal Calvados, you start by doing the obvious. You bring in really good stuff that any lover of booze can get behind and you open minds to new possibilities. It's like any indoctrination, really. If you're giving your four year old cheese for the first time, maybe you start with American or a mild cheddar before trying their taste buds with bleu or Camembert. If you're trying to get your friends into Scorsese, I think you start with Goodfellas or Casino before testing their dedication with Mean Streets or Raging Bull. Likewise, if I'm introducing a customer to Cognac I'm not going to begin with something dry or earthy. I'm going to pick the creamiest, roundest, softest, most mouthcoating selection I have. Once I get their attention and their curiosity, however, I'll move on to a more complex option. After five years of traveling to France and bringing in a number of interesting, yet fairly safe brandy selections, I'd like to start pushing the envelope a bit. I'd like to start showcasing a few classically-tailored French spirits that cater more to the experienced palate, rather than the beginner. You see that heavily chalky earth on the left side of the above photo? That's what the Grande Champagne Cognac soil looks like in Dudognon's ugni blanc vineyards. It's the same chalky soil that makes Sancerre, Chablis, and Champagne so piercingly dry and mineral in style. It actually does the same for Grande Champagne Cognac, but you'd never know it because by the time the Cognac gets to your mouth it's been heavily sweetened, colored, and adulterated. What would it taste like if it were allowed to keep its original character in tact, you ask? You're about to find out.

I spent a good amount of time talking about the inherent flavor of fine Cognac with Pierre Buraud, the newest generation to distill at Dudognon along side his mother and father. The brandies from his family's estate have never been the most obvious spirits. They're not the most rich, nor the fullest on the palate. They're not oaky or spicy, or overtly fruity and expressive. What they are, however, is delicate, nuanced, and graceful. They're focused and clean. They express a sense of place and the character of the soil in which the grapes are grown. But what they are not, in any sense of the word, is sweet. There's no supple vanilla or caramel coating your palate and it's a glorious thing. Much like Americans drinkers have spent the last five years getting over their sweet tooth as it pertains to cocktails, I think it's about time we do the same with Cognac. On my last trip to Dudognon I put together a blend with Pierre after tasting a number of different single casks in his family's warehouse. We found one particularly mineral-driven ugni blanc distillate and another brandy made from a grape called montils, which I believe—like folle blanche—is legal to use in the region if planted before the region's insistence that ugni blanc be the official grape of Cognac. On their own they were quite striking, but when blended together they exuded a lovely balance of pure Grande Champagne chalk with just enough fruit to round out the edges. I thought it was fabulous, as did Pierre. But was it too much too soon? Was giving drinkers a taste of what "real" Cognac tasted like going to completely shatter their reality? I was nervous. Almost a year later, I wasn't completely at ease until just a few hours ago when my colleague Gary Westby took a sip and said, "Wow, that's really good." 

This is Jean-François Guillouet, the man who's running the show today at Michel Huard. I'm a big fan of his brandies, especially the blend that my friend Charles Neal has been importing for the last few years. While the Hors de Ages edition that's available at most fine retailers exhibits plenty of fresh apple and sweet fruit, I've found that most Calvados I've tasted abroad tends to be drier and earthier in style. You often get more of the apple skins than the juicy apple itself. I'm not sure how many of you saw or heard this story about heirloom apples on NPR this past week, but it's pretty much the same idea: our selection here in America has been dictated by what's marketable. The farmer they speak with talks about how both he and his pigs no longer eat Honeycrisp apples. "They just have gotten used to more complex flavors," he jokes. "They're interested at first, but then, you know, I can tell in their eyes that they're looking for something more." That's the same way I feel about Calvados. While we're used to sweet apples here in the states, the apples in Normandy are old heirloom varieties that create ciders and brandies with a symphony of flavors rather than just a one-note solo act. That's the way Jean-François likes his Calvados to taste—symphonic—but he's been drinking the stuff since he could walk. He has an experienced palate. Could an unseasoned American palate appreciate the more subtle nuances with the same level of appreciation? We set out to make a blend worthy of both the old world and the new. I let Jean-François lead the way. 

Here's a rare photo of me from the road. Since I'm always the one with the camera, I'm never in the photos. My buddy Michael Housewright had his Canon on hand for the blending sessions, however, and snapped this quick shot of me taking out an insect from close range. You have to do a lot of spitting when you're working out the intricacies of a Calvados blend. I wanted the nose of our "Vieux" edition to invite you in, but the palate to challenge you a bit with more than just sweet apple and oak. I wanted the bitter notes from the skins, the earthy pomace, and the musty notes from the cider to come through. In France, these are considered positive characteristics in a spirit. In America, however, not so much. The question is: can we start to introduce these elements on a level that brings them into focus without bashing people over the head with it? I think we've done it here with his marriage of 7 and 17 year old apple brandies. It won't be for everyone though. If you love the freshness of Camut or the clean and vibrant apple of the Hubert edition we also import, this Huard edition might startle you a bit. It's more about the secondary flavors than the fruit. It's a French Calvados reminiscent of my most memorable experiences in Normandy, a jus du pays edition so to speak, not the more fruit-friendly editions we usually bring home. I hope it ends up being something memorable for you as well.

If you want that sweet, rich, round, and deliciously straight-forward flavor then—never fear!—I've still got you covered. This 15 year old Calvados from Domaine Pacory is distilled 100% from pears! I don't really need to elaborate on this one. It tastes exactly like it sounds. I figured not everyone would want to move outside their comfort zone this time around. I can't imagine anyone not liking this.

So now they're here and now you know what's what. Take a look at the descriptions below and grab what sounds good to you!

Dudognon "K&L Exclusive Cuvee" Napoleon II Cognac $49.99 - What we see in the U.S. of Cognac is a dark and supple sipping spirit, but what we don't always understand is that almost all of these brandies have been artificially sweetened & colored. That richness of caramel and oak isn't something that's inherent in most Cognacs, not unless they've been aged for thirty years or more. When we visit small producers who actually grow their own grapes and distill in micro-batches, we get the chance to taste unadulterated brandies of incredible finesse and beauty before they've been shipped off to negociant houses who add their artificial magic. Perhaps the best of these producers is Dudognon, a family run operation in the Grand Champagne region who is not only the best distiller in Cognac in our opinion, but also the purest. This Napoleon II K&L blend we put together is a blend of two different brandies: one distilled from the standard ugni blanc, the other from a local grape called montils, a rarity in the region. The goal was not to showcase weight, texture, or richness, but rather the incredible grace and beauty imparted into the distilled wines by the chalky soil. There's a minerality at play upon the first sip, like a splash of fine Chablis. There's a delicacy of fruit & a subtle hint of oak & spice, but there's a clear chalky and stony note until late on the finish when warm baking spices flicker faintly and gently. This is real Cognac. It's elegant, yet is has drive. It's Cognac for Armagnac drinkers. Are you ready for it, however?

Michel Huard "K&L Exclusive Cuvee" Vieux Calvados $52.99 - When you look at what we've imported from Calvados over the last few years, be it Camut or Hubert, you'll notice a thread that runs through all of these expressions: they each taste like a juicy apple. Yet when you travel to Normandy and you taste the huge variety of different apple ciders and brandies, many of them are not so juicy. There are some that taste like brown apple, some that taste like an earthy apple, and many that taste like the skin of an apple. Knowing that the sweetest apple flavors are the most accessible, we've generally gone down that route. With this K&L exclusive blend from Michel Huard, however, we've decided to branch out from the easily marketable. A mix of 7 and 17 year brandies, this is the first Calvados we've imported that focuses more on the apple skin, the peel, the earth, and the complexities underneath the fruit. The nose is entirely contradictory, however. The brandy smells of delicious, juicy, pure apple flavor. The first sip is where the contrast makes itself known. Gone are the sweet apple notes, replaced by unmistakable flavors of bitter apple skin and earthy cider. You can almost taste yourself in a wet orchard just after the rain falls. In a sense, that's where we were when we put together this blend. The December weather was cold, the ground was wet and earthy, and this Calvados was just what we needed to fend off the piercing Norman air. This Vieux is a testament to that day and those influences.

Domaine Pacory 15 Year Old "K&L Exclusive" Domfrontais Calvados $59.99 - This is going to be one of the most crowdpleasing spirits we've ever brought in from France: a fifteen year old single barrel exclusive of 100% pear-distilled Calvados from our newest small producer Domaine Pacory. In the Domfrontais region of Normandy, the brandies are generally 60% pear or more. We figured there must be a few people distilling from nothing but pears, so we asked Frédéric if that was the case. He said somewhere in his small shed of casks were indeed a few pear-only distillates. Located on the ferme des Grimaux, the Pacory property has been in the family since 1939, but it wasn't until 1959 that Frédéric's father Claude decided to try and perfect the art of Calvados distillation. The torch was passed to Frédéric in 1986 and he's been carrying the tradition forward ever since. Pacory's orchards are 100% hautes tiges, meaning the trees are higher and older in age (as opposed to bas-tiges orchards that look more like grape vineyards with their tiny trees in vertical rows). The result is a more concentrated fruit that takes longer to grow, but it's worth it. This 15 year old is a sure-fire winner for any lover of fruit spirits. It's equal parts fruit and oak, neither outshining the efforts of the other. The pear flavor also comes to the forefront right off the bat; ripe juicy pears that meld seamlessly with the richness of the wood. You shouldn't be asking us whether you should buy one at this point; you'll be asking us if we can get more once you taste it.

We also have a bit more of the cask strength Pacory from last time around if you enjoyed that!

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll