“We really are in the heart of the Grande Champagne,” says Rémy Martin cellarmaster Baptiste Loiseau, moving on the calcareous soil and hills at 2,000 feet. “This is where people prune the vines from the morning until the end of the day.
We float in a hot-air balloon over the Cognac region in France, which is covered with vineyards and where 95 percent of the grapes grown are used to produce brandy. Most of the people who work in this area – including our balloon captain – are involved in some aspect of cognac production or belong to the Alliance Fine Champagne, a cooperative of 900 winegrowers that has been supplying a selection of eaux-de-vie to Rémy Martin, one of the great cognac cornucopias, for over 50 years.
Cognac, in western France, about three hours by train from Paris, began distilling the eau-de-vie of the same name as early as the 17th century, but is ahead of its time in vineyard technology. Last year, scientists worked with Rémy Martin on a robot that looks after the vineyards – a first for the region. Ted, the Naïo Technologies agricultural robot, is in test mode in mechanical weeding under the row and pruning, without the use of chemical weedkillers. Because Ted roams the vines and sends real-time data back to the team at Naïo, Rémy Martin can respond to environmental problems such as hail or frost and act accordingly.
This is only phase one of the plan. This year’s harvest produced the first batch of disease-resistant grapes ready for distillation. This is part of an experiment to develop a new grape variety that can resist two of the most damaging diseases of the vines – pilloxera and mold. Rémy Martin hopes to expand the new grape variety from his one-hectare vineyard to larger plots throughout the Cognac region – if he succeeds.
“Everything begins in the vineyards” is a sentence that is often overturned in the world of wine. Unlike a single winery, which can control the production process from planting and harvesting to winemaking, Cognac relies on the brandy samples received from the winemaking partners.
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In 2012, Rémy Martin’s domains were the first in the Charente region (and the sixth in France) to receive the Ministry of Agriculture certification for “high environmental value”, the highest level that farms can obtain. By 2022, they plan to have 50 percent of their vineyards PDO-certified (compared to 33 percent in 2018).
“The advantage of this certificate is that it is valid worldwide. It shows a special attachment to the terroir, to the land,” says fifth generation distiller (and the first vigneronne in her family) Florence Guelin, who received PDO certification in 2017. “I am like a link in the chain [that links the work]of people before and after me,” says Florence Guelin, who received PDO certification in 2017.
It is the end of January, and we are in the middle of the distillation season for cognac, which lasts from the end of the harvest – around mid-October – until March 31. We are having lunch at the distillery of Christophe Forget, Vice-President of the Bureau national interprofessionnel du cognac, the decision-making body of the cognac industry, representing over 4,000 winegrowers and 117 professional distillers.
From time to time, Forget checks the copper kettle stills behind my seat with the same care as a father watching his child play on the farm to make sure the temperature is right and each batch bubbles up smoothly. “It’s difficult to make this product, to grow vines,” says Amélie Guionnet, the fourth-generation manager of Alliance Fine Champagne and Vigneronne, who manages Vignobles with her sister Bernard Guionnet. “The terroir is the origin of our product, and responsibility [in the vineyards]is part of our work,” says Amélie Guionnet.
These young winegrowers, i.e. women who look after the vines, are helping to herald a new era in cognac viticulture, in which the aim is to protect the terroir while limiting the impact on the environment. More than 80% of Rémy Martin’s vineyard area is already being cultivated in an environmentally friendly way, but next year the Maison intends to make 100% of it.
More than 1,000 vineyards throughout the country are now PDO-certified, including 251 in the Champagne Cognac region. The hope is that “mechanical intervention