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Copyright © 2012
Forkmedia LLC



by Fred McMillin
for May 3, 2001

 

Still Born

 

Prologue

You can take the boy out of Cognac,
But you can't take Cognac out of the boy.

 

The Rest of the Story

Hubert Germain-Robin 
You could say that Hubert Germain-Robin (pictured) was born with a copper still in his mouth (in 1951). His ancestor, Jules Robin, fired up his copper still in 1782, and the family had produced fine Cognac ever since. Furthermore, his boyhood friend, Richard Braastad, also was from a Cognac family; they owned a handsome, 19th-century stone distillery named Maison Surrenne. (Remember the name.) But, we're getting ahead of our story. What's Cognac?

Cognac is the world's most treasured brandy. Let's see what the world's most treasured gastronome, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, had to say in 1825 about brandy's origins. "Wine was drunk for centuries before it was suspected that the spirit in it could be extracted; but the Arabs taught us the art of distilling, which they had invented to concentrate the odor of flowers. Then, we began to think it would be possible to uncover the cause of the special excitement in wine. One hesitant trial after another led to the development of brandy." So, we make brandy by boiling wine and collecting the best part of the vapors. Now how did the great brandy, Cognac, get started?

 

Dutch Merchants

Maison SurrenneA little north of Bordeaux, the Charente River (shah-rant) flows west to the Atlantic. Five centuries ago merchants would arrive in sailing ships to buy salt. But farther up the river were the winemaking towns of Jarnac and Cognac. Hence, the merchants picked up some wine, too. In order to conserve space, it was the Dutch who convinced the vintners to remove much of the water by distillation. The plan was to add water to the concentrate back in Holland. But, the "burnt wine" or "brandy" was so good, a market soon developed. The London Gazette first mentioned "cogniacke brandy" in 1678.

Now, Cognac as we know it today wasn't produced until the 19th century, when...

  • The practice of aging Cognac in French oak began.
  • Selling Cognac in bottles was started.
  • And a handsome stone distillery was built at Jarnac, Maison Surrenne.
  • Richard Braastad's family would purchase it in 1910.
  • The Jules Robin firm is 100 years old in 1882.

Now, let's fast-forward a century to see what Hubert Germain-Robin is doing.

 

Taking The Boy Out of Cognac

Twenty years ago Hubert left Cognac! The family firm had been sold to the Cognac giant, Martell. Consequently, he came to California, where he and Professor Ansley Coale (U.C.-Berkeley) set up shop on the Coale Mendocino ranch. They brought over an old Cognac still and in just six years Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan would be sipping their brandy at a White House state dinner.

 

But You Can't Take Cognac Out of The Boy

However, the Mendocino team was not content with just making the best brandy in the Western Hemisphere. Hubert knew Richard Braastad owned a breathtaking array of aged Cognacs, and so they decided to import some under the name Maison Surrenne. Hubert is again selling Cognac!


Try These Two

The top Cognac districts employ the word "Champagne." Why? The late Alexis Lichine explained. "The word 'Champagne' refers to a region with chalky soil." The more chalk, the better the Cognac. Thus, the premier Cognac zone is the Grande Champagne. It includes the city of Cognac. The second highest zone is called Petite Champagne, with a less chalky soil. The town of Jarnac is on its border. We are recommending trying one of each.

From Petie Champagne—$30

Ancienne Distillerie (the Braastad's in Jarnac)
Maison Surrenne
Petite Champagne Cognac

From Grade Champagne—$100 (Great bridal shower gift)

Legacy XO (eXtra Old)
Maison Surrenne
Grande Champagne Cognac

The Grande is more harsh when young, but achieves the greater elegance after 5 years or so in the cask. This XO was bottled at age 26. (Cognac is not like wine. It does not change noticeably once it is stored in glass. When visiting the city of Cognac, we tasted a Cognac that had been put in a large glass container about the time Lincoln was assassinated, and it was still lively.)

Contact

Call the office of co-founder Dr. Ansley Coale, 1 (707) 462-3221, FAX 1 (707) 462-8103.

 

Postscript

One morning in London I picked up the Sunday Times and read that "Martell workers are permitted to drink as much Cognac on the job as they like." Alas, they turned down my application.

 

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers. For information about the wine courses he teaches every month at either San Francisco State University or San Francisco City College (Fort Mason Division), please fax him at (415) 567-4468.

 
 


 
 
 

This page created May 2001

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