Childhood in Cognac


One of my first memories of childhood summers in France is playing tag down long rows of grapes in my Uncle Francois’ vineyard. Often I’d stumble on large hard clumps of soil. Later I’d learn that those sun-dried chunks are gypsum clay, and are unique to the Cognac region. My cousins and I would roam the 25 acres at our family’s property, L’Hermitage, and build forts under the vines of the Ugni Blanc, the most commonly used grape for Cognac brandy.

These days, the vineyard and distillery has been running for four generations and is about to be passed on to the fifth—mine. The business is small and Uncle Francois is French, so at the moment he does almost everything himself: He is vineyard worker, picker, distiller, bottler, merchant, tour guide, repair man, plumber, as well as a father of four. His wife, my Aunt Bridgette, holds up her end by taking care of all the administrative work, sales and tastings.

My cousin Theo returns home each September to help my uncle harvest and press the grapes, then they leave the juice to ferment for a few weeks. The wine is then loaded into a large copper pot that sits on top of the chaudière (a brick oven) and is heated for the first of two distillations. A double distillation is what makes Cognac unique.

The first pass, which is called the brouillis, is re-loaded for its second distillation, called la bonne chauffe, “the good heating.” This produces the eau de vie, “water of life,” which is about 140 proof and must be aged before it becomes Cognac.

Cognac is aged in oak barrels that produce deep flavor and golden color. Then at L’Hermitage it is stored in the cellar on uneven clay floors that keep the air humid as the Cognac ages. The walls of the cellar are covered in a special fungus that lends the most distinctive qualities of Cognac. After aging, it is blended. My grandfather developed the blends for which Giboin Cognac is known today. He taught both my dad and my uncle “the nose”—how to smell and adjust the Cognac accordingly.

My great-great-great-grandfather first started distilling in 1830 when the production of Cognac was a sought-after profession, with which one could make a good life. At the time, distilling was a round-the-clock job. In the cold of winter he would fuel the fire and have to sleep in the distillery to ensure the fire didn’t die. It was not such a sacrifice; it was the warmest room at L’Hermitage. This December my Aunt Bridgette hosted our Christmas lunch in the distillery for the first time.

The property is steeped in family lore. A favorite story is of my grandfather, Papi Michel, who broke down a wall to expand the caves and found a collection of old Cognacs that his father had hidden from the Nazis during the Second World War. Just last summer I was rummaging in the old cellar and came across some bottles Francois had forgotten about. They turned out to be a 1904 vintage that we enjoyed this winter at the Christmas lunch.

The family talks now about who will take “la suite” of the distillery. For now Francois continues to keep making it magic.