As the large doors to the cellar creak open, a rush of pungent vapor envelops us, rising from row after row of casks holding high-octane eaux de vie. It’s the “angels’ share” evaporating through the oak that we smell—and very lucky angels they are, hovering near this Rémy Martin campus in Cognac, France. For this is just one of almost 30 cellars on the grounds, housing thousands upon thousands of barrels of individual lots, aging to the V.S.O.P. (very special old pale) stage, when they will be blended and become the familiar Rémy Martin Cognac.
But in this particular cellar, a unique spirit is taking shape—something entirely new for the company, although it has been a full 10 years in the making. (Cognac is a pokey product.) Many of the eaux de vie here, particularly rich and aromatic, are destined for a Cognac—available for the first time this fall—called Tercet.
When it comes to distilled wines like Cognac or brandy, it’s easy to think mostly of the master distiller as the talent behind the product. But behind Tercet is a team of three masters: the wine master, the master distiller, and the cellar master. And to highlight the significance of each artisan in the creation of the Cognac, all three roles are named on the new bottle.
Cellar master Baptiste Loiseau (the youngest ever to be appointed to the role in Cognac) explains that Tercet was born in a particular vineyard owned by longtime grower Francis Nadeau (the wine master part of the team). He noticed that eaux de vie distilled from these grapes were especially fruity and aromatic, with the potential to make exceptional Cognac. His first question, naturally, was whether Nadeau could repeat the effect in the vineyard—and more, help other growers achieve the same effect. With a clear “yes,” a close partnership commenced.
Nadeau, in fact, had always grown with Rémy Martin’s needs in mind. “You have to think all the way through to the end,” he says. When the final product for a vineyard is wine, you want ripeness, high sugar levels. For Cognac, not so much. High acidity is more important, for brightness, freshness,and tension. The Ugni Blanc that he grows for Tercet (Ugni, a white grape, is the main variety used in Cognac), according to Nadeau, makes a wine of terroir, showing the stamp of the particular place. And unlike most other cellar masters, Loiseau keeps the wine on its lees (spent yeast cells and sediment resulting from fermentation) all the way through to distillation, broadening textures and aromatics.
It is the great pleasure of master distiller Jean-Marie Bernard to take it from there. Quite literally, Bernard’s eyes sparkle as he stands sandwiched between two rows of small, gleaming copper pot stills, explaining that the wine’s terroir and aromatics are concentrated in the distilling process. The critical skill set, he says, is a singular sense of smell. “Your nose tells you,” he says, “and that’s the most difficult thing to teach.” The process involves smelling the emerging distillate, to make rapid-fire decisions about where to make the cuts between heads, hearts, and tails. The master distiller has to understand and capture the best aromas in the hearts, with no time to think.
Together, the trio has created a beautiful spirit. In its aromas, Tercet ($110) carries the complexity of pure wines from multiple vintages. Fresh pear, almond and vanilla lead, with undertones of dried fruit and gingerbread. The rich palate, with a balance of creaminess, bright tension, and density, offers up honeyed tropical notes—mango and lychee fruit—layered with toffee, dark chocolate and spice.
Loiseau leaves technical terms behind when he describes Tercet: “It’s just so good!” he exclaims. “I’m here to be a gatekeeper,” he continues, “to protect Rémy Martin’s style, but with innovation too.” In this case, innovation puts all the time-honored Cognac talent front and center—the growing, the winemaking, the distilling, the blending.