A Spirit for the Ages

by Mort Hochstein
August 26, 2008

It is not very often that the major Cognac houses — like Rémy Martin or the other members of the big four — Hennessey, Courvoisier and Martell — bottle anything but a blend. That’s generally left to the smaller producers. So when I learned that Rémy was about to put out a special bottling of a single-harvest Cognac for the first time since 1965, I was eager for a sneak peak.

Growers welcomed the ’89 vintage. The growing season was marked by hot summer days and cool nights, creating ideal conditions for the Ugni Blanc grapes; it produced elegant, concentrated wines, with great aging potential.

Vincent Géré, director of Rémy Martin Cognacs and Estates, recently led a group of thirsty New York journalists through a tasting. “Of all the vintages,” Géré declared, “I, our distiller, vineyard managers and our cellar master felt ’89 was going to be truly memorable and deserved special attention. We selected grapes from the best plots of Grande Champagne, using only eau-de-vie from four plots — Gensac, Juillac, St. Même, and Touzac — on our own estates, and left the wine for 18 years in Limousin oak casks. When we held our annual tasting in 2007, cellar master, Pierrette Trichet, felt that the ’89 was approaching its peak.”

What Géré and his colleagues bottled is a remarkably smooth elixir, rich, intense and totally smooth on the palate, throwing off aromas of fig, cloves, honey and candied flowers and delivering beautifully with the tiniest sip. The memory of that concentrated wine, with no alcoholic burn, lingers. The Rémy Martin 1989 will be released in September at about $300 a bottle.

I went into the dinner tasting at Bar Boulud on Broadway opposite Lincoln Center fearing that, as occasionally happens with single-minded producers, we would be forced to mate Cognac with every dish. No, we saw no Cognac until dessert time, drinking instead a creditable 2004 Volnay from Marquis d’Angerville and a 2005 Philippe Colin Chassagne-Montrachet, both from the cellars of the bar.

The wines were good, and I wish I could say the same for the dinner, but, unfortunately, I have never enjoyed a culinary event at this site. The special function room at Bar Boulud is more like a Howard Johnson meeting hall; the waiters, wearing undistinguished attire would be more at home at an on-the-arm joint on Avenue B in the East Village, and the food, served off-handedly and cold, would be more credible in the aforementioned Howard Johnson. Mr. Boulud, who usually can do no wrong, needs to rethink Bar Boulud.

At least one thing about the event, however, was perfect; delaying the Cognac sampling until the end of the lunch imprinted its uniqueness on the tasters. The ’89 is, as its producers proudly declare, simply memorable. If you look for a bottle this September, you may notice that Cognac packaging changes frequently with market trends, but the ’89 needs no special embellishments. As always, it’s what’s in the bottle that counts.

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