When I mentioned to a friend that I was travelling to France to learn about gin, she shot me a withering look: ‘You may as well go there to learn about cricket.’ When I added that this gin was made from grapes rather than grain, and produced in Cognac, she just raised her eyebrows and suggested that I look up ‘gin’ in the dictionary.
So I must admit to harbouring a degree of scepticism as I boarded my flight to Bordeaux. The more I learnt about the man behind G’Vine, however, the more my doubts were assuaged. Jean-Sébastien Robicquet has form when it comes to shaking up traditional methods of spirit production.
At the turn of the millennium, drinks behemoth Diageo was hungry to enter the premium vodka market, keen to get a piece of the huge success enjoyed by brands such as Grey Goose. They put out to tender for a new brand of vodka, and Jean-Sébastien submitted his recipe. With a background in wine, and a decade under his belt working for cognac house Hennessy, he understood grapes, and wondered if he might not be able to make a grape-based vodka. His secret recipe was snapped up, and Cîroc Vodka was born. P-Diddy then came on board to market the spirit (Jean-Sébastien likes to refer to him as ‘Sean’), and the brand is now the second biggest-selling luxury vodka in the world.
But that was vodka and this is gin, I think, as my taxi thunders down the autoroute towards Cognac. I meet Jean-Sébastien at Villevert Manor, a once crumbling 16th century farmhouse now tastefully transformed into a marketing centre for G’Vine (the name is a play on the French word for vine, ‘vigne’, with the ‘G’ excised and placed upfront). The late-autumn sun shines down on the rows of yellowing vines surrounding the property. A swimming pool glints within the gates, where staff can cool off during their lunch break.
Jean-Sébastien strides across the courtyard. A youthful 51, with wavy salt-and-pepper hair swept back from his tanned brow, he wears a sky-blue cotton shirt tucked into mauve slacks. His arms extend. ‘I am,’ he calls out, waving a hand in the direction of the vineyards lying just beyond the gates, ‘an evangelist of the grape.’
I follow him inside to the private bar. Through the only window, I watch two dust-covered, local labourers re-pointing the garden’s ancient walls. A few limited-edition bottles of Cîroc sit on a shelf behind me – trophies of glories past.
I sit down on a stool as Jean-Sébastien moves behind the bar. Laid out on the top are several glasses of clear liquid, one labelled ‘Grain Spirit’, another ‘Grape Spirit’.
‘What do you prefer to chew?’ Jean-Sébastien asks me. ‘Grain or grapes?’
Naturally, I plump for the latter, and he murmurs, ‘Voilà!’, then gestures for me to try the grain spirit first. It’s harsh and strong and makes my eyes water. Next, I try the grape spirit. It tastes gentle, rounded and smooth.
‘Both are PH neutral,’ Jean-Sébastien says, ‘but the difference is obvious, non?’
I move onto sampling the botanicals he uses to flavour his two G’Vine gins, Floraison and Nouaison. The standout ingredient of Floraison is the vine flower, which lends it a refreshing, summery bouquet. Nouaison is stronger, both in taste and ABV – more like the London gins my traditionalist friend reveres – but the smooth roundness of the grape persists.
There’s no denying it: both are delicious. And yet, I ask, can you really call it gin?
‘What is gin?’ Jean-Sébastien fires back, narrowing his eyes in the manner of a French philosopher. ‘A spirit drink of agricultural origin with predominant character of juniper,’ he answers for me.
I press him again – but surely gin is a grain spirit, while a purist might claim that what you make is flavoured grappa?
In response, Jean-Sébastien pulls out up a small, clear bottle from below the bar and sets it down in front of me. ‘Where does the story of gin begin?’ he asks me, as I lean forward to read the label, ‘1495 Gin.’
‘Holland,’ I concede. ‘Originally.’
‘Originally,’ he repeats, uncapping the bottle. A few years ago, he tells me, an associate of his made an interesting discovery. Buried deep within the archives of the British Library lay a recipe book containing the oldest ever recipe for gin. Writing in 1495, the wife of a wealthy Dutch merchant describes a gin flavoured with juniper, cloves and 12 whole nutmegs. As a base, she suggests using distilled Hamburg beer, but – and here Jean-Sebastian’s grin widens – the very best gin would use distilled wine. ‘So G’Vine is not just a return to tradition,’ he concludes, ‘but to the finest mode of production.’
Jean-Sébastien spent a long time recreating the 1495 recipe. As he pours me a slug, he adds that it was only the outbreak of Franco-Dutch War which saw the transition from grape to grain, as the hostilities stemmed the flow of grape alcohol from France to northern Europe. I take a sip, enjoying the sense of travelling back five centuries through taste, akin somehow to listening to a piece of long-lost choral music. The gin is pungent and spicy, but once again there’s that undeniable smoothness – that absence of an eye-watering wince – which the grape spirit confers.
We break for the day and reconvene the next morning at the G’Vine distillery in Merpins, on the edge of Cognac’s vine-growing region. The building lies right next door to the new Hennessy distillery, a huge, black low-slung compound that looks like something from a Bond film. A procession of container lorries departs its gates, laden with cognac bottles – China and Japan are consuming the stuff at a rate never before seen, and the industry is booming, despite the fact that only 3% is drunk in France.
Jean-Sébastien’s gin production may be on a smaller scale, but he has doubled his workforce in recent years, and inside, conveyor belts of green gin bottles move swiftly and efficiently. In the adjacent room, a beautiful, onion-domed copper pot swirls with clear spirit. There’s space for two more to be installed: Jean-Sébastien is thinking big. The whole place is state-of-the-art.
We drive back to Villevert Manor, where he mixes me a Negroni of Nouaison gin, a Martini of Floraison, then a Vespa of I’m not sure which. Each slips down more smoothly than any gin cocktail I have drunk.
As we soak up the alcohol over lunch, Jean-Sébastien gives me his take on the so-called ‘Gin Renaissance’. In the late ’80s, Bombay Sapphire appeared on the scene, proving to the world that gin could be a premium spirit. A decade later, Hendricks’s added sophistication with more subtle botanical flavours – cucumber, rose petal. And now G’Vine is completing the evolution by reverting from grain spirit to grape.
‘Is it an evolution?’ I ask. ‘Or a return to tradition?’
Jean-Sébastien hands me an unopened bottle of G’Vine with a smile. Beneath the logo is an inscription, ‘Traditionally Unconventional’.
‘And now,’ he says with undisguised satisfaction, ‘you understand me.’
To learn more about G’Vine, ‘an unconventional spirit’, including details of products and cocktail recipes, visit www.g-vine.com.