A table brims before me, adorned with what looks like all the component parts of Christmas. I see bowls of candied fruits, walnuts, glass jars of honeycomb, slabs of shiny chocolate, truffle pyramids on slate tiles and neat stacks of fudge, a bowl of plump marshmallows, a row of multi-coloured macarons, and a scattering of coffee beans. The only thing missing is a turkey. Rather, the centrepiece, somewhat incongruous amongst all the sweet treats in this festive fare, was a massive wheel of Parmesan cheese.
“Try it,” I’m urged. All right. I take a shard, the umami tang dancing off its crumbling texture. I take a sip from the glass in my hand. It is, in a word, enlightenment. The saltiness and oils in the cheese seem to compliment those in the drink, off-setting the sharpness of the alcohol burn, and enhancing the sweet, nutty characteristics of this much-lauded liquor. I smile at my host. “Good eh?” he enthuses, “it’s even better with Parma ham”.
Until this moment I have never been much of a brandy drinker. I thought it the preserve of stuffy, cigar-toking seniors in wood-panelled gentlemen’s clubs. The odd sample I’ve had of it previously being a reluctant sip after a meal or seeing it better placed in flames on a Christmas pudding. I’m a single malt man, me.
And that’s why this came as such as surprise. In the same way single malts revealed themselves to me against a disdain for blended whisky, so Remy Martin proved an education over a shameful misappropriation in my knowledge. For Remy Martin might be a brandy, but a specific type of brandy. It’s cognac. It is what champagne is to sparking wine. Quite literally.
For like anything with a compelling and aged history, a specific terroir and provenance, cognac can only be a cognac if it comes from Cognac, the region near Champagne. And while brandy can be distilled from fruits other than grapes, cognac can only be distilled from champagne grapes.
And Remy Martin – named by its eponymous founder in 1724 – occupies an area that takes its grapes from the two finest producing crus: Grande and Petite champagne. That is why its near 300-year old reputation is not one to be taken lightly. And where there are various Remy cognacs, it’s the XO, or Extra Old – see, an acronym doesn’t have to be fancy – that is its prince.
It’s the chalky soil of Cognac that distinguishes its vines, the chalk forcing them to dig deep, some 30 metres, to seek their nutrients. The result is a very resilient grape and vines that are as old as its founder. The grapes, fermented in the manner of wine production, are then distilled twice into a proof-strength eau-de-vie carrying its subtle, aromatic notes. This is then aged in barrels exclusively produced from nearby oak – distinctive by its large grain, which both absorbs influences from the outside, as well as giving up as much as a barrel a year from its cellars to evaporation during aging.
Nine generations on, the house is still in the family name; it’s the backbone of its craft, the need for the attention to detail and the desire to sustain perfection. What’s more, it makes for a very personal touch. It’s a personal touch that leads me to this encounter with Jack Charlton, Remy’s brand ambassador in the UK, and this very special Art de Vivre private members’ event.
It’s one of the perks of membership to Remy’s exclusive club, which includes cocktail evenings at the capital’s top hotels to chef-hosted dinners, as well as private tastings and pairings, and which brings me face-to-face with this array of festive finery.
But there’s more to it than simply sampling and sipping. There’s an art to enjoying a glass of XO. Jack takes me through it.
“Cradle the glass in your hand,” he instructs, “hold it level with your solar plexus.” I do. “Let your palm warm the liquor, then take a long, slow breath in through your nose, let that alcohol carry the aromas – better still, close your eyes, and breathe it in…” The sensations are as subtle as they are intense.
“What are you getting?” he asks. I’m hit with rose, jasmine, which seems odd. “There are no wrong answers,” Jack says, “…we once challenged one of the top perfume houses to name the different scents and influences they could detect, and they discovered 260 separate molecular aromas and flavours. That is why it can be a very personal experience.”
On the nose are the esters, the top notes; generally, they’re floral, delicate. “Bring it closer,” he urges, “you’ll discover some autumn fruits…” I look at the table, there are plums, figs and apricots. “Then you might find coffee, salted caramel…” And, directly under the nose, I’m discovering tertiary flavours, cinnamon and sandalwood. It’s exquisite, and I’ve not even sipped it yet.
And then we taste it, sipping and allowing it to coat the mouth. I get vanilla, distinctly. “That’s from the French oak,” Jack says. He really knows his stuff. “Age it too long and it goes bitter, that’s why the cellar master is such a refined job.”
I go back to the table and that smorgasbord of festivity. With each sip detecting a new flavour, then sampling from the fare; macarons, chocolate, coffee beans, fudge, savouring subtleties and contrasts in equal measure, creating my own expression of Remy Martin.
Jack’s right, it’s intensely personal. I’m a convert. And this is going to make one fine, festive Christmas. Parmesan and all.
Remy Martin XO is available from leading stockists including Selfridges and The Whisky Exchange. For more information about La Maison Remy Martin membership, visit lamaison.remymartin.com.