The wine world is full of legends, bottles that tower above the more common (or, at the very least, the more commonly available) ones that most of us drink even on special occasions. Even wine lovers who have only recently caught the grape-juice bug are familiar with them: Harlan ’97, Romanée-Conti ’85, Pétrus ’89, Cheval Blanc ’47. These are the wines that cause both hearts to flutter and money to be spent a bit faster than is typically considered healthy.
Rémy Martin’s Louis XIII, you could argue, exists in that lofty company. Indeed, like Martha Stewart or the union of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, this legendary Cognac is often referred to by a single name: Louis, pure and simple.
Which means that we’ll have to come up with an appropriate nickname for its newly released big brother, the Louis XIII Rare Cask, an astounding Cognac produced in a run of just 786 bottles from, yes, a single cask.
Late last winter, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a Cognac seminar and tasting in New York with Rémy Martin’s cellar master, Pierrette Trichet. Over the course of a morning that my tastebuds are still thanking me for, she led the small group of journalists through a selection that included a 140-proof white eau de vie (Cognac’s predecessor, or, rather, its base material); an 8-10 year old Cognac; a 20-25 year old Cognac; a 40-45-year-old example; a 70-year-old Cognac that was first barreled in 1939; and, finally, the Rare Cask.
What made the morning so interesting (and rewarding) was the fact that we didn’t just sample the Rare Cask, marvel at its flavor and price tag ($15,000 per bottle), and head back home. Rather, we were treated to what amounted to a master class on Cognac, one of the most famous and little-understood spirits in the world.
Indeed, there should be a sense of context provided for a bottling as rare and profound as this one. And by working our way up through the evolution of examples (the notes below are a combination of both my own and the discussion of the group), our arrival at the Rare Cask was both far more educational and pleasurable.
The eau de vie, at 70% alcohol, needed a bit of water for its aromatic components to come out. Once it was “unlocked,” however, pear and a surprising floral note wafted from the glass.
The 8-10-year-old Cognac showed lots of chocolate and vanilla on the nose as well as a hint of pear, spice, apricot, and marzipan. It was clearly still rather young and a bit hot on the palate, and just starting to benefit from the influence of the oak.
By the time we got to the 20-25-year-old Cognac, more oxidized aromas came through, as well as figs, walnuts, a hint of cream, clove, and a pronounced cookie batter characteristic that was every bit as charming as you’d imagine.
Another 20 to 25 years of aging had rendered the 40-45-year-old Cognac much more Port-like in expression, its toffee, praline, and maple syrup aromas dominating the nose. The palate, however, was unexpectedly bright, with flowers, white peach, and nectarine singing beautifully.
The sample from 1939 had attained an amazing subtlety, and hinted at beeswax, gingerbread, and a well-stocked cigar humidor. It was soft on the palate and intriguingly long on the finish, and showed everything from spice cake and dried figs to grapefruit and chocolate and warm brown sugar.
Finally, then, we had come to--and were appropriately prepared for--the Louis XIII Rare Cask, which, as these things so often are, was discovered entirely by accident.
Trichet, through a translator, described this cask as “a miracle, an accident of nature.”
“These eaux de vie, they travel,” Trichet explained. “They go from one...cellar to another, and you have so many variables that can interfere. Some cellars are dryer than others,” for example, and that was probably just one factor that led, ultimately, to the special evolution of this one specific cask.
In fact, when Trichet first noticed this cask, it hadn’t yet achieved its ultimate level of expression; it was, rather, full of promise, of potential. In order to nurture it, then, Trichet set it aside, isolated it, in order to allow it to evolve as clearly and completely as possible.
“And year after year she overlooked it, tasting every year” Trichet’s translator explained. “And after four [more] years, she detected this magic point, this point of balance...of perfect harmony between the aromatic intensity and the alcoholic strength. And she decided to call [it] Rare Cask 43.8, in reference to the alcoholic strength.”
It is unquestionably the single greatest spirit I’ve ever tasted. Swirling it and putting my nose in the glass brought to mind images of Alice falling through the looking glass: Aromas of white and milk chocolate, mushrooms, prunes, vanilla, spice, beeswax, sandalwood, and tobacco fluttered by and led to flavors that ran the gamut from prunes and figs to vanilla pod, more mushroom, and even a hint of mint. The finish blossomed with white peaches and flowers, as well as grapefruit, almond skin, and a hint of oxidative nuttiness. As impressive--and crucial--as the range and depth of the Cognac’s expression was its balance: It somehow staked out a position where the dried and cooked fruits were brightened up by pitch-perfect acidity, where the palate-coating richness still allowed the mouth to water, where the power was perceived as simultaneously elegant and impeccably filigreed in its detail.
So in a wine world with no shortage of legends, now is the time to add another bottling to the pantheon: The Louis XIII Rare Cask is a worthy addition to that lofty company, and an absolute joy to drink. All it needs, really, is a one-name moniker that its fans can use to refer to it, and its transformation will be complete. Every other aspect of this Cognac, clearly, is very much in place.