The Master of the Cellar
Each drop of Louis XIII cognac, the most exclusive and luxurious spirit in the world is like liquid gold, shrouded in a rich history that celebrates generations of cellar masters, extraordinary craftsmanship, and time. Retailing in South Africa at R50,000 per decanter, Louis XIII is the most coveted spirit
in the world. The striking Baccarat crystal decanter with its gold-plated label houses this exceptional spirit that pays homage to the finer things in life. It is made possible through expert craftsmanship, attention to detail, and an extraordinary journey that takes generations of cellar masters to complete. An intricate alchemy of up to 1,200 eaux de vie (French for “water of life”) are exquisitely blended after being timeously selected by the skilled cellar master. The youngest component of the eaux de vie date back at least 40 years, meaning that the grapes harvested today (that will first become wine and ultimately eaux de vie) will only be ready for consumption by the cellar master’s successors. Each decanter is the life achievement of generations of cellar masters.
Produced by the House of Rémy Martin, the decanter itself dates back to 1850 when Paul-émile Rémy Martin I was gifted a metallic flask by a local farmer near the site of the famous Battle of Jarnac in 1569. In honour of the House’s 150th anniversary in 1874, he blended a unique cognac and created a glass replica of the flask which would be its vessel. Named the “Grande Champagne Very Old – Age Unknown” (Grande Champagne being the region of origin in Cognac, France), it was later changed to Louis XIII as a tribute to the French king.
“In 1874, he [Paul-émile Rémy Martin I ] was already highlighting that it has to be old to be the best. And since 1874, the mission of the cellar master is to recreate the recipe every year and maintain the style,” explains Baptiste Loiseau, the youngest cellar master in the history of Cognac and the man who is currently selecting the House’s very best eaux de vie to age and be used in the Louis XIII blend in decades to come.
Born in 1980 in Cognac, France, Baptiste had dreams of one day procuring his grandfather’s farm on which flowers and vegetables grew in abundance. Though he was surrounded by vineyards, he was more interested in the science of the soil and so studied agronomy. “The link to the earth was always something very important to me,” he says. While studying, he encountered many winemakers in Champagne, Burgundy and Cognac and, amazed by their passion and the creative ways in which they expressed themselves through different terroirs, the 20-year-old made the shift into winemaking. He took what is referred to as the “royal route” by studying at the country’s most renowned schools, the Institut National Agronomique Paris-grignon and the École Nationale Supérieure Agronomique de Montpellier. Through winemaking, he got to see the world and even spent a season in South Africa – a country he had been fascinated with since reading the books of his favourite authors, Andre Brink and JM Coetzee, as a teenager.
During his travels abroad, he was offered a job back in his hometown of Cognac in a research institute as an experimental engineer, giving advice to growers across the countryside. In 2007, the House of Rémy Martin asked him to join the team as an advisor and voice of the cellar master, Pierrette Trichet – the first woman to ever be made cellar master in a major cognac house. Trichet, a no-nonsense, strong, yet humble woman whose exceptional creations proved her mettle, despite much resistance in the cognac community, took the young Baptiste under her wing and guided him through the complex process of creating the historical Louis XIII.
Because the intricate, multifaceted recipe of Louis XIII isn’t written down but passed orally from cellar master to cellar master, the two had to be aligned in their descriptors and vocabularies of the many aromas and flavours found in the layers of Louis XIII. “She let me express myself first and then she would tell me, ‘Ok, I am trying to understand what you feel. I will tell you what I feel. And together, we will find the right terms’,” Baptiste recalls. “For example, I would talk about smelling figs, but for Pierrette it was the aroma of dates. So then it was my role to understand what she was expressing and, in order to align with the previous generation, change my vocabulary.” The two developed a very close relationship and in April 2014, after seven years of training, she handed over the coveted baton of cellar master to the then 33-year-old. “As daunting as it was at such a young age, Pierrette assured me by saying, ‘It is not a question of age. It is not a question of gender. You have the skills, so go for it’.”
I had the incredible privilege of meeting Baptiste Loiseau on his recent visit to Cape Town to have my very own Louis XIII experience with the charming, fresh-faced cellar master whose humility and passion are nothing short of inspiring. As we spoke, he decanted a bit of the liquid gold into two glasses for it to settle. This enables one to get a taste of the different layers as they come into contact with the palate. Before our tasting, he explained that the first part of the journey is through the nose – a prized part of his anatomy that he has to service and train like a professional athlete. I experienced a heady feeling when nosing the cognac for the first time, and my memory immediately took me to the kitchen at Christmas time with the notes of plum jam, cloves, cinnamon and raisins. It was all very nostalgic. I then picked up a different layer, floral notes of dried red roses. The deeper into the glass I went, the more the aromas changed – to hazelnuts, honey and gingerbread before shifting into more incense aromas and tobacco. It was a sensory journey, complex and layered. “For me, Louis XIII is the perfect balance of the concentration of time but also the liveliness of the eaux de vies that is still so fresh and aromatic,” he enthuses.
Before our first sip, I am told to simply wet my lips with the prized spirit in order to prepare my palate for the tasting. Then, without swirling – a common mistake that merges the layers and brings the strong, burning alcohol component out more vigorously – I took my first sip and, as Baptiste says, “let it invade my palate”.
The experience is like fireworks, going off in all kinds of directions and yet smooth on the palate. It starts off spicy, and then follows with a deep smokiness of tobacco and incense. What follows are soft, fruity notes akin to the nostalgic aromas that took me back to Christmas time. I am told that the amazing thing about Louis XIII is that it never reveals itself the same way. “It’s always a discovery,” Baptiste says. “Some people think what I do is a routine job, tasting the same thing over and over again. No, with Louis XIII it’s always a discovery and depends on the condition of that particular day. It’s a new experience all the time.”
An hour after my memorable meeting with the cellar master and my maiden voyage with the iconic Louis XIII, I am still experiencing the depth of flavour and complex layers the spirit so generously provides. It is a true tribute to the craftsmanship, hard work, and time that goes into it and worth every cent of its hefty price tag. Louis XIII cognac is an icon of French art de vivre and excellence, and Baptiste Loiseau is flying the flag with pride.
For more information on this noble and historic brand, visit www.louisxiii-cognac.com.
From left to right : Georges Clot, Baptiste Loiseau, Pierrette Trichet, André Giraud