Like one of his rare Frapin Cognacs, cellar master Patrice Piveteau continues to mature masterfully, working at the famous distillery for the past 31 years. Frapin descendants have owned the vineyards, currently the Cointreau branch, for 21 generations since their establishment in 1270. In addition to this stability of ownership, the fact that Frapin owns almost 600 acres of vineyards, all in the premium Grande Champagne section of the Cognac designation, has given Piveteau the resources necessary to distill, age, and blend some of the world’s best brandies.
I first met Piveteau at the Frapin distillery in March 2006 while I was touring the region. He gave me the best orientation I have ever received on the minute workings of Cognac’s two types of aging cellars – one wet and humid, one dry and warm – which provide differing aging potential for the brandies sleeping in the barrels.
Just before the holidays, I reunited with Piveteau for a video conference to toast his two new releases – the Frapin VSOP, which retails for $70, and the Frapin VIP XO for $250 – and to get an update on what is happening at Frapin and what is going on in Cognac.
First, the new spirits – the VSOP’s aromas of fresh fruit and toasty oak leaped out of the snifter; the flavors primarily preserved fruits and marzipan, elegant and long on the palate with the typical salty bite at the finish. The XO, however, showed what age and blending skills can do to the spirit, the fruit being much more intense, blending into honeyed notes, perhaps a touch of rancio, and finally, haunting echoes of fruit-tart flavors bounding back in the aftertaste – a marvelously complex and alluring spirit.
We began by discussing – what else? – Covid and its effects on the business. Piveteau looks for the right words to explain the good side of a horrible time. “During this period, people stayed at home and spent their monies on pleasures, including Cognac, particularly in Europe,” he says. I tell him I have heard the same thing from producers of Port and Sherry, as consumers had both the time and the desire to rediscover after-dinner drinks. Additionally, over the past two decades, Cognac has leaped into before-dinner cocktails, now giving it positions both before and after the meal.
And so we moved on to universal topic No. 2 – global warming. “When I was younger, we started picking grapes in the middle of October and continued into November,” Piveteau says. “Now, we average starting three weeks earlier. We need the acidity in the grapes that picking before full ripeness provides. The grapes that make the base wine before distillation are more important than they are sometimes given credit for, especially since the primary one – Ugni Blanc – is not well-regarded as a grape for table wines.”
Piveteau says he has long been looking ahead for possible ways to deal with hotter conditions. “Over the longer period, we may have to have a new selection for Ugni Blanc,” he says. “We started working 12-15 years ago with a cross between Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche called Folignan.” Thus far, he likes what he sees with Folignan but is waiting to evaluate how it performs with aging. Nevertheless, he says, “It’s good to have a new tool, but we have to wait for many, many years.”
This led us off into a discussion of maturation. Next to the Borderies area, Grande Champagne is the smallest sub-region of Cognac, located around the town of Segonzac in the middle of Cognac’s circle on the map, and produces what are conceded to be the most-elegant spirits. But with elegance comes challenge, Piveteau says. Because of the nature of the terroir, he says, “I need more time for maturation than the others [Cognac regions]. But I still want fruit flavors.”
He also wants to use every tool at hand. “I’m a strong believer in the separate properties of humid and dry cellar aging,” he says, noting the obvious, that one will allow slower aging with less evaporation – the fabled angels’ share – while the other speeds up the process. Each, he says, has its role.
“It’s not how many years that you age, it is how you age – the cask, the water, the cellar,” he says. The water? Yes, its quality is a given, but he has something more in mind – how and when the water is added to reduce the spirits from cask strength to a more-genteel level. “I add the water more slowly,” Piveteau says. “If I do it just before bottling, I don’t think the quality is as good.”
Like his Cognacs, Piveteau appears suave and graceful on the other side of the Zoom screen, but he also reflects a strong will. “We can’t control everything, but we can control more [in producing Cognac],” he says. He wants all the tools, and once he has the tools, he uses them. “I ask my team members to use their minds, their eyes. Even if they think they know the answer, still ask the question!”
So is it fair to say he is more modernist than a traditionalist? Piveteau doesn’t like the idea of being pigeonholed into categories, but he does allow, “We have to adapt. The technology of today will not be the technology of tomorrow.” Then he volunteers, “I’m sure that Cognac is today better than before, not that we didn’t have good Cognac. Why is this? Because we have more knowledge today. Before, sometimes the quality would not be as good.”
But lest we think he is a gear head, I ask him about a quote I read from another interview that indicated he is not always strictly scientific in his philosophy or approach. He smiles. It is not all about computer printouts. “The base to making Cognac is traditional, always based on what you taste,” Piveteau says. “There can be no recipe.”
Before we went back to our separate tasks, he revealed one more indicator of the good times in Cognac. “Three years ago, I built another cellar, a big one that I thought would last us for 15 years,” he says. “Next year, it will be full. So it’s good news.”
Feature photo: Patrice Piveteau, courtesy of Frapin Cognacs