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A Most Royal Wedding
The Cognac of Remy Martin, the crystal of Baccarat
by Fred Ferretti

In a dank, low-beamed stone cellar in the town of Cognac, Georges Clot, cellarmaster of the House of Remy Martin, siphons off a quarter-glass of amber liquid from an ancient Limousin oak cask, a cask blackened with mold. We taste what is a distillation from 1952. "Not yet," he says. "But I think maybe soon. There is no defect I can sense. Soon."

Northeast across France, in Lorraine, in the village of Baccarat, twelve master craftsmen of the Cristalléries de Baccarat, their faces reddened by the light and heat from roaring blast furnaces, transform molten crystal balls into exquisite decanters, each ornamented in relief with the fleur-de-lys, an historic symbol of French royalty.

What ages in George Clot's cellar will one day find its way, careful drop by careful drop, into those crystal decanters, a planned encounter of two classics, one a process of Cognac unchanged in four hundred years, the other a bottle, the history of which is a quarter of a century longer. The Cognac of Remy Martin, the crystal of Baccarat. The filling of a hand-blown, handcrafted carafe with a rare blend of Cognacs known as "Grand Champagne trés Vieille, Age Inconnu," some of it aged, for more than a hundred years.

This felicitous union, of royal carafe from the Cristalléries de Baccarat containing "Louis XIII" "trés vieille" Cognac, a wedding with particular regard for tradition, lies deep within France's history.

The battlefield was in the Charentes region, outside of Jarnac, in 1569; the opposing armored warriors Protestants and Catholics; the Protestant general, Prince Louis de Conde, uncle to Henry IV; the Catholic general, Henri, Duc d'Anjou, son of Catherine de Medici, brother of Charles IX. The battle, pitched and bloody, was won by the Catholics. A year later however, the treaty of Saint-Germain ceded the defeated Protestants four small cities around the battleground, one of which was Cognac.

In Cognac the process of double-distilling the juices of ugni blanc grapes through the squat copper pots known as alembics until they become eaux-de-vie and brandies has been unchanged in four centuries. For 275 of those years, since the founding of the House of Remy Martin in 1724, this tradition of Cognac has been nurtured. In fact, just 14 years after the Cognac house was created, King Louis XV granted the house of Remy Martin a warrant to expand its vineyards and thus its production.

In 1764 that same king authorized the foundation of the Saint-Anne glassworks in Baccarat, what would eventually become the Cristalléries de Baccarat, in the small village of that name in Lorraine. It is a region with a long history, back to the Roman times, of glass manufacture, a tradition furthered and enhanced by the importation of master glassmakers and blowers from Italy and Bohemia. In 1816 the making of glass ceased at Baccarat and was replaced entirely by crystal works.

In 1850, on the Jarnac plain, the scene of that religious war, a glass bottle was unearthed by archaeologists. It was teardrop round, with serpentine decorations on two sides, decorated with the fleur-de-lys, that talisman of royalty. Questions arose. Had it belonged to the House of Henry IV, or that of Charles IX? A fair question, since both sides had been French, and royal, and the weapons and armor of both had been decorated with the fleur-de-lys.

Nor was it known exactly why the bottle came to be called the "Louis XIII Carafe," since Louis XIII ascended to the French throne in 1610, four decades after that battle in Jarnac. It has been suggested, because the carafe is in pure Italian Renaissance style, a mode appreciated and sought after in the Louis XIII court, that it was so named. A simpler explanation is probably that it was named for Louis XIII because he was Henry IV's son.

In any event, it came to be known as the "Louis trés" decanter, solely that, and in 1860 it was bought by Emile Remy Martin, then the fourth in his family's line to head the Cognac house, who registered it under his family's name and donated it to the Cluny Museum in Paris. It was also his decision to use the decanter as a model for a carafe to hold his oldest, most rare Cognac, eaux-de-vie made exclusively from grapes grown only in the Grand Champagne area of Cognac, its premier cru.

It was bottled in glass reproductions of that bottle found in Jarnac, until 1936, when Remy Martin commissioned Baccarat to make the "Louis trés" decanter only of crystal. For more than a half-century Baccarat has been fashioning these bottles, each with a molded crystal stopper shaped like a fleur-de-lys, each with a neck band of gold fused to the crystal and engraved with the name of Louis XIII.

Throughout each year small orders for the decanters are sent to Baccarat, and they are fashioned only when Georges Clot judges his blend of Cognacs sufficiently fine to be called "Louis trés."

"A fine Cognac, a Louis trés, has life," he tells me. They are like a human being. They must have elegance, charm, power and strength, like the best of humans. They must show a knowledge of life, for after all some of them have lived for at least one hundred years." The Cognac that goes into the special decanter will typically be a blend of casked brandies from 35 years of age to 100. "It must be round and opulent but it doesn't want to be all feminine," Georges Clot says. "Some of my best is that of our chairman's grandfather," referring to Andre Renard, who joined Remy Martin in 1910, and his granddaughter, current chairman Dominique Heriard Dubreuil.

"When the blend is precisely right, I like to call it a golden wedding, a wedding of fifty years of peace, of utmost balance and harmony." In his cellars Georges Clot husbands casks of brandies up to a century old, and more, and earthenware demijohns filled with 80-year-old brandies. "I hope what I do today I am doing for the tastes of my grandchildren, when they have grandchildren," he says.

It is the taste, an indicator of age, that Georges seeks. He bottles VSOP Cognacs, an blend of Cognacs from four years of age to 12, "to arrive at a taste of eight years," he says, and 1738 Accord Royals, of six to 25 years to taste the "age of twelve; XO Specials, of blends 10 to 35 years, to "taste twenty years old, and Extras, blended of brandies 10 to 60 years of age, "to taste like 35 years," these in addition to the Louis XIII, into which will go "some of our chairman's grandfather's special reserve, fifty years old."

Up in Baccarat, the night ovens light up the sky's mist. A dozen master crystal makers, men of great breath, they are called, gather in a loose circle, each with a particular role in the process in which molten crystal becomes polished crystal decanter.

Long platinum pipes rest on racks, one end of each in the oven. When slid out, each pipe has a large ball of glowing, molten, lava-like crystal at the end. A workman, using a mailloche, a soft mallet, gently shapes the molten crystal, moving it back and forth into and out of the flames to keep it soft.

The molded, still white-hot shape is carefully lowered into a mould, which is then closed around it, and a blower blows with prolonged blasts of his breath, his cheeks round with pressure, to force the mass outward to the sides of the mould. The mould is loosened and the decanter, now in its familiar pinched shape is removed, heated yet again, and its neck is turned and formed with a special pliers. The pliers then become a vise, holding the decanter immobile, as four drops of molten crystal are placed in pattern on each of the decanter's wide sides and a fleur-de-lys is pressed gently into each with a metal die.

Next, a long strip of molten crystal to attached to each of the narrow sides of the carafe, and each is pressed ten times to create a rippled, serpentine finish. The Louis XIII decanter is complete.

The finished bottle is then placed into a long "tunnel kiln," through which it moves slowly, with the heat decreasing gradually, this to temper the crystal and prevent it from shattering. Finally, the decanter passes through the sensitive, experienced hands of the choisisseuses, women who actually caress with their fingertips the smoothness of the crystal, feeling for impurities and for even the tiniest touch of imbalance. The decanters are the polished and the fleur-de-lys stoppers are ground with minute precision so that they will fit snugly.

On the neck of each is engraved — using a jet of sand — "Louis XIII de Remy Martin." The neck is then painted with liquid gold. Seven hours of baking follows which fuses the gold to the crystal and highlights the engraving. The decanter is finished. When an ordered batch have been made they are shipped to Cognac, there to await the time when Georges Clot decides they will be filled.

He has made his basic blending choices three to four years before bottling. "At the moment he has barrels of eaux-de-vie blended, a mix he favors for his next Louis Trés. They are exciting brandies in those barrels, alive. I like to call them my children. They will be similar, but they will be different in small ways. All of my children are different, but they are all kings," says Georges.

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