The barrels have a story to tell. They’ve held tight the whispers of French kings, sealed the fingerprints of those who handled them delicately, and trapped the aromas of liquid molecules engrained within its creases. They’ve gracefully changed color, stacked neatly one on top the other, and allowed Arachnea Compniacensis spiders to be its security from insects that try to invade, all the while developing its own nucleus. That unspoken language, an unseen form of communication that has developed over centuries, is then transferred to its contents to create a consumable liquid that also houses its own history from the vine to the expertly crafted bottle. That liquid is called D’USSE.
The first week of October 2017 ushered in an influential group of U.S. journalists to the bountiful landscape of Cognac, France. The mission? To learn the inner workings of how D’USSE journeys from the notable Rechou Vineyard to your taste buds. Aboard a less than 45-minute bus ride from our Hôtel François Premier to the heart of the southwestern French town, it begins to set in that 252 miles outside the City of Lights is an area that requires all of your senses. Your nose to smell the nature in the air; your fingers to run along the grapes to see if they’re ready for picking; your ears to soak in the five-year generational history of Rechou Vineyard, your eyes to memorize the vast hills and flatlands that have cultivated fruits necessary for producing spirits, and your taste buds to experience the final product.
The vineyard’s frontrunner, Eve Rechou, led the group throughout Grande Champagne, a district within Cognac responsible for the initial process of making fine wine/brandy. The harvesting begins toward the end of September, producing a dry, clear wine once pressed that’s ready for fermentation. Then it’s time for another slow-burning step before being transferred to the oak barrels. From November to March, distillation takes place. The wine mixes in a 25-degree Celsius copper container that evaporates the alcohol. Anything above a 32-degree temperature will kill the yeast and let the aromas of the fermented wine escape. The copper element is also highly preferred because it separates the molecules within the wine during the distillation process to get that near perfect aroma.
The evaporated alcohol, which transforms from a gas to a liquid again (and even blackens surrounding roof tiles or stone walls), is then distilled one more time and broken down into three categories: head, heart and tails. While the head (which is produced in the first distillation phase) and the tails (which is mixed once again in the second phase of distilling) harmoniously clash once it's blended again, it’s the heart or the eau-de-vie that reigns as the victor. Meaning "water of life," the liquid ranks at a 70 percent alcohol level and is then transferred to the oak barrels or casks where it drops down to the federally regulated 40 percent alcohol rank.
Here enters one of the highlights of the trip. The Château de Cognac, which used to be the home of King Francois I, houses the production of the eau-de-vie as they slowly change color from a crystal clear appearance to a butterscotch smooth brown. "The aging conditions within the Château de Cognac are playing a very important role and are at the heart of the unique taste profile of D’USSE—a combination of spicy notes, coming from eau-de-vie aged in dry cellars, and of fruity aromas and long, smooth aftertaste, thanks to eau-de-vie aged in humid cellars," Cellar Master Michele Casavecchia says. "The Château de Cognac is where our company has been producing cognac since 1795 and therefore the perfect location to create D’USSE."
Casavecchia says his goal was to discover a new cognac intermix “that would be suitable for drinking neat as a classical cognac, but also a blend that would have enough complexity to be a great ingredient for making cocktails.” While touring the grand château, tastings of the various stages of the aging process were distributed, including a 2013 eau-de-vie that had a spicy kick to it. As the barrels begin to age, the spirits continue to travel within each batch, enhancing the taste as each year goes by.
"After extraction, the eau-de-vie 'digests' the wood," Casavecchia says. "This is also referred to as the 'marriage' of the eau-de-vie and the compounds in the wood." As time ticks on, the oak then ushers in floral and vanilla aromas that influence the liquid to become a deeper brown. "The eau-de-vie becomes increasingly mellow, the bouquet richer and the tastes less sharp," Cassavecchia adds.
As the Cellar Master mentioned before, D'USSE was partly created to also pair well with other liquids or cocktails. Throughout our various dinners introducing virgin palettes to Pave de Theon, caviar or Burrata, the chefs paired dishes with D’USSE VSOP (with eau-de-vies that are four years of age) mixed with apple juice, cinnamon and caramel syrup (or Triple Sec), and lemon juice finished with a sugar rim. When asked which way he prefers to drink D’USSE— neat or on the rocks—Casavecchia revealed that he leans toward a neat presentation. While the VSOP edition is nice on the rocks, he feels the XO (with eau-de-vies that are 10 years of age) is better consumed neat because of its richness and complexity. Later, a lavish dinner within the château brought about culinary creations that pushed the bounds of taste. The Cognac Gimlet, which fused D’USSE VSOP with Vine Leaf Cordial, came paired with trout tartare. An oxtail with mushrooms dish was served alongside The Smuggler, which married VSOP with lemon juice, sparkling apple juice and Benedictine. These blends were all made possible thanks to the usage of those barrels.
I know it’s strange to think about this cumbersome inanimate object, but think about it—that unspoken mechanism of passing down enzymes to young liquids to then age them with the flavors and spices of its predecessors is quite fascinating. The barrels, in a way, teach you patience and abiding by time, especially if you're always on the go, you finally get a chance to stop and smell the cognac.