Here I am back in our beautiful country, after my American trip, in the new "French Eldorado" of whisky: the Nouvelle-Aquitaine. And more precisely the good old Cognac country.
I already had the opportunity to talk about this beautiful region and its place in the production of whisky in France (see here the article on New Aquitaine), but that was without taking into account its strong development with many references and with notably Cognac houses which start to produce barley distillate.
Amongst all these newcomers (well, new, we have to say it quickly), we are going to discover the FONTAGARD distillery which is delighting us with its first promising distillates and above all (in my opinion) we have not finished hearing about it.
Still stunned by a straight bourbon bottled in Cognac (see here the premonitory article on TWO WORLDS), following the river Charente, I arrive in this same town in search of chimeras. No, I assure you, the bourbon did not make me want to look for a mythological animal, but it is said that in the shadow of two of them lie wonderful distillates.
After a little investigation near the Château de Cognac, I crossed the Charente, on board my faithful BRAD PEAT, and headed for the south of the department. After 30 minutes of driving, I arrived in the village of Neuillac. There, still in my chimerical quest, I was directed even further south to the place called Fontagard! I must have been close because it was exactly the same name as the distillery I was running after today.
And that's where I found my two horned horse-headed chimeras framing a large wooden door along the old Roman road. I had arrived. The FONTAGARD cognac distillery.
As the doors were closed, I decided to cross the street and I found myself in the courtyard of a red brick building with a large Charentais farmhouse attached.
Being discreet with BRAD PEAT is not easy! Of course, his firecracker disturbed the quietness of the place and it didn't take long for two men to appear. I recognized them immediately: Adrien (Granchère, 4th of the name) and Richard (Lambert)!
I quickly told them about my chimerical quest and they laughed a lot. They nevertheless explained to me that the two horse heads flanked by a horn were there to watch over the good ageing of the distillates and that they were already hanging on their wall at the time when the casks arrived on board wagons 150 years ago.
Because yes, if whisky production is recent here, the same cannot be said for Cognac.
On our way to the farmhouse, Adrien tells me that he is the 4th generation of Granchère in this house. Indeed, the FONTAGARD house was created in 1870 by Ernest, his great-grandfather, who, at the time, successfully started producing Cognac. It was then managed and developed by his grandmother, Marie-Thérèse, then his father Dominique. These three generations have made the company a major producer, distributor and trader in the Cognac region. It is for example cognac from the house that flows from certain bottles of Courvoisier or Rémy Martin.
Adrien continues to develop the company, but since 2015 he has been diversifying the production of the house (to our great delight). He started by producing Gin and Rum, but now he will focus on whisky.
He explains that the new whisky adventure is far from being a pipe dream (yet another one) and that it is based on the experience of the house (with the help of his father Dominique). He is accompanied in his new quest by spirits connoisseurs Richard (of DI-STILL and formerly of Remy Cointreau) and Alfred Cointreau (6th in line). A final boost was given by whisky-loving kisskissbankers!
Adrien tells me that the objective was not to produce a N'th French whisky, but rather to produce a whisky that is not only eco-responsible (as is the company's production) but also and above all recognised as a reference.
As I enter the farmhouse, I understand a little better why diversification can be done here without jeopardising the integrity of the company. Adrien is quite proud to show me the 11 stills of the house. Something tells me that spirits are flowing here. It is thanks to some of these valiant Charentais that since 2017, the company has launched into the production of malt distillate and that in 2021, it will regale us with its productions.
Before going to taste the various achievements, we continue the visit of the buildings of the "hamlet of the twelve souls" by passing in front of the silos and the new and modern ageing cellar. Finally, we head for the other side of the road where our famous chimeras are waiting for us: I came to see them anyway.
They watch over the door of the main cellar. It is in the latter that a large number of casks are kept. Of course, there is not only whisky, and far from it (the basic production is still that of Cognac). Adrien shows me some Bourbon, Sauternes and Pineau des Charentes casks and tells me that it is not Cognac that is sleeping there.
It is of course impossible to leave here without tasting all these beautiful beverages.
In a corner of the cellar, on a barrel, stand 4 black bottles with a look as modern as the age of the distillery is ancestral.
Before tasting them, Adrien introduces me to the mysterious distillates with coded names worthy of the greatest French secrets. He tells me first of all that they were all produced from a common local barley with the equally coded name 6RH harvested in 2017 and that they are all bottled at 44% alc/vol. So their difference comes almost exclusively from aging:
- CGNC 9918-5, "the reference" from a 3 year old distillate aged in very old cognac casks
- PNDC 9918-9, which we will call "the Charentais", also aged in cognac casks but also in Pineau des Charentes casks
- STRN 9918-8, "le vigneron", still aged in cognac barrels but also in Sauternes barrels.
I knew these three references but behind the three bottles recognisable by their colour marks (respectively blue, red and yellow), there was a fourth cigar bottle LMBR 9918-4 (the orange one!). He tells me that the one I will call "the mysterious madness" will soon delight our taste buds. Richard tells me that this sweet madness is his (LMBR vs Lambert ??? Maybe a link no?). He tells me that it is a distillate blending whiskies aged in Bourbon, Sauternes and Cognac barrels then blended and aged in new Limousin oak barrels (enough to give it some pep!). He tells me that I should like it because it is brut de fût and smells of peat!
How about a taste of all this?
Let's start with the foundations and the CGNC with its light gold colour (which perhaps betrays its only 3 and a half years spent in cognac casks).
When the nose plunges into the glass, it will discover very fruity aromas and paradoxically more marked than those of a single malt of this age.
The first pass lets pass a smell of melon and then of ripe peach. This whisky is quite fresh and leaves a vanilla smell in the background.
The second passage remains sweet and goes towards a smell of sultanas (at first gorged with sun and then dried in this same sun). Behind the vine hides a sweet smell of chocolate.
The third passage shows more of its woody side and is also marked by the arrival of spices.
In the palm of the hand one feels the barley.
Let's taste it!
This single malt is born under the sign of sweetness and sugar.
Its entry in mouth is soft then it lets pass spices which arrive in force (youth and ardour). The winey side of the palate then softens and becomes more honeyed. Nevertheless, the spices remain present (on the palate and the tongue). After a few seconds, following a hint of harshness and a taste of liquorice, the end of the tasting is a mixture of velvet and woodiness.
Once swallowed, the finish is quite long and leaves a taste of grape (cognac effect) and barley in the throat.
One can clearly tell that this distillate base has benefited from the distillation history of the house, as the cognac casks mask its youth.
Let's move on to the red.
Of the three "basic" references, it is the Pineau des Charentes finish that has the greatest impact on the colour of the distillate. The gold colour will be a little more marbled than the other two and will mask its age a little more.
The nose is more marked by red fruits.
The first passage is much warmer and has a more pronounced aroma of red fruits such as blackberries and sugar.
The second passage reveals aromas of figs as well as spices such as cardamom and green pepper.
The third passage is more woody, almost peaty (I like it a lot -NDLR-).
In the palm of the hand, a smoky side appears immediately but quickly fades away to leave room for barley.
On the palate, the feeling of the nose is confirmed as it is much more marked on red fruits and warmer than the previous one. It seems slightly harsher for a moment but this does not last. The spices try to come out but they too remain hidden with the harshness. They then fade to softer, velvety notes. A few spices manage to get through but as a last stand because at the end of the tasting we go towards Chasselas grapes and even chocolate at the end.
Once swallowed, the finish is a little shorter than the CGNC and more marked by barley.
And the yellow?
We find here the light golden colour of the CGNC.
True to its Sauternes "appellation", we have here a "mellow" whisky.
The first passage of the nose is indeed very sweet and honeyed. A real sweetness. But you have to beware of some sweets because the spices are quickly present and come to tickle the eyelashes.
The second part is more woody with smoky notes and a vanilla background.
The wine nature of this whisky comes out more in the third passage with grape aromas and a more vinous feel.
In the palm of the hand it is clearly the winegrowing and winey character that comes out with a grape smell.
When tasted, like a Sauternes, it is much softer. It has a pastry-like texture on the palate with spice on the tip of the tongue. Clearly much more honeyed and sweet than the others. We fall in love with its sweetness. After a while, a little winey note arrives but very stealthily.
Once swallowed, the finish is long and more alcoholic. It leaves a sweet sensation in the throat and a warmer and spicier one on the palate.
As you may have just realised, I have a slight preference for the STRN, which I would recommend as an accompaniment to a foie gras. Just to give you the sensation of a Sauternes accompaniment but with a little more pep!
But that was without counting on the madness of the LMBR!
We are going to take a step forward here in terms of strength and feeling.
This still young cask strength (52 % alc/vol) is also golden in colour, but more pronounced than the other three references.
It also smells of light peat (hey hey Peatdream!!).
Indeed, from the first passage, we detect a very fine peat. This first nose is slightly fruity on peach and grape base. However, the strength of this brut de fût is not apparent.
On the second pass the atmosphere warms up, with the arrival of light spices on melon aromas.
On the third pass, the spices fade and give way to softer aromas and a hint of citrus.
In the palm of the hand there is a very light smell of smoke and wood.
On the palate, it delivers its strength. It is much more powerful given its alcohol level. It starts with lemony notes. They then become more floral and finally clearly woody. The strength then fades with the arrival of a very light peat. The winey texture of the cask follows. Finally, we move on to the honeyed and sweet notes found on the other Fontagard signatures. A real folly! But we were warned!
Once swallowed, the finish is long and carried on woody notes and star anise in the mouth.
Frankly to say that out of the world of cognac, the name Fontagard, taking into account a work on ageing which hides the youth of the distillates from the nose, which was still only a mysterious chimera 3 or 4 years ago, should quickly become the talk of the town in the circles of whisky lovers.
Some connoisseurs have not been mistaken, but I won't tell you more and I'll let you read my next tasting on peatdream.com.