Dark thoughts are being spirited out of Cognac. Reflexively rotating a brandy snifter in his right palm, Edgard Leyrat leaned into a conspiratorial murmur: The small distiller is being squeezed out by the combined pressures of the banks and their preferred customers, the "grandes maisons," the big producers. Or at least, that was the gist of what he said. Unfortunately for me, Mr. Leyrat couldn't speak a word of English.
Staring into the swirling golden liquid at the bottom of my glass, I murmured my sympathetic response. And I meant it. If it's true that small growers-producers are having difficulty in getting the means to fight 15 percent inflation, and find their avenues for independently selling grapes or distilled brandy, in bulk or bottle, being blocked by marketing pressures from the big guys, it is cause for concern. Variety is the spirit of life in Cognac.
Actually, I don't think Mr. Leyrat, fourth-generation owner of Domaine de Chez Maillard, on the best chalky soils of Champagne de Blanzac, has much difficulty in selling his brandies. Leyrat cognacs are available in 16 of the 20 three-star restaurants in France, elsewhere in Europe and the Far East, and, for the past two years, in the United States.
"Nature and pur," repeated Mr. Leyrat. Cognacs must be natural and pure. No caramel should be added to give a deeper color and sweetish taste, he said. He invited us to taste a sample of his nonreduced cognac. At 136o proof, it is never available for sale. It's the base product, if you like: a cognac before it's been reduced, or literally watered down by distilled water. The bronze color comes from five years of aging in Limousin oak. The nose, well, you could get a whiff of the deep, sharp, fiery nose at 10 paces. There was no need to get much closer, nor did Leyrat encourage anyone to sip it.
A five-year-old Fine, $18, had been gradually reduced in its last year in barrel to 80o proof. Light colored and light bodied, with a touch of vanilla-oakiness, Leyrat suggested it was a cognac to be drunk as an aperitif, with soda or mineral water, or on its own.
The 20-year-old Brut Absolu, $23, on the other hand, should never be diluted. An after-dinner brandy, reduced to 88o proof, marvelously smooth, deep and warm, with the warmth of finesse, not afterburn.
Leyrat had some words of advice on handling cognacs. Evidently, any residual soap or chemicals on a glass affect a good brandy as much as they would a good table wine. As to the shape of the glass, he's in favor of the standard tulip. We don't need big balloons. The important thing is that the bowl should be warmed gently in the hands until the temperature of the cognac reaches about 90o F. If it's too cool, you won't get all the soft, subtle flavors of a "natural and pure" cognac.
Mr. Leyrat leaned forward again. The Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac, the organization responsible for promoting the generic interests of all Cognac, finds it more convenient to follow the dictates of the big firms. They, the large conglomerate distillers, wouldn't like the bureau's activities to conflict with their own high-budget campaigns.
Yes, yes, I nodded my understanding as I sipped his unusual and delicious Pineau de Charentes, $16. Five-year-old cognac had been added to the fresh unfermented juice of botrytis infected, late harvest grapes. Was it an aperitif wine or a dessert wine? With such apolitical problems was I wrestling. Mr. Leyrat was forgiving.