When the Marquis de Lafayette sailed from France to America in 1780 to help tip the balance in the American Revolutionary War, his ship, the Hermione, carried about 300 men; animals and provisions to sustain them for six months; and munitions to bolster the rebel cause against the British. His most important contribution, of course, was France’s support for American independence.
He also brought two barrels of cognac. He was French, after all.
Cognac figures prominently in the current voyage of the Hermione (pronounced air-me-OWN), a replica of Lafayette’s ship now visiting our East Coast. The Hermione, with a crew of 80 volunteers, set sail in April from Poitou-Charentes, the region where cognac is made. It arrived in Yorktown this month and spent a day in Alexandria. It will be docked for public viewing in Baltimore from Friday through Sunday before heading to Philadelphia and then New York for July 4 celebrations. It’s a three-masted frigate 216 feet long that took more than 20 years to build.
The new Hermione anchored in the Potomac on June 9 opposite Mount Vernon to salute Lafayette’s friendship with George Washington at a black-tie event attended by U.S. and French cabinet ministers, Supreme Court justices, assorted diplomats, other bigwigs and at least one over-awed wine writer. The evening featured a fife and drum corps, free-flowing Dom Perignon champagne, a gourmet dinner and fireworks. A barrel of cognac carried aboard the ship on its six-week voyage from France, 250 liters of a special commemorative blend from Hennessy, was auctioned for $150,000, or about $480 a bottle, to benefit the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. A second barrel will be auctioned in New York.
“I didn’t know it was so expensive,” said the ship’s captain, Yann Cariou, of his precious cargo.
Lafayette’s friendship with Washington “is seen as one of the most inspiring in history,” said Ségolène Royal, France’s minister for ecology, sustainable development and energy and head of the committee that developed the Hermione celebration. As president of the Poitou-Charentes department, Royal had supported the 23-year effort to build the replica.
Lafayette was only 19 when he first came to America in 1777 to join Washington, and 23 when he returned here on the original Hermione with the support of King Louis XVI and the promise of 6,000 troops. Although the history and impact of his intervention are well documented, apparently not much was recorded about the cognac he brought over, which might have been used by the marquis and the general to toast their victory over the British at Yorktown.
“It was probably VS or VSOP,” Christophe Navarre, chairman and chief executive of Moët Hennessy, the potable portion of the LVMH luxury brands empire, told me with a Gallic shrug that translated as “nothing special.” VS and VSOP are two common designations for cognac.
It might have been Hennessy cognac. Hennessy is celebrating its 250th anniversary, and founder Richard Hennessy was on hand to see Lafayette and the Hermione set sail from the city of Rochefort.
Cognac, a type of brandy, starts as unremarkable white wine made primarily from the ugni blanc grape. (Ugni blanc, called trebbiano in Italy, today makes some tasty cheap wines from Gascony.) The wine is distilled twice to improve its purity and potency, and the eaux de vie are then aged in barrels made of oak from the Limousin forest. The finest cognacs are crafted by skilled blenders from several eaux de vie with a wide variety of ages.
Hennessy’s master blender, Yann Fillioux, is a seventh-generation cognac blender. It took him five years to make the Hennessy 250 cognac that was carried on the Hermione, “using the finest eaux de vie of my 50-year career at Hennessy,” he said. He described the four characteristics of fine cognac as “precision, roundness, finesse and persistence.”
The anniversary blend was indeed exquisite, redolent of hazelnuts and walnuts and with an appealing hint of citrus. And perhaps there was the slightest whiff of sea air from its six-week voyage across the Atlantic.
Persistence seemed a fitting theme, given the perseverance of the American rebels and the endurance of the French-American friendship on display that evening at Mount Vernon.