Our expert Prof tackles this oxymoronic riddle that often leaves whisky drinkers puzzled.
The damp inside the cellar is palpable, seeming to soak into your lungs with every breath. As the light flicks on, it illuminates a scene of apparent desolation: rows of ancient, mould-encrusted casks, many with their chestnut hoops broken and pointing to the blackened rafters like the crooked fingers of a long-dead corpse.
It looks abandoned, derelict; but this is one of the ‘Paradis’ cellars at Cognac Frapin’s home, Château Fontpinot, where some of the casks are a century old, and some of the eaux-de-vie have rested for decades.
We move on to another cellar, this time upstairs. ‘I like this one,’ says Patrice Piveteau, Frapin’s cellar master. Here the air is drier, the warmth – even in the weak November sunshine – a welcome contrast.
Piveteau’s affection for this chai is partly due to its maturation conditions – it houses many vintage Cognacs, their casks splashed with the red wax seals used by the Cognac authorities to guarantee their authenticity – and partly to its stunning roof, with its huge, beautifully irregular, hand-cut beams and trusses.
Frapin is as close as Cognac gets to single malt. In a region dominated by big names (Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin, Courvoisier), where the prevalent business model is that of the négociant (buying in grapes, wine and/or spirit to bottle under your own name), Frapin goes the other way.
Upstairs cellar: Drier conditions will give these vintage Cognacs greater finesse
Every grape harvested from the 240 hectares of the company’s vineyards in the heart of the pre-eminent Grande Champagne sub-region is used to make Frapin’s Cognacs; nothing is bought in, nothing is sold on.
In an age when, more than ever, we want to know where our food and drink comes from and how it’s made, tracing the journey from soil to plate and glass, Frapin’s is a compelling back-story. But, for Piveteau, it’s one that comes with a challenge.
‘We have one range for everywhere in the world,’ he explains. ‘Frapin is not big enough to make segmentation – there is no variability through using different wine growers or different sub-regions. We do have two types of terroir, but they are both in the heart of Grande Champagne.’
In this context, the Frapin philosophy is almost puritanically restrictive, meaning that the only path to differentiation and diversity for Piveteau lies through maturation and, in particular, the age and location of the cask.
There are ‘new’ casks (up to five years old), in which the spirit will spend between six months and a year, with lots of interaction and flavour from the wood; casks of five to 15 years old, where the influence is more subtle and slow; and casks of 15 to 100 years old or more, where it’s all evaporation, oxidation and concentration.
Downstairs cellar: This damp ‘Paradis’ will make for a supple, rounded character
Then there are the cellars. Four groups of them, spreading the fire risk, but also giving Piveteau options. Some humid, promoting the loss of more ethanol than water; some dry, where the opposite occurs.
The former gives a rounded, supple Cognac; the latter something with a stronger character, but more elegance and finesse. ‘It’s a way for me to produce something different,’ explains Piveteau.
And in the glass? Frapin’s Cigar Blend has a full year in a new cask, which adds a touch of tannin, and is aged in a humid cellar, which tames any austerity and gives a richly rounded texture.
Meanwhile, Château de Fontpinot XO (six months in new oak, aged in a dry cellar) has classic Frapin fruit-and-flowers purity, underpinned by a firm structure and a supreme elegance. Go back to your empty glass after five minutes and a perfumed tobacco leaf aroma lingers.
This is as precise as Cognac gets in terms of provenance: vineyards, winemaking, distillation, maturation and bottling all in one place. But, as Piveteau is at pains to point out, the liquid remains a blend. ‘And to have a good blend, you need knowledge and a lot of stock,’ he says.
Single cask: But even single-property Cognacs like Frapin’s Fontpinot are still blends
‘It’s like painting – to have a good green, you need lots and lots of good blue and yellow.’ On average, the Cognac region has seven years of stock; Frapin has 16, scattered among the diverse cellars of Segonzac, Fontpinot, Chez Piet.
It’s an instructive example that should remind all of us about the true nature of single malt Scotch whisky. We spend so much time dissecting the singularity of what makes Laphroaig Laphroaig, or Glenfarclas Glenfarclas, that we risk forgetting the old truism about all single malts being, at their heart, a blend.
Where Piveteau plays around with cask age and location, a master distiller on Islay or Speyside tweaks cask types, ‘finishes’ and spirit maturity, combining whiskies of all hues in order to create complexity and maintain continuity of character.
It is a space where science and art collide, and where location and process are moulded by human judgement and experience into something greater than the sum of their parts.
Maybe if we all thought and talked of single malts in this manner – in terms of the plurality rather than singularity of their character – we might grow to understand and love them in a different way.
And maybe, just maybe, it might elevate the all-too-often maligned world of blends – without which, let’s remember, most single malts would long ago have become extinct – and restore them to their rightful place in the collective whisky consciousness.
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