• Above average use of wines sourced from Borderies region
• The largest stills in Cognac
• Distillation of bright wines - filtered and racked to remove sediment and lees (dead yeast cells)
• Chauffe-vins to pre-heat the wine prior to distillation are not used as Martel believe this is detrimental to the wine's flavour.
• Martell deliberately cut to tails early in order to ensure production of the desired clean, relatively neutral eau-de-vie.
• Martell's distinctive house style relies on a relatively light clean spirit taking its character from oak
• Martell only use Tronçais oak casks as promote mellower, lighter and more fragrant flavours than Limousin oak.
• Casks are only lightly toasted.
• Martell have more than 200,000 casks of maturing eau-de-vie
• After blending cognacs are rested in vats for one to four months prior to bottling.
Back in the early 18th century, when Jean Martell launched the cognac house that still bears his name, he was predominantly trading cognacs from the Borderies region and his influence continues through to this day with Martell's high use of Borderies in its blends. The importance of Borderies to Martell is also evident in the company's own vineyard holdings: 160 hectoacres in Borderies, 45 hectoacres in Grande Champagne and 38 hectoacres in Petit Champagne.
Martell produce about 70% of their own distillate with the company's remaining needs roughly evenly supplied between aged eau-de-vie and newly made distillate from third-party distillers. Whether Martell are making eau-de-vie themselves, or buying in distillate to age in their own cellars, the house is very particular about how the eau-de-vie is made.
The largest still in Cognac
Much of Martell's own distilling takes place at their Gallienne distillery which sits in the heart of the Borderies region. Constructed in 1992, this is the largest and one of the most technically advanced in Cognac. Gallienne is also noted for having the largest first distillation (première chauffe) stills with a gargantuan capacity of 130 hectolitres, just 10 hectolitres short of the legal maximum. These stills replicate the shape and proportions of Martell’s original stills but around four times bigger.
Martell have contracts with some 200 wine makers in Fins Bois, Borderies and Grande Champagne who jointly supply some 200,000 litres of wine to Gallienne. (Ten litres of wine produces one litre of distillate.) After each harvest these wine makers send one litre from each of their tanks for Martell to test. This is tasted and nosed, both as a wine, and also as a spirit after a micro distillation. Gas chromatography may also be used. Martel are looking for wines that produce a fruity and round distillate without any faults such as mushroom-like aromas that may come from mildew on the grapes.
Ugni Blanc grapes are used and this late maturing variety produces a wine with high acidity, vital in helping preserve the wine prior to distillation as only natural wine is used without additives. Chemical products like Sulphur Dioxide which are routinely added to wines in many other wine regions, would be detrimental to distillation so are not permitted in cognac production.
Importantly, Martell stipulate that both grape juice and wines are bright. After pressing, the grape juice is racked for 24 hours to allow sediment to fall. The juice is then filtered to remove the sediment and the raw juice goes onto fermentation which lasts about a week. The wine is left to rack for three weeks after fermentation is completed to allow the dead yeast cells, known as lees, to fall to the bottom of the tank. Martell are very particular that only 'bright', filtered wine goes on to be distilled.
The merits of distilling cognac 'on the lees' or after removal of the lees by filtration is argued by different cognac houses who obviously are biased to their own particular methods. Distilling on the lees adds a gamey-like flavour to the raw spirit, which many blenders like. Contrastingly, distilling bright wine produces a cleaner, purer spirit, and this method is preferred by Martell who seek a lighter more neutral distillate to allow more of the cognac's character to come from the cask during maturation.
One of the première chauffe stills. The still itself is encased by brickwork with the Arab's head leading to the swan neck on the right of the photo. The condenser is the large cylinder in the centre of the shot which flows into the stainless receiver on the far left.
The wine, which is around 9.5% alc./vol. is brought to Gallienne for distillation. Wines judged to be particularly good are distilled separately in the hope they will produce a distillate which will go on to be used to make a great cognac. The first still, the première chauffe, is charged with 100 hectolitres of wine and first distillation lasts for round 8.5 hours producing nearly 40 hectolitres of distillate, known as brouillis at around 33% alc./vol..
Unlike many other distillers Martell do not use energy saving Chauffe-vins to pre-heat the wine before either the first or second distillations, as they believe this is detrimental to the wine's flavour.
Two of the smaller second distillation stills
The brouillis from the first distillation charges two smaller stills for the second distillation with each of the two stills charged with 20 hectolitres of brouillis. The stills are heated with the gas pressure turned fully up until a temperature of around 62°C is reached at the top of the swan neck and distillation starts. The gas pressure is then reduced ensure a slow distillation with the heads, which account for 1.5 to 2% of the run (some 30 to 40 litres) directed to the heads receiver – a small copper tank in front of each condenser. The heads run for around 30 minutes before the heart, the eaux-de-vie that will go onto to be aged and blended to make cognac, starts to flow.
As the heart runs, the temperature of the still is monitored and the gas pressure adjusted every hour so the still temperature conforms to what is known as the Martell Curve. As the hearts start to run the gas pressure is at a low level. After one hour of hearts running the gas pressure is raised. It is raised again on the third hour then lowered on both the fourth and fifth hours. Some 6.5 hectolitres of eau-de-vie is produced with an average strength of 71.5% alc./vol. before the cut to tails (known in Cognac as ‘seconds’) which occurs at around 58°C. Martell deliberately cut to tails early in order to ensure production of the desired clean, relatively neutral eau-de-vie. The eau-de-vie runs from the condenser into an oval oak collecting cask in front of each still.
Three spirit receivers at the foot of each condenser left to right: 1. small copper heads receiver, 2. stainless steel tails receiver, 3. oval-shaped oak hearts eaux-de-vie receiver.
The gas pressure is then turned up to distil the tails as quickly as possible and the still is run until the strength of the tails flowing from the condenser into the stainless steel tails collecting tank drops to around 2% alc./vol. Martell add the heads and tails from the second distillation to the next batch of wine, rather than the next batch of brouillis (the result of first distillation). In effect, this means some of the wine will be distilled four times so producing a more neutral, lighter distillate.
Remembering Martell's distinctive house style relies on a relatively light clean spirit taking its character from oak, the house specifically specifies maturation in Tronçais oak. Martell do not use Limousin oak as the house seeks the mellower, lighter and more fragrant flavours from the darker, narrower pored, less tannic Tronçais oak. Oak is supplied graded '1' to '10' and Martell only use timber graded '2' or '3' and source their casks from a family owned cooperage specifying their casks are only lightly toasted.
Batches of eaux-de-vie are grouped according to growth area and quality with eaux-de-vie assessed to be of similar quality from the same area crus brought together in 350 hectolitres vats. A batch can be one barrel to 100 barrels (each barrel holds approximately 340 litres). Evaporation during the aging process leads to levels of eau-de-vie in the casks falling and this is topped up every third year with eau-de-vie from the same batch. Keeping the casks topped up helps reduce evaporation.
Martell have more than 200,000 casks of maturing eau-de-vie and Cellar Master, Christophe Valtaud and his team of 15 tasters sample every batch of eaux-de-vie every second year to assess whether they should be set aside for prolonged aging or at the other end of the scale used to blend V.S. cognac.
Eaux-de-vie from different growing areas (crus) and qualities of eaux-de-vie are only brought together during the final blending process. After blending, cognacs are held in vats for a period to allow the eaux-de-vie to marry – one month for V.S., three months for Cordon Bleu and four months for X.O. cognac. The cognac is chill filtered at -2°C to ensure the bottled cognac does not haze when cold.
Martell produce around 1.5 million 9-litre cases of cognac a year.