Seven centuries after the Frapin family started tending vineyards in the Cognac region of France in 1270, their descendants began experimenting with distillation. The family has grown wine grapes since the 13th century, but only began distilling it to make cognac in the decades following the fall of the French monarchy.
“Because Cognac Frapin is specialized in the niche market of ‘high-quality cognac,’ I have to create cognacs that continue to keep the Frapin style year after year,” said Cognac Frapin cellmaster Patrice Piveteau, whose responsibility is to maintain the nearly 800-year-old, 21-generation Frapin brand’s reputation. “The pressure lies in my obligation to keep Frapin at the highest level of quality decade after decade.”
For brandy to be called “cognac,” the white wine must be grown from grapes in the Appellation d’Orgine Contrôlée (or AOC), double-distilled in a copper pot still and aged for at least two years in Limousin or Tronçais oak barrels. Some distillers import wine juice from outside the region, but Piveteau says that all of Frapin’s is produced internally prior to distillation and aging.
“Lots of people don’t know that cognac comes from a terroir, a vine, grapes. That is why a strong presence in the field is essential,” he said. “All our cognacs come only from our vineyard in the heart of the Grande Champagne Area. We still age in centuries-old cellars like the former generations.”
Piveteau, whose father was a winegrower in Cognac, joined Frapin in 1991, working his way up to master distiller and eventually cellar master. He is also the 600-acre estate’s managing director and supervisors the estate’s dry and “wet” aging cellars.
Cognac designations are assigned based on how long the product spends aging. Very special (VS) indicates two years in the barrel; very superior old pale (VSOP) four and extra old (XO) six. Cognacs can be aged for much longer, and specialists mix from various barrels to create unique tastes. This requires training and a careful palate.
“One of the characteristics of the Grande Champagne Area is the chalky subsoil that enables a hydric feeding of the vines,” Piveteau said. “The summer enables a regular supply of water to the grapes” to help them grow for later pressing.
Growing traditions are important, but equally so is staying in business in an ever more crowded, globalized marketplace. Piveteau says that Frapin manages this balance by applying 21st century methodology to maintain the quality of a centuries-old production process, including distilling “over the lees,” which is a secondary horizontal press that allows for maximal extraction of the juice and pulp from the grapes.
“We are rejuvenating our range…with a new decanter for our entry level, Frapin 1270, and for our VSOP and our XO VIP,” Piveteau said.
As much pride as Piveteau and his fellow distillers feel for cognac, to remain competitive they must reach markets well outside of central France. Wine Enthusiast reports that 97 percent of all cognac is exported.
“We think that drinkers in France have a little bit less reverence for cognac despite its historical association with the region,” said Piveteau. “France is not a big market for cognac in general, so it is hard to increase the consumption.”
To bring the locals back, Frapin allows for tours of its chateau near the village of Segonzac. Here, the curious can peek behind the curtain to see how cognac is made. The personalized tours also lure connoisseurs from outside the country. Virtual tours and social media also help get the word out.
“That is why our sales representative and I are traveling all around the world to [host] tastings and to increase the knowledge about our products,” Piveteau said, adding that the most profitable sector is the “high-quality” niche market.
The American market, Piveteau said, can be especially picky for cognac. In fact, consumers on this side of the Atlantic are eschewing XO in favor of the “younger” taste profiles provided by VS and VSOP varieties, especially when it comes to craft cocktails. These younger cognacs are often mixed in as the main ingredient in an old fashioned or a sidecar.
Cocktail pairing, in turn, has been exported back to cognac’s ancestral home—much like the British “invasion” of blues back to America.
“Food pairing gives the consumer a new [way] to discover cognacs” in addition to its traditional after-dinner placement, Piveteau said. “Moreover, we strongly think that [consumer] knowledge will increase and people will look for more quality and authenticity.”
In addition to the United States, Piveteau has traveled to Russia and various parts of Asia seeking to open up markets for Frapin. His company is also looking at expanding into India and Africa as well.
“Some areas need more time because they have less knowledge about the product than others,” he said. “Sometimes I’m pleased by [customers under 40] that are looking for refinement, high quality or who are epicurean.
“We are far from the ‘old-fashioned image’ that” is often associated with cognac, Piveteau said. “And that is a good thing.”
Frapin uses what Piveteau calls “selective distribution” of their products in France and abroad. But no amount of market specialization can control for a warming planet and its effects on the growing and harvesting of the grapes that become cognac itself. The alcoholic content of cognac is largely dependent upon the temperature at harvest time: A higher temperature results in a higher alcohol content from the grapes. Vinepair reports that cognac makers traditionally aim for 6 percent to 9 percent alcohol, but the warmer harvest times have been resulting in as much as 10 percent.
Piveteau says that the grapes at Frapin Estate are harvested sooner in the season than ever before to head off problems like these. And no matter how good the soil may be for the grapes, he said, “the warming climate requires some changes.”
However, despite ever more alarming reports about climate change’s effect on horticulture in general and cognac specifically, Piveteau is optimistic about the future.
“I believe in the capacity of the Cognac area to adapt to this change, with new ways of winegrowing or new grape varieties,” he said. “I do have some hope concerning the warming climate, [and] I hope it will be more moderate than predicted.
“[Ours] is a very important tradition of consistency concerning our terroir, handed down from generation to generation.”