The house of Rémy Martin has long been dedicated to sustainable agriculture, having pioneered green practices in Cognac for well over a decade, and a huge part of its commitment involves tackling the threat posed by climate change. Here, cellar master Baptiste Loiseau explains how robust new grape varieties are being trialled across the estate – and what this might mean for the future of the Charente…

“Climate change is already here,” says Loiseau. “It started, let’s say, more than 20 years ago, but we really faced this change during the 2003 vintage. It was a really difficult vintage in the region of Cognac.” An intensely hot summer caused the grapes to grow “in an erratic way that was really new for all the growers of the region,” he explains, “and it was really at that time that we understood that we needed to be focusing on and adapting to climate change.”

The first decision Rémy Martin made was to harvest earlier, in an effort to preserve the freshness and acidity of its grapes. “We are facing quite the same characteristic this year,” says Loiseau. “We had a really hot spring and the ripeness of the grapes is arriving much more rapidly.” This year’s harvest could take place at the beginning of September, potentially even the end of August. By contrast, it typically takes place during the third week of September.

Baptiste Loiseau in the vineyard

An earlier harvest is a temporary solution – an elastoplast – over a far bigger issue, something Rémy Martin was quick to recognise. The best way to preserve the future of the Cognac appellation, Loiseau says, is by experimenting with new grape varieties for the next generation of winegrowers. “We are making some trials on two new cultivars that maybe in the next decades, maybe in 40 or 50 years, will replace the classical cultivar that we are using, called Ugni Blanc.”

The first is an older grape variety called Monbadon which, though native to the Charente, is now mainly found in California. In decades gone by, it didn’t quite fit the bill for Cognac-making in terms of ripeness and aromas, says Loiseau, “but because of climate change, it’s now much more suitable and adapted to the region”. In 2015, the house took an approximately 1.5 hectare plot on its estate and divided it into two, designating 0.8 hectares for Monbadon – equivalent to around 3,000 vines – and the rest for Ugni Blanc. Rémy Martin made its first harvest three years later in September 2018.

For three to four weeks prior, the team conducted analysis and taste testing. Every Monday, the team would go to the field to taste and analyse the grapes, looking at acidity – which needs to be high, since Rémy does not use sulphur – nitrogen levels, and the health of the vine, says Loiseau. “It’s really a combination between the senses, the taste, the shape of the grapes and their weight also, because it’s a question of quantity and a question of quality,” he explains.

Flowering, a crucial time in the development of healthy grapes

When it’s time to pick the grapes, the field is harvested the same day. “We will preserve one press for the Monbadon and one press for the Ugni Blanc, to compare the two cultivars,” says Loiseau. “We do the winemaking and the distillation the same way. The only difference is based on the cultivar itself.” The team analyses both wines and eaux de vies and tastes them both blind, before ageing them in the cellar. 

“We need between five to 10 years of cask ageing to [assess] the evolution of the aromas of Monbadon in comparison to the classical Ugni Blanc,” says Loiseau. And then, given how remarkably each vintage can be, the experiment needs to be conducted over multiple harvests to provide a true picture. “So in fact, we will not have the answer to our questions before 2030,” he says. 

Naturally, Monbadon isn’t the only cultivar under trial at Rémy Martin. There’s another alternative for the future of the appellation, currently under wraps. “We have another plot that is not corresponding to a variety that is known now in the region,” says Loiseau. “It’s a code with a figure, a letter, and a figure – I’m not going to disclose it, because it’s quite secret right now. We have a high expectation on this one. And just besides, we have another four rows of vineyards that are planted with two other secret codes.”

Cover crops between vines

Little is known about the second cultivar, other than it has “this characteristic corresponding to climate change,” says Loiseau. “It’s also a cultivar that is much more resistant, less sensitive, to diseases,” requiring less fertilisation. This helps Rémy fulfil the former – “that is to say, to have less impact because of practises on the environment,” he says.

Despite the decision to keep the cultivar under wraps for now, Loiseau says the research – conducted in partnership with the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC) and the French National Institute for Agronomic Research – is for the benefit of the appellation. “When we decide to go in a direction, we have to be sure that it’s the right one and not only for ourselves, but for the next generation to come,” he says.