A Cognac as elegant as Carla Bruni
By John Schreiner
February 3, 2008
One of the best ways of dealing with envy is focussing on what you have rather than what someone else has.
Take the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. Some might envy him for his sensational new bride.
Recently, I spent an evening with about two dozen Francophiles. Sarkozy’s name never even came up because the entire evening was building up to something the president does not have: a tasting of a cognac from 1795, only a few years after the French Revolution. It proved to be easily as elegant as Carla Bruni.
This rare bottle – the last one in the world for all anyone knows – was dispensed by the owners of the Blackwood Lane Winery, an upwardly mobile new winery in British Columbia.
Here’s the story:
The cognac has been in the family of French nobility, passed along from one generation to another. During the German occupation of France in World War II, the bottle John Schreiner, Charles Herrold, Alain Canuel (and probably other bottles) were hidden in a wall at the estate, apparently not retrieved until 1954.
The bottle was brought to Canada by Jean-Gabriel Castel, a descendant of the count who originally owned it. A member of the French Resistance during the war, Jean-Gabriel studied law after the war at Harvard. After teaching briefly at McGill, he joined the faculty of Osgoode Hall in Toronto in 1959 and taught there for the next 40 years. The cognac eventually was passed on to one of his sons, Marc Castel.
Blackwood Lane, which just began selling its wines last year, was founded by Carlos Lee and Charles Herrold.
Lee and Castel met at university, where they shared a mutual interest in wine. When Castel learned that his friend was involved with a winery, he asked if he could also invest in Blackwood Lane. The answer was yes; part of the cost of buying into the winery was delivering that bottle of 1795 Cognac for a function that would promote Blackwood Lane.
Castel obviously agreed, having come to the view that it would be better to experience the cognac than continue to treat it as an untouchable heirloom.
Building a dinner around the cognac - it was at Vancouver’s swank La Terrazza Restaurant – reflects the thespian flair that Blackwood Lane’s other partner brings to the winery. Herrold, who was born in Iowa in 1959, played in various rock bands in the United States and Canada until 1987. He says he developed his taste for good wines and cognac during his days as a musician.
Now a resident of White Rock, he started making his own wines in the 1990s, getting so serious that he eventually contracted a small vineyard block in the Okanagan. Carlos Lee owned a White Rock restaurant that Herrold favoured. The two discovered their mutual interest in wine and agreed to launch Blackwood Lane.
Because the winery has yet to build its planned tasting room in Langley, Herrold and Lee have put it on the map by selling directly to restaurants. The flagship red is full and rich Bordeaux blend called Alliànce. The debut 2004 vintage retails for $54 a bottle. The winery also offers a fine 2005 Cabernet Franc and a good 2005 Single Vineyard Merlot, each at $39.
Blackwood Lane also has a less aggressively-priced series of wines, including a delightful Pinot Noir-based blend, Vicuña Rioja 2005 ($24) and a 2005 Chardonnay ($19). There are notes on them on the winery’s website.
Now sold out is a dry Siegerrebe that Blackwood Lane made in 2006 when Herrold came across a small Langley vineyard growing that German white. He was not able to make any in 2007 because, just before harvest, thieves got into the vineyard and made off with several tons of grapes.
It was, perhaps, brave to serve all of these wines at the dinner that led up to opening the 1795 Cognac. However, the wines showed well, marking Blackwood Lane as a winery to watch.
The cognac was in a bottle from which the label, if it ever had one, had long since vanished. The cork appeared to be hand-carved, leading to speculation that it was still the original cork – highly unlikely, given that the strength of the spirit had reached 51% alcohol, a strength that would surely have destroyed more than one cork in two centuries.
As for the taste, Herrold poetically compared it to “the kiss of a butterfly” (which is what made me think of Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy).
My notes are less romantic, perhaps. It began with the aroma of vanilla and the spices in a rich Christmas pudding. The alcohol made the aroma a touch sharp, as one would expect, but the alcohol also propelled the aromas from the snifter. The flavours are extremely complex, fruity with spicy orange notes, hints of Earl Grey tea, a suggestion of earthiness. The flavours linger for a long time after the cognac slips gently and warmly down the throat.
There may be a few ounces still for sale at La Terrazza. If so, the cost $1,200 for an ounce – but what an extraordinary ounce of history.
Blackwood Lane is included in John Schreiner’s revised edition of British Columbia Wine Country
John Schreiner is author of British Columbia Wine Country