A s the oldest vintage Cognac ever to be sold at auction, the Gautier 1762 holds the answers to many questions about the history of French Brandy production.
The Oldest Cognac Ever Sold at Auction
We often refer to older Cognac vintages as being “pre-Phylloxera”. Between around 1872-74, vineyards across Europe were devastated by Phylloxera Vastatrix, a tiny insect related to the aphid that feeds on grapevines. The extent of the Phylloxera endemic in Cognac effectively ceased viticulture and wine production in the area. The problem was overcome by importing foreign rootstocks that were more resistant to Phylloxera and grafting the sprouting branches of alternative grape varietals onto them.
The remedy to Phylloxera saw a shift in production methods. As younger vine roots were planted, winemakers turned away from the region’s favourite grape Folle Blanche in favour of Ugni Blanc (although Folle Blanche can still be found even to this day). As the change in grape affected the resulting character of the wine and, most importantly, its sugar yield and profile, so too did the Cognac distillate begin to evolve. The new era of post-Phylloxera Cognac was born.
There are many cognacs that predate Phylloxera, however the 1762 Gautier Cognac takes us back even further into history. This vintage precedes even the French Revolution of 1789-1799, so we can imagine that Cognac businesses were operating under a very different economic, social and political climate. Indeed, going back to the time when Maison Gautier was founded, in 1755, Cognac spirit was often referred to and sold as “eau de vie”, or water of life. Much like Scotch Whisky’s equivalent, “uisge beatha”, these aqua vites all had something in common: they were clear spirits. It was only really when the Seven Years’ War of 1756-1763 broke out that cask maturation came into play.
As the Seven Years war began to absorb France’s military focus, it was the cities, rather than the provinces that saw the greatest impact. The knock-on effect of this to Cognac producers was two-fold. Firstly, there was the economic impact of war, which meant that fewer people in the cities were frequenting bars and spending money. Secondly, trade routes both domestically within France and beyond to countries such as England (who at the time were veracious consumers of Coganc’s eau de vie) were restricted.
This meant that Cognac distillers had to find somewhere to store their spirit until situations improved. With the introduction of the “tight” barrel (the watertight equivalent of the “slack” barrel that was used to store and transport dried goods such as grain), eau de vie was filled into wood and stored in distillery cellars for months and even years. When the spirit was finally filled into glass bottles and demijohns, it had taken on colour and flavour, becoming the Cognac brandy we know today. The Gautier 1762 finds itself at the beginning of this exploration into maturation and represents the dawning of oaked brandy.
This Gautier 1762, now known lovingly as the “Grand Frere”, or “Big Brother”, is actually one of a trio of 1762 bottles, all of varying sizes. The smallest of the three, the “Petite Soeur”, is now on display at Maison Gautier in Cognac. The “Petit Frere” was sold in 2014 at auction in New York for £48,000. The “Grand Frere” was the largest of these three bottles. All three were, for generations, owned by one family, who wish to remain anonymous.
The family in question have for years stored these three bottles cautiously in their cellar understanding that their condition, rarity and value must be preserved. The story of their procurement dates back generations to the 19th Century when the family adopted a son by the name of Alphonse. Alphonse was quiet and independent, and it wasn’t long before he left home to find work for himself. His intrepid nature led him to the vineyards of Cognac where he arrived in 1870, not long before the phylloxera outbreak.
After 10 years in Cognac Alphonse returned home. The devastation of phylloxera meant that many distillers had to make their way back to their families. Indeed times were so tough that many Cognac producers may have been unable to pay their staff, and instead provided them with bottles of brandy in lieu of wages. As Alphonse made his way home he brought with him a cart laden with bottles. Amongst these bottles were three of varying sizes, but in exceptional condition and with legible labels that read Gautier 1762: The Petite Soeur, Petit Frere and Grand Frere
Some years later, at the beginning of World War I, Alphonse was conscripted to the army. He sadly died in 1914 but left behind him a superb legacy: the oldest vintage Cognac ever to be sold at auction.
Ahead of the auction Sotheby’s Spirits Specialist, Jonny Fowle, spoke with Cognac Gautier Cellar Master, Jérémie Durand:
Jonny Fowle: Tell us a bit about your work at Gautier
Jérémie Durand: I’m Cognac Gautier’s cellar master. I’m 29 years old and the grandson and son of charentais winegrowers. I grew up with the scent of distillation. Long nights in the distillery, harvest days, and the pruning period are all a part of my heritage. The land, the vine, and French savoir-vivre animated my childhood. It is therefore logical that I chose to become an oenologist. This took me to Bordeaux, the Loire Valley, and Provence via Cognac.
At Gautier, I work with passion everyday: blending, tasting, selecting eaux-de-vie, working with vinegrowers and selecting barrels. I must juggle between the short-term vision of meeting customer demand and the long-term vision of ensuring quality and the international reputation of this wonderful House. I don't have time to get bored.
JF: When was Gautier founded and by whom?
JD: The history of the Gautier house dates to 1644 with the wedding of Charles Gautier, a landowner in the forest of Tronçais, and Jacquette Brocher, the daughter of a winegrower and merchant from Aigre. Later, in 1755, their grandson Louis Gautier obtained a Royal permit to export. This royal right is the founding act of Cognac Gautier signed by the hand of King Louis XV. The official date of the creation of Gautier cognac is therefore 1755.
JF: What do you think defines the character of Gautier’s Cognac?
JD: The character of cognac is defined by those who make it. Our cognacs are therefore generous, delicious, and very expressive. We are fortunate to have cellars that are located on a river: the Osme. This location makes it possible to create very balanced cognacs. Our humid cellars are one of the pillars of Gautier quality, as well as the winegrowers with whom we work. Experts, humid cellars, winegrowers, and time, this is Gautier.
JF: Viticulture is very important in Cognac production. Can you tell us what “Pre-Phylloxera” means to Cognac collectors?
JD: The pre-phylloxeric period represents an entirely different viticulture. At the end of the 19th century, the phylloxera pest devastated French wine production, and by extension Cognac. When we talk about Cognac or other spirits that date from before 1875, we must think in terms of the artisinal or even ancestral, particularly regarding cognacs of 150 years or more! We don't just savor these cognacs, we love them. They possess a mix of concentrated aromas and stories, nectars that have weathered wars in the shade of quiet and protected cellars. Bohemia, poetry and the charm of the old: this is what collectors of very old cognacs are looking for.
JF: What should collectors understand about the “Grand Frère” bottle of 1762 Gautier?
JD: They must understand that this bottle is connected to the very roots of the house. Everything was different in 1762: mouth-blown bottles, woven and varnished labels to protect them from the ravishes of time. This bottle, which was 3 in number, is the last to be acquired. It is a masterpiece both for its age and for what it represents. It's not every day that we can hold a bottle over 250 years old in our hands! The title "Grand Frère" evokes an idea of protection, a virtue that the buyer will have to bring to this treasure.
JF: The winning bidder on this 1762 Gautier will be invited to visit Gautier in Cognac. Can you tell us what visitors to the distillery?
JD: Maison Gautier is full of secrets, and the future buyer will be able to come and discover some of these secrets. The experience spanning two days will allow the visitor to visit all the cellars of the house. They will also be able to taste our cognacs in food pairing during a meal within the house. A stroll through the heart of the Charente will be followed by a meal in a gourmet restaurant and a night in a hotel selected by us. All the conditions will be met in order to be able to appreciate Cognac Gautier, its environment and our magnificent region.
JF: Tell us how you normally enjoy a glass of Cognac.
JD: Everywhere and anywhere of course! But seriously, there is a cognac for every moment of the day or the year. An Extra 1755 in early spring with its floral notes, or a Cigar Blend Pinar Del Rio to share by the fireplace on a winter evening. Cognac is something to share: in cocktails, on the rocks or dry. The most important thing is to always accompany the tasting with a moment of pleasure: some good music or a sunset by the beach. Now that strawberries are in season, I appreciate a Gautier VSOP Cognac accompanied by freshly cut strawberries and a few chopped mint leaves. Each drop will be different as you taste it. The most important thing is to appreciate every one.