Cognac had been in existence for nearly two centuries since an Englishman by the name of Jean Martell, from a wine merchant family in Jersey in the Channel Islands, decided to shift base to Cognac, a town in the Charente region of Southwest France, bordering the famous wine-growing area of Bordeaux. He specialised in trading in eaux-de-vie, the distilled wines produced around Cognac, shipping most of it to England. Unlike wine, the distilled spirit did not turn sour during long sea voyages, and their quality was increasingly appreciated by English connoisseurs. In 1715, he decided to set up his own distillery to make the spirit on a piece of land on the river Charente. Over time, it would become the legendary Maison Martell, the oldest of the great cognac houses in France, famed worldwide for the finesse and elegance of its various expressions.
Martell’s pioneering effort in producing the highest quality cognac is also one of the reasons why cognac created only in the Cognac region is allowed the appellation of ‘cognac’, on the lines of sparkling wine made in the Champagne region in Eastern France being the only ones allowed to be called champagne. Even the historic emblem of Maison Martell, the swift, is loaded with deep symbolism. Unlike any other, it is a bird that spends almost its entire life in the air, barely ever touching the ground. Famed for its ability to fly far and fast, it soars over land and sea, and knows no frontiers. The swift emblem, which is increasingly prominent across Martell’s communications, symbolises the Maison’s spirit of daring and freedom.
What made Jean Martell’s cognac stand out even two hundred years ago was the audacity and boldness in the choice of methods he employed to make it. As a starting point, he decided to use only clear wines for distillation. Vinification, or the fermentation process of the grape juice in winemaking, leaves behind residues known as lees. At Maison Martell, from the days of its founder, the wine is left untouched for a week after fermentation to allow the sediments to settle before the decantation. It is still the only one of the major cognac houses to do this. The resulting clear wines, Martell believes, produce a ‘purer, more authentic expression of their vintage and terroir’. The next necessary process in producing cognac is ageing. Maison Martell ages its eaux-de-vie exclusively in fine-grained oak barrels, sustainably sourced from some of France’s most ancient forests. Crafted from wood that is 180 and 200 years old, these barrels are characterised by finer, less pronounced tannins to complement the delicacy of Martell’s clear wines. Cognacs are officially graded based on age. V.S. (Very Special) is one where the youngest cognac in the blend has been aged for a minimum of two years in a cask; in V.S.O.P. (Very Special Old Pale), the youngest cognac, is aged for a minimum of four years; in Napoleon, the youngest cognac is at least six years old; in X.O., the youngest cognac is a minimum of 10 years, and in X.X.O., at least 14 years.
Maison Martell markets close to a dozen different expressions currently. Its cognacs are renowned for richness and smoothness, a legacy transmitted through nine generations of cellar masters. Martell VS is characterised by the smooth taste of its rich and luscious fruity notes. In Martell V.S.O.P., the elegant fruit notes balance deliciously with hints of wood and soft spices. Martell XO is instantly identifiable for the intensity of its taste with notes of fig, red fruit, and blackcurrant bud, leading into an exceptionally long, robust finish. In 2001, Maison Martell was acquired by Pernod Ricard, one of the world’s biggest spirit companies. The company has since consolidated its position as the world leader in prestige cognacs, while innovating with blends such as Martell Blue Swift in 2016 and Martell Chanteloup X.X.O. in 2019, two outstanding creations of its current cellar master, Christophe Valtaud.
Martell Blue Swift is the first-ever spirit drink made with V.S.O.P. cognac, then finished in Kentucky bourbon casks. Martell Chanteloup X.X.O., on the other hand, is a combination of richness and complexity, a supreme demonstration of the Martell art of blending. It is the only cognac to combine all four of the finest cognac crus, a blend of 450 very old eaux-de-vie representing a new category of extra, extra old cognacs. While Jean Martell’s legacy is steeped in every cognac bottle produced by the brand, visitors can get a first-hand feel of the Maison’s history these days at the company’s archives at Gâtebourse in Cognac. More than 10 million items — the equivalent of five kilometres of shelves — ranging from correspondence with clients, agents, coopers, and winegrowers, through bottles and labels, to photographs and adverts, not to mention the tools used in the cognac-making process, are on display here. It is a splendid visual record of everything that Martell stands for.