Listening time: 7 minutes. This marvelous prose-poem comes from a travel book by the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who toured a number of Soviet Union states in the 1960s. In Georgia he meets a maker of cognac, and proceeds with a beautiful account of the key ingredients and necessary conditions to make a high grade vintage.
One of those ingredients is time, and this is a paean to slow-mo, allowing things the time to grow, in the case of the oaks used in making the barrels, and to mature, in the case of the cognac itself, once it has been poured into those barrels. There are many aspects of this long quotation, which should resonate with makers, or would-be makers, from a range of skills and backgrounds, not only that of wine-making. As he says, the cooper who makes the barrels needs the touch of a violin-maker.
Let me mention too, the book from which this is taken, Imperium; a masterpiece of insightful, sensitive observation by a traveller able to home in on small flickers of humanity, individuality, or quirkiness in a place and time where all that was delicate, sweet, or variegated was mercilessly stamped upon, if not stamped out, in the name of some vast monolithic soul-crushing ideology.
But let’s put that to one side. If you drink cognac or any other barrel-brewed nectar, pour yourself a glass and then listen to the audio recording and sink into your easy chair with some golden thoughts about slow time and things slow wrought.
The text is quoted in full below, if you’d like to re-read it at your leisure.
Source: Ryszard Kapuscinski, ‘Georgia’, in Imperium, trans. Klara Glowczewska (New York: Vintage International, 1995), pp. 41-42
Photo credit: Hans at pixabay and Kevin Sicher at unsplash
Vachtang Inashvili showed me his place of work: a great hall filled to the ceiling with barrels. The barrels lie on wood horses, huge, heavy, still. In the barrels cognac is maturing. Not everyone knows how cognac comes into being. To make cognac, you need four things: wine, sun, oak, and time. And in addition to these, as in every art, you must have taste. The rest is as follows.
In the fall, after the vintage, a grape alcohol is made. This alcohol is poured into barrels. The barrels must be of oak. The entire secret of cognac is hidden in the rings of the oak tree. The oak grows and gathers sun into itself. The sun settles into the rings of the oak as amber settles at the bottom of the sea. It is a long process, lasting decades. A barrel from a young oak would not produce good cognac. The oak grows; its trunk begins to turn silver. The oak swells; its wood gathers strength, colour, and fragrance. Not every oak will give good cognac.
The best cognac is given by solitary oaks, which grow in quiet places, on dry ground. Such oaks have basked in the sun. There is as much sun in them as there is honey in a honeycomb. Wet ground is acidic, and then the oak will be too bitter. One senses that immediately in a cognac. A tree that was wounded when it was young will also not give a good cognac. In a wounded tree the juices do not circulate properly, and the wood no longer has that taste.
Then the coopers make the barrels. Such a cooper has to know what he is doing. If he cuts the wood badly, it will not yield its aroma. It will yield colour, but the aroma it will withhold. The oak is a lazy tree, and with cognac the oak must work. A cooper should have the touch of a violin maker. A good barrel can last one hundred years. And there are barrels that are two hundred years old and more. Not every barrel is a success. There are barrels without taste, and then others that give cognac like gold. After several years one knows which barrels are which.
In the barrels one pours the grape alcohol. Five hundred, a thousand litres, it depends. One lays the barrel on a wooden horse and leaves it like that. One does not need to do anything more; one must wait. The right time will come for everything. The alcohol now enters the oak, and the wood yields everything it has. It yields sun; it yields fragrance; it yields colour. The wood squeezes the juices out of itself; it works.
That is why it needs calm. There must be a cross breeze, because the wood breathes. And the air must be dry. Humidity will spoil the colour, will give a heavy colour, without light. Wine likes humidity, but cognac will not tolerate it. Cognac is more capricious. One gets the first cognac after three years. Three years, three stars. The starred cognacs are the youngest, of poorest quality.
The best cognacs are those that have been given a name, without stars. Those are the cognacs that matured over ten, twenty, up to one hundred years. But in fact a cognac’s age is even greater. One must add the age of the oak tree from which the barrel was made. At this time, oaks are being worked on that shot up during the French Revolution. One can tell by the taste whether a cognac is young or old. A young cognac is sharp, fast, impulsive. Its taste will be sour, harsh. An old one, on the other hand, enters gently, softly. Only later does it begin to radiate. There is a lot of warmth in an old cognac, a lot of sun. It will go to one’s head calmly, without hurry.
And it will do what it is supposed to do.