Drops of Gold Inside Cognac's oldest big house. By Justin Jin

Martell, which recently celebrated its 300th anniversary, is the oldest of the great houses in Cognac, a region close to Bordeaux. Started by Englishman Jean Martell in 1715, its first markets were England and the Netherlands. Today, the spirit has spread around the world, from the USA to China and across Europe.

A uni-blanc stalk cut during winter pruning to boost production quality and quantity.

This story is not about the grape or the terroir; it’s not the age-old distillation technique either. These are equally available to the cognac houses along the Charente River. Martell has grown into the most historic house thanks to the producers that has guaranteed supply and quality through the centuries. Some families have worked with Martell for nine generations, since the house was founded in 1715. This story is about them, the web of interdependence the has created a place and community.

Martell draws its eaux-de-vie from 1,200 growers, each with a different story and history, some supplied grapes while others supplied juice, spirit and even aged eau-de-vie. Why would Martell work with such a vast mosaic of differing suppliers in what seemed like a medieval arrangement? To answer this question, I spent time with Martell’s formidable procurement team to see how they fan out across the vast Cognac region to bring back the drops of gold that the maitre-de-chai blends into their range of cognacs.
“A grower’s success is my victory, his loss, my failure,” said Damien, a young advocate for cognac’s future as a community. Without these growers there would be no eaux-de-vie, and no Martell.
When market demand is high, the growers could hike prices; during downturns, Martell could slash buying. But this is detrimental for the long term, and a mutually-beneficial system of cooperation has grown among Martell and its growers, with the procurement team as the glue between the two.
Distillation is an artisanal process no matter how industrial the output. Because each bunch of grape is different, technicians rely on their senses to judge how much each wine should be distilled.
Central to Martell's success is Dominique Metoyer. The legendary buyer is known as much for his discerning taste as for his ability to build relations and lead sharp negotiations. He spins gold out of loyalty.
Michel Hillairet, with literally roots under his boots. You can feel his pride when he delivers the sample to Martell directly from his vineyard after getting approval from buyer Dominique Metoyer.
Master blender Christophe Valtaud and Dominique Metoyer taste every sample that comes in, and often mark the ones from Roy and Hillairet with a big red “A” rating. This means much more to the distiller than the premium they would get. It’s a recognition of their unwavering commitment to quality.
A grower attends Martell's technical tasting where the house helps calibrates their taste profiles.
Growers learn what Martell needs.
Archivist Geraldine Galland searches through the historic records to identify families that have supplied Martell since the beginning three centuries ago. The trust that has developed between the growers and Martell’s team allows Martell to uniquely offer Single Estate cognacs, capturing the quintessence of Cognac’s different terroir and guaranteeing traceability of the eaux-de-vie.
Dominique shares Geraldine's findings with the family of De Jarnac, the oldest supplier of Martell.
One stormy night Dominique brought me to Joel Antier, a grower whose family has planted grapes since 1746. Dominique remembers the moment when Joel landed in a financial crisis at his father’s death in 1997. Dominique visited him then in Saint Sulpice de Cognac and bought six barrels immediately to prevent him from going bankrupt -- an act that Joel says he remembers dearly. Dominique purchased the 1959, which apart from memorably being his own birth year also tasted exceptionally great.
When Dominique and I got back to Martell the following day, Christophe’s team located the barrels and fetched a sample to taste. Everyone surrounded the ‘59 bottle in hushed silence in the tasting room, waiting for Christophe’s word. “This will go into L’Or, or stand alone as a single estate,” Christophe said, smiling at Dominique, “It is supreme”. Dominique cradled the bottle and kissed it like a baby.
Growers are as varied and illustrious as their eaux-de-vie. There is Olivier Roy, “more gentleman than farmer” as Dominique puts it, who is bringing up his son Thibault to take over the distillery that was lovingly handed to him by his forefathers.
Martell treats its greatest cognac like gold, because that’s what L’Or is. For Christophe Valtaud, Martell’s maitre-de-chai, the biggest challenge is to consistently re-create the phenomenally complex spirit from a blend of 700 - 1,000 eaux-de-vie, some dating back to the 1890s.
In a quiet room sealed off from the rest of Martell’s bottling plant, Florence and her seven colleagues with white gloves carefully package bottles of radiant amber liquid. The team holds each bottle in front of a lightbox to check for flaws, its core glowing like a galactic orb. They then polish the crystal with a lint cloth before delicately placing it in a luxury box. This is the final step in a production process that started 120 years ago.

Justin Jin photographs and writes big stories for the world’s leading publications.

Justin and his team winning the 1994 Cambridge vs Oxford wine tasting competition.

He is also a knowledgeable wine-taster, having been in his younger years the prize-winning captain of the Cambridge University blind tasting team.

He splits his time among Brussels, China and wherever the story takes him.