Cognac Frapin’s fifth Cuvée Rabelais release is both a blend of some of the house’s oldest eaux-de-vie and a celebration of its historic link with 16th-century humanist and writer François Rabelais. It seems apt to connect an illustrious maker of Grande Champagne Cognacs with a famed bon viveur – and one known for his earthy sense of humour. Indeed the Rabelais link is proudly featured on every Frapin bottle, in the shape of the house emblem of a ‘plume’ or writer’s quill.
Rabelais’ mother was Anne-Catherine Frapin, but the year of his birth has always been debated; once thought to have been 1483, but now more likely to have been 1494, according to scholarly consensus. That gave Frapin two opportunities to celebrate the great thinker’s 500th birthday, releasing the first and second Cuvée Rabelais in 1983 and 1994 respectively. As such, the name given to the latter – Age Inconnu – could be said to have a double meaning.
There were two more post-millennium releases – a Baccarat carafe in the shape of a (functioning) pocket watch in 2002 and, four years later, Cuvée 1888, created by then cellar master, Olivier Paultes, from a blend selected by Pierre Frapin in that year.
The fifth Cuvée Rabelais is limited to 500 bottles, priced at £9,000. It is packaged in a teardrop-shaped, flask-like crystal and gold decanter made by hand at the Saint-Louis cristallerie in northern France. It’s also the first blended by current Frapin cellar master Patrice Piveteau, however there’s only so much that he can reveal about the assemblage.
‘It’s a very old one,’ he says. ‘But for me it’s very difficult to speak about the age, because I have no traceability and I can’t prove the origin.’ What do we know about this Cognac? One part of the blend comes from the Paradis – the cellar housing Frapin’s oldest and most prized casks, where the eaux-de-vie are at least 60 years old. Another part was taken from the glass dames-jeannes, containing eaux-de-vie taken out of cask at the peak of their maturity, generally 60-90 years old.
Beyond that, Piveteau has his suspicions. He reckons there’s a different grape variety involved: not today’s almost ubiquitous Ugni Blanc, but probably Folle Blanche, the most planted pre-phylloxera variety for Cognac. But that’s only part of the picture.
‘The vine growing one century ago was not the same as today,’ he points out. ‘The pot stills were probably smaller, and they used wood or coal, not gas. It’s very old, but it’s also impossible to produce this Cognac again even if we wanted to.’
And the aim of Cuvée Rabelais? ‘It’s very old, but without too much wood,’ says Piveteau, who has tried to bring energy and tension alongside great age. ‘With old Cognacs, too often it’s heavy… This Cognac is the process of generations. It has to be something that gives an idea of time.’
Cuvée Rabelais: how does it taste?
Expressive tropical fruit, tangerine peel, evolving into dried apricot. A lot of energy and vibrancy for such an old Cognac, with beeswax and dark honey emerging on the palate, where the richness and structure become apparent. Stewed plums, then prune and liquorice, before classic rancio notes of pickled walnut and tobacco leaf. Powerful, elegant and highly complex.
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