Ready, set, grow! The cult world of “grower” spirits

Image courtesy Wine Enthusiast magazine

My article on grower Cognac (“Drink This Now: Grower Cognac“) is in the February issue of Wine Enthusiast, as well as the web site (and as I’m writing this, it’s one of the top most-read articles on the site, woo-hoo!).

It’s an exciting topic — and as usual, there’s so much more to say that I couldn’t shoehorn into the space of a 200-word article.

For starters, there’s so much more to the story than just Cognac. Grower Champagne (or as my editor cutely termed it:  “farmer fizz”)  — relatively small-batch bubbly produced, bottled, and sold by the same farmers that grow the grapes — already has its share of devotees.  In the spirits world, Cognac seems to be the next frontier on the grower front.

But keep in mind the growing interest in artisan and “indie” spirits that seems to be spreading like wildfire now.  Here in the U.S., that seems to extend mostly to American-made products. But why not imported products too? Going forward, keep an eye out for other spirits produced by farmers (in the U.S. and elsewhere), such as Armagnac, Calvados, applejack, and “single estate” whiskeys and vodkas.

Cognac has a good running head start because it has an advocate — notably, importer Nicolas Palazzi, who brings many grower Cognacs to the U.S.  (In the interest of full disclosure, Palazzi was the one who first tipped me off to the idea, when I interviewed him for a feature on Cognac last year).  He described the growers as “no brands,” small- to mid-size operations with no access to international distribution, no PR or marketing budget.

When I talked to sommelier John Mitchell of Stella in New Orleans, he described the grower products as “no frills, all quality.” He also described them as “very site-specific”:

“These people own the acreage they are sourcing from,” he explained. “They are walking the vineyards, picking grapes for maximum ripeness.” The distilling “gets away from the house styles that are blended all over the place.”

He’s especially enamored of Jacky Navarre’s Vieille Reserve Cognac bottling:

“This guy is insane,” Mitchell confided. “He must not be out to make any money. He lets the Cognac come down to 40% abv naturally, which takes around 45 years. Imagine reducing a chef’s sauce for 45 years, and how layered that would be. The depth and complexity you would have in the bottle. That’s why there’s only 60 bottles in the U.S.  It’s a labor of love and a passion.”

I may have to stop in to try a glassful the next time I’m in New Orleans.