G’Vine is a luxury gin that goes against the grain. A mixture of creative mind, marketeer and master distiller, Jean-Sébastien Robicquet is the man behind this Maison Villevert project, whom Essential met up with in Cognac
Despite the huge popularity gin has enjoyed in recent years and which has led to the distillate being produced in the most unexpected places, let’s be honest here: gin and the French commune of Cognac are hardly the first bedfellows that spring to mind. Not least because the commune in the department of Charente, home to the brandy of the same name that is recognised as one of France’s most prestigious drinks, has known nothing but vineyards for centuries. Seen almost as a sanctuary of French alcohol, this would surely be reason enough to dissuade someone from producing a distillate, which, at least apparently, has nothing to do with local tradition.
But this isn’t what Jean-Sébastien Robicquet was thinking when, in 2001, he decided to create EWG Spirits & Wine (since renamed Maison Villevert) and G’Vine gin, a luxury brand out to challenge convention. “Not only is this not sacrilege, but it also makes entire sense. We have centuries of distillation savoir faire; we have grapes to produce alcohol; we have creativity. What more could you want? Anyone aware of the history of gin knows that grape spirit was the alcoholic base for gin even before grain and, therefore, to a certain extent, we are returning to the drink’s roots,” Jean-Sébastien explains with the air of someone who knows what they’re talking about. And, judging by his CV, he’s no novice in the field.
He was born and raised in Cognac, within a family that has lived in the region since the 15th century, involved in farming and in particular in winegrowing. Passionate about what he does, Robicquet was destined to be a top executive at LVMH Wine & Spirits, where he developed his career, but fate had other things in mind. “When I got back from Singapore and was on my way to the Philippines, serious family issues forced me back to Cognac. There are more important things in life and so I chose to stay. I turned down several offers, which involved having to move to other countries. Continually refusing offers isn’t compatible with an executive career.” Not inclined to idle living, and out of pure survival needs, as he insists on pointing out, Jean-Sébastien decided to set up his own business.
“Innovation is almost always the result of constraints. I asked myself: what do I do best? The answer was obvious: producing liquids and selling them. After all, that was what I had been doing all along,” he tells us, with the satisfaction of someone who hit the nail on the head. Innovation and creativity are often mentioned by this 50-year-old winemaker, who studied at the University of Bordeaux. “If we didn’t get creative, we would be like all the rest.” For some, it’s a cliché; for Jean-Sébastien, it was something to take seriously and which could make all the difference in a highly competitive sector, in which new ideas are king. This time, opportunity can be found in dissatisfaction.
“As a Frenchman, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the gins available on the market. I wanted something more elegant and pleasant on the palate,” which is the same as saying an alternative to London Dry, the most common gin style nowadays, which, as the name implies, was developed in the British capital during the first half of the 19th century as an alternative to the sweetened Old Tom, which was progressively eschewed. Jean-Sebastién is not given to half measures. As he says: “If we have to break the rules, we might as well do it properly.” And this is just what he did.
If this implied breaking free from the London Dry style, the first step was to replace the alcoholic base. Instead of using grains to distil the alcohol used in the composition of most gins, he chose grapes. Ugni Blanc, the grape variety grown in the Cognac region, is known for its high yield and high acidity. These grapes are used to produce the wine from which the fine quality spirit used in Cognac is extracted. They would now be used in G’Vine.
“It is well known that alcohol from grapes is of greater quality. The processes we use, with four distillations, allow us to obtain a very pure and highly concentrated alcohol, which can be used to produce vodka, but at the same time with a unique, velvety edge to it, which is very important for us. The alcohol provides a blank canvas. It has to be immaculate for us to be able to paint it, without interfering in the final result. On the other hand, using a raw material from the region makes this business sustainable and brings us closer to people.”
Unlike what may have been said, G’Vine wasn’t the first gin to use grape spirit as its alcoholic base, even in modern times, Jean-Sébastien explains: “We were the first to use Ugni Blanc, a grape variety that is particularly suited to this purpose and, in addition to this, we innovated in the process: instead of using spirit produced for other purposes, we distilled it according to the specifications that a sophisticated gin like ours requires. For anyone not in the know, it may seem the same, but the fact is that it makes a huge difference to the final product.”
By coincidence, or perhaps not, when it comes to grapes and their relationship with gin, history is on Jean-Sébastien’s side. Although distilling grain became general practice for producing the base at a given time, the fact is that this wasn’t always the case. The first reference to a spirit drink for recreational purposes, ‘geneverbessenwater’, which featured the use of juniper berries and is the closest thing to today’s gin, was published in Antwerp in 1552, and had, without a shadow of a doubt, grape spirit as its alcoholic base.
A few years later, the first references to grain distilling appear. Specialists suggest that the adoption of grain, on the one hand, had to do with the Little Ice Age, which struck Europe at around this time and which strongly affected vines, while grains, particularly barley and rye, in addition to being grown locally, offered greater resistance to lower temperatures. On the other hand, due to the constant trade embargoes to wine-producing countries of the south, such as Italy and Spain, grape spirit became scarce and prohibitively expensive.
The fact is that grains ended up taking over and growing so much in popularity that, in 1601, the Dutch authorities had to ban the production of grain spirit, as their use was affecting bread production. A difficult relationship thus developed between gin makers and the law, which continued for a long time and led distillers to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, such as Germany and France, taking with them the know-how that had made Flanders famous for its Genever, the precursor to gin, which later would be moulded by the English.
The use of grape spirit is a distinctive, important and historically legitimate factor, as Maison Villevert insists on highlighting with the 1495 project, in which, with the help of renowned specialists, it recreated a recipe from the era of Dutch origin in which grape spirit is the base of drink, with a list of botanicals very similar to those of today. But Jean-Sébastien has taken the relationship with the vine much further. In addition to its grapes, the vine has lent him the unique botanicals that provide the decisive distinguishing factor on which the originality of G’Vine gins is based: the fragile vine blossom. The names of the company’s two gins, Floraison and Nouaison, celebrate precisely two delicate stages of the vine’s life cycle.
“From the very outset we were determined to create something unique and truly original, but which fit with our story and which wouldn’t be forced. Vine blossom came about by chance. We noted their olfactory properties when arriving at the warehouse on a Monday and a pleasant fragrance in the air grabbed our attention. We soon realised that it was coming from bundles of flowering vine branches, which had been left their over the weekend for other reasons. It’s at times like this that you feel like shouting ‘Eureka!’”, Jean-Sébastien tells us.
The grape flowers are handpicked and in a way that preserves all their qualities. This process takes place in mid-June and over a very short period (less than a week) before the fruit appears. The delicate manner of these operations seems more akin to the world of perfume-making than distilling. These delicate botanicals are macerated in grape spirit for several days before being distilled in a small Florentine pot still. The other botanicals, which are individually macerated and distilled separately, include: juniper, ginger, liquorice, cassia bark, green cardamom, coriander, cubeb berries, nutmeg and lime. Finally, the floral infusion and the botanical distillates are blended with more grape spirit and the final distillation takes place.
The result, in the case of Floraison, is a gin of unique character held within a green bottle. Fresh, fruity and zesty, with a dominance of floral notes, the more characteristic ginger, cardamom and juniper flavours reveal themselves nearer the end. As for Nouasion, in its grey bottle, this is, according to Jean-Sébastien, “a gin that reflects its subsequent stage in the cycle of life. While Floraison is fresh and new, this is vigour and complexity”. With slightly more alcohol — 3.9% more than the 40% of Floraison —, it is presented as a gin for connoisseurs, as an alternative to London Dry. It is without a doubt a gin that reflects traditional standards, more intense and in which the botanicals, such as cardamom or ginger and zesty spices, here in greater percentage, take on a more prominent role.
The liquid is important, but it isn’t everything in this gin, which, given the characteristics of the liquid and the way it positions itself, is closer to a luxury drink than to a mere event drink, undoubtedly influenced by the LVMH “school”, where Jean-Sébastien learned his craft and which is adept at transforming bottles into objects of desire. “Once again we took it all the way to the end. It made no sense to choose a substantially more expensive raw material, to use the finest botanicals, and highly demanding and work-intensive processes, and then to forget the rest. With G’Vine we have given gin the status it has yet to have. We constructed a genuine story to sustain it; we gave it quality and instilled it with passion. The way you buy your clothes, your jewellery, the way you have fun, etc., it all has to do with how you wish to be seen. This is our ‘bottom line’. Tell me what you drink and I’ll tell you who you are.”
The recipe seems to be working. After gin, Maison Villevert is investing heavily in its La Quintinye vermouth and promises to reveal new products soon. “Always revolving around grapes and with an innovative attitude; always a step ahead,” enlightens this passionate Frenchman, who found the future in his roots.