8 NOVEMBER 2003, Page 52

High spirits

Michael McMahon

IVs not often that one gets to taste cognac that costs £1,000 a bottle. It's not often that I do. anyway. I was most particularly looking forward to my stay at the Dampierre family seat during the week of the Bordeaux wine fair last June, for while at the Chateau de Plassac they make pleasant enough yin de pays and quite charming pineau de Charentes, their cognac is, as the 'Translate this page' software might put it, quelquechose autre. I had already tasted the Dampierre X0, which is a delight; what, then, must the Cognac Sublime be like, if it costs more than 20 times as much? Legend has it that it comes from a single oak cask that was hidden from Rommel and his staff when they commandeered the chateau for their HQ in 1940; rediscovered nearly half a century later, the barrel contained enough to fill only 300 bottles. I could just see myself looking down the uncorked neck of one of them.

So I found a cut-price ferry ticket on the Internet, chucked a tent into the back of the shooting-brake and beetled off down the N roads to avoid motorway tolls. I didn't suppose that many of the Count and Countess de Dampierre's other house guests would be practising such economies, or that any of them have to get by on what my accountant tells me is less than the income of a trainee nurse. But I wasn't feeling poor; I was feeling excited, and happy to tolerate almost any en-route austerity in view of what was in store for me on arrival: glorious, unrestrained freeloading, and the chance of getting my snout into some pretty spectacular booze.

At a pretty spectacular house, as it turned out. When I turned into the drive, it seemed — tonnerre de Brest! — as if I had driven into the frame in which Tintin and Captain Haddock stride towards Chateau Moulinsart on page 59 of Red Rackham's Treasure. Four hundred yards in front of me was a perfectly proportioned, triple-fronted, 18th-century building under mansarded roofs topped by a lantern spire. Plassac is three times as big as Moulinsart, though, and symmetrically flanked by elegant stable blocks and farm buildings — including the chat in which I knew there to be the gigantic copper alembic that has distilled every drop of the estate's cognac for the last century and a half.

About the time that device was made, the chateau entertained one of its most

famous visitors: Marie-Eugenie de Guzman de Montijo, Comtesse de Teba, who later married Napoleon III. It is unlikely that the young woman who was to become Empress of the French kipped in a bubble tent in a camping municipal on the night before her arrival, but if she had done, I am sure she would have found the rooms set aside for her at Plassac a pleasant contrast. I can say this with confidence — not because I have ever tried to struggle out of a bustle and stays on a six-footsquare piece of groundsheet over which there is not room to stand up, but because I stayed in what is now called the Suite Imperatrice. Before dinner on my first night there, fastening my tie before the crown-jewelled portrait that hung in the anteroom, it occurred to me that had it been in existence in the 1850s, the Empress Eugenie would surely have been offered Cognac Sublime.

But not, perhaps, on an occasion when it would have to be handed out to scores of other people, too. There were 50 at table that evening — 51, if you include the Japanese who, knowing no language but his own, addressed the social impossibility of his situation by getting brotto before the main course and wandering out on to the terrace where he fell over and fell asleep. I wonder what he would have made of Comte Audoin de Dampierre's post-prandial party piece: a joke, told in English, that culminates in a tongue-twisting list of rhyming delights that a young American fellow enjoys when he sets out to sell a duck for two bucks. No cognac followed the many fine courses upon which we feasted on the first night of the house party, but as each had been accompanied by one of Audoin's own magnificent champagnes, satisfaction was complete.

The following day I caught a glimpse of Cognac Sublime on the Dampierre stand at Vinexpo. Its gilded bottle glinted provocatively at me from the silken bed that it shared with a smugly sparkling Baccarat crystal decanter. 'Not yet, my beauty,' I thought. 'But soon.' Back at Plassac that evening, we stood on the terrace, watching the stonework of the chateau soak up a storm-warning sunset like a sugar lump splashed with coffee. The walls glowed like — well, like cognac, I thought. There were only 20 or so at table, including one of Audoin's cousins, a charming chap with a commercial interest in spirits. Thunder rolled down the Grande Allee and rumbled through the dining-room windows. Electric expectation hung in the air. After a wordperfect rendition of the two-bucks-for-aduck story, Audoin suggested we might get down from table to enjoy a digestif. 'Here we go!' I thought. I nipped upstairs, shot a grin at the Empress and grabbed the small stash of Havana cigars I had kept for the occasion. The cousin, meanwhile, had slipped off to his room to fetch a contribution of his own: a bottle of Bas-Armagnac, Domaine de Lassalle Hors d'Age, which had been chosen, he told us, by the Association des Sommeliers de Paris Ile-de-France for one of their recent gala dinners. A fine wine, we agreed, as we puffed and sipped under ancient Dampierre portraits in the drawingroom. But it wasn't Cognac Sublime, I thought, as the rain ran down the shutters outside.

The next day was my last at the Chateau de Plassac, and I gave Vinexpo a miss and took a little tour of the Saintonge, starting at Saintes. Its atmospheric Roman amphitheatre is approached by a deep green lane that seems to cut not just through the townscape, but the centuries. The chocolate-box fishing village of Talmont was just as delightful: high hollyhocks swayed over the gravestones of the tiny Romanesque church that perches on the edge of a cliff overlooking the estuary of the Gironde.

Supper at Plassac that night was a family-and-a-few-friends affair, and conversation was entirely in French. No bucks, no ducks — and no Cognac Sublime. When I made my farewells the following morning, I mentioned in as matter-of-fact a manner as I could manage that it would have been nice to at least get a sniff of some, because then I could write about it. 'My dear fellow!' cried Audoin. 'Why didn't you say so earlier? The last time I opened a bottle was in 1995, and I have been waiting for an excuse to open another ever since.'

Oh, well, I thought. It's not often that one gets to taste cognac that costs £1,000 a bottle.