PHOTOS BY WILLIAM M. DOWD (double-click to expand images)
LAS VEGAS -- As we were assembling for a private dinner over the weekend, I was chatting with Frank Du, a Chinese-American journalist who works for a Chinese-language newspaper in Los Angeles.
Seine Kim, a Korean-American representative of The Thomas Collective, a New York public relations firm, walked into the room. Du smoothly switched to Korean to greet her, explaining to me that although Mandarin is his native tongue, he had lived in Korea and picked up the language there.
The marketing lady -- whose name was taken from the French river her parents had seen before her birth -- exchanged a few pleasantries in Korean with Du, then switched into perfect English with me. Although raised in Seoul, she explained, she had been born in Ithaca, N.Y., and wanted to move back to the U.S., so she studied English. In Beijing, China. Her time as a Manhattan resident has buffed away any residual accent.
The sound of French and French-accented English also wafted through the room as our hosts from the Martell House of Cognac arrived.
The mix emphasized the human interplay in a global economy that is continually erasing borders and making producers think beyond historic boundaries.
Martell is known for a long line of cognacs, but producers cannot rest on their laurels in the highly competitive field. Thus, the company was timing the U.S. debut of its Creation Grand Extra Cognac for the Lunar New Year (the Year of the Pig on the Chinese calendar, although celebrated all across Asia) to try enhancing its already strong image in Asian communities throughout the U.S.
A little background. Cognac is a brandy, a grape-based product -- an "eaux-de-vie'' fermented like wine then twice distilled. By French law, supported by the World Trade Organization, the spirit can originate only in the town of Cognac and six surrounding viticultural areas.
There is more than one kind of cognac due to the variety of soils in the region. The grapes used are from several white wine varieties, principally the Ugni Blanc, known elsewhere as the Trebbiano grape. Cognacs must be aged in wood at least two years. Most producers use Limousin oak; Martell prefers the more aromatic Troncais oak.
Any number of cognac labels may be familiar to Americans, such as Hennessey, Remy Martin, Courvoisier, Camus and Delamaine, but Martell is the oldest existing one, founded in 1715 by Jean Martell.
Jacques Menier (seen here), Asia Pacific sales director, was the main presenter of the new Creation Grand Extra, representing cellar master Bruno Lemoine. He guided participants through a special menu prepared at the Wing Lei restaurant in the Wynn Las Vegas hotel to describe how various cognacs can be paired with foods just as is done with wines. Not a bad direction to take since the U.S. is the world's largest consumer of cognac.
For our light starters -- lobster wonton soup, pork pot stickers and spring rolls -- the Martell Noblige worked well, with its light consistency and notes of pear, citrus and definite vanilla from a younger wood. The very popular Cordon Bleu -- perfumey from a flowery soil that speaks of violets and bits of citrus and walnut -- worked nicely with a wider variety, a diver scallop with jalapeno, cilantro and ponzu vinaigrette, Pacific cod with a fricassee of mussels, clams and Chinese sausage, and even a Sichuan beef filet with corn, bell pepper, water chestnut and rice noodle. X-O worked well with a dessert sampler tray ranging from light fruit sorbets to ganache-stuffed chocolate cake, once I was able to coax out its reluctant dried-fruit hints of apricot and plum.
The finale was the Creation Grand Extra. It's a soft, almost buttery, open distillation with an instant "montant,'' the first fragrance released from cognac. Definite notes of cedar and spice make this an immediately pleasing product.
However, my preference in the Martel line remains the Cordon Bleu, a "gouleyant'' cognac, meaning its body is fresh and light despite aging and, thus, easily enjoyed.
For what it's worth, cellar master Lemoine says his favorite drink is Cordon Bleu on the rocks.
Creation Grand Extra, with a suggested retail price of $299 for a 750-milliliter bottle, will be on the American market in May.
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