Sainte-Marie (Martinique), July 2015.
Set back from the road which leads us to the north-east of Martinique stand the red cliffs, which flush the Sainte-Marie bay purple. From the barrier beach which links the island and the islet, the Atlantic trade winds intensify and, along with them, the procession of sea-spray which hurtles down from the tombolo. On the bay below, following the currents, lays the algae which has drifted in. Here there is a beautiful point which in the past was used to fire cannons at the English ships which tended to outstay their welcome when visiting. However, they also appreciated the surplus rum which Father Lefébure, man of faith and trade, sold to the American colonies from 1765. At this time, tafia was to be prohibited in France for almost a further 40 years.
As for the Trou-Vaillant, it was the Fonds Saint Jacques estates who would help develop Sainte-Marie, which suddenly became Saint-James throughout the Anglo-Saxon world: a name that the plantation would wear with pride from then on… and which they have now had for over 250 years. It is precisely this event which I brought up to Jean-Pierre Cayard, the President of the group La Martiniquaise, who states it himself: the best anniversaries come in exact measures. The pleasure with which he celebrates is as great as the maturity that the Saint-James plantations and the casks they contain have managed to so perfectly acquire. And they have also become more modern, as the actors and directors Benoit Magimel, Sonia Roland and Jali lLespert are eager to tell me during an incredible lunch near Tartane.
Only good things happen in secret at a rhumerie!
But above all, behind Saint-James is the age-old savoir-faire which the oenologist Marc Sassier has personalised. There is no equal to his expertise, except perhaps the endearing manner he has of sharing it: “on the hills, harvests are carried out from January to June, but the treatment of the sugarcane begins immediately: with your feet on the ground and your mind on the mills. There are five sets of them in pairs which optimise the grinding process to obtain the sugarcane juice, which will be shared out between the 24 barrels of 480 hectolitres.” It is this sugarcane juice which will be distilled continuously in six single column stills. The exhaust columns are unique since they only contain 17 plates.
The resulting rhum should measure between 71 and 73% in order to conserve the maximum amount of aromas. Saint James thus produces no less than 4 million litres of pure alcohol each year, 13,000 casks shared between 5 cellars; 200 litre bourbon barrels, from the USA of course, but also 30% of the largest casks made from oak from Limousin or Tronçais, which contained cognac or Armagnac. In the cellars the angels’ share floats away, which due to the tropical climate totals 8% per year. This is equivalent to the loss of 2 entire 34,000 litre casks for light rhums and 3 of the same casks for aged rums. In Sainte-Marie, the lack of restraint shown by the angels is commonplace … in much the same way as it is for those privileged tasters who Marc Sassier is quick to bring along, at the end of this morning of 9 July, into the Chais Brûlé for a top-secret tasting session.
In the cellars with Marc, it’s decision time: he has concocted his magnificent Cuvée 250ème anniversaire with the vintages that we are going to taste separately in order to better understand the historical process that Saint-James has undergone. Present are: François-Xavier Dugas, Luca Gargano, Ian Burrell, Robert Burr, Jerry Gitany… and Bill Zacharkiw, and as Bill tells me: “Only good things happen in secret at a rhumerie!”
And so we begin this secret tasting session, which includes the following vintages.
Vertigo of the ages
Saint James 1934: Notes of cooked sugarcane juice (it should be known that prior to the 1940s, sugarcane juice was systematically stabilised through heating, before fermentation, for health reasons), fennel, rancio, blond tobacco, strong liquorice, nutmeg and sweet spices;
Saint James 1936: Cooked sugarcane juice, soft liquorice. A more concentrated rhum but which also gives off aromas of gorse, nutmeg and cinnamon;
Saint James 1976: One of Marc’s favourite vintages, and also very popular among the tasters present. The notes of cooked sugarcane juice are absent since this vintage comes from after the years of stabilisation through heating, and the use of raw sugarcane juice provides a very different aromatic profile. This vintage is large and is what gives structure to the Cuvée 250ème anniversaire. It gives of notes of grape and macerated cherries, fern and soft tannins which prolong the more spiced notes: Amsterdamer pipe tobacco, nutmeg, cinnamon, which are mixed with more honey-like touches of beeswax. It is one of the “very penetrating” vintages, to use Marc’s words, and is very complex. At the end, notes of roasted cocoa and dark chocolate appear.
Saint James 1982: A vintage with less body than the previous one and which is therefore less woody. It offers fruitier notes: confit of citrus fruits, fig and date. This vintage calls to mind the aromatic profile of the 1999 Single Cask. The end is given over completely to spices (cinnamon) and cigar box. This is the vintage which provides the basis for the XO Quintessence, bringing its notes of the blond tobacco of Virginia.
Saint James 1998: The tasting session continues with the stuff of legend; a bottle of the limited edition 1998 Coupe du Monde. It has a sweetness which is rare in a Saint James rhum, on top of guava paste, quince jelly, grilled almond, buxus and fern. The 1998 vintage played a part in the Cuvée Prestige 1765 and confers its smooth character.
Saint James 2002: The tasting continues with a rhum distilled in 2002, sampled straight from the barrel, which gives off mocha, apricot, mochaccino, raisins and bitter orange, followed by a nice 2003 which still needs to age for 3-4 years before its flavours can be fully appreciated. However, it does give off some interesting notes of starfruit.
Marc Sassier keeps to an age-old, classic direction so as not to mess with tradition. Wanting to be in the wind is a pleasure for dead leaves, as the French saying goes, and Marc insists on the fact that wanting to multiply experiences is commendable as long as it is done with order: it is through fear of the essential that certain masters of the cellars concentrate on the extras. Leaving the cellar to return to the boat which will take us to Diamond Rock, there is a strong feeling of having deepened our understanding of vintage rhum, based not only on the qualities it possesses which come from the land where it originates, but also from the expertise of those who hold the key to the secrets of its production.