Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Rhumerie de Fonds-Préville: A Journey to the Center of the Agricole World part 2

Rhum J.M blanc and sugar cane: The Harvest
Less than 48 hours in Martinique and intoxicated by its nature and the spirit of Agricole it yields, quite literally, I begin again. Today, we were off to see the harvest at Rhum J.M; those robust agricole legs viewed inside my glass last night, now, firmly underneath me. The journey up north is post card perfect; spectacular cliffs and ocean views to your right, long sugar cane stalks blowing in the wind to your left. The truth is, Martinique views demand a leisurely journey and suggest that stop-off for a 'Ti Punch is more than necessary. Oh yeah!

Rhum J.M sugar cane fields beneath Mt. Pelee

The arrival to the cane fields of Rhum J.M is magical. We drive up an unmarked pathway into what resembles more of a sugar cane labyrinth at the base of Montagne Pelée. Our first stop is at the water source, an underground volcanic spring. This mineral laden spring water is used periodically to water the crops but has significant influence on the soil below.

We all stop to taste the holy water as the clouds pass quickly above almost dancing with the light of the Martinique sun. The climate at the North end of the island is noticeably more arid than its southern parts. If the powerful view of tall sugar cane going up to the footings of Mont Pelée doesn't make your mouth open wide in awe, the view of it directly behind you may pull on a few heart strings and confirm you have found some sort of heaven on Earth. Indeed, one need not die to experience such bliss, simply visit the region of Martinique known as Habitation Fonds-Préville.

The view

Rhum J.M sugar cane fields above the Atlantic Ocean

Banana bushel
There is a small factory located just before entering Rhum J.M's sugar cane fields; however, it is processing the fruit of a different sort of crop, bananas. One can see banana trees growing adjacent to the sugar cane fields; their bushels wrapped up in blue bags. It is between the sugar cane and banana plants that a synergistic microclimate exists. The soil's composition and water are influenced by the banana plants which positively influence the sugar cane quality and quantity each year.

Premium Banane

The sugar cane and banana crops are rotated every few years to create optimal soil conditions. One can plainly see how sugar cane, growing in this unique environment, impacts the character of fresh-pressed cane juice and its subsequent distillate known as Rhum Agricole.

Tally me bananas!
Banana trees at Rhum J.M

Harvest time at Habitation Bellevue, Rhum J.M
We arrive just in time to witness the harvest. The scene is rather impressive and slightly terrifying. Up until 1998, the fields were harvested the old fashion way; men baring machetes. Now, The Harvester is employed. A machine to improve efficiency of the process for sure; cutting low to the ground while simultaneously decapitating the cane's grassy head. It moves forward capturing each sugar cane stalk, cutting them into shorter segments before being emptied into the container following the tractor behind. This machine not only decreases the amount of time it takes to cut the sugar cane, but more importantly keeps cane cutting in pace with the distillery tempo. This sort of control, in effect, improves the quality and quantity of the sugar cane juice yield. Wow!

Let's get a closer look!

The Harvester

 Take a look at The Harvester in action during the Harvest!


We followed the truck full of fresh cut sugar cane stalks through the dense foliage down the hill to the distillery. The sugar cane was emptied into a gravity-fed holding bin just before it was pressed. I will note here that it took around 30 minutes from when the sugar cane was cut until it was pressed. Rhum J.M's sugar cane is fresh-pressed without a doubt!!

La Distillerie du Fonds-Préville
Today, their distillery, which began in 1845 by Jean-Marie Martin, is alive and well. Sugar cane stalks are first shredded before they are pressed for their juice. Water is used throughout to maximize the amount of sugar cane juice obtained during the three cycles of pressing. The juice or vesou is collected and pumped into containers for fermentation. It takes 2 hours to fill each container holding 23,000 liters. If you do the math, that's 3.2 liters per second. There are 11 containers on site. We are told that baker's yeast is added to each container before being filled to agitate the mixture amidst plenty of oxygen. This ensures the proper conditions for fermentation.

Below are a few moments capturing the Distillery scene up close

Water irrigation in sugar cane press

Sugar cane juice collected before fermentation

Fresh-pressed vesou or sugar cane juice

Fermentation occurs for 36-48 hours yielding a vin de canne (sugar cane wine) of 5-7% ABV.


Where Rhum Agricole is made!

Rhum J.M Créole Copper Column Stills

 A tasting directly off the still?
Well, alright, if I must!

Fresh Distillate

We have discussed that Agricole must be distilled to between "65 and 75 degrees" per AOC requirements. But, just in case, here's the proof...

Myself and Mr. Nazaire Canatous, Master Distiller (right)
Rhum J.M Creole Copper Stills
I don't generally include photos of myself in reviews but here is a special story necessary to appreciate the continuity of care found in the distillation of Rhum J.M. Their Master Distiller, Nazaire Canatous, can be seen in the photo on the right. Rhum J.M has been distilled by him and his father, Pascal (aka Emile Bolnet), continuously for the past 83 years. His father, nicknamed, "Misie Paco" meaning Mister Pascal in Creole, distilled 40 vintages. His son, Nazaire, began working at the lowest level cleaning bottles and has risen in rank to fill his shoes. Today, he oversees his 43rd vintage of Rhum J.M this year. Knowing that the knowledge and skills of this art has passed from father to son over this many years is remarkable. We taste the distillate and it speaks for itself. It is wonderful learning that Rhum J.M is not only the oldest "single-domaine" rhumerie remaining in Martinique, but that its distillation may be regarded as "single-family" too. It is clear the brand's owners appreciate time and tradition. The golden idea set forth by Jean Marie-Martin continues today. Respect!!

Now off to the aging cellars...

Retrieving barrels at the Rhum J.M Aging Warehouse

 Aged rhum in caks are being pulled down and drained for bottling
Rhum J.M cask being emptied

The cellar was noticeably humid, but not muggy in a bad way, for the air was concentrated with aromas of aging agricole and wood, almost drinkable. Despite what one learns about osmoreceptors in medical physiology, another thirst meter was at work and I was overwhelmed with an intense urge to satisfy it with all the agricole before me. We enter one of two aging cellars each holding 1700 barrels. Yes! Emmanuel Becheau of Rhum J.M interjects how they label the casks as we try to decipher which vintage is in which cask while making our way deeper within the cellar. At the other end, tulip shaped glasses are passed around for a tasting. My mouth slowly opens. Wait, what's this going on in front of us? Casks are being pulled down by several men to be emptied prior to bottling. Emmanuel tells us that each year rum is being set aside for the 10yr and 15yr vintages to be bottled at cask strength. The tasting commenced with samples taken straight from the cask. We begin with younger rhums, moving on to 10yr and finishing with the oldest vintage (1996) in the cellar. The rhum enters the barrels at 60% ABV; first in new barrels, then finished in once used bourbon. The wood is all American Oak. We are told the angels share includes a 8% volume loss annually with a change of 1 degree alcohol due to humidity loss. It doesn't need to be stated, but the angels are rather spoiled here at Rhum J.M.

Rhumerie J.M

We finish the straight-from-the-cask tasting and proceed down to the boutique tasting room. Inside one finds a thoughtful design. The entry includes education on the history and production of Rhum J.M as well a channel to display the spring water. The action, however, is over to the right, wherein lays the tasting room and retail area. Bottles line the display encompassing an entire wall. Once distilled, each vintage is rested for four to six months in stainless steel containers. Then, It may be reduced by approximately 2 degrees (percent ABV) every 2 weeks to bottling strength in the case of rhum blanc or go directly into casks for aging. My eyes, slightly overwhelmed by the range of expressions on display, begin to focus on Emmanuel as he started discussing 'Ti Punch blanc, then "Ti Punch vieux and then, more mature rhum education ensues...

'Ti Punch o'clock!

Emmanuele Becheau preparing 'Ti Punch Blanc

For the full story (with video presentation) on 'Ti Punch, read our article here.

The display of Rhum J.M bottles for sale is brilliant!
Elegant Rhum J.M display

It isn't enough to end with another round of 'Ti Punches. We sample them all....
Rhum J.M tasting bar
 Seeing first hand, this unique mountain-side climate, is believing. It is in fields of volcanic soil and mineral rich springs, co-habited with banana plants under the tropical Martinique sun, this rhum's true character is born. It is in this unique microcosm of Martinque terrior their famous sugar cane rises and Rhum J.M is grown. It would seem, even on Martinque, we are not just talking about "Rhum" any longer, but of a special variant where the parallels with wine and terrior are much more heavily involved. Folks, let us be clear with our words, we are talking about a certain Rhum Agricole; specifically that of the J.M lineage.

I enjoy another sip of the Rhum J.M Cuvée du Fondateur (only available on site) before departure.