In Cognac, Robots Run the Vines

Vineyard technology is extending from robots to the creation of a new type of disease-resistant grape that may be the solution for the region's future production

Vineyard Remy Martin
It's a new era of wine-growing in Cognac, France, where the goal is protecting the terroir while limiting impact on the environment. Courtesy of Remy Martin

"We're really in the heart of Grande Champagne," says Rémy Martin cellar master Baptiste Loiseau, motioning to the chalky soil and hills 2,000 feet below. "Here, people are pruning vines from morning until the end of the day."

We're floating in a hot air balloon over the vineyard-covered Cognac region of France, where 95 percent of grapes grown are used for brandy production. Most of the people working in this area—our balloon captain included—are involved in some aspect of Cognac production or are part of the Alliance Fine Champagne, a cooperative of 900 wine-growing partners that have supplied selections of eaux-de-vie, or brandy, to Rémy Martin, one of the major Cognac maisons, for over 50 years.

Remy Martin Vineyrds
Rémy Martin offers tours of the grounds and historic house as well as tastings of the cognacs. Courtesy of Remy Martin

Cognac, located in western France about a three-hour train ride from Paris, may have started distilling the namesake spirit back in the 17th century, but when it comes to vineyard technology, it's ahead of its time. Over the past year, scientists have been working with Rémy Martin on a robot to tend to its vineyards—a first for the region. Naïo Technologies' agricultural robot, Ted, is in test mode mechanically weeding under the row and pruning vines, eliminating the use of chemical weed killers. With Ted roving the vines, sending real-time data back to the team at Naïo, Rémy Martin can be aware of—and appropriately respond—to environmental challenges like hail or frost.

This is just phase one of the plan. This year's harvest yielded the first batch of disease-resistant grapes ready for distillation, part of an experiment to design a new type of grape that can withstand two of the most damaging diseases affecting vines—phylloxera and mold. Rémy Martin hopes to expand the new grape from its one-acre vineyard to larger plots of land across the region of Cognac—if it's successful.

Remy Martin robot vineyards
"Ted" eliminates the needs for unnatural weed killers and keeps Remy- Martin aware of environmental changes. Courtesy of Remy Martin

"It all starts in the vineyards" is a phrase thrown around often in the wine world. Unlike an individual winery, which can control the process of production from planting and harvesting to winemaking, Cognac relies on the samples of eaux-de-vie received from wine-growing partners.

In 2012, Rémy Martin's domaines became the first in the Charente region (and the sixth in France) to receive the Ministry of Agriculture's "high environmental value" certification, the highest level farms can receive. By 2022, they plan to have 50 percent of the wine-growing areas HVE-certified (up from 33 percent in 2018).

"The advantage with this certificate is that it's global. It shows a particular attachment to the terre, to the land," says fifth-generation distiller (and her family's first vigneronne), Florence Guelin, who received an HVE certification in 2017. "I'm like a link in the chain [connecting the work] from the people before and after me."

The earth at Remy Martin Vineyard
The soil for the vineyards is where everything begins and is all important in creating the flavors needed. Courtesy of Remy Martin

It's late January, and we're in the middle of Cognac's distillation season, which runs from the end of harvest—around mid-October—through March 31. We're at lunch in the distillery of Christophe Forget, the vice president of Bureau national interprofessionnel du cognac, the decision-making body for the Cognac industry that reps over 4,000 winegrowers and 117 professional distillers.

Every so often, Forget checks the copper pot stills behind my seat with the same concern of a father watching his child play in the yard, ensuring the temperature is right, that each batch is bubbling away smoothly. "It's difficult to produce this product, to grow vines," says Alliance Fine Champagne administrator and fourth-generation vigneronne Amélie Guionnet, who helms Vignobles Bernard Guionnet alongside her sister. "The terroir is the origin of our product, and responsibility [in the vines] is part of our job."

These young viticultrices, i.e., women tending to the vines, are helping herald in a new era of wine-growing in Cognac, where the goal is protecting the terroir while limiting the impact on the environment. Over 80 percent of Rémy Martin's wine-growing land is already following environmentally friendly practices, but next year, the maison wants to make it 100 percent.

Distilling process Remy Martin
The distillation process is equally important. Courtesy of Remy Martin

Over 1,000 vineyards across the country are now HVE-certified, including 251 in Cognac's Champagne region. The hope is to "reduce mechanical intervention and improve the function of the soil and fertility, sans l'intervention de l'homme, without the intervention of man," explains Laura Mornet, Rémy Martin's viticulture consulting manager, while we're standing in one of the HVE-certified vineyards, our rain boots ankle-deep in mud. "La terre ici est en amoureuse. The land, the soil here, is in love."

From her base in Paris, journalist Lane Nieset covers travel, lifestyle, wine, and food for publications such as National Geographic Travel, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Travel + Leisure, and Food & Wine.