Beneath Cognac’s cloak of exclusiveness lies a substance equal to its reputation. Unquestionably, Cognac is the most famous and refined brandy in the world, and distillers strive to make it better still.
Cognac has a mystique of exclusivity, and fortunately the quality lives up to it once you have an opportunity to taste a fine product.
Like caviar and champagne, Cognac carries the cachet of privilege. Surely there are rare Cognacs that sell for more than $ 2,000.- a bottle, like LOUIS XIII, but you don’t have to taste such a pricey one to be taken by its refined texture and superb taste.
Cognacs aged anywhere between 10 – 20 years happen to be excellent and light for anyone to enjoy two or more portions. The intensity, balance and finish of a good Cognac cannot be equalled by many other distillates. A good Cognac is as much of a treat to the nose as for the palate, bathing the senses in a kaleidoscope of fruits, nuts and spices.
Cognac reflects its “ terroir “ perfectly. The more calcareous the soil, the better its quality becomes, and this is enshrined in France’s appellation d’origine controllee laws. In order of importance the sub-regions of Cognac are:
Only two grape varieties may be planted – Folle Blanche and Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano)
Hard-working farmers tend their vineyards and make tart white wines no one wants to drink. These wines are then distilled in Dutch stills bought by forefathers of farmers. After aging a year or two, blenders and/or exporters, through brokers, buy them to age further and blend to come up with a “ house brand “ which is consistent throughout the year.
Blenders maintain warehouses in Cognac and Jarnac, along the Charente River to have a large enough inventory.
Grande Champagne Cognacs are light and aromatic. They possess a refined texture and pleasant spiciness not found in other Cognacs. All these qualities, however, also depend largely on the type and age of barrels in which the distillate is aged. Mostly Limousin oak barrels are employed; these impart a vanilla flavour. The forests of Limousin, east of Charente where Cognac is made, are specially managed and cared for to ensure sufficient wood for future generations. Needless to say, Limousin barrels are expensive and can be used only for a limited time.
Cognac wines were once exported from the town la Rochelle. Dutch captains would sail there and load up barrels of Charente wines to sell them in the Netherlands. The Dutch were the 16th century’s great entrepreneurs, always looking for opportunities to maximize their profits. They were the first to listen to salt merchants from Charente tell stories of how profitable “ burnt wine “ (distilled wine) could be. The increased volume a ship could carry would multiply profits. (100 litres of wine distilled out at 70 percent alcohol yields approximately 10 litres of brandy). The rough-tasting brandy had to be barrel-aged to render it mellow. The Dutch merchant marine had many very profitable years.
By the 1700’s, the Dutch were long gone but Cognac had acquired a worldwide reputation. The English were particularly enamoured with it, relying on smugglers to bring it across the Channel whenever the two countries were at war. It so happened that they were at war often and over long periods. To this day Cognac quality is expressed in English terms. Very Superior (V. S), Very Superior Old Pale (V. S. O. P), and Extra Old (X. O) and other fancy expressions are the most often used on labels.
By law V.S must be barrel aged a minimum of 30 months, V.S.O.P 36 months, X.O 60 months, but most cognac houses and blenders use much older distillates in their final blends.
Towards the end of the 19th century Cognac enjoyed a particularly profitable period. Emperor Napoleon III, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew lifted trade restrictions with England. Exports to England increased substantially, but then phylloxera arrived wiping out much of the vineyards. It took growers 25 years to re-establish their vineyards. As the 20th century began, vignerons spoke vistfully of the Cognac made in Napoleon III’s
Tim, cherishing the dwindling supplies, and English interpreted their conversations as distillers described the superior taste of brandies during that reign. This was too good an opportunity to miss for blenders and suddenly markets everywhere were awash in Napoleon brandy. To this day, Napoleon on the label of a Cognac bottle carries a particular cachet but does not mean that it was distilled when he was ruling France.
Despite such commercial highs and lows, however, the Cognac industry has changed little over the centuries. Dominant distillers/blenders and exporters still today are of English or Irish origin – Hennessy (Irish), Martell, R. Martin, Hine and Bowen (English). However more and more French and other nationalities seem to be setting up shop. Courvoisier, Gaston de la Grange, Mounier, Marnier, Otard, Monet, Chabasse, Gautier, Meukow, Larsen, Pierre Ferrand, Camus and Chateau Montifaud are just a few of the more than 100 blenders/exporters.
Today Cognac marketers are making every effort to increase sales, since the product lost significant markets in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand during the recent (1997) recession.
Now Cognac is blended with exotic fruit juices (passion fruit, guava, pineapple etc) and sold as low-alcohol liqueurs. ( Alize brand dominates the market ).Some distillers even recommend enjoying Cognac on the rocks, with orange juice, soft drinks, and in cocktails; this would never have been done even 20 years ago.
In my opinion you should enjoy the subtle qualities of a V. S. O. P, and above Cognacs neat, served in an appropriate-size snifter. As for V. S you can drink it anyway you choose and even use it for flaming.
L. C. B. O carries a number of fine Cognac brands at different quality levels:
In your foreign travels you can find the same brands for much less in tax free airport shops. Some price more competitively than others.
Those in Zurich, Frankfurt am Main, Hong Kong, Singapore and London are recommended. Recommended brands and quality levels:
Hine Rare and Delicate
Grand Champagne Early Landed 1976 Cognac Hine. Aged and bottled in London
Hennessy V S O P
Hennessy X O
R. Martin V S O P
R Martin Excellence
R. Martin Louis XIII
Chateau Montifaud Napoleon
Chabasse X O
Otard V S O P
Marnier V S O P
Borderies X O Camus
Courvoisier V S O P