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Understanding Cognac

story and photos by Virginia Miller

The romance and history of Cognac is unparalleled. As one who has visited distilleries from Japan to Scotland, Oaxaca to Bassano del Grappa, I thought I’d seen it all. True, the rolling vineyards of Cognac more than slightly recall my home of Northern California, also on a west coast, just north of Bordeaux. But “humid,” mold-covered cellars aging Cognac in castles dating back to the 1100s? Sipping 1800s Cognac straight from a glass demijohn, where they are moved post-barrel aging? Breathing in the musty air of cobweb-laced cellars redolent of aging Ugni Blanc (the high acid-low alcohol grape variety that accounts for 98% of Cognac production, the other 2% being Folle Blanche and Colombard white grapes)? Cellars (chais in French) appropriately named paradis (“paradise”) aging the oldest Cognac ?


Courvoisier's distillery.

I had not seen, smelled or tasted this. After a week exploring the region, staying overnight in the stunning châteaux of various Cognac families, meeting gracious locals, tasting countless barrel samples, comparing 19th-century Cognac (a revelation every time), regularly tasting 30-, 40- and 50-year-old Cognac and drinking premium XO Cognac as if it were water, I must say I fell far deeper in love with Cognac than I already was before. The sense of place, the people, the landscape and the quirks that make up the most elegant brandy category are as unique and irreplaceable as the most vibrant spirit regions in the world.

This came as a bit of a shock knowing the strict boundaries (and high price tag) of Cognac production before I explored the region. More than almost any spirit, the French government holds to tight production requirements, from a set distilling season for all producers that lasts from October 1 through March 31, to the grape varieties used, to double distillation, the first distillation required to be in a small pot still. So how do distillers and master blenders (as Cognac is always blended) distinguish themselves from the next Cognac house? Neighboring Armagnac has more wiggle room in their regulations so their brandy expressions can be broader—as can the quality.

As we take the just under three-hour train journey from Paris’s Montparnasse station to the city of Angoulême, followed by a roughly 45 minute drive to the small, charming town of Cognac, we will explore a few ways key Cognac brands set themselves apart.

Three Key Cognac facts to Know First

1. As with French wine regions, Cognac has an appellation d'origine contrôlée or Appellation of Origin (AOC) designation divided into six regions/crus, the latter three being the smaller appellations, thus growing the most costly, revered grapes: Bons Ordinaires, Bons Bois, Fins Bois (this area yields the largest production, making up 45% of all Cognac grapes), Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne and Borderies. Before it is aged, the base spirit is called eau de vie (“water of life,” a term also applied to other types of brandy, like fruit brandies). It is not called Cognac until it is aged.

2. There are four quality grades of Cognac, ranging in value from affordable and mixable in cocktails to expensive, best sipped neat: VS (“very special”, a blend with the youngest brandy aged at least two years in cask), VSOP (“very superior old pale”, with the youngest at least four years in cask), XO (“extra old”, with the youngest age just changing this year from six to a minimum of ten years in cask) and Hors d’Age (“beyond age”, similar to XO but often older).

3. There are limitations on the amount of Cognac that can be produced in one distillery, so most of the major houses have a few distilleries, then contract with hundreds, even thousands (there are nearly 5000, though dwindling), of small Cognac winegrowers and distillers, called bouilleurs de cru. Many bouilleurs grow and distill for numerous houses simultaneously.

 

COGNAC HOUSES

Martell


Martell's Château de Chanteloup.

Martell was celebrating its 300th anniversary when I visited this fall. Founded in 1715 by Jean Martell (who was from the English island of Jersey), it is the oldest and longest continually-operating large Cognac house, with a notable visitor’s library packed with handwritten ledgers and books dating back to the early 1700s.

Highlights: In Martell's “paradise” (where there is Cognac aging since 1802), I sampled fantastic Cognac from 1848 and 1875 that shockingly retained the balance and “youthfulness” of 30- to 50-year-old Cognacs I’ve tasted. Martell’s Château de Chanteloup (built in 1838) is the most magical of the châteaux I visited, with woods, valleys and lakes to get lost in and unique architecture in the style of France’s Normandy region up north. A transcendent experience was being interrupted by more than 20 deer gathering outside the dining room as we ate dinner— we took a break from our meal to step outside and feed them bread from our hands. Martell’s higher-end Cognacs were among my favorites of the week, walking a fine line between elegance and robustness.

Unique Features: French Limousin oak is common—yet expensive—in wine and spirits but Martell makes their barrels from the rare Tronçais tree, a fine grain oak (vs. Limousin’s wide grain) found on small plots of land in France. Where Limousin can impart woody, caramel notes, Tronçais imbues more floral, spice notes. They also distill without the lees, or sediment (residual yeasts and other particles), resulting in a cleaner taste and texture—arguably, on the alternate side, lees add character, earth and texture. I tasted the same distillate aged in both types of woods and with and without the lees. While the oak difference was subtle, the taste with and without lees was dramatic. Martell’s house style is to use only the four top crus in their blends—Fins Bois, Grande and Petite Champagne and Borderies—with an emphasis on the high-end Borderies.

PERNOD RICARD USA

Courvoisier

Courvoisier is headquartered in a striking château (built between the 1850sand 1870s) in the idyllic small town of Jarnac, gazing over the Charente River. The brand dates back to 1808 and bears the honor of having been the Cognac sipped at the christening of the Eiffel Tower. Their in-house museum is particularly informative, while their aging warehouses and distilleries lie outside Jarnac. The British Simon family bought the brand in 1909 and is responsible for its broader push outside France.

Highlights: Courvoisier’s dreamy basement paradis, called Chai Renard, houses bottles, barrels and demijohns containing liquid dating back to the 1800s. A highlight was tasting with Master Blender Patrice Pinet straight from three Cognac barrels showcasing different grapes covering a range of 30 to 50 years aged. Pinet will blend and marry each barrel in one special, in-house bottling. The taste differences between barrels were notable, making me eager to experience the results of the blend.

Unique Features: The unique onion shape of Courvoisier’s châpiteau pot still factors in the taste of Cognac, as does the fact that they age barrels upright (with all barrels since 1986) vs. lying on their side, as is typical. This is for a few reasons, including that they toast the middle—not the inner lids—of the barrels so storing on the side allows maximum exposure of the liquid to the barrel’s subtle char. Another key taste distinguisher is that Courvoisier distills with and without the lees depending on the grape used. For example, their VS is a blend of 90% Fins Bois and 10% Petite Champagne grapes so is treated differently from, say, eaux de vie heavy on Borderies grapes.

BEAM SUNTORY

Château de Cognac: Baron Otard and D’USSÉ


Le Château d'Ussé.

The Château de Cognac is home to Baron Otard Cognac, a brand we do not get in the U.S., though we do have the newer D'USSÉ brand produced by the same house. Though Otard was established in 1795, the château and castle on the Charente River date back to the 12th century. Parts of the castle were destroyed during the French Revolution, other sections house 12th-century passageways and medieval jails where prisoners carved their names into the walls with nails and teeth. A thousand years of history emanate from the walls, imbuing the Château de Cognac with the greatest intrigue of all the places I visited in Cognac.

Highlights: Smoking cigars in a castle courtyard while sipping D’USSÉ late into the night is a moment I will not soon forget, while exploring many wings of the castle was fascinating. I was wowed by their “normal” dry cellars and “humid” cellars—these dank rooms are unlike anything I’ve seen in the world. Here, Baron Otard demijohns dating back to 1820 are covered in a thick carpet of mold and spider webs, while the walls are crawling with mushrooms. In each of their Cognacs, they blend both dry (for more subtle, dry notes and tannins) and humid (for bolder, brighter fruit notes) eaux de vie. I tasted both separately as well as final blends and am smitten with D’USSÉ’s rancio notes—the funkier, moldier, earthy elements (as with a fine cheese) accessible in their Cognac. Generally speaking, Otard offers a higher humid cellar component though tends lighter and elegant, while D’USSÉ has more boldness, though still refined.

Unique Features: Château de Cognac focuses only on grapes grown in Fins Bois, Petite and Grande Champagne areas. They distill with the lees and toast barrels with more of a medium to high char (most Cognac distillers do a light to medium toast), resulting in rich, unique character. They store almost 20,000 barrels in cellars tucked away in countless wings of the castle, with each Cognac released containing some portion of castle-aged eau de vie.

BACARDI USA

 

Hennessy


Hennessy's Cognac cellar.

Headquartered on the Charente River in the city of Cognac, Hennessy is the most widely known (and biggest-selling) Cognac name—in part thanks to rappers and celebrities—responsible for a whopping 46% of all Cognac production. But it is also one of the oldest and most venerable Cognacs, celebrating their 250th anniversary in 2015, founded by an Irishman named Hennessy, making the family line both Irish and French.

Highlights: Hennessy’s Château de Bagnolet is a gorgeous home just outside the town of Cognac where I had a most memorable dinner with Maurice Hennessy, eighth-generation in the family, followed by cigars and Cognac in their striking covered patio. Housed in their main facilities on the river is a repair cooperage, La Sarrazine. Though I have visited cooperages in Scotland and beyond, I had never been involved in making a barrel from start to finish, from assembling to toasting to cutting lids. Doing so at La Sarrazine reinforced what intense work and strength is required to make just one barrel.

Unique Features: Hennessy’s prestigious, all-male tasting committee meets daily to taste 50 to 70 eaux de vie, deciding what will eventually go into blends. Though the largest Cognac brand, Hennessy only distills 7% of its overall production in its larger distilleries, utilizing over 1,500 small winegrowers and distillers, resulting in subtle, layered blends. They also use five levels of barrels with varying degrees of age and fill—all imparting delicate layers of flavor.

MOËT HENNESSY USA

Rémy Martin


Remy Martin's vineyards.

Founded in 1724, Rémy Martin is one of the oldest Cognac houses and in some ways the most hip. Like all the large and small houses I visited, they have musty, cobweb-laced aging cellars but they also have a tight, celebrity-driven marketing plan and chic Rémy Martin Le Club in the town of Cognac where they host tastings and parties. Their cellars are in a nearby town called Merpins, with their main distillery a little further out in the town of Touzac.

Highlights: For 35 years, Rémy was the first major Cognac house with a female Cellar Master, the pioneering Pierrette Trichet. When she retired in 2014, she passed on the Cellar Master mantle to her apprentice, Baptiste Loiseau. Though a young 33 when he took the position, he has honed his palate with Trichet, conducting daily blind tastings with five or six people where they decide which eaux de vie (from nearly 1200 growers) will go into a blend. It was a privilege participating in a morning tasting with Loiseau through eaux de vie dating back to 1893. Another highlight was a stellar lunch at Le Club from Rémy’s talented house chef as well as an interactive (taste, touch, smell) cornucopia spread of fruits, nuts, chocolates and other ingredients that exhibit the many layers found in Cognac.

Unique Features: Rémy distills roughly 70% of its Cognac, sourcing the rest, as the major houses do, from small distillers. They grow about 30% of their vineyards, sourcing the other 70% from small winegrowers. Their most distinguishing difference is that they use only grapes grown in Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne regions, making them officially Fine Champagne Cognac. They also distill with the lees, imparting body to their elegant profile and they use 100% Ugni Blanc grapes. While the law only requires a small pot still be used on the first distillation, Rémy uses small pot stills for both distillations.

RÉMY COINTREAU USA

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