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In the movie “Goldfinger” James Bond has a dinner meeting with his boss “M” and Colonel Smithers, an executive from the Bank of England. Smithers is educating Bond and M on the finer points of the gold trade and the dealings of Goldfinger, the film's villain. The scene begins midway into their post-dinner libation. As the butler dispenses cigars the Colonel offers 007 and M more of his “rather disappointing brandy.” M inquires, “What’s the matter with it?” Bond, as proficient a connoisseur as a killer replies: “I’d say it was a 30 year old finé indifferently blended Sir,……..with an overdose of Bon Bois.” Miffed by Bond’s epicurean superiority M brusquely reminds him that “Colonel Smithers is giving the lecture 007.”
Brandy is the general term for liquor distilled from wine and aged in wood. Cognac, (what Bond’s party was actually imbibing), is a particular type of brandy eponymously named for the town and surrounding area of Cognac, France. Cognac, which straddles the Charente River, lies in south western France, about 100 miles north-east of Bordeaux. Cognac is considered to be the world’s best brandy. Armagnac, a nearby region, also produces superlative brandies, devotees of which would argue its equivalency, if not superiority to Cognac.
The term brandy originates from the Dutch word brandewijin which translates as burned wine, a term inevitably referring to the distillation process. Distillation is a procedure whereby a liquid is purified and concentrated by first boiling it, and then condensing its vapors. While grapes are the fruit of choice for most brandies, various other fermented fruits can be employed. Calvados, the eminent apple brandy of Normandy is one example.
Cognac is distilled twice, which optimizes its smoothness and concentration. The resulting liquid is known as the "eaux-de-vie," French for "water of life." Only after being aged in oak casks for a minimum of two years can the final elixir be deemed cognac. Most cognacs are made from a blend of eaux-de-vies from several vintages. This is done to produce a consistent style from year to year.
Cognac is primarily made from Trebbiano grapes or Ugni Blanc in French. There are six appellations, (sub-regions), within the Cognac territory. The average Cognac is composed of grapes that arise from one or more of them. The six appellations are: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Finé (Fins) Bois, Bon Bois, and Bois Ordinaires. The best grapes come from Petite and especially Grande Champagne; hence Bond's criticism that Smithers' inferior brandy contained too much Bon Bois. A cognac made from at least 50% Grande Champagne grapes is called a Finé Champagne and if 100% of its grapes arise from Grande Champagne it is then known as a Grande Finé Champagne.
The term Champagne, as applied here, has no oenological connection with the renowned bubbly of northern France. Champagne, the sparkling wine, comes from the Champagne region of France. The word "champagne" however, derives from a French word referring to chalky soil. Both the Cognac and Champagne regions share this soil trait. Therefore, the communal use of the word Champagne is about the soil and the not the fermented product.
There are a number of different grades of Cognac, a hierarchy which denotes how long the Cognac was aged; the longer the better of course. Moreover, Cognacs intended for extended aging are often comprised of better quality grapes. VS (very special), is aged for at least two years, as are all eau-de-vies that earn the title Cognac. VSOP (very special old pale), has been aged four or more years. Finally, XO (extra old) is at least 6 but more often closer to 20 years old. You will helpfully find these standard designations right on the label. However, most of the main Cognac producers offer special blends over two decades old (in the $300-$400 price range). For the ridiculously wealthy, or possibly psychotic, Cognacs with blends of eau-de-vie upwards to 200 years old are produced and sell for thousands a bottle.
As of this writing, $25 will land you most VS cognacs but for an extra sawbuck you can enjoy a VSOP. Whether it’s worth another Ben Franklin to launch into the stratosphere of XO, only your palate and wallet can decide. The big names in Cognac are Courvoisier, Remy Martin, Martell and Hennessy. But I also recommend the Pierre Ferrand 1er cru Cognac made from 100% Grande Champagne grapes. It sports incredible smoothness and finesse for the fair price, (relatively speaking), of a General Grant.
Courvoisier, my traditional favorite has hailed itself the “Cognac of Napoleon.” Napoleon crowned himself emperor. It's only fitting that his favorite cognac exalts itself as well. The source of this cachet is the fact that Napoleon brought several barrels of Courvoisier with him to his exile on St. Helena in 1915.
Whichever one you choose, serve your cognac in an ample brandy snifter so you can enjoy its aromas as well as the taste. And unless your ego can tolerate it, don’t solicit the opinion of the secret agent joining you. He may have a license to kill your cognac.
Also Visit Mark’s website: Food for Thought Online
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