COGNAC – THE SOPHISTICATED BRANDY
See also: Cognac Facts; Cognac & Armagnac
Cognac has been described in many ways – water of life, the greatest brandy of them all, the most sophisticated distilled product ever, the ultimate post prandial and rightly so! One more addition Cognac is the mother of all brandies.
The superiority of Cognac is firmly based on the systematic exploitation of the region’s natural advantages by man. Cognac used to be a little town of 5000 souls towards the end of the 17th century and is probably the best known of all French towns with the possible exception of Paris now. Today Cognac is a bustling town of 80,000 where life and economy revolve around the world-famous, golden, distilled product. If you have an appointment with any Cognac executive around noon, you better be sure to arrive before 12, or you will have to wait until 2 p m because everyone goes home at 12 with a fresh baguette under his/her arm for a leisurely lunch! Rest assured there are few good small restaurants that serve lunch.
Cognac’s qualities were recognized long before the Dutch started distilling it at the source. English merchants bought the thin acid white wines for their thirsty customers and the Dutch ships were busy carrying loads of Cognac wines to London! Then towards the end of the 16th century, a brilliant Dutch captain thought of distilling the wine at La Rochelle, the main port of export of the region, and upon arrival in Amsterdam to reconstitute it with water! This way he thought he could transport at least twice as much, if not more wine, thus increasing his profits. It is worth pointing out that the Dutch were also enamoured with the acid wines of the Cognac region. When the ship arrived in Amsterdam and people tasted the distilled product they thought it to be very good on its own and considered the addition of water to be a waste! Thus was Cognac, as a distilled product, was borne!
In those days the Dutch controlled the Baltic trade including Sweden, Finland and Norway. They had more ships than the Spanish and Portuguese combined and more than England, which was a naval force to be reckoned with.
By mid 17th century people already knew that Cognacs distilled from wines of the Champagne region had a more refined taste and texture, a fact still true today.
Cognac’s natural advantages start with the terroir, blessed with an equable climate and chalk-rich soil.
There are seven sub regions in Cognac, the best of which is considered to be Grand Champagne, followed by Petit Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, Bois Ordinaires, Bois Commune. The principle grape variety responsible for the distinct taste of Cognac is Ugni Blanc (a.k.a Trebbiano in Italy), Colombard and Folle Blanche are used in small quantities for special taste effects. Generally the wines are acid and thin. Grapes are harvested by sub region, and separately vinified and distilled. Generally Cognac wines rarely exceed 9 per cent alcohol.
What distinguishes Cognac from other brandies is the composition of grapes, the distillation, aging and masterful blending.
Cognac wines are distilled in Alembic stills of copper, and always twice. When the still is charged the first part of the distillate is collected separately, the “ heart “ goes into barrels, and the tail is run into the collected “ head “ to be redistilled. Cognac is distilled out at 70 per cent alcohol strength and aged in barrels made of aged Troncais or Limousin oak. Both impart different flavours to the end product and producers decide on their style based on wood preference. R. Martin uses Limousin oak, whereas Martell prefers Troncais. The former imparts a rich tannic flavour and ages the brandy faster because of its larger pores!
Cognac barrels hold 500 litres and are stored in warehouses interspersed throughout Charente Maritime, since to date no insurance company has ventured into insuring a huge Cognac warehouse. The risk is too high from evaporating alcohol, which can easily spark an infernal fire that would burn intensely and for weeks.
The evaporation of Cognac at first is about four per cent, which decreases gradually to two per cent. The evaporated volume represents a significant loss, and thus the older the Cognac the more expensive and smoother the Cognac becomes.
By law Cognac must be aged a minimum of three years. Most distillers age four or five at the very least and many much longer than that. After about 25 years Cognac is transferred into demi-johns called bonbons, and used only to flavour young Cognac blends. Hennessy’s Paradis (Paradise) warehouse contains Cognacs from 17th century still in barrels, which when tasted, revealed that after 25 years the product becomes simply dull and offers little if any gustatory pleasures. Over the years certain protocol evolved in the age of Cognac
(Cognac distillers never put years on the label unlike their counterparts in Scotland) these being (V.S (Very Superior) at least three years old, followed by V.S.O.P (Very Superior, Old Pale) minimum five years old. After this authorities either never bothered keeping track or deliberately left it to the producer to age and blend to their heart’s content. In fact the reputation and fortunes of Cognac distillers and marketers depend very much on the noses of their blenders. The art of blending is very much an art and for the longest time one family produced all the blenders of Hennessy (the Filoux).
Napoleons, Extra Olds, XO, Reserve de Famille, Louis XIII, Drakkar are extra old Cognacs in which the youngest constituent must be at least five years old, but in reality most distillers use nothing younger than 17 and 20 years old products. The blender tastes cognacs in barrel at least once a year, and finding is dutifully recorded in a thick bound inventory book. The blender decides which barrel(s) to employ in a particular blend. Once the blend has been decided, all barrels are retrieved and emptied into upright casks fitted with wooden paddles. Once all the barrels have been emptied, the paddles are activated to ensure an even blending. After this the mass is aged for another year to “marry“. Prior to bottling caramelized sugar ( up to 2 per cent ) may be added in an attempt to keep the colour uniform from blend to blend. Or sweetened with syrup, diluted to 40 per cent alcohol and bottled. In some companies wood chips that have been soaked in Cognac and boiled may be added for additional taste effect. Most reputable Cognac houses prefer to market Cognacs that are as natural as possible.
Of late some distillers have started to market single-vineyard Cognacs, and others single distillery products. And since 1988 the government allows the marketing of vintage Cognac. Both are interesting for educational purposes.
Cognac is very much a business of trust. When you buy Cognac, you must be able to rely on the integrity of the distiller and/or Cognac house, and like its style. Cognac is usually served in snifters at room temperature and after a rich meal to help digest the food.
Of late distillers are also recommending using Cognac in cocktails, and mixed with sparkling water as an aperitif. You can certainly flame food with Cognac for additional flavour and sensation. Brandy can be used but the taste generally fails to match that of Cognac. There are numerous recipes requiring Cognac. If and when you use Cognac VS quality should suffice.
Whatever you do never flames Cognac for the purpose of drinking. You simply destroy the balance the blender tried to achieve. A fine Cognac and a good cup of Colombian Supremo coffee can be an unforgettable experience.
In Far Eastern countries people like to drink Cognac on the rocks. This is something you should avoid at all cost, as well as serving Cognac in extremely large snifters. Some years ago Hong Kong used to be the Cognac drinking capital of the world, where per capita consumption of Cognac was higher than that in Cognac itself, and the people of Hong Kong enjoyed the highest quality of Cognac. Today the situation has changed, but exporters are still hoping that the city state will regain its status of conspicuous consumption A 12 oz capacity snifter is large enough for practically all qualities of Cognac.
For some a good cigar accompanied by a fine Cognac is something to remember for a long time.
A good sommelier should be able to determine during the course of the dinner whether the party would be interested in a round of Cognac, or a bottle of vintage port, or simply finish the meal with a fine dessert wine and in fact prepare the host for such delights while serving the meal. Regardless Cognac after a meal, slowly sipped and savoured, is an experience many will remember long after the cost of the meal is forgotten.
RECOMMENDED COGNAC DISTILLERS AND/OR BLENDERS:
HENNESSY, COURVOISIER, HINE, MONNET, RAGNAUD, CROIZET, AUGIER, BISQUIT, BOWEN, CHATEAU MONTIFAUD, GAUTIER, GOURMEL, MARNIER, MEUKOW, OTARD, MARTELL, GODET, GASTON DE LA GRANGE, CAMUS, SALIGNAC, J. ROBINET, CUSENIER, HUBERT DE POLIGNAC.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu