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Saturday, June 4, 2016

A Quick Cognac Primer – Brandy’s Dandy But Cognac’s Quicker


Cognac is still something of a mystery to most people – maybe even more of a mystery is that June 4th is National Cognac Day. Really?  Since I’ve been to Cognac, I thought I’d peel away some of the mystery and confusion surrounding Cognac. Yes it is brandy, distilled wine, and like Port and Champagne it is also a region, specifically in the Western part of France located north of Bordeaux and a three-hour train ride south from Paris. Brandy is made in many places across the globe, but anything labeled Cognac must be made in Cognac. As the old saying goes, all Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac.

At the Martell Dsitillery
Like any product controlled by a trade board, Cognac is no different and there are quirky things that all Cognac producers must adhere to like it is "compulsory" to use copper stills, and all distillation must be completed no later than March 31st at midnight. There are about 260 Cognac houses in France - some very small like the mother and son team of Maison Dudognon and newcomers like CognacLecat (started in 2014), to medium sized houses like Frapin and Camus, to the larger and better known brands like Hennessey(251 years old), Martell (301 years old), Courvoisier, and Remy Martin.

Frapin's old blending room
In Cognac there are wine makers and grape growers in the thousands, some who make the wine and sell it; others who distill their wine and sell the eau du vie to the Cognac houses. It is a vast complex web of relationships in a small market and it involves a tremendous amount of people. My visit took me to many producers, each one with their own story and iteration and style of Cognac, which I do not detail here, or the cool history of Cognac, as that is a much longer story. Cognac typically consists of four specific tastes: floral, fruit, spice and wood. Cognac starts as wine, then it is distilled into eau du vie, then distilled a second time, and then aged…for a long time. And it is this understanding of time that gives Cognac its unique expression, and cost.

Pondering my blend at Hennessy
Olivier Paultes is the director of distillation for Hennessy, the largest Cognac producer in the world. I visited with him and blended my own Cognac, which he liked, but I’m certain he was just being kind. “What you look for is perfect harmony, just like in an orchestra, just like when you cook,” he says. Every morning at 11 a.m. he, along with the rest of the tasting committee, tastes through 50 to 80 samples. I am given multiple Cognacs from which to blend - a 1983 (smooth, clean and spicy with a moderate fruit component), a 1990 (spicy wood, butterscotch, caramel), and a 1996 (clove, apricot, apple with more upfront oak). I ponder, mull, overthink, and assemble my own concoction. Oliver calls my blend the “most round.” Another blend he calls "95% spot on," and of someone else's blend he says, "No, it's not horrible it's just strange," in that French accent which really suggests that, in fact it's not strange, it's actually horrible. Fortunately I am not a master distiller. But what a distiller does, be they from a new Cognac house like Lecat or an old standard like Martell, and what Cognac offers apart from most any other wine or spirit in the world, is an amazing concept of continuum – a life over time whereby age is the perfect compliment to the spirit.

The tasting experience at Camus
Olivier sums it up best. “What's exciting for me personally is that we will be preparing the Cognac of tomorrow; what I have just distilled now will age to be tasted in 100 years.” And that, in part, is why Cognac is worthy of your attention; it is often created for a generation not yet born, an experience far into the future, and a connection with the past that has a sense of pride and patience. VISIT COGNAC





1 comment:

  1. Who knew? A great primer on this really cool spirit.

    ReplyDelete