Wine grapes have long flourished in Cognac and the Dutch came to this region looking for salt and they found wine. Salt was easy to ship back to Holland but wine proved to be problematic; it spoiled on the ship ride back. It was 1542 when it was discovered, either accidentally or on purpose depending on what story you prefer, that if the wine from Cognac was distilled it could survive the voyage back to Holland. Therefore fermented and finished wine was distilled into eau du vie (“water of life”), a clear, somewhat harsh spirit, but when a second distillation occurred followed by aging in oak casks, then the wine-turned-spirit became Cognac, something quite unexpected.
Uniqueness of Cognac
Like any product controlled by a trade board, Cognac is no different and there are quirky rules that Cognac producers must adhere to. For example it is "compulsory" to use copper stills; all distillation must be completed no later than March 31st at midnight, and you cannot irrigate your vines. Additionally the grapes planted to make Cognac are odd grapes rarely used for making traditional wine, including Folle Blanch, Colombard and the most ubiquitous grape, Ugni Blanc. What's intriguing, actually downright mysterious, is how Ugni Blanc becomes something better than itself. When I visited Cognac I was able to taste several Ugni Blanc still wines. The wine is thin, acidic, tart, grapefruity, completely unimpressive, certainly not what you'd expect as the base for world class Cognac. But like the caterpillar morphing into the butterfly Ugni Blanc transforms into something beautiful. Cognac typically consists of four specific tastes: floral, fruit, spice and wood. You'll hear different Cognac houses espouse either fermenting using the lees or strictly not using lees at all; one is not better than the other. Since aging is crucial most everyone uses both dry and humid cellars, which means that various barrels, being affected by both hot and cold temperatures, will age differently, adding subtle complexity. In Napa winemakers worry about earthquakes - for Cognac it is fire. Throughout Cognac’s history fire has decimated thousands of casks therefore most everyone has multiple cellars in multiple places, keeping their proverbial eggs in many baskets.
There are about 260 Cognac houses - some very small like the mother and son team of Maison Dudognon and newcomers like Cognac Lecat, to medium sized houses like Frapin and Camus, to the larger and well-known brands like Hennessey, Martell and Remy Martin. But Cognac still struggles to create an expanding presence in China and in 2016/2017, direct shipments to China equaled 22.6 million bottles worth 430 million Euros or 3,341,799,981 RMB. But to truly understand Cognac, you need to visit.
My time in the city took me to many producers, each one with their own story and style of Cognac. Throughout the city there are multiple La Cognathèque’s, Cognac bars which typically offer a wide selection of Cognacs from many producers who have no tasting facilities. Therefore you have the ability to sample a multitude of Cognacs and discover the breadth of what is being produced. In Cognac there are winemakers and grape growers in the thousands; some who merely grow grapes, some who make the wine and sell it, and 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.
Pairing with Food
When it comes to pairing Cognac with food there are basic guidelines surpassing the idea of Cognac and a cigar and cheese. VS Cognacs for example work well with fish like smoked herring, lobster, scallops, wok-fried ham, marinated duck tongues and barbecued suckling pig, and, certain cheese like Edam, Roquefort and creamed cheese’s. With a more mature VSOP oysters and Peking duck, foie gras and smaller game birds work well as well as cheeses like creamy Brie, hearty American Cheddar. There are other adventurous pairing such as braised spareribs with preserved plums in black vinegar. For XO pairings caviar, lobster, various nuts and fruits like carrot, apple and raspberry and small game birds highlight Cognac’s complexity.
Chateau Lecat is new to be game having released their very first Cognac in 2014. Lecat farms 20 hectares 95% of which is to produce eau du vie. They distill on the lees for a “more refined” approach says director Yann Hamonou. They utilize five to 10-year-old barrels, which do not release abundant tannins but do give off vanilla and pear notes and a roundness on the palate. I ask why they launched into a crowded field when you consider that Hennessy alone controls 45% of the market? “Diversity creates curiosity,” Hamonou tells me. “If you focus on quality, it’s not impossible, after all quality customers will follow.”
Quality is certainly the hallmark at Frapin whose family has been in the region since the late 1200s. Currently they control 240 hectares of vines planted in “crumbly chalk.” They only produce half a million bottles of Cognac, which might sound like a lot but they are dwarfed by their competition. Frapin is old-school; they will routinely pull out vines around 40 years old and let fields go fallow for seven years before replanting; and their stills are not computerized, as most Cognac distillation is high tech. “Each decision is made by the nose,” says Frapin’s master distiller Patrice Piveteau, not by a computer. “I don't like Cognac or wine with just one element, like wood,” he says. “For me Cognac is a story.” They produce a wide variety of Cognacs from 12-18 year aged to special blends with small amounts of Cognac as far back as 1872. I tasted with Patrice through an assortment of iterations: the 1991 “cigar blend” with subtle notes of tangerine and vanilla; and the 4,000 Euro “1888” with beautiful notes of caramel, vanilla, peach, tangerine and apple. Frapin is also the official Cognac of the King of Romania. They are not open to the public but do offer private tastings.
At Camus, a family-run fifth generation house, quality is the key for an upscale global market. They are well known in China due to owner Cyril Camus living in Beijing part time along with his Chinese wife. “For the overall Cognac market now, China represents about 35% of the volumes sold every year. For Camus it is anywhere from a quarter to a third of our total production,” Cyril Camus says. At this Chateau you can blend your own Cognac to take home with you, as I did - for 80 Euro, and they are open to the public May through September for tastings. Their property, located near the heart of the town of Cognac itself, dates from the 1830s and was built as an original Cognac house with high walls to hide the stocks of salt and wine from their neighbors. They farm 180 hectors of vines and the family decides the flavor profiles. “The validation of Cognac is always with the nose. We listen to the Cognac,” says master blender Frederic Dezauzier. They use both the Trancas and Limousine wood, utilizing both fine and large grain woods, something that is uncommon for Cognac.
Hennessy is the largest Cognac producer in the world and they store an astounding 350,000 barrels that are actively aging. They operate 40 stills, use 465 general distillers, have 19 exclusive distillers who only work with them, and contract with1,500 grape growers and wine makers. Olivier Paultes is the director of distillation for Hennessy. “I remember, even as a young schoolboy, being fascinated by the aromas of the leather satchel I carried my books in everyday,” he tells me. “I think you need a natural interest in food, aromas and taste to be a master blender. A good nose and palate are very important. For me tasting is concentration,” he says, which is why when I visited with him and blended my own Cognac there is absolutely no noise in the room. “What you look for is perfect harmony, just like in an orchestra, just like when you cook,” he says. “You may have very good oysters here and some very good chocolate there, but you don't put the two together – it's the same with Cognac.”
Every morning at 11 a.m. he and the rest of the tasting committee, taste through 50 to 80 samples for blending. I am given multiple Cognacs from which to craft a 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, 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.” Fortunately I am not a master distiller or blender. But what these craftsmen do, and what Cognac offers apart from most any other wine or spirit, is an amazing concept of continuum – a life over time whereby age is the perfect compliment. “What’s exciting for me personally,” says Oliver, “is that we are preparing the Cognac of tomorrow; some of the eau-de-vie I have just distilled now will age to be tasted in 100 years.”