While Baijiu is the undisputed national spirit of China, cognac is the drink of choice for the country’s elite imbiber. This tradition started about 200 years ago when Shanghai became a treaty port and some of the first companies to take advantage, were cognac producers. In traditional China, drinking, eating, and socialising are all closely tied together and the tendency is for cognac to be consumed neat and in large quantities. There is frequent toasting during which everyone participating is expected to empty their glass or else they will lose face. Cognac isn’t served in snifters, but in small shot glasses or teacups and a Chinese saying directs that it should be drunk ‘as if it were water’. In general, it is the ‘old school’ Chinese who have made it such a popular drink. They are traditional in their habits and interests, taking long, slow lunchtimes and playing Mahjong. The Chinese also care as much about the packaging as they do the liquid inside the bottle. The revealing of a very elaborate and fancy-looking bottle shows respect for their relationships with a group. With cognac now ingrained into so many aspects of their culture, it is not surprising that this French product has become such a mainstay of Chinese life. However, if this enormous demand is to be sustained, the younger generations need to get as excited about the spirit as the old-school set, and that’s a problem that has yet to be solved.
This year we have had an amazing number of new Hermitage Vintage Cognacs added to the range. We have been thrilled to find so many exquisite and unique cognacs packed with wonderful aromas and flavours for you to enjoy. Many are now Gold medal winners as blind judging panels across the globe have also recognised their superior qualities.
We have not had the chance to tell you about these three yet:
Hermitage Paradis 1893 Grande Champagne Cognac. This was an extremely lucky find as it is regarded by many as one of the finest vintages to come from this important period.
Hermitage 1970 Fins Bois Cognac. It is rare to find cognacs from the Fins Bois in the Hermitage range but this one is special.
Hermitage 1991 Grande Champagne Cognac. Our last 1991 vintage ran out so we were delighted to find such a magnificent replacement with this one from Chez Richon.
There are all manner of cognac classifications found on bottle labels, but what do they actually mean? Most of the generic terms below describe cognacs made by blending hundreds, or even thousands, of cognacs together to produce a vast quantity of a homogenous product for sale on supermarket shelves. As demand increases younger and younger cognacs are used in these blends so sugar syrup and caramel colouring are added to obscure the fieriness on the tongue and lack of appealing colour.
VS stands for Very Special. Also known as *** (3-star) or Premium, the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend must be at least 2 years old. Many of these younger cognacs are purchased by the ‘Big Four’ companies in order to meet their ever-growing demand.
VSOP stands for Very Superior Old Pale. The youngest eau-de-vie in the blend must be at least 4 years old. The colour of cognac deepens the longer it stays in contact with the wooden barrel. Although described as ‘Pale’ these young cognacs can also have caramel added which provides a red glow.
Napoleon. Named after the very famous Frenchman, Napoleon Boneparte, the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend must be at least 6 years old. Up until April 2018, this was also the age of XO.
XO stands for Extra Old and must be aged for a minimum of 10 years. Although not official terms, Extra and Hors d’Age are often used to describe cognac of XO quality and age. Some small producers sell XO that maybe up to 20 years old but, it is unlikely that this will be specified on the label.
XXO is a new classification that stands for Extra, Extra Old and the youngest eaux-de-vie in any blend must have been aged for a minimum of 14 years.
So you can see that it is very difficult to decipher exactly what is in your bottle of cognac with a generic label as only minimum ages are specified and they are highly blended. Sometimes Single Estate is used to describe a cognac where all the eau de vie used has come from the same estate. In this case, far fewer cognacs will be used to make the blend so the flavour should be more individual.
Cognacs with Age Statements (eg 30 Year Old) are more precise as they list the youngest eau de vie used and may also comprise a blend of just one or two cognacs or indeed be Single Cask (unblended). Vintage Cognacs also give you specific information. The year on the label describes the year the grapes were harvested. The cognac will be aged to perfection before being taken out of the wood and placed in glass when it will no longer mature. Most vintage cognacs will tell you when the cognac was bottled and therefore, for how long it was aged. This is the category that has the most information available to you, the customer. They are expensive to produce as the casks are strictly controlled throughout the decades of ageing. However, you can be sure that you are drinking cognac that has been matured to its optimum level, is unblended and has an unbelievable variation of aromas and flavours. We call this complexity.
Rémy Cointreau is in negotiations to buy Maison J.R.Brillet, a family-owned cognac business founded in the 17th century. In addition to the company, the deal is thought to include the family’s vineyard estate and their stock of well-aged eaux de vie. It is located in the village of Graves-Saint-Armant, on the border of Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, the top cognac crus. Announcing the planned takeover, Rémy Cointreau said that it will provide an ‘opportunity to integrate spirits with genuine development potential into its portfolio and to increase, over time, the value of an inventory of eaux-de-vie and vineyards of the highest quality’. It is always a shame to see another of the small, high quality, independent, family-run cognac producers subsumed into one of the ‘Big 4’. A piece of Cognac history will come to an abrupt end and the firm’s precious old nectars will probably be blended beyond all recognition.
Scottish whisky blender, Compass Box, has released a new spirit drink comprising calvados & whisky. The calvados, from the Christian Drouin distillery, has been blended with whiskies aged in French oak casks and Sherry butts. Compass Box’s founder said “We have been blending calvados and Scotch whisky at home for years, enchanted by their complementary qualities. Although one of the world’s greatest spirits, calvados is also one of the most underappreciated”. The result is said to possess ‘layers of apple character married beautifully with malty, vanilla and spice-like notes’. Compass Box is not the only firm to recognise the success of this flavour combination, though. Sweden’s Mackmyra distillery has just released a single malt whisky, finished in ex-calvados casks. Perhaps such ideas will help calvados get the appreciation it so deserves?
The IWSC 2019 Awards have just been announced and we are delighted to report that Hermitage Cognacs are once again amongst the winners with three cognac gold medals.
Leading the way is the Hermitage 1950 Grande Champagne Cognac which was awarded a GOLD OUTSTANDING medal. ‘Classically good old cognac. Rancio to the fore, with a quite wonderful palate’ Judges' comments
GOLD Medals were also awarded to two other Grande Champagne Cognacs:
Hermitage 1940 Cognac ‘Wonderfully powerful aromas that absolutely typify good, old cognacs’ Judges' comments
Hermitage 1945 Cognac ‘The real personification of just how good and elegant old cognac can be’ Judges' comments
Craft Vintage Cognacs are rare and finding them is a specialist business as they are unique, and the level of luxury sought is only found in a few of the very finest and oldest cognac firms. Vintage Premier Cru cognacs are in extremely limited supply. Very good, award-winning cognacs are even more rare which is why Hermitage Premier Cru Vintages are not generally available in the wider volume markets. The secret is to find the cellars that still house some of the oldest and rarest nectars still in existence. Many of them belong to families who have, for generations, been producing cognacs. These cognacs have been allowed to gradually mature through the ages, masterpieces forgotten in time. Each special vintage is highly valuable and sealed in glass to preserve its greatness and value for future generations - a superb cognac investment.
Today, increasing demand in the rapidly growing cognac market means that single estate vintages from the top crus are largely swallowed up into generic blends of indeterminate age and quality, their youthfulness obscured by syrups and caramel additives. Less is kept back by individual producers for the family cellars and much of that which is retained, is sold at a relatively early age.
Recent sales of some rare vintages have only served to highlight the value of old vintage cognacs. Prices of more than £200k a bottle were achieved on two occasions and we have seen other mouth-watering prices being paid. But not only have the prices of early pre-Phylloxera cognacs increased, so have the prices of more recent vintages and well-aged cognacs of 60 – 80 years as their availability decreases. It is clear to the experienced cognac specialist that availability of the older ages is on the decline with some of the ‘grand marques’ supplied by the big houses already using lower aged cognacs from lesser crus in their blends. Over the last 5 - 10 years, we have also seen the prices of some well-known commercial cognacs double. Bottles of Remy Louis XIII, which doesn’t even have an age statement, sold for about £1200 six or seven years ago but can now fetch more than £2500. Richard Hennessy sold with a trade price in 2017 of around £1500 sells today at £3500 again, it has no age statement. Clearly this is working to the producers’ advantage as the cognac barrel ages are almost certainly in decline.
Premier cru cognacs from the Champagnes are slow in ageing and naturally aged cognacs from this area will take fifty or more years in cask to develop their natural qualities. Some form of age statement will provide the clearest indication of quality, and therefore value, since age and value are inextricably linked. It is little wonder that clients with larger disposable assets are now investing in these extremely rare, older vintage cognacs. The time to do this is now for we do not know how much longer will we continue to find these old ‘rancio’ brandies that have matured to a rich and valuable glory.
It seems that we haven’t got enough variations on the theme of cognac as Courvoisier are extending their range of cask finished cognac drinks. Of course, any cognac which is produced outside the rules established over the last hundred or so years, cannot be called cognac. However, consumers have come to recognise the big brand labels and happily buy what they believe to be cognac, when it has actually been finished in a cask that has held a different alcoholic beverage. Courvoisier, in their plight to obscure the taste of their cognac, have recently added a bourbon cask finish cognac drink to their sherry cask cognac drink. One wonders how long it will be before we see port finished cognac drinks, sauterne finished cognac drinks and perhaps even a Caribbean rum finish. Do they really need to hide the flavour of their cognac so badly?
We are truly at the height of summer here in the UK. France has experienced extremes of weather again this year, but the growing season is going well. As ever DB has been searching out new cognacs for you to enjoy and recently, he added four new vintages to the Hermitage stable. From the top cru, Grande Champagne, comes Hermitage 1940 Cognac. A beautifully balanced amber nectar, with aromas of chestnuts and truffles, it was produced in the year Winston Churchill became British Prime Minister and ordered the Dunkirk Evacuation. Also from Grande Champagne comes Hermitage 1950 Cognac - a real joy to taste with flavours including plum crumble with a blood orange peel finish. Hermitage 1970 Fins Bois Cognac was harvested in the year Concorde made its first supersonic flight. It is rare to find cognacs from the Fins Bois in the Hermitage range but this one is really very special. And finally, our highly prized, much sought after Hermitage 1999 Grande Champagne Cognac has nearly run out but fortunately we have found an equally magnificent Hermitage 1995 Grande Champagne Cognac with which to replace it. Aged for a longer period, it has a greater complexity of flavours including butterscotch, cocoa, walnuts and baked apples. We are very excited by our latest find. It is rich and beautifully balanced, ..… you will not be disappointed.
We also continue to increase our range of vintage cognacs, armagnacs and calvados. Our stock now includes vintage brandies from every year from 1928 – 2002 & a few more besides. If you are looking for a specific year, just search on our website or give us a ring (01225 863988).
Did you know it was National Cognac Day last month? A relatively new addition to the annual calendar and originating in the United States of America, it is celebrated on the 4th of June. As with all popular, American activities it has become a worldwide event, so mark it in your diary ready for 2020! This year Jeanne O’Brien Coffey came up with 5 reasons to drink cognac and we pretty much agree with all of them:
1. It takes a lot of time and money to produce fine cognac which is why it tastes so good. 2. There is a cognac for every palate. 3. It’s cocktail-friendly (but we do not recommend using our vintages for this)! 4. It pairs with everything and can be drunk at any time of the day. 5. It has a unique flavour profile with a myriad of flavours in a single bottle.