The American Chemical Society has identified a few compounds, not previously known, which contribute to an aged cognac’s complex aromas. Using cognacs ranging from about 10 – 50 years old, a combination of gas chromatography/olfactometry and mass spectrometry separated, smelled and identified their various components. Of the many found, several terpenoids (which give wine its floral notes) were identified for the first time. A sensory panel then looked at how, when mixed, these cognac compounds contributed to ageing aromas eg they found that whisky lactone and β-damascenone enhanced the sensation of a mix of terpenes found in aged distillates but not in younger ones. The report suggests that these findings could help producers develop cognacs with better flavours, although it only refers to blended cognacs. So, our single cask Hermitage Cognacs will continue to receive their wonderful aromas and flavours from the oak.
The growth in generic cognac sales over the last quarter of a century has distracted from the single most important criteria in determining the quality of a cognac. The age, or to be precise, the barrel age of a cognac is the most important element of cognac quality, yet we so often fail to ask the age question. Currently there simply is not enough information on the bottle to make it interesting. Compare that to a single malt whisky where the label tells us its barrel age, who made it and even what barrel it was stored in. It is little wonder that single malts outsell cognacs by a factor of 10 : 1.
Sure, there are other factors that affect cognac quality, the cru, shape and size of the still, the cut, variations in the actual distillation, the size and age of the barrels, the storage conditions . . . . . . the list goes on but the longer the cognac is allowed to sleep in the barrel, the better it is. The provenance is the one piece of information that tells us more about its quality than all the other cognac features put together.
Of course, where the cognac was made and who made it is important. However, even cognac that has been made in the top cru by a family producer, will lose its identity once it has been sold to one of the big houses as they have to blend hundreds of different cognacs together to meet their customer demands. Fortunately, there are still family firms who sell their cognacs independently. These single estate producers are much more likely to provide cognacs that have aged for more than the minimum number of years and to have kept their best and oldest in the family cellars.
Modern wine and spirit retailers have little knowledge of cognac. It is not their fault. They simply have not been told and there is no information on the bottle to encourage questions. Many retailers consider themselves as mainly wine retailers, yet if they were to learn about cognac and actively sell it, it would provide them with a much more interesting sale (there are so many different processes it goes through over a much longer ageing process than any other alcoholic beverage). Values and margins are higher, and the story is more involved and interesting than wine. After all, cognac starts as a wine.
So, you may say “Where do we go from here?” Supermarket shelves are stocked with generic blends which do not sell and if you ask for a brandy in a hotel or bar you are offered a VS, VSOP or XO. Growers and producers must make their cognacs and labels more interesting by keeping some of their cognacs back from the big houses to sell independently with age statements.
But perhaps the best idea is to draw up a long term plan and ask where producers want to be in the future; struggling to get a decent price from the big houses or offering what their forefathers would have liked, unique cognacs that have been properly aged and recognised for the unique flavours and styles that they have spent generations in perfecting. Not only will they get recognition for their cognacs, but they will get much more money for them as well. Cognacs are complex and have interesting flavours that have developed in their barrels over decades. This is why cognac is the King of all Spirits.
As most of you know, I spend a great deal of my time tasting cognacs because as a company we believe that every cognac must be perfect for its intended type of customer. But being perfect doesn’t necessarily mean it is the cognac which excels in taste above all others. The simple truth is that a cognac which I may consider is the best cognac may not be the same one that you like because our palates have become accustomed, over time, to different taste characteristics which our brains have accepted as good.
Perhaps the term ‘taste characteristics’ is one to associate with fine cognacs; they will differ from one cognac to another and in most producers’ opinions, their own will be better than any other available. This is not surprising as producers spend their lifetime tasting their own cognacs, few ever venture onto another producer’s patch and few have any idea of how to compare their own production with that of their neighbours.
So, how do you know what is good and what perhaps is not so good? Well, when you have tasted thousands of different brandies you get to know when you have a really good cognac in your glass. As a professional cognac taster, I am looking for a number of different qualities. I look at the colour and how the cognac hangs on the glass, but the first real test of quality comes with the complexity of its aroma and if those aromas can be translated into taste. Finally, and perhaps the most important criteria of all is its balance; the need to maximise flavour whilst minimising the fieriness of the cognac.
The actual taste element of a cognac is personal as we all have different ideas about what we like. You might think I am lucky getting to taste so many expensive cognacs but don’t be fooled into thinking that if a cognac is expensive it is good. Even these can have sugar added as it softens a cognac but, it also gives a sort of false sweetness. On the other hand, a cognac which has been in a barrel for 50 or 60 years develops its richness naturally, the effect is known as ‘Rancio’. This is a very desirable but rare effect as most cognacs available today have been aged for less than 10 years old.
So, I hear you say, what is the best cognac? Well, I’ll tell you my favourite. It is a cognac which I found 4 or 5 years ago, not a million miles from our office near Segonzac, in the heart of Grande Champagne. It has aged in oak for more than 60 years and has come from a family’s private cellar. We have the privilege of selling it under the Hermitage label; it is expensive but not as expensive as other so-called luxury cognacs. It is perfectly balanced, complex in aroma and flavour, has a rich ‘rancio’ and won the Cognac Masters Best Cognac 2018. We call it ‘Marie Louise’.
The basic ingredient is, of course, alcohol. For hand sanitisers to work against viruses, such as the Coronavirus, the alcohol content must be at least 60%. Ethanol alcohol (also called ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol, drinking alcohol, or simply alcohol), mixed with aloe vera gel are the basic ingredients but some hand gels also contain scented oils to make them more pleasant to use. Commercially, iso propyl alcohol (IPA), which is almost identical to ethanol alcohol, is used since it can be purchased at much higher strengths.
Ethanol is produced by distillation. The legal alcohol range in the second distillation of cognac is between 67 – 72.4 degrees so at this stage it is suitable for making hand sanitisers. That said, the quantity of aloe vera which can be added is not as great as sanitisers made with IPA. Hermitage Cognacs often come at natural strength and many of them have an alcoholic strength considerably higher than the minimum (40%) used by many commercial cognac houses.
As is the case with all hand sanitisers at the moment, they should never be used as a replacement for washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds.
Most people associated with cognac are aware that we make it principally with a single grape variety, the Ugni Blanc. Indeed, more than 80% of all cognacs are made only with this grape. However, few people are aware that this is probably the world’s most widely planted grape due largely to its big harvests and reliability against disease and adverse weather conditions. It produces fresh, fruity, very acidic and quite unremarkable wines often used as a base wine in blends. The Ugni Blanc is also known in France as the St Emellion du Charente but in the rest of Europe it is best known as the Trebbiano Toscano.
The Colombard is perhaps one of the more interesting grapes also used in cognac production. It was originally planted in South Africa and known as Colombar and is an offspring of the Chennin Blanc. Some of its many synonyms include Bardino Blanc, Bon Blanc, Chabrier Vert, Colombeau, Gros Blanc Roux, Red Tendre and Quene Vert.
The last remaining of the old varieties still used in cognac is the Folle Blanche. Today, it is only found in France in the regions of The Charente and Gascony but can also be found in Basque country under the name of Mune Mahatsa. It is, like the Ugni Blanc, acidic and quite unremarkable as a wine.
Although rarely seen these days, the other grape varieties that are permitted to be used in cognac production are Juranҫon, Blanc Ramé, Bouilleaux, Balzac Blanc and Chalosse.
There is often confusion over cognac bottle sizes. In fairness, there are many different shapes available today which generally hold recognized and approved quantities. But this hasn’t always been the case. Until the middle of the last century spirit measurements were in imperial quantities and measured in fluid ounces. This was largely because most suppliers were from Britain and even the big cognac houses, such as Hennessy and Martell, had British controlling interest.
In the mid-twentieth century though, it all changed to metric so that the UK could align itself with the rest of Europe. The 70cl bottle was born and became the accepted size except in America, where the wine bottle quantity of 75cl was adopted. If this wasn’t confusing enough, a magnum of cognac became the same as a magnum of wine (150cl). So, although a magnum of wine is twice the size of a wine bottle, this does not apply for spirits. Further variations occur when cognac houses use handmade bottles (which vary very slightly in size) for special presentations. These should all contain 70cl but, in order to keep fill levels consistent, some lucky customers may actually receive 1 or 2cl more.
If climatic conditions change, fill levels become another variant. Cognac, like other spirits, expands and contracts according to temperature. Alcohol and bottle quantities are initially measured at 20 degrees Celsius, but on a hot day, the level in a full bottle may appear higher than one that has been stored in a cool place.
In France, the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), the controlling body of cognac, allows the following sizes: 10cl, 20cl, 35cl, 50cl, 70cl, 75cl (America only), 100cl and 150cl. However, some much older bottles that we have seen contain half pints, pints, imperial quarts, imperial half gallons, imperial three-quarter gallons and 25 quarts (storage jars). So, if you want to size up a bottle, it’s probably best to check the quantity, you can usually find it in the bottom corner of the front label!
For more than a thousand years cork has been used for sealing wine and spirit bottles. It is a natural product harvested from cork trees which regrow their bark every nine years. It has been revered by traditional wine makers for centuries as the ideal seal. However, the cork seal is not quite so ideal for use with spirits as they can, over the years, degrade the cork. Eventually the cork will turn black and the exposed areas will become so damaged, the cork will drop into the bottle. It is for this reason that cognac producers always advise that bottles should never be laid down for storage. Corks are also porous and allow tiny quantities of air and spirit to pass through, thereby aiding evaporation. Cognac producers have long recognised this problem so today the quality of the seal is much improved. This has been achieved partly by the introduction of semi synthetic cork mixtures and partly by encasing the top of the bottle with some form of capping material.
In the early twentieth century tin caps were used. This helped protect the cork and seal the bottle further. These caps had the added advantage of allowing producers to print their name on the top as a form of advertising. Today, tin caps have been replaced with light alloy or plastic. Plastic or wooden topped corks are also now used as they make the corks much easier to remove and replace.
Top quality and old vintage cognacs are often purchased by collectors and investors. To maintain the value of each, a complete seal is very important. Wax sealing is a good answer to this problem and one that has been used for over a hundred years, but sometimes the wax can become brittle and break off with careless handling. More modern waxes and the use of semi-synthetic corks now provide much greater stability of the cork and increase the long-term quality of the cognac in the bottle. Collectors of old vintage cognacs that have been bottled in the last quarter of a century can now expect the cognacs to remain in perfect condition for a much greater length of time.
This Christmas the big cognac houses will tell you in very general terms why you should buy their Christmas Cognac either for yourself, or as a gift. The differences in taste and price between one and another will not be significant. The attractive presentation of each cognac will, however, undoubtedly attract millions of customers, but the question I would ask is:
“Do I want to buy an attractive looking presentation or, do I want to buy a cognac that is memorable for its taste and quality and provides great satisfaction when it is drunk?”
To answer this let’s look at the facts behind the production and ageing of blended and single estate cognacs. In order to meet production and sales objectives the large cognac houses blend hundreds of different, young cognacs, made by hundreds or even thousands of different producers. This produces generic blends referred to as VS, VSOP or XO where the highest quality is only required to have been in the barrel, ageing, for ten years. The youthfulness of these blended cognacs means that sugar syrup and caramel will have to be added to hide their fiery qualities.
Single estate cognacs, on the other hand, come from a single producer who ages his cognacs in his own cellar. They will often carry an indication of barrel age, which is likely to be significantly older than ten years and as a result, most will not contain any sugar syrup or caramel.
At Hermitage we take the selection of our cognacs further. We seek pure cognacs from the top cru, Grande Champagne, that have been aged for a minimum of ten years. Hermitage Cognacs are also carefully selected for their individual qualities, lack of fieriness (as this improves balance), and great taste. They don’t cost any more than the heavily blended VSOPs or XOs, but they are a little more difficult to find. Each one must meet our very high standards and may only come as a single batch of a few hundred bottles.
“So, will you buy your cognac this Christmas for the shape of the bottle or the bottle’s contents?”
For many years we have been using a very impressive aroma wheel, set up by the BNIC, to help us describe the different aromas detected in cognac. I suppose it was inevitable that the Armagnaҫais would come up with something similar. So, instead of a wheel, armagnac aromas have been described in a round seashell with a collection of fruit, herbs, nuts and flowers floating mysteriously from the shell aperture. There are a number of other surprises too since the shell is split into three sections. The inner section denotes a range of ages, 4, 10 and 20 years, and linked to each a number of general types of aroma such as heat, cooking, plants, woods, animal and rancio. The outer section lists detailed aromas associated with each. Some are familiar smells such as dates, cedar, cinnamon and plums but those of ether, pharmacy, soap, resin, sap, stables and varnish are much less appealing. I’m not sure how much I would be tempted to taste an armagnac exhibiting any of these aromas!
Even more surprisingly, the chart seems to suggest that certain aromas are linked to armagnac ages. Prune is perhaps the most common aroma and taste found in armagnac but it only appears on the chart alongside the oldest. The concept is good, but come on BNIA, you can do better than this.
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.