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Brandy Education

  • Armagnac Crus

    armagnac crusArmagnac is produced in the south west of France in the departments of Gers and Landes in the region known as Gascony. The region has very little industry and the landscape is relatively flat, very green and the people are friendly, living an altogether quieter life than those in Cognac to the north. Indeed, most of the land is given over to agriculture and perhaps well described by Nick Faith, the famous writer on French Brandies, as the land of Fois Gras.  An ideal base for armagnac crus.

    The climate is perhaps a little warmer than in Cognac but still enjoys the temperate conditions so necessary for growing grapes. These are made into wine and then distilled into the oldest spirit in the world, armagnac. It was perhaps made famous by the French musketeer d’Artagnan and immortalised by Alexandre Dunas.

    There are three armagnac crus, the smallest is Bas Armagnac. However, whilst it is the smallest in land mass, it is the largest armagnac production region making around 57% of all the armagnac produced. The department is in the north west of the region, closest to the Atlantic where, millions of years ago, the sea washed in sandy and silty soil which now produces some of the finest armagnacs. These fine spirits are fruity, light and delicate and regarded as the best armagnacs in the region. The main town in the Bas department is Eauze, a small market town where the BNIA can be found.

    To the East of Bas is the second cru of armagnac known as Ténarèze. The department is slightly bigger than Bas and in the centre lies the town of Condom with its beautiful buildings and Armagnac museum. The cru comprises about 40% of all the armagnac vineyards and the armagnacs produced here tend to develop much slower than those in Bas. The clay and limestone soil produces rich and fruity spirits which are often used whilst relatively young to make generic blends.

    The largest cru is Haut Armagnac. It surrounds Ténarèze on three sides, north, east and south and the main town is Auch which is in the centre of the region. The cru is often referred to as white armagnac as the soil contains an abundance of limestone. The viticulture was developed here in the 19th century to meet the high market demand but has since dwindled away to only a few producers who make largely uninteresting armagnacs.

    Whilst armagnac is not so well known as its big brother cognac, it is a beautiful spirit.  It has many rich and fruity flavours, the most common being prune, which can often be identified in the Delord range.  They are one of the older producers in the region situated in the top cru, Bas Armagnac.

  • The 'Digestif' - After Dinner Drink

    DigestifThe digestif is an alcoholic drink served after dinner to aid digestion. So, one may ask, does it? Well yes it does. I guess that you would expect me to say this as luxury cognac producer, but I can support that view.  I have on occasions, taken a small cognac after a meal and having done so, I experienced greater well-being than when no such digestif was available.

    Indeed, I recall that my Grandmother, who was a lady in waiting for a rich socialite who lived in my hometown of Chichester, always enjoyed a cognac after a meal. Perhaps it was because of a type of social correctness or maybe because the ladies and gentlemen around the table (this would have been in the 1920s and 1930s) really did find that it helped relieve the effects of the generous portions served at that time.

    There is also a certain etiquette to serving a cognac. It is, after all, the top dog of the digestif arena, best known for its high alcoholic content, a quality which promotes the production of enzymes, said to help digestion. We have more recently been bombarded with all sorts of alternative digestifs; whisky, whiskey, liqueurs, rum and even white spirits have been suggested by drink entrepreneurs as suitable ways to settle ones stomach after a heavy meal. But for me, when one drinks wine all evening, continuing with the honest grape, albeit reduced from wine by a factor of ten and aged in an oak cask for decades, cognac is the perfect and most deserving way to end the evening.

    Last night I had a small glass of a very old single estate cognac and awoke in the knowledge that I had enjoyed a unique experience.  Every cognac house crafts their cognacs according to their family traditions and skills, and every single estate cognac is different. When I went to bed I dreamed about the aromas and taste and the pleasure the cognac had given me and I felt great the next day. Yes, it is the perfect digestif.

    Happy Christmas.

  • Cognac, An Investment in Time

    investmentA little more than fifty years ago, I tasted my first early vintage cognac. It was a landmark tasting since, for the first time, I was able to understand the complexity of flavours which develop over time and create some of the most sought after cognac properties, which only a few people will ever be able to appreciate.  Unlike any other spirit, the flavour of fine cognac is generated over a long period of time in a barrel. Many of the finest cognacs have been aged for 50 years or even more and in some rare cases have been slowly maturing for as long as 80 years in the same barrel. This is, of course, longer than many cellar masters live and reflects the dedication to creating perfection, investment and value for the future of their individual houses and families.

    Many people invest in whisky but unlike whisky, the barrel age of cognac is of much greater significance. Cognac starts its life with very little flavour whilst a new whisky already has the background flavour of the malt which is enhanced by the ageing process.  Cognac producers must wait for the flavours to develop so the investment in time is high for both the cognac itself and the cellar master who may never taste the final qualities of his spirit.

    Cognac is made once a year after the grape harvest in September/October.  More than 90% will be sold within the first 18 months to the big houses where it will be blended into commercial and generic blends.  The very finest of the year’s production, less than 1% of that produced, will be saved and placed in cherished cellars known as “Paradis” where it will be carefully aged and looked after by generations of cellar masters for the families’ future.

    The total cognac production is less than a tenth of that of whisky but many vintage cognacs will have aged in oak barrels for more than twice as long as any other spirit.  They will have been aged in different cellars by different cellar masters and in different conditions. The barrels may have been toasted differently, have held different cognacs in the past and perhaps been kept in different parts of the cellar.  Each different barrel condition may have a profound effect on the cognac it holds and in doing so will create qualities far beyond and uniquely different to any other spirit. Every bottle has a different story to tell, a romance between a unique liquid history and man. Cognac has a symphony of styles and flavours and a history of greatness and, after more than fifty years of tasting cognac, I am still learning and still finding something new. My investment in cognac has rewarded me hugely and is still doing so.  The story of cognac still goes on and its value continues to increase.

  • The Double Rancio Effect

    Double RancioAround 40 years ago I was privileged to be given what today I would describe as, one of the 10 finest cognacs in the world. I was staying at one of the finest hotels in Monaco and the sommelier, whose name was Georges, poured me a glass of A E Dor Hors d’Age No 5, 1840 Grande Champagne. He was seeking my opinion and needless to say, I was completely taken with it.  One of the greatest achievements a cellar master can claim is the production of a balanced cognac with a perfect rancio and this cognac did not disappoint.  Rancio is an intense richness that affects every taste bud in your mouth, providing intense syrupy flavours, as experienced after tasting a 100 year old Malmsley, with the aromas of an old madeira cellar.

    Unbelievably, I have recently found a similarly wonderful cognac, but it has even more exquisite qualities.  Its slightly musty aromas of spices, dried fruit peel, pineapple and roasted nuts combined with dates, liquorice, cocoa and molasses are only an introduction to the intense complexity of aromas and flavours which provide another step of fulfilment in the tasting of fine cognac; one that only a few of us will experience in our lives.  It encompasses the joy of discovering that there is another level of perfection, a perfection that takes a cognac from being one of the ten best to being the very best.  It is the nectar poured from the golden chalice, the pinnacle of perfection and the cognac we can usually only dream about.

    So, what is it that makes this cognac so special? In this very exclusive world of fine cognac the term rancio does not occur often and usually, when it does, we are referring to very old cognacs from Grande Champagne. There is a reason for this. Cognacs from the Premier cru age much more slowly than those from the other crus.  This is due to the soil, or rather I should say chalk, which in the area south of the town of Cognac and north of the river Ne is particularly porous.  The vine roots here can penetrate up to 30 metres into the water margins and as a result, the grapes are fuller producing a more flavourful wine which takes longer to develop in the barrel.

    But it is not the cognac alone that creates a rancio effect. Not so far from the Charente, lie the forests of Limousin where, over hundreds of years, oak has been cut and re-planted to make the barrels in which cognacs are aged. The staves are split and left to age for 5 years before they are cut and formed into barrels. The barrels are toasted just enough to burn off the harmful tannins but leave the good tannins to help mature the new cognac. After some months this new cognac is moved to an older home, into previously used barrels where it will stay until it is decided that the cognac is ready to bottle. This can take up to 80 years when usually all the tannins, lignins and hemi-cellulose in the barrels have been used up and can no longer have an effect on the cognac.  The hemi-cellulose lasts the longest in the wood and it is this that imparts the desirable richness we call rancio.  It was the depth of rancio that made the AE Dor Hors d’Age No 5 so very special but at only 34% abv, the flavours, though easier to detect, may not preserve well.

    Now, imagine what would happen if you aged a Grande Champagne cognac, with all the qualities of AE Dor 1840, in a barrel for 100 years and then put it into another barrel where the hemi-cellulose was still available.  It would provide a ‘double rancio' and that is exactly what happened to one of our cognacs.  It was, after 100 years of ageing, placed back into wood for another 10 - 12 years and the result was the accomplishment of excellence.

    That cognac is our Hermitage 1885 Grande Champagne @46% abv.

  • Storage Temperature for Cognac

    storage temperature‘What is the safe storage temperature for cognac?’ is a question that comes up at regular intervals.  It is worth noting that once cognac has been bottled, its maximum storage temperature becomes more critical.  Usually, a suitable space is left between the cognac and the cork for expansion but every now and again we hear of shipments in very hot countries where the excessive heat has forced the corks out of the bottles.  This is a rarity these days as modern corks are stronger and better than those made perhaps 25 years ago.  Bottle sealing, especially for rare vintage cognacs, can also be enhanced with wax seals over the cork.

    However, cognac temperatures, especially during the production and ageing periods can play an important role in the quality of what we drink years later. The distillation range of cognac is between 67 – 72.4 % abv yet most of that which is available in the shops is sold at 40% abv.  The natural average drop in strength varies from 0.1% to 2% per year but it would be wrong to believe the average is between the two figures.  The actual average is around 0.5% unless demineralised water has been added to the cognac during its storage life.  Many of the commercial cognacs are stored for some of their short life in large wooden tanks with little more than a wood lid over them for protection. Here, the temperature, humidity or air dryness can have a considerable effect on both the cognac quality and speed of alcohol reduction. Cognacs that are stored in this manner are usually purchased by the big houses and used in VS or VSOP blends where additives are used to control their flavour and quality.

    Of course, the controls over the bulk storage of cognac are very much down to the cellar master.  Those cognacs which are destined for higher places will be stored in barrels and hidden away throughout their life in the cellars. The cognac which we store in our sideboard should ideally be kept at a temperature not greater than 25 degrees Celsius and above freezing.  Providing the bottle remains sealed, the cognac will stay in perfect condition for decades. But, I hear you ask, what is the point of keeping a bottle without drinking it? Good point, but remember the more you drink from the bottle, the more air there will be in it and the more the alcohol will escape.  Eventually the cognac becomes undrinkable. Don’t panic though, a 3/4 full bottle with the cork replaced after opening, may last in excess of 10 years.  Even one only 1/4 full will still be drinkable a couple of years from now and who is going to leave a part full bottle of good cognac that long?

  • XO Brandy - What Does It Mean?

    XO BrandyXO brandy, XO cognac. XO armagnac. Why is the term XO used so often when few of us actually know what it means? Originally, XO stood for Extra Old. In terms of age, up until 2018, an XO cognac had to be at least 6 years old but this was also the required minimum age of Napoleon Cognac. So, after decades of promising change, the controlling body of cognac, the BNIC, agreed to make the minimum barrel age of an XO cognac 10 years old. This is important because cognacs do not mature once they have been taken from their oak casks and placed in glass. Armagnac also stepped into line and now age their XO brandies for a minimum of ten years.

    The problem with all this is that brandies, particularly cognacs, need to be in a barrel for much longer than ten years to reach optimum maturity, so an XO brandy is actually not very old. It should be noted that some of the smaller brandy houses keep their XO cognacs in the barrel for longer than the required minimum age in order to produce a more mellow, flavoursome product. More recently it has been recognised that a 10 year old cognac is not particularly old so another generic age statement has been introduced, it is called XXO. The minimum age for an XXO cognac (Extra Extra Old) is 14 years in an oak cask. Even this is not long enough for cognacs from the premier cru, Grande Champagne. They are the slowest of all brandies to mature and may take up to twice as long as cognacs from other crus, requiring 50 years or even more.

    The term XO is widely misunderstood and even at ten years old some brandies are only just drinkable. At Hermitage Cognacs, we do not sell generic XO brandies. We prefer to offer an age statement on each one to help customers understand how long their brandy has matured in the cask.

  • Complex Aromas in Aged Cognac

    AromasThe 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 Importance of Barrel Age on a Cognac Label

    Barrel AgeThe 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.

  • What is the Best Cognac?

    Best CognacAs 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’.

  • Hand Sanitisers Made From Alcohol

    hand sanitisers 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.

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