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Brandy Education

  • Cognac Grapes and Wine Grapes

    cognac grapesMost 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.

  • Bottle Sizes

    Bottle SizesThere 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!

  • Sealing Your Bottle of Cognac

    Sealing cognacFor 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.

  • Choose The Right Christmas Cognac

    Christmas CognacThis 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?”

  • Armagnac Aromas Depicted in a Seashell

    Armagnac aromasFor 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.

  • Cognac Classifications on Bottle Labels

    cognac classificationsThere 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.

    Other terms such as Reserve, Très Vieille and Heritage are often used to describe blends that are much older than XXO although none are official nomenclature.  They could be 15 or 50 years old.

    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.

    cognac classificationsCognacs 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.

  • Cognac Investment - The Time Is Now

    Cognac InvestmentCraft 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.

    Cognac investmentRecent 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.

  • Judging Cognac

    Judging CognacIn many ways, the concept of a fine cognac is down to the taster’s perception based on what he has tasted in the past and the flavours to which he has become accustomed in his daily life. But defining those flavours is secondary to understanding what is required of a cognac in order to describe the various properties that bring that flavour about. However, it is probably fair to say that we all like smooth and individual cognac flavours, uninterrupted by other, less desirable properties such as aggressiveness, bland flavours and overpowering sweetness caused by syrups.  When judging cognac professionally, the key skill is understanding of the desirable and not so desirable properties that can be found in it. Excluding the initial considerations of colour and aroma, my first consideration is the balance, followed by the complexity and concentration and depth of flavour. All of these are critical in defining what we seek to provide; award winning cognacs.

    A cognac that is unbalanced has many aggressive and fiery qualities that hide the style and flavour. In some cases, it may be very difficult to create balance as this is usually created by long ageing in the barrel where it gently mellows.  Young cognacs will not have developed flavour nor had time for the alcohol to reduce naturally, so will not be balanced. Where this happens, additives are used to hide the strength but, they also add sweetness to the brandy.

    The term “complexity” is often taken negatively.  In fact, it refers to a very varied mix of flavours which develop as a result of the reaction between the wood (tannins) and the alcohol in the cognac. Over time, more and more flavours will develop but it is not enough to just have a wide range of flavours, we also look for depth and concentration. It is the depth of the cognac that provides us with the most exciting tastes which are often referred to as “Rancio”. This is a richness but also an intense mustiness that one might associate with an old Madeira wine.

    Much of what we do here at Hermitage is to seek out cognacs with all these characteristics. We look to achieve Gold Medals with all we supply but it is not easy as the availability of cognacs which meet this high level of perfection is very limited. Our cognacs are at the very top of the luxury group, there are other groups with much lower standards, many being associated with generic blends and we judge them on a completely different level. There will be good cognacs at every level but there comes a point which is difficult to exceed.

  • Should All Wine Brandies Be Regulated?

    Wine BrandiesThe term “brandy” refers to a spirit distilled from a fruit.  This includes armagnac and cognac as well as a host of other wine brandies made from the indigenous fruits of the region from whence they come. The rigorous controls produced by the various regulatory bodies of each of the two main French wine brandies mean that their products will always be of a recognised quality.  Unfortunately, this is not the case with grape brandies which have no rules to follow.  Most are distilled on large commercial stills from unspecified grape varieties and sold after as little as one year’s ageing.  In addition, their distillation range is not controlled, any grapes can be used and, in some cases, only the residue of the skins, pips and leftover flesh is distilled.

    Many years ago, brandies were made in the wine producing regions, around Bordeaux and Saintonge, where wines were plentiful. The resulting wine brandies were of lower strengths, as the grape varieties used lacked acidity, and they failed to meet with the approval of the traders buying for their European customers. Only the wine brandies from the Charente, ie cognacs, were of an acceptable standard as rigorous quality controls were already in place.  Over the years these regulations have been continued to be refined to meet increasingly higher standards.

    It is right, therefore, that Lucien Bernard, in his discussion with Vinexpo News recently, seeks to create standards that enable us to compare the quality of all wine brandies. We see in the marketplace many cheap grape brandies poorly made with all manner of different grapes, methods of production and storage. We also see some brandies being passed off as cognacs.  This is particularly true in China where counterfeit brandy is shipped in volume, mixed with small quantities of cognac and falsely labelled with respectable cognac producer’s names.  Sadly, we will never be able to control these rogues and it is down to local governments to bring them under control.

    However, there are also some very fine brandies on the market. Some of the Spanish brandies, made under the Solera system, a method which allows for the topping up of barrels which may have contained their famous sherries, are superb. Other good brandies, such as those from Greece and America and the Italian Grappa, also have production controls. Controls on the production of wine brandies is therefore both necessary and desirable as it will improve the quality of the brandies produced and reduce the rogues who seek to cash in on the market that deserves so much better. I’m with you Lucien!

  • Sediment in Cognac

    The cognac industry is quite touchy about the appearance of a bottle of cognac.  In the world of high value spirits, sediment is not desirable as it can either lie on the bottom of the bottle or cause cloudiness of the spirit. But is it really a problem?

    sediment in cognacWell, we all understand that cognac is aged in oak casks.  Initially it is put into new ones and then, after about 6 – 12 months, it is transferred into old ones.  When the casks are new, they are toasted to destroy the harmful tannins in the wood.  At this stage, only the good tannins are available in the wood allowing the cognacs to develop their colour and flavour. Many cognac producers will ask for a specific grade of barrel toasting to suit the desired quality of the finished cognac. Repeated use of the new barrels means that over time, they will become old barrels and so used for long term cognac storage.  However, as the tannins in the wood are used up, the inside surface of the barrel will gradually degrade leaving a cloudiness in the cognac.

    The level of cloudiness will depend on the age and size of the barrel, the type of oak used and the level of toasting initially agreed between the cooper and distiller. The strength and cru of the cognac are also factors.  Cognacs produced from the Champagnes mature more slowly than those from other crus.  The spirit remains stronger in the barrel for longer, producing a cloudy effect and in some cases, containing minute particles from inside the barrel.  As a result, older cognacs, which may have been in their barrels for 40, 50, 60 or more years, may have levels of sediment in them and must be filtered. In most cases, sediment appears at the tail end of the barrel and because it can be very fine, can be missed when bottling. No producer wants to see sediment of any level in his cognac although it is harmless and will gradually settle in the bottle over time.

    When filtering is used to remove the sediment it can be costly as it is slow and some of the cognac is lost during the process. All cognacs do have a minute solids content which is not visible but is part of the cognac.  But remember, the longer it has been in the barrel the finer the cognac will be!

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