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Did You Know? The Cognac Grapes

Legally the Cognaçais may use a number of grape varieties, although the choice is largely theoretical. The Ugni Blanc or to give it it’s proper name, the St Emillion des Charentes, accounts for about 95% of the total area. The rest is almost totally Colombard and Folle Blanch. This concentration is largely attributable to phylloxera. Cognacs rise to fame was based on two varieties, the Balzac and the Folle (later known as the Folle Blanche) both much despised by locals only interested in fine wines. In the eighteenth century the Colombard which made the delicious sweet wine from the Borderies also rose to fame, it ripens quickly to a sort of butterscotch warmth and when mixed with Ugni Blanc can provide delicious peachy flavours but will usually finish quite short on the palate.

Folle Blanche was the raw material for the brandies which were the glory of cognacs pre-phylloxera heyday. The wine it produced was so acid as to be virtually undrinkable although this was ideal for producing fine, aromatic cognac with a great depth of flavour. When grafted onto American rootstock it flourishes too vigorously and the grapes in the middle were liable to grey rot that could not be reached by anti rot sprays. 

Did You Know? Massougnes

The house of Massougnes is no more, but in its day was the biggest supplier of cognac in the Charente. The house was famous as well, as it has always been owned by the French Noblesse.

Brandyclassics have recently  acquired the last bottle of cognac from the estate, a 1810 Massougnes Cognac of  c 90cl, which is available for sale on our website.

The family was and still is today directly related to King Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their children, King Richard and John of England. Today, the last remaining descendant of the French true royal blood still lives on the estate near Aigre.

Marie-Antoinette Pintaurd des Allees, Comtesse de La Bourdeliere, although now frail, lives at what remains of the Chateau and estate in a village called Bonnerville to the west of Aigre. In around 1850 the estate comprised of more than 360 hectares and had forty workers who were all actually employed and provided with their own houses to live in. No other cognac producer was known to be so generous with its staff.

Bills of Sale seen at the Chateau have proved its existence since before 1730. Later they sold the cognacs to such famous names as Augier, Hennessy and Martell but it is know that the estate was started around 1605. Unfortunately all was lost during the plague of Phylloxera in 1872 and the remains have fallen into ruin.



Did You Know? The Taste.

One of the difficulties we always find when deciding upon the flavour of a particular cognac is the time of the day we did the tasting. The problem being that our taste buds have greater efficiency in the mornings than in the afternoon or evenings. Not only that but our perception of what we taste can also vary at different times of the day, so a cognac that tastes of roasted walnuts in the morning may taste of green walnuts in the afternoon or vice versa.

The sensation of taste is closely related to that of smell and taste is detected by what are known as taste buds (circular bumps), on the tongue. They range from quite small on the front of the tongue to larger ones at the back, technically known as “papillae”. Each papilla has a gustatory hair that reaches the outside of the tongue through an opening called a taste pore. Once a stimulus activates the gustatory impulse, receptor cells pass an electrical impulse to the gustatory area of the cortex. The brain interprets the sensations of taste.

A tongue map was developed in 1901 by a German scientist, D P Hanig, who discovered that taste preceptors have varying degrees of sensitivity and that some areas can detect taste better than others. Whilst the tongue detects the taste, other areas of the mouth can influence flavour. Pressure of the tongue on the roof of the mouth can prevent the gustatory hairs from sensing the flavours but the uneven shape of the roof tends to limit this effect. People with top dentures can often detect different flavours, since the denture has a smooth area that compresses that area of the mouth, making it easier for the gustatory hairs to be crushed and preventing the brain from detecting the flavour.

Look on the Brandyclassics website for tasting notes – for nearly every bottle we sell you’ll find a description of the flavours you can find in the brandy. Whether it’s cognac, armagnac, calvados or eaux de vie,  you’ll find a tremendous selection of artisan brandies for you to enjoy.

Cognac Tasting – The right and the Wrong!

Many people often ask us to explain the right way to taste brandies so we thought we would make a new year’s resolution to encourage a wider understanding of cognac appreciation.

  1. Firstly the glass. Big brandy balloons allow too big a surface area of the brandy exposed to the air. The professional glass is a small tulip shaped glass, but a small brandy balloon will be fine.
  2. The cognac should be rolled around the sides of the glass to allow it to form tears down the side. Never swirl the spirit as this will release too much alcohol from the liquid, which will sit over the surface of the cognac and blind the aroma.
  3. Half of the enjoyment of the cognac is in its aroma, it is therefore important to have as much surface area to smell as possible. Allow the cognac to rest for a few seconds before gently bringing the glass to the nose, trying if possible to recognise some of the many aromas.
  4. Don’t rush it! Many of those wonderful smells will be recognisable in the taste, so take your time before the big event when you taste it.
  5. Don’t sip it! Take a reasonable quantity into the mouth and chew it – key taste areas are the front and back of the tongue and the roof of your mouth, so make sure they are immersed to discover the full complexity.
  6. Hold it in your mouth for a while. You will be surprised at what you find…

In addition to our exclusive range of Hermitage cognacs, Brandyclassics have a superior range of cognacs, armagnacs and calvadoses from a wide selection of Houses. Every brandy has a unique flavour, and we encourage our customers to read the additional product information on our website. The Flavour section will provide hints as to the flavours you can detect as you drink from one of our bottles…

Hermitage Cognacs – A Multitude of Benefits

During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when Brandyclassics were developing a strategy for selling cognacs, the key question customers would ask was “Can we have a vintage cognac”.

Research has established that more than 93% of customers would prefer to know how old the cognacs they are buying are, rather than rely on a generic description which they do not understand. Brandyclassics have understood customers’ reluctance to buy cognacs which lack individuality for many years.

The famous cognac houses spend millions of pounds advertising their homogenous, characterless generic VS, VSOP and XO cognacs, resting on the laurels of past glories. This has given them licence to reduce the quality of the cognacs they sell, and they have progressively used younger and younger cognacs blended from thousands of producers. This results in cognacs with less natural flavour from the barrels and more aggressive tones on the palate.

Vintages, on the other hand, have to remain in the barrel gently maturing until their natural balance provides the optimum balance and flavour. Hermitage Cognacs are designed to be aged naturally; the stills in which they are made are specifically shaped so as to collect the spirits before they are able to drip back into the boiler and be re-distilled or neutralised. The barrels are kept in damp cellars to prevent too much of the brandy escaping from the barrels, allowing it to have maximum contact with the wood. Only the very finest are then selected and sold under our exclusive Hermitage cognac label. When you see our logo on the bottles, you know it is very special and carries an age statement for your assurance of the very finest purity and quality. Hermitage cognacs are not blended, they are Single Estate Cognacs.

Did You Know? The Cognac Bottle

In real terms nobody really knows when cognacs were first put into bottles. The first recorded cognacs existed around 1540, but we only know of them being sold in barrels.

About 200 years later, cognacs were being sold from barrels and transferred into small convenient sized hand blown bottles of around 40-50cl. At around this time, it was discovered that some cognacs were best removed from the barrel and stored in glass bottles, which prevented them from changing their individual characteristics. To prevent any deterioration in the cognac when it was stored in glass, it was necessary for the bottle to be sealed with a cork and waxed over the top to prevent the ingress of air. To minimise the number of bottles that needed sealing, large bottles were made which would hold sometimes as much as 3-4 litres. Cognacs stored in these large bottles were often transferred to smaller bottles, which could be easily carried around before they were sold,

By around 1800, glass producers were making hand blown bottles by the thousands. Although there were standard sizes, no two bottles were the same and many had big bell bottoms, which when the hot glass was pressed to the table often meant that the bottle would have a distinctive lean to the side. The bottles of this period had grown to around 90cl and the need for standardisation created the imperial measure for liquids. Most of the cognac houses were owned by English or Irish families, so this was easier for the buyers of the brandies to understand.

Imperial brandy measures were finally changed in 1956, when metric units were introduced to standardise the bottle and to enable easier price comparison of the contents. Today cognac bottles come in sizes of 35cl, 50cl, 70cl, 75cl (America),100cl & 150cl.

The making of a cognac barrel

Perhaps the question which comes up most regarding the creation of cognac is that of how it is made. Very little consideration is ever given to the ageing process or indeed the actual barrels used for this most critical part of the process. Indeed the cognac production journey from vineyard to barrel is less than six months. But once the eau de vie is placed in the barrel, fifty years may elapse before a golden cognac comes out ready to drink. Thus the construction and preparation of the barrel is critically important.

The cognac barrels are made of oak from the Limousin or Tronçais forests. The wood from the trees is cut into stave lengths and split into rough stave shaped blocks, before being placed in piles to weather for five to seven years. After ageing the staves are shaped by planing and placed together – they’re held by steel hoops of varying sizes to suit the barrel. The other end of the barrel is dampened and heated over a fire so that the wood becomes more pliable. A steel hauser is placed round the barrel and it is slowly drawn in, then held in place by more steel hoops. At this stage the barrel is toasted to burn off tannins harmful to the cognac maturation. Grooves are cut round the edges so that the top and bottom can be dropped in and held in place with wedges.

Did You Know? The Cognac Label

Reading a cognac label is relatively easy – reading what is not on the label is a little harder! There are labels that will try and give the illusion that what is in the bottle is better than it is. Since the delimitisation of the region and the creation of cru’s, many have tried to provide an image of Grandeur on their labels.

There are six cognac cru’s. They are from the top, Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaire. Very little cognac from Bois Ordinaire is supplied under producer labels. A further term can also be legally deployed called Fine Champagne, meaning that at least 50% of the cognac in the bottle must come from Grande Champagne and the rest from Petite Champagne.

Modern Cognacs are highly blended and due to shortages have to come from wherever they can be purchased, so it is not that common to see their origin depicted on the label. Naturally enough, producers like to advertise the origin of their cognacs, especially if they come from the Champagnes. What a shame it is that some of these very expensive cognacs that come from the big houses in fancy bottles can’t display their cru’s! Legal information includes the name of the supplier, the volume in the bottle, the alcoholic volume, Made in France and the European “e”. Age statements are not a legal requirement, which here at Brandyclassics we consider a great pity!

Brandyclassics sell a wide range of exceptional cognacs from the superior crus. Please visit our ecommerce store where you can buy online some truly exceptional cognacs, armagnacs, calvadoseseaux de vie, plus our exclusive range of Hermitage cognacs.

Creating a New Cognac

Here at Brandyclassics we have often spoken lovingly about the benefits of long ageing. It is a pre-requisite of very fine cognac and there is certainly no substitute that will enhance the flavour.

So how is it possible to create a new cognac, given that it needs so long to age in the barrel? We have discussed in these articles previously the need to find stocks produced from the right grapes, distilled in the right shaped and size stills, then aged for a long period in the right barrels. But this is only the start of the process to find the ideal cognac for our customers. It is also where our work begins!

Having identified suitable cognac producers we need to optimise the qualities – this is usually not possible with commercially distilled cognacs that have a high level of neutrality, thus our need for the smaller distillers whose families have centuries of experience. There are many factors that can change the flavour of a cognac. We may recommend changing the barrel size or where it is stored, which will affect the rate the spirit comes out of the barrel. We have been known to change the old barrels for new for a short period, or even recommend the use of wood chips to give more exposure to the wood. But probably identifying the right strength to sell the cognac at is the biggest factor and this is a process that can take years to perfect before you, the cognac lover, taste it.

Brandyclassics sell an exclusive range of Hermitage Cognacs. Hermitage Cognacs are the result of very specific distillation qualities and long, careful ageing in oak casks. They never include additives such as sugar or caramel, and are the very finest cognacs available in the world today. Ranging in price from around £30 to over £1000 per bottle, we have a cognac for every palate and pocket, a small selection of which are shown below.


Did You Know? Spanish Brandy Origins

Spanish Brandy has a longer history than cognac; it is more varied and in some ways more intriguing. Most Spanish Brandy should be called Brandy de Jerez because they are distilled and sold by the firms that make sherry. Brandy making in Spain goes back to the early Middle Ages when the Moors occupied southern Spain and Jerez. As its full name “de la Fontera” suggests, it was on the frontier between Christendom and the then more civilised Moorish Kingdom of Granada.

The Brandy making tradition disappeared until the arrival of the Dutch, in the late 17th century, came looking for brandy for their sailors as they had earlier in Cognac. The locals then developed what they called holandas, still the name used in Jerez for brandy, distilled to the same 70 per cent alcohol as cognac.

The next impetus came when Cognac was invaded by the phylloxera vastatrix louse in the late 19th century. It was Brandy de Jerez that filled the gap for a couple of decades, until Jerez was also hit by the bug. Probably the largest boom was triggered by the demand from soldiers on both sides, during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. Spain’s post war industrialisation then carried on the good work, by creating a demand from industrial workers looking for inner warmth and by better heeled customers wanting a civilised spirit. The drink was kept afloat until the 1980’s when duties soared and Spanish drinking habits changed.