With effect from 1 April 2018 any cognac classified as an XO must have been aged for a minimum of 10 years. This change of XO Definition means that in the case of a blend, which many are, the youngest cognac used must now be at least a decade old. This is a 4 year increase as previously only 6 years of ageing was sufficient for a cognac to qualify. Regulatory body, the BNIC, comments that the change is designed to extend the quality positioning of XO cognacs and align them with market reality (some XOs are aged for 10 years or more anyway). First announced in 2011, the industry has been given plenty of warning to mature their stocks however, an interim measure has also been put in place. XO cognacs aged for 6, 7, 8, and 9 years and packaged by 31 March 2018 may be labelled and sold as XO until 31 March 2019. Thereafter, all XOs must be at least 10 years old and no doubt the price will increase accordingly.
Armagnac is probably the oldest known wine spirit in the world but the art of distillation was introduced by the Arabs between 1411 and 1441. In the department of France known as the Landes, they produced an agua ardente, or fire water, which was used initially as a therapeutic cure. Tasting Armagnac for pleasure ensued when it was established that storing the spirit in barrels developed desirable flavours.
Armagnacs are the earliest examples of distilled wines known in France. Traditionally they are made using the Folle grape although others, including Colombard, Ugni Blanc and even more recently, the Baco all contribute to its flavour. Initially distillations were on a pot still but by the 19th century the continuous still was more highly favoured. The distillation process of armagnac allows the spirit to be distilled at a much lower alcohol content range than that of its big brother cognac, produced 100 miles to the north. The lower range produces a greater fruitiness (but less refined) flavour in the spirit.
It is this process that produces the major differences between armagnac and cognac. Armagnac can be distilled between 52 degrees and 72.4 degrees alcohol whilst the lower end of the cognac distillation range is 67 degrees. Armagnacs distilled at the lower end of their range have a distinctive prune flavour which gradually turns to a more crystallised fruit flavour if the alcohol content is nearer the top of the range.
There are no major producers of armagnac and even the largest firms only produce around 1 – 2 million bottles per annum. The highest quality, most refined and complex armagnacs come from the Bas cru where the spirit ages much better. Most of the production occurs in the Tenarézè cru where armagnacs with a more perfumed style are made. It is the least industrial of all French spirits so much of the joy of armagnac comes from the variety produced by its highly individual peasant roots.
In many ways calvados is the newest brandy of France. It only became recognised as such in 1942 when the appellation controleé regulations officially gave calvados a protected name. The area around the Valley d’Auge and the land extending east past Lisieux became the principle production area. Here, the Jurassic limestone soil is ideal for growing the various apples required to make calvados.
A range of different apples are used initially to create the finest cider - bitter, bitter sweet, acidic and sweet. These apples have low levels of acidity so a small, firm, Perry pear is also added. This addition, usually 12 – 15 % of the total, is essential as it increases the acidity of the cider to the level required for distillation. Consequently, calvados can often have a pear drop taste which many people dislike.
Of course, the flavour of calvados from each distiller will differ. The distillation techniques, apple varieties, condition of apples when harvested and ageing process will all have an effect. Sometimes a finish is also added. This term describes a process where, in the latter stages of ageing, calvados is stored for a limited period in a barrel that has previously held another spirit or wine. However, many producers find this technique abhorrent as it masks the true identity of their spirit.
The pear drop aroma and taste is most noticeable in young calvados. With long barrel ageing it is significantly reduced because the calvados builds a richness which masks the pungency of the Perry pear. One of the best examples of this is the 1969 vintage by Dupont, a firm that has worked hard to nurture quality in their fine spirits.
The firm of Chateau du Breuil has developed a different method of masking the pear drop effect. They only harvest naturally fallen apples which have started to go brown. At this stage the water content of the apple has dropped and the sugar content is at its highest. These apples produce a sweeter cider and ultimately a sweeter calvados with baked apple aromas and flavours. The period required to age in the barrel for the flavours to mature is therefore reduced. A fine example of this type of calvados is the Chateau du Breuil 15 Year Old.
We have often talked about distillation on the Lees but rarely described why we do it or indeed what ‘the lees’ are.
Many years ago, during cognac production, whole bunches of grapes were crushed in presses to release the grape juice. The process was fairly crude and some stalks, pips and skins found their way into the juice. This negatively affected the flavour of the wine and sometimes even contaminated it. Grape crushing was therefore banned after the turn of the twentieth century.
The newly designed horizontal presses had slats on the sides. These rotated slowly putting very little pressure on the grapes, so only the juice escaped. Modern rotating presses also have hydraulic plates at either end. These plates exert slightly more pressure on the grapes which extracts the maximum amount of juice and some of the pulp (but not the skin, stalks or pips). This combination of juice and pulp is known as ‘the lees’. It is the pulp which provides more of the grape flavours. A wine producer might refer to it as the second pressing.
Most cognac producers will use ‘the lees’ in their distillation as it adds to the quantity produced as well as the flavour. Not all distillers will admit to it though. There is a fear that some buyers believe cognacs distilled not on their lees will be purer, albeit with less flavour. There is also a problem if the producers sell to the big houses as they ask distillers not to use the lees. The big houses require cognacs with greater neutrality for blending with many others from different distillers. Extremes of flavour will affect the uniformity of products which are sold in vast quantities.
Whatever the case for or against this process, those seeking greater individuality of flavours should always look for cognacs that were distilled on their ‘lees’. The Hermitage range is a classic example.
The cognac wheel that was introduced by the BNIC has proved to be an ideal source of information when considering aromas from a given cognac or brandy. It divides aromas into seasons considering each in terms of: Spring delicacy, Summer fullness, Autumn richness and the hardness of Winter. Flavours can be defined in a similar manner but perhaps with more defined headings. For years I have considered cognac tastes as falling into 4 different categories. The definitions are more easily defined than those of aromas. Of course, there are thousands of different perceptions of flavour which are recognised in the tastes of cognac. I have taken some of the flavours which have the widest description of each taste. My 4 brandy and cognac taste categories are: Fruit, Savoury, Sweet & Rich, and Nuts & Spice. These can be subdivided to help identify the most likely descriptions of brandy flavours. Tasting brandies can be subjective. This list is designed to provide a level objectivity with which to identify different cognac flavours.
The taste of any drink or food differs from one taster to another so it is difficult to be precise on an interpretation of flavour. However, most people do understand general flavours that they regularly experience. For example, milk, coffee, orange and tea are all daily experiences but defining any one of these flavours is daunting. Perhaps even more so, is the conversion of aroma to taste. For example, we often describe a cognac as oak flavoured. We may have tasted oak-smoked salmon but how do we explain the taste of oak by itself? Much of what we taste can be described by our perception of the aroma but even this can be misleading. Many people are put off drinking gin by the aroma but when tasted, perhaps with tonic, their perception of the taste changes.
Several years ago the BNIC produced a cognac aroma wheel. It has often been used to help describe flavour but it includes such aromas as wild carnations, oak moss and cigar box. Converting that into taste is complicated so we try and use more familiar tastes. In desperation, however, we have resorted to many continental flavours such as rambutan, mangosteen and kumquats. We also use some old English flavours such as medlar, marrow and thyme. Sometimes, when tasting cognac the flavours will change. This is particularly true of cognacs from the top cru, Grande Champagne. Here we often find nutty, rich fruity flavours which tail off to leave citrus flavours of orange or grapefruit peel. These flavours often mature after many years to provide a much desired 'rancio' effect. This is probably best explained as a type of maderisation. It has a slightly musty but rich, pineapple syrup and roasted nut flavour that lasts on the palate.
If flavours are difficult to describe, some of the jargon used in the professional tasting world can be almost unintelligible. We talk about 'the nose' when describing an aroma, 'a finish' when considering how the flavour ends in the mouth or 'a tail' when we consider how a flavour extends to the finish. The term 'flatness' is used when the cognac is largely neutral in flavour and when sugar has been added, it is identified as being 'sticky'. 'Oily' is used to describe water in cognac that hasn't mixed properly with the spirit and 'dead' when all you can taste are the additives.
Many years ago I was asked by a famous cognac author to describe the flavour of a cognac that has 'gone off'. This describes a cognac where most of the alcohol has evaporated and a watery and mouldy residue is left. After a lot of consideration, I told him that it was rather like drinking water in which you have washed some dirty old leather boots! He laughed like a drain and included it in his last book as another way of accounting for taste. I should add that I have only ever tasted this effect a handful of times in 30 or 40 years of tasting. Should you ever be in doubt about a cognac's suitability for drinking, do not worry. There is never any doubt about one that has gone off!
Next month we will try and explore as many flavours as possible.
Today, less than 1% of the Cognac appellation is farmed organically, but the number of producers using these methods is increasing. To make organic cognac a farmer must cultivate his grapes organically for at least 3 sequential years. That means no chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilisers. Instead farmers must rely on pre-war farming methods. For example the use of copper and sulfur, nettle and horsetail infusions, mechanical weed removal and manure and compost fertilisers. The application of manure and freshly grown fertilisers such as barley and faba beans certainly enriches the precious "terroir". Organic farmers claim that their cognacs produce different aromas. We have yet to be convinced but public demand for the green "organic" certification is on the increase. Even the big houses ask their producers to not use weed killer and employ more sustainable farming methods. So, although only a few have chosen to qualify for certification, many more, such as Chateau de Beaulon are employing some organic methods, which can only be good for the "terroir" in the years to come.
"I am delighted to see that more and more businesses are recognising that education and well-trained staff are the foundations to better customer service and stronger profits," says the CEO, Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). The WSTA concur stating that "consumers are increasingly favouring more premium brands". We have always maintained that spirits education is key to the sale of our luxury brandies. There is a specific Trade Training page on our website and regular newsletters and Blogs ensure up to date industry news is frequently publicised. Those wishing to go one step further will be interested in the new improved Level 2 WSET Award in Spirits. Also trying to educate the customer is the #ForwardDrinking campaign which launches next month. It aims to target industry taboos such as 'retros' (when brands pay for bar listings) and 'pay-to-play' schemes (when brands offer monetary incentives, or otherwise, to gain a retail listing). Maverick Drinks, who initiated the campaign, said "We don't want people using our product because there's a deal attached, we want them to use it because it's a great spirit". Hear, hear, just what we were thinking.
Adding Water or Mixers
I wrote in my last Technical Topic about adding water to cognac, supposedly to enhance the flavour. Of course, we discovered that when drinking fine cognac, this is not the case. However, some people do like to add some form of mixer(s) to their brandy. For example, sugar and cream are added to change the flavour completely. In this instance, it is not a good idea to use an expensive cognac. Cognac is a rich drink and usually has a complexity of different flavours. This makes the experience of replicating an exact recipe more chance than judgement. Then there is this question of ice - but think about this. If water is difficult to mix with a spirit, a piece of solidified water is going to be even harder.
So, you ask, why don't we warm cognac to enhance the flavour? Well, you can, but we don't drink cognac like wine. Big mouthfuls are a rarity as the strength of cognac is three times that of wine and a small sip quickly develops to body temperature. We have been asked on many occasions about the use of brandy warmers and before we dump this silly idea, let me just explain. Driving the alcohol off by heating the cognac will, in most cases, totally destroy the flavour as the alcohol acts as a flavour carrier. When a cognac has 'gone off', it is because the alcohol has laminated from the spirit. This means that it sits on the surface of the cognac and escapes as soon as somebody releases the cork. Where this has happened, one never needs to ask if it has gone off!
When to Drink?
Much of the real appreciation of a fine cognac comes by tasting it at the time of day when one's taste buds are at their most receptive, usually around 11am - noon. Some people prefer to taste cognac as an aperitif before a meal. Certainly, it makes some sense to taste cognac as opposed to whisky before a meal if you are also drinking wine as one doesn't mix grape and grain. But for me, when looking for a small digestif to finish off a nice meal, drinking fine cognac is the best way to recapture the enjoyable events of the day.
We read in the papers that Swedish scientists claim to have found proof that adding water to whisky will make it tastier. To be fair to Professor Bjorn Karlsson, who led the research, he does say that the balance will depend on the concentration and taste compounds that are characteristic of each whisky. However, it is also claimed that, similar considerations can be used to optimise the alcohol concentrations of other spirits including gin, rum and brandy. Drinking cognac with water is certainly a topic for discussion.
We are not scientists but we do taste thousands of cognacs and we do sometimes add water to cognac. Adding water is about creating the optimum balance i.e. maximum flavour and minimum bite. That said, when we do add water to reduce a cognac it is done very slowly. With cognac strengths close to 40% alcohol by volume, it can take years for the added water to create an acceptable balance. Indeed, water can be detected on the palate in the early stages of dilution as water and spirit are notoriously difficult to blend together.
Whisky is of course different from cognac both in taste and chemically. Cognac can provide thousands of different flavours as it is the result of a wine distillation rather than distillation from grain. However, taste is not the complete sensation as aroma also provides a fuller mind perception which enhances our enjoyment of cognac. It is believed that 50% of the perception of taste comes from the aroma. Sometimes aroma can be blinded by the alcohol content but the addition of water can also dilute the aroma and hence the total enjoyment. Conversely, some cognacs are enhanced by a greater alcohol content. Good examples are our Hermitage 1975 and Hermitage 1987, each with a strength of 47% abv.
Everybody's perception of taste can change but adding water in the glass to high quality cognacs (and I suspect whisky) to improve the flavour is a myth. Apart from the slightly oily effect created on the palate when the water is added, it also changes the alcoholic strength. This will dilute the aroma in the glass which, of course, in turn reduces the flavour. Pure alcohol has no smell but it enhances the flavour of the cognac. However, if the alcohol is released by swirling the cognac (or whisky), it will sit on the surface of the liquid and blind the aroma.
Adding water in the glass unbalances your spirit as both taste and aroma are changed. Sorry Professor, may I recommend that you start drinking your spirits, rather than testing them, to find some real pleasure in the flavour?