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Brandy Education

  • Why Choose Cognac As Your Spirit?

    choose cognacFor the last three centuries cognac has been almost universally recognised as the finest of all the hundreds of spirits distilled from grapes. So why should you choose cognac?  For sheer depth and intensity, fruitiness, subtlety of bouquet, warmth and complexity of flavour and length of time for which the taste lingers on the palate, cognac remains incomparable. The ability to extract so much of the essential flavour from the grape is no accident. It involves possessing the right soil and climate and choosing the right grape varieties.  Appropriate distillation methods must be used.  Then, the inherent quality must be enhanced through long storage in the right kind and size of oak cask.  And the storage conditions must be right - damp and dark.

    choose cognacThere is no other spirit in the world that can compare with the sophistication, complexity and length of time it takes to produce a bottle of cognac. It’s flavours and supreme quality are the result of generations of skills handed down over the centuries.  Unlike white spirits, cognac offers an incomparable range of natural flavours derived from a fruit grown in near perfect conditions and when, after decades, it is bottled it can become a most valuable prize.  There is no other spirit that offers such complexity and interest in its many stages of production, no wonder cognac is known as The King of all Spirits.

  • Why are rose bushes planted in vineyards?

    On a recent trip to the Charente I took this picture of a rose bush at the end of a row of cognac vines. This placement of rose bushes has created considerable interest from our followers.   I therefore thought it would make an ideal Technical Topic.

    Originally, roses were planted in vineyards as an early warning system. Roses and grapevines typically have the same type of soil and sun requirements.  In addition, both are prone to the infestation of a fungus known as powdery mildew. If this fungus appeared on the roses, the vines were sprayed with sulphur to prevent the grapes from succumbing. Downy mildew is another fungus that attacks the green parts of the grape vine. If detected on a rose bush the grape vines were immediately sprayed with a solution of copper sulphate and lime. Another historic reason for the planting of roses dates to when they used horses to pull the plough. The rose's thorns were thought to deter the horse from hitting the post at the end of the row.

    Nowadays, there isn’t a horse and plough in sight.  Most vineyards use modern methods to monitor carefully the soil and health of the vines. Rose bushes are no longer required, so why are they still in evidence? Cynics will tell you that they attract tourists who enjoy seeing them in situ. Others will suggest they are purely aesthetic or that they provide food for bees and habitat for insects beneficial to the vineyard. Some believe that roses are tastier than grape vines to pests, so they draw these damaging insects away from the grapes.

    Whatever the reasons for planting roses in the vineyards today, you must admit that they add to the milieu and create a sense of nostalgia.  These are things of which the Cognaçaise are immensely proud.

  • UK Alcohol Duty and its Enforcement

    Smuggling brandyDuring the 18th Century smuggling in Cornwall was a way of life.  It is said that at its peak, more than 500,000 gallons of French brandy was smuggled in per year.  This equates to more than two million bottles. Whole families were involved and the number of smugglers far outweighed the number of Excise men stationed along the coast to stop them. There was a strong incentive to continue since the cost of buying brandy legally, with Alcohol Duty paid, was five times greater than the cost of the contraband.  It was often the case that even the judiciary, doctors and priests were in on the act as they provided the funds.

    Cornwall coastlineMost of the brandy came from the ports of La Rochelle and Rochefort and illegal shipments arrived regularly at Falmouth coves such as Helford, Gweek, Porthallow and Godrevy.  The French were still reducing their wines for easier transportation to England, Ireland and Holland.  The quantity of brandy shipped to England did much to support the French brandy industry during the 18th Century.  However, by the early 1800s Customs had started to gain a level of control.  Some smugglers were apprehended but juries were often reluctant to convict as many had connections with the trade.  Even by the mid 19th Century, £millions were still being lost due to the Cornish smugglers evading tax.

    UK Duty stampAlcohol Duty is of course an important part of the British tax system and is calculated today at a cost of £28.74 per litre of pure spirit.  A 70cl bottle of brandy at 40% alcohol by volume (abv) therefore attracts a duty of £8.05.  Shipments of cognac to the UK currently stand at more than 12 million bottles per annum and the duty collected is around £100 million.

    It goes without saying that smuggling today is vastly reduced.  The sale of illegal spirits does much harm to our industry.  All shipments of spirits entering the country must be accompanied by documentation stating the quantity of pure spirit they contain.  Duty must be paid when the alcohol enters the country, unless it is to be stored in a bonded warehouse.  In this case, Duty is paid when the alcohol is taken out of the bond.  All UK companies dealing in wines and spirits must be registered with HM Customs.

  • The BNIC

    During the war years the Cognaçais were required to provide the Germans with large quantities of brandy. They cheated of course by shipping spirits made from root vegetables thus maintaining their stocks of real cognac. It was during this period that Maurice Hennessy and a well known grower, Pierre Verneuil, followed the example of the growers in the Champagne BNIC logoregion and created the wine and eaux-de-vie distribution bureau to preserve the cognac stock. When the war ended this organisation emerged as the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), cognac’s governing body.  Composed equally of growers and merchants, the BNIC acquired a great deal of de facto independence from the government in the formulation and supervision of the rules governingBNIC cognac crus cognac. The BNIC also took over the role, previously performed by Martell and Hennessy, of deciding the price of new brandies from various crus. The cognac region had been divided into crus in the 1930s as a natural consequence of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system which had become law in 1905.

    The end of World War 2 also ushered in nearly 30 years of increasing prosperity. The BNIC greatly improved the relationship between growers and merchants and was lubricated by the ensuing prosperity. In 1948 the Station Viticole, a private laboratory set up to help growers and distillers after the Phylloxera outbreak, was taken over by the BNIC who were able to control all the stages involved in the production of cognac. This included the regulations required to manage the growing, wine making, distillation and ageing of cognac. More recently their powers have gone further with the control of market and sales information, both country by country and by product type, enabling them to manage government taxes and duties. In short, the BNIC now manages every stage of cognac production, from the vineyards to the end buyer.

  • Cognac Crus

    Cognac is produced in the delimited region of France known as the Charente and Charente Maritime which borders on the Atlantic Ocean.  To the west the region borders on the Gironde estuary and includes the islands of Ré and Oléron and to the east it neighbours the region of Angoulême and the foothills of the Massif Central.  The production area also covers some areas of the Dordogne and Deux Sévres.  The total area of vineyards currently covers 79,636 hectares (ha), close to 200,000 acres, of which 95% is used for cognac production.  The Cognac production area was delimited by decree of 1st May 1909 and ratified by decree in 1938.  Cognac can only be described as such if it has been made in one of the cognac crus within this region.

    crus of CognacThere are six growing areas (crus) which are based on the soil features as described by the geologist Henri Coquand in 1860 and ratified by decree in 1938.  They are Grande Champagne the second smallest cru with a growing area of 13,159ha, Petite Champagne with 15,246ha and Borderies the smallest cru with 3,987ha of vines. Fins Bois has 31,001 ha of vines, Bons Bois 9,308ha and Bois Ordinaires 1,100ha which includes the islands of Ré and Oléron.

    The two top cognac crus, Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, have clayey, chalky thin GC & PC Soilsoils on top of soft chalk from the Cretaceous.  The limestone content from the surface down is said to be in excess of 60% in some places. Montmorillonite clay provides fertile soil with good structure and a high water reserve.  Wines from these crus provide light, floral cognacs which require long ageing in casks to achieve full maturity.  It is generally regarded that the cognacs from Petite Champagne are similar to those from Grande Champagne but with a little less finesse.

    Cognacs from the Borderies grow on soil containing more clay and flint.  These cognacs are generally nuttier and often have toffee flavours with tones of violets on the nose.  They age somewhat quicker than those from the Champagnes and can often be at their optimum quality in as little as 30 - 40 years.

    Fins Bois and Bons Bois effectively surround the Champagnes and Borderies.  The soil is made up of heavy, clayey, chalky soil with many stones originating back to the Jurassic period. Bons Bois soil also has a high sandy content.  Many other crops grow in the Bois along with pine forests and chestnuts.  Modern cognac blends contain substantial quantities of Fins Bois and even some Bons Bois can be found in the bigger blends.

    The lowest cru of Cognac is Bois Ordinaire and cognacs from here are said to have “the taste of the sea”.  Much of the eaux de vie from here is used for making liqueurs containing macerated fruits; the cognacs are unspectacular.

    All Hermitage Cognacs are individually selected for their quality and flavour.  Most come from Grande Champagne but there are some notable exceptions from  the Petite Champagne and Borderies crus.  Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education page.

  • Why Buy Vintage Cognac?

    There are said to be 5000 cognac producers in the Charente, the vast majority make cognac for the big cognac houses and sell it to them within a couple of years.  But some, perhaps around 10%, have learnt to wait until their heavenly nectars have matured for longer.  Locked away in dark cellars they gradually develop the individual and very personal qualities of their makers. When you buy a specifically aged or vintage cognac, you are buying the makers’ skills and experiences that have been honed over generations into a single taste experience.  Every cognac distillation is different. The very finest come from Grande Champagne and those kept as vintage stock will age for much longer than any generic blend and will develop far greater natural flavours during their long sleep in oak casks.

    Blended cognacs are produced to feed the insatiable greed for mass volume sales. The big cognac houses produce very little of their own cognac. More than 99% of the cognacs used in their blends are supplied by the thousands of small growers and distillers in the Charente region.  Not only are these cognacs young and still relatively tasteless, when they are mixed with up to 2000 others to provide one generic blend it is impossible to distinguish individual flavours.  A blend, even in its finest form (XO), needs only to have been aged in a barrel for 6 ½ years.  It is therefore little surprise that every generically blended cognac relies heavily on the addition of sugar syrup and caramel to obscure the fiery and tasteless spirits.

    Jean Monnet, the famous cognac producer and politician, once said “The great thing about making cognac is that it teaches you above everything else to wait, but time and God and the seasons have got to be on your side”.  I would add to that by saying “Very few know where to find the finest and most individual Premier Cru Cognacs and Hermitage is one of them”.

  • Adding a Finish to Cognac?

    Brandyclassics MDOver the years many people have asked if barrels used for other drinks can be used for storing cognacs as is the case with whisky and some other brandies such as calvados. There is little doubt that whisky producers have stored their products in barrels that have been used for many different fine wines and spirits. Of note are barrels that have stored sherry, port, sauternes and even cognac. This practice, known as 'adding a finish', is generally used by the whisky industry and usually only for a few weeks which is sufficient to change the flavour and sometimes the characteristics of the cognac ageingspirit. It is an expensive procedure as it requires the purchase and storage of additional barrels so would probably only be used by the bigger producers, perhaps to gain dominance over their smaller competitors.

    The cognac industry has always rejected this practice since the very unique definition and history of cognac has enabled it to stand out amongst other spirits. Not only has this definition been rigorously protected by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), but many small producers (there are thousands) would rebel at any suggestion that cognac could be turned into another drink, alien to the traditions of the spirit. Cognac is a proud industry whose values are rightly upheld and protected all over the world and although not as big as the whisky industry, is still regarded for its values as the King of all Spirits.

    Read all our Technical Topics here.

  • The Cognac Label

    Brandyclassics MDEvery bottle containing alcohol must have a label showing clearly what is in it, including the quantity and alcoholic strength. Most producers of alcoholic drinks are controlled by a professional organisation who regulate what can or must be stated on the label. The cognac label is no exception and in some ways cognac is controlled more rigorously than other wines and spirits.

    The professional body responsible for cognac is known as the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac (BNIC). It is a private, state-backed organisation that not only controls the labelling of cognac but almost every other aspect of its production including production areas (crus), grape varieties, wine production, distillation and ageing. It also controls the distribution, sales and duties of every bottle produced.

    Hermitage 1975The labelling requirements for a bottle of cognac require the producer’s name and under that the cru may be added and the descriptor “COGNAC”. Modern, generic cognacs are heavily blended with cognacs coming from a wide range of producers and crus so the cru is often omitted from most modern labels. However smaller houses, who produce single estate cognacs, usually state the cru e.g. Grande Champagne or Petite Champagne. Only occasionally do producers state a cru other than the top two but sometimes the term Fine Champagne may be seen. This is used if at least 50% of the cognac in the bottle comes from Grande Champagne and the remaining from Petite Champagne. “Made in France”, with the address of the producer or negoçiant, must be included and age statements, such as vintages, can be used with approval.Hermitage 1975 Cognac label

    At Hermitage Cognacs we also add a back label that helps our customers understand more about the cognac they have chosen. This label includes details such as where the cognac was made, how it was distilled and aged and its individual aromas and flavours. Also, in the case of a vintage cognac, it shows the bottling date. This is important as it tells the customer how long the cognac has been aged in the barrel.

    Last, but not least, every bottle of spirits over 40% alcohol by volume carries a UK government duty stamp that is applied in France and can be crossed checked with the UK shipping documents issued by the BNIC.

    Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education page.

  • Drinking Cognac at Christmas

    Drinking CognacThere seems little doubt that alcohol can, in moderation, be good for you. It has been said that drinking cognac provides a greater benefit than other alcohol and scientists tell us that it increases antioxidant levels. These are beneficial substances that keep harmful free radicals from damaging our cells. According to a study published in “Cardiovascular Ultrasound” in 2008, this sort of damage can increase the risk of clogged arteries, heart disease, cancer and vision loss. Drinking alcohol may also help limit the risk of Type 2 Diabetes but beware, excessive consumption can increase the risk of cancer, heart disease and liver disease. Of course, moderation is the key, excessive consumption of any alcoholic beverage should be avoided.

    NelsonBrandy has been around a long time and traditionally has had many uses as it was available in large quantities from the French and Spanish naval vessels.  During the battles, which these navies fought, brandy was often used as an anaesthetic or antiseptic and in one particular extreme case as a preservative.  It is said that a whole barrel of brandy was used to preserve Admiral Nelson’s body until it could be returned to British shores. Hardly moderation but Nelson would probably have been pleased that he came home in a barrel of fine French brandy.

  • Tasting Cognac

    During an average drinking year, we knock back all manner of different beverages without giving thought to what we have tasted, or when.  Each drink we consume provides us with a completely different experience.  Most are as memorable as getting out of bed each morning but none are as exciting as the sheer thrill provided by a vintage brandy. Even when we drink a glass of fine brandy do we ever give any thought as to the glass and aroma of its contents? So often we hear the words “it tastes the same out of any glass” but the experience of using the correctly glass can be hugely different. Specialist glass manufacturers devote years of research to finding the right shape for our enjoyment, perhaps we should use their experience and try to understand more about tasting cognacs?

    cognac glassesThe ideal cognac or indeed spirit glass has a wide bowl which tapers at the top, we call it a tulip shaped glass. More than 50% of the enjoyment of any brandy is in the aroma which subconsciously enhances the taste. Having the correct shaped glass allows the cognac to be rolled around the bowl releasing aromas which are then concentrated at the top of the glass. This maximum sensory effect of the glass’ contents can then be enjoyed.

    Filling the glass to just over half way up the bowl is sufficient to allow the cognac to be gently rolled around the sides and reach as far up the glass as possible thereby exposing the greatest surface area. It is important however to remember that cognacs, like other spirits, are strong. Unlike wine they should never be swirled around the glass as this releases the alcohol which then sits on the surface of the brandy and blinds the very important aroma.

    Of course drinking the golden nectar is the all-important test of appreciation. Taste is improved slightly if the cognac is not cold but brandy warmers are completely unsuitable. They are shaped to accept a brandy balloon glass, which is not good for tasting, and they also drive the alcohol away from the brandy thereby spoiling the taste. Indeed, the ideal temperature of cognac for tasting is room temperature. Remember, we don’t take large mouthfuls of brandy as we would do with wine.  A small mouthful quickly reaches body temperature allowing the flavours to permeate all over the mouth.  A well-known cognac writer once said that he “chewed” the spirit, it was good advice since this helps to distribute the liquid around the mouth and determine the level of balance. Tasting great cognacs such as our Hermitage 43 Year Old or 1914, to name but two, in this manner would give a lasting memory of the skills and generations who have devoted their lives to making the King of all Spirits.

    Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education Page.

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