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?
For 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.
There 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.
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.
During 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.
Most 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.
Alcohol 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.
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 region 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 governing 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 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.
There 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 soils 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.
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”.