Last time we reported that Whistle Pig founder, Raj Bhakta, had bought the armagnac house Maison Ryst Dupeyron. One wonders if he intends to do for armagnac what he did for rye whiskey over the past decade? After just 12 years of trading, Whistle Pig has become the leading supplier of rye whiskey and sells over 1.2 million cases per year. Bhakta’s interest in armagnac began in 2017 when Whistle Pig took its priciest rye whiskey and finished it in armagnac barrels. The result, the Black Prince, won best overall whiskey at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. No longer a shareholder in Whistle Pig, Bhakta is now embarking on a new project with his armagnac house purchase. His first release, Bhakta 50, is a blend of 8 vintages with a minimum age of 50 years which has been finished in smoky, Islay Scotch casks followed by new armagnac casks. Bhakta feels that this “freshens up” the old spirit, although as a result, it can no longer be called ‘armagnac’. Keen to bridge the gap between whiskey and armagnac he wants to be creative and “deliver a product of great value and rarity”. It will be interesting to see if such innovation boosts armagnac’s presence across the brown spirits marketplace.
We have often reported how the drinks industry is changing its production methods to become more environmentally friendly but now the products themselves are under the spotlight. A European group, the Circular Economy Platform for Glass Collection & Recycling, is aiming to have 90% of all EU glass packaging recycled by 2030; the figure currently stands at 76%. A consumer survey found that 80% of Europeans still prefer buying wine and spirits in glass bottles and spending on products packaged in glass has risen 51% in the last 3 years. The ‘Close the Glass Loop’ group, supported by Spirits Europe, also aims to improve the quality of the recycled glass as currently only 52% of it ends up back in the production loop. However, this has not stopped the production of alternative packaging. Wine sold in cans has really taken off and Waitrose is pioneering a new sustainable packaging – wine in tubes. Following their aim to become the leading sustainable retailer in the UK, the ‘bag in tube’ wines are 100% recyclable and contain the equivalent of 3 x 75cl bottles. Once opened, the wine will remain fresh for 10 days longer than when in a glass bottle. Sustainable packaging has also inspired the Paper Bottle Company (Paboco) which is being supported by Pernod Ricard. Remy Martin have gone one step further and announced that they will discontinue gift boxes on a number of their products, in certain markets, in order to reduce waste and improve sustainability.
Around 40 years ago I was privileged to be given what today I would describe as, one of the 10 finest cognacs in the world. I was staying at one of the finest hotels in Monaco and the sommelier, whose name was Georges, poured me a glass of A E Dor Hors d’Age No 5, 1840 Grande Champagne. He was seeking my opinion and needless to say, I was completely taken with it. One of the greatest achievements a cellar master can claim is the production of a balanced cognac with a perfect rancio and this cognac did not disappoint. Rancio is an intense richness that affects every taste bud in your mouth, providing intense syrupy flavours, as experienced after tasting a 100 year old Malmsley, with the aromas of an old madeira cellar.
Unbelievably, I have recently found a similarly wonderful cognac, but it has even more exquisite qualities. Its slightly musty aromas of spices, dried fruit peel, pineapple and roasted nuts combined with dates, liquorice, cocoa and molasses are only an introduction to the intense complexity of aromas and flavours which provide another step of fulfilment in the tasting of fine cognac; one that only a few of us will experience in our lives. It encompasses the joy of discovering that there is another level of perfection, a perfection that takes a cognac from being one of the ten best to being the very best. It is the nectar poured from the golden chalice, the pinnacle of perfection and the cognac we can usually only dream about.
So, what is it that makes this cognac so special? In this very exclusive world of fine cognac the term rancio does not occur often and usually, when it does, we are referring to very old cognacs from Grande Champagne. There is a reason for this. Cognacs from the Premier cru age much more slowly than those from the other crus. This is due to the soil, or rather I should say chalk, which in the area south of the town of Cognac and north of the river Ne is particularly porous. The vine roots here can penetrate up to 30 metres into the water margins and as a result, the grapes are fuller producing a more flavourful wine which takes longer to develop in the barrel.
But it is not the cognac alone that creates a rancio effect. Not so far from the Charente, lie the forests of Limousin where, over hundreds of years, oak has been cut and re-planted to make the barrels in which cognacs are aged. The staves are split and left to age for 5 years before they are cut and formed into barrels. The barrels are toasted just enough to burn off the harmful tannins but leave the good tannins to help mature the new cognac. After some months this new cognac is moved to an older home, into previously used barrels where it will stay until it is decided that the cognac is ready to bottle. This can take up to 80 years when usually all the tannins, lignins and hemi-cellulose in the barrels have been used up and can no longer have an effect on the cognac. The hemi-cellulose lasts the longest in the wood and it is this that imparts the desirable richness we call rancio. It was the depth of rancio that made the AE Dor Hors d’Age No 5 so very special but at only 34% abv, the flavours, though easier to detect, may not preserve well.
Now, imagine what would happen if you aged a Grande Champagne cognac, with all the qualities of AE Dor 1840, in a barrel for 100 years and then put it into another barrel where the hemi-cellulose was still available. It would provide a ‘double rancio' and that is exactly what happened to one of our cognacs. It was, after 100 years of ageing, placed back into wood for another 10 - 12 years and the result was the accomplishment of excellence.
That cognac is our Hermitage 1885 Grande Champagne @46% abv.
The results are out and we are delighted to report the results for Hermitage Cognacs in the recent International Wines & Spirits Competition (IWSC 2020).
A GOLD OUTSTANDING medal winner was described as "An outstanding spirit with a naturally exceptional balance, complexity and power. An example that immediately sets itself apart from others in the category." This was awarded to:
Hermitage 1920 Grande Champagne Cognac "Outstanding in complexity and structure with an enigmatic palate composed on an abundance of intricate layers of texture." Judges' comments.
Hermitage 1960 Grande Champagne Cognac "Exceedingly complex and broad in its depth of aromas and flavours." Judges' comments.
A GOLD Medal winner was described as "An excellent spirit with an exceptional balance and rare and complex flavours. An example that stand out against its peers." and awarded to:
Hermitage 2008 Grande Champagne Cognac "Fresh and powerful with a wealth of flavours delivered through a very expressive and complex set of aromas on the palate." Judges' comments.
The Rémy Cointreau Group has announced their acquisition of Maison de Cognac J.R. Brillet which is based at Graves Saint Amant in the Charente. The Brillet Cognac sale includes 50 hectares of vineyards located in Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, the Brillet cognacs and Belle de Brillet, a pear and cognac liqueur. Good to see its ownership remain with a family owned French firm but the big houses often subsume new cognac stocks into huge generic blends where individual flavours are completely lost. It has taken a year for this sale to be agreed and during that time the Remy Cointreau Group’s sales have been heavily affected by the COVID-19 crisis. More specifically, the House of Rémy Martin experienced an organic 7.5% drop in sales during 2019/2020. An interesting time to increase ones cognac production isn’t it?
A bottle of 1762 Cognac by Gautier was sold at auction recently for a record breaking £118,580. Thought to be the world’s oldest cognac, only one other bottle of this vintage now exists. The bottles’ history can be traced back to the 1880s when they were acquired by the Donsir family. The family adopted a son, Alphonse, who in 1870, went to find work in the cognac vineyards. Over the next decade the Phylloxera outbreak decimated European vines so, when work dried up Alphonse returned home. As the vineyard was financially ruined, he was paid in cognac, including 3 bottles of the highly regarded Gautier 1762. The precious pre-Phylloxera bottles were stored in the family cellars until such time as each was sold. One has since been opened, one has pride of place in the Gautier Museum and now, the third one has become a world record breaker. Although described as a ‘large’ bottle the size of this 1762 is unknown so it is difficult to compare with our Massougnes 1801 (¾ imperial gallon) which sold through Hedonism Wines for £222,000!
‘What is the safe storage temperature for cognac?’ is a question that comes up at regular intervals. It is worth noting that once cognac has been bottled, its maximum storage temperature becomes more critical. Usually, a suitable space is left between the cognac and the cork for expansion but every now and again we hear of shipments in very hot countries where the excessive heat has forced the corks out of the bottles. This is a rarity these days as modern corks are stronger and better than those made perhaps 25 years ago. Bottle sealing, especially for rare vintage cognacs, can also be enhanced with wax seals over the cork.
However, cognac temperatures, especially during the production and ageing periods can play an important role in the quality of what we drink years later. The distillation range of cognac is between 67 – 72.4 % abv yet most of that which is available in the shops is sold at 40% abv. The natural average drop in strength varies from 0.1% to 2% per year but it would be wrong to believe the average is between the two figures. The actual average is around 0.5% unless demineralised water has been added to the cognac during its storage life. Many of the commercial cognacs are stored for some of their short life in large wooden tanks with little more than a wood lid over them for protection. Here, the temperature, humidity or air dryness can have a considerable effect on both the cognac quality and speed of alcohol reduction. Cognacs that are stored in this manner are usually purchased by the big houses and used in VS or VSOP blends where additives are used to control their flavour and quality.
Of course, the controls over the bulk storage of cognac are very much down to the cellar master. Those cognacs which are destined for higher places will be stored in barrels and hidden away throughout their life in the cellars. The cognac which we store in our sideboard should ideally be kept at a temperature not greater than 25 degrees Celsius and above freezing. Providing the bottle remains sealed, the cognac will stay in perfect condition for decades. But, I hear you ask, what is the point of keeping a bottle without drinking it? Good point, but remember the more you drink from the bottle, the more air there will be in it and the more the alcohol will escape. Eventually the cognac becomes undrinkable. Don’t panic though, a 3/4 full bottle with the cork replaced after opening, may last in excess of 10 years. Even one only 1/4 full will still be drinkable a couple of years from now and who is going to leave a part full bottle of good cognac that long?
Our latest nineteenth century cognac, Hermitage Paradis 1880 Grande Champagne Cognac, has arrived and what a stunner it is!
The period from 1870 to 1900 saw cognac houses in France produce some of their finest spirits, a few of which are still available today. This was a period before the official recognition of crus, however, it was widely accepted that the area north of the River Né and south of the town of Cognac produced some of the finest cognacs. The region later became known as Grande Champagne, the premier cru of the six cognac regions in The Charente.
Like so many of these old finds this exceptional cognac from 1880 has survived several generations, only to come to light after nearly 100 years of ageing in oak casks, slowly developing a unique and very special style and flavour. The cognac has reduced naturally, without the need for dilution or additives. One becomes aware of a deep rancio when bringing it to the nose and on the palate, there is an immediate richness and complexity. This has all the qualities of a seriously well aged cognac. Genuine history in a bottle and a pleasure to drink.
XO brandy, XO cognac. XO armagnac. Why is the term XO used so often when few of us actually know what it means? Originally, XO stood for Extra Old. In terms of age, up until 2018, an XO cognac had to be at least 6 years old but this was also the required minimum age of Napoleon Cognac. So, after decades of promising change, the controlling body of cognac, the BNIC, agreed to make the minimum barrel age of an XO cognac 10 years old. This is important because cognacs do not mature once they have been taken from their oak casks and placed in glass. Armagnac also stepped into line and now age their XO brandies for a minimum of ten years.
The problem with all this is that brandies, particularly cognacs, need to be in a barrel for much longer than ten years to reach optimum maturity, so an XO brandy is actually not very old. It should be noted that some of the smaller brandy houses keep their XO cognacs in the barrel for longer than the required minimum age in order to produce a more mellow, flavoursome product. More recently it has been recognised that a 10 year old cognac is not particularly old so another generic age statement has been introduced, it is called XXO. The minimum age for an XXO cognac (Extra Extra Old) is 14 years in an oak cask. Even this is not long enough for cognacs from the premier cru, Grande Champagne. They are the slowest of all brandies to mature and may take up to twice as long as cognacs from other crus, requiring 50 years or even more.
The term XO is widely misunderstood and even at ten years old some brandies are only just drinkable. At Hermitage Cognacs, we do not sell generic XO brandies. We prefer to offer an age statement on each one to help customers understand how long their brandy has matured in the cask.
Around this time of the year (Summer 2020) we are anxiously looking at the weather to try and determine if we are going to have a good grape harvest in September. The vines are flowering well and every indication is that we will have a bumper harvest. But where are we going to store all the new cognacs when they are distilled? There is simply not enough room this year as coronavirus has dramatically reduced sales by the big houses. In an industry where America alone can take over a million cases a year, world sales so far in 2020 seem to have virtually halted, with a measly 1.5 – 2 million cases sold in the first quarter. According to one of our friends in Cognac, contract sales by the big houses have, over the years, spiralled up to around 90% of their output. This has enabled the large companies to place contract orders with producers for young cognacs which they buy and store in their own cellars. It now seems likely that some of the big names will have to renege on their contracts with the growers and producers due to lack of storage space. However, every cloud has a silver lining. The smaller, own brand producers and negoꞔiants are now having a field day. They are shipping smaller quantities to their smaller customers and more specialised world outlets and demand is increasing. The current reduction in demand for cognac seems to be only affecting the mass market.