Much of the news from the Charente recently has been about the severe frosts that occurred at the end of April. The air temperature dropped to between -3 and -4°C on two consecutive mornings, affecting around 70% of the vineyards in the cognac growing region. The frost, which was the worst since 1991, damaged the young shoots emerging from the vines and is thought to have affected 40% of total production. A BNIC spokesman said that in a few cases this year’s grape harvest has been completely wiped out and some growers may find it difficult to recover. To help raise the production level of this depleted grape availability, the BNIC have allowed production levels to rise from 10hl to 12hl of pure spirit per hectare. However, some growers, who concentrate on the high quality of their vines, believe this is far more than their vines can produce. We shall wait and see but one consequence could be an increase in cognac prices next year.
Chinese customs officials have recently uncovered more than US$29m of smuggled spirits and here is the story behind the news ….. More than twenty years ago, in our quest to find top quality Grande Champagne cognacs, we stumbled upon a cognac house called Menuet. You may have seen their cognacs on our web site, the 50 year old was a particular star. Sadly, the firm became embroiled in financial difficulties and because we understood both the firm and others around, we were able to assist by finding another organisation which could provide support. Menuet recovered its position and continued to sell in international markets. In due course however, the owner decided to sell the company to a Chinese named Mr Yang - he used the Menuet brand name to sell brandies in bulk to China, seemingly without paying duty or tax. Apparently, he mixed small quantities of cognac with huge volumes of cheap grape brandy. That is, until it was discovered recently by Chinese customs ….. What is really upsetting about this story is that a highly respected name, that once supplied some of the finest cognacs we have tasted, has been ruined by an unscrupulous Chinese operator prepared to supply cheap brandy in Cognac 1er cru bottles.
Spirits sales accounted for more tax revenue than beer in 2016, the first time that this has happened. The latest figures from HMRC show that the Treasury took around £3.38 billion from spirit sales compared to £3.32 billion from the sale of beer. This is an increase of 7% over the 2015 figure and it occurred in the year when the Chancellor froze spirit duty, arguably allowing the industry to grow and invest. The UK has the 4th highest spirits duty rates in the EU so the duty increase announced earlier this year in 2017 is a major disappointment. Although the growth in spirits has been gin-led, one top London store told us that they had also seen a significant increase in brown spirit sales, particularly cognac. Other trends reported this quarter show that the UK is leading the European market in online alcohol sales and in the On Trade sector, alcohol sales have risen to over £24Bn despite falling volumes. Consumers are continuing to trade up and look for more premium products like vintage cognac.
According to Craft Spirits and Beer, ‘Craft’ is a term used to describe spirits and beers that are handmade in smaller batches, with superior ingredients by people who are passionate about quality. But as these products grow in popularity, is it possible for them to stay true to their roots?
Here in the UK the big supermarkets have all upped their range of ‘Craft’ beers. This has led to accusations that the breweries are selling out the independent shops that nurtured them. Market forces are clearly the cause. However, one must question whether these ‘Craft’ beers can still be produced in ‘smaller batches’ when trying to meet demand from the multiples.
Similarly, the increasing demand for ‘Craft’ gin has affected its production. It has become an open secret that many companies buy in their base liquid from big, third-party distillers. Gin can then be produced more cheaply or in greater quantities. This may make economic sense but it is not the image that ‘Craft’ gin conjures up. Vintage cognac, on the other hand, will always be ‘Craft’. It is created in small quantities by passionate experts, cannot be hurried and the quantities cannot be upped at will.
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.
This 1957 Cognac has just arrived at our Hermitage Ville Ancienne stable. It is another vintage cognac from the mid twentieth century.
Hermitage 1957 Grande Champagne Cognac has a delightful initial aroma of ginger, sweet spices, linden and white truffle and exceptional flavours of roasted almonds, truffle, porcini and macadamia nuts. A long, balanced, grapefruit peel finish completes the enjoyment of this delicious nectar.
The 1957 Cognac was distilled 60 years ago. That same year the Soviet Union launched ‘Sputnik 1’ – the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. We also said goodbye to the much-loved Humphrey Bogart.
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.
It only comes around once a year so Father's Day is the perfect occasion to say “Thanks Dad” and spoil him with something really special. We have a vast range of the very best vintage brandies from which you can choose. Each one shows how much you care.
To make your choice a little easier we have selected three to offer at a reduced price during June 2017. Each will be the perfect gift on Sunday 18th June so take a look now.
Our selection comprises a delicate yet complex, rare, vintage cognac from 1979; a fruity, well-balanced armagnac distilled for 15 years and a rich, robust, dark 20 year old cognac perfect for drinking with coffee.
We send our parcels out on a 24 hour service so you can order up until noon on Friday 16th June 2017. Our special offers are only available while stocks last. If one of them is the perfect gift for Dad this Father's Day, buy now to avoid disappointment.