Brandy, or perhaps to be more precise, cognac, has become the official tipple of Christmas in most of Europe since the early 19th century. Perhaps it is worth noting that of all the European countries to take it on board, Britain has taken more of the sublime liquid than any other. The Irish too have championed various brandies, Richard Hennessy being the most renowned purveyor.In past years cognac has never really reached the same dizzy heights as the malted spirits that now dominate the shelves of the supermarkets. Christmas is usually the only time the bottle of cognac is retrieved from back of the drinks cupboard to pour over the festive pudding and set alight, a practice which only diminishes the role of cognac. We probably have Charles Dickens to blame for that as one of his characters, Mrs Cratchit, came “bowling in with a pud blazing with a half of half a quarter of ignited brandy”. Romantic as it may sound setting fire to good cognac merely diminishes the credibility of The King of all Spirits.But cognac is so much more, it is the most complicated, but most interesting, spirit produced. Even more interestingly, many of the finest have been in barrels for very many decades. Mostly, cognac comes from a single grape variety. There are more than 4000 vine growers in the Charente (the region where it must come from) but even so, every cognac has different characteristics and flavours. It is the history of each and every one, from grape to bottle, that has kept me interested for 50 or more years. I will be drinking a very special cognac at Christmas, not poured over the pudding but in a small tulip shaped glass. I won’t be hurrying it but enjoying its many complex flavours and depth of rancio.
What a year!! Not only have we received an unprecedented number of Gold and Gold Outstanding medals for our Hermitage Cognacs but our latest presentation, the Marie Louise Decanter, has just been declared 'Best Cognac in Show 2018' at The Spirits Business Cognac Masters 2018 out of over 130 entrants. This amazing news follows hot on the heels of the IWSC 2018 Awards where we were also short listed for 'Brandy Producer of the Year'.
This astonishing Marie Louise creation has been described as “lining one’s mouth with velvet” and is a precious and rare investment. At 43% abv it has all the complex aromas and flavours one would expect from such a well-aged cognac. It is offered in one litre decanters produced by Cumbria Crystal. They are the last producer of completely hand-blown and hand-cut, full-lead luxury English crystal in the UK. The intensity and depth of flavours created by its careful distillation and ageing have created a masterpiece of smoothness and an intensely rich rancio found only in the rarest of cognacs. This truly great cognac is named after Marie Louise, the second wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. She bore his son who was given the title 'Roi de Rome' and who later became Napoleon II.
Calvados really is the finest example of apple brandy so it is a mystery that it isn’t more popular. Traditionally rustic, being based on the common old farmyard apple rather than the noble grape, perhaps it is too old fashioned for the influential trendsetters? And what about geography? Normandy is poorer and more rural than the elitist areas of Champagne and Cognac. The region staged countless wars and its fields are the final resting place of thousands of young men. But the trend is gradually changing. New calvados embassies are opening across the world. Indeed, official figures show that in 2017, 57% of the 6m bottles of calvados sold were exported. Its popularity as a cocktail ingredient has certainly helped. One of London’s most stylish and up-and-coming bars, Coupette, puts calvados cocktails at the very heart of its menu. What is a surprise though is that mixologists are using not just calvados from the top cru, Pays D’Auge, but aged and more expensive vintages too. Calvados is a delicious, versatile and refreshing spirit. It goes well with food, tastes good neat, and can be the base for sophisticated cocktails.
Following the magnificent export results for 2017 -2018, the BNIC agreed a rather high rate of harvest for the production of cognac this year at 14.64 hectolitres of alcohol pure per hectare of vineyard. In essence, this means that cognac producers in the Charente have been allowed to produce more cognac this year than is usual. The dry summer that followed the spring hailstorms was a godsend and the harvest has been fantastic. So good in fact the farmers are finding that they do not have sufficient wine tanks to hold all the eau de vie! Not only that, the quality of the wine is extremely high; it has a low alcohol content, perfect for making cognac. So, despite a shaky start to the season, it looks like 2018 will be a bumper year in the Cognac region.
1805 Cognac Massougnes fetches over £200,000 through London fine wine merchant Hedonism Wines
Hermitage Cognacs have provided one of the most expensive bottles of cognac ever sold in the UK, which has just been sold by London Fine Wine merchant, Hedonism Wines, for over £200,000. The imperial three-quarter gallon bottle of Cognac Massougnes was acquired by Hermitage Cognacs some 20 years ago from Marie-Antoinette des Allées, Comtesse de la Bourdelière, whose family owns the former Cognac producing estate.
Hermitage Managing Director David Baker takes up the story:
“In over 30 years of buying and selling cognac, this 1805 is one of the oldest and rarest I have ever come across. Massougnes produced historically famous cognacs pre-Phylloxera (the louse which devastated most of France’s vineyards in the 1860s), and we have dated their records back to at least 1730, making them the oldest known growers and sellers of brandies.
“At its peak the property covered 346 hectares, and Marie-Antoinette, who is the last remaining descendant of this famous family has written a charming note about the ‘life’ of this extraordinary cognac, which was created in the same year as the Battle of Trafalgar.”
Marie-Antoinette des Allées is a direct descendant of Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their children, King Richard of England and King John.
Hermitage is focused on selling only the very best Grande Champagne cognac. Hermitage Cognacs have since 1987 established a peerless reputation as suppliers of the very finest cognacs from old family houses where traditions and skills date back over hundreds of years. It is thanks to Hermitage’s unique relationships, forged over decades, that they have access to the best examples, each one uniquely different, with examples such as this dating back to the end of the 19th Century and beyond.
This is the second such bottling from Massougnes which Hermitage have been able to source; another bottle sold for a similar sum in 2016. The identity of the purchaser has not been disclosed.
We are very pleased to introduce our new Office Manager, John Walley. After a full Army career and a spell working in the Far East, he has chosen to settle in Wiltshire and join our team. A keen sportsman, John is already enjoying the wonderful golf courses and premiership rugby this area has to offer. Pictured on his introductory tour of the Charente, John is inspecting this summer’s fantastic grape harvest, before meeting many of our French friends and colleagues.
William Grant & Son’s latest Market Report has identified a change in customer behaviour. The new ‘Active-ist Consumer’ is described as ‘purposeful, connected and empowered’. According to the Report there is a new breed of digitally-sophisticated, socially-conscious, and sustainability-expectant people who use their collective consumer power to generate change at scale and with purpose and at an increasingly fast pace. Digital sophistication allows consumers to source their own news, leading to demands for brand transparency and the desire for brands to engage with ethical issues. Such behaviour was clearly visible following the airing of Planet Earth 2 in 2016 when social media was flooded with commentary on the horror of disposable plastic. The sheer number of outraged viewers ensured the issue was recognised by the drinks industry amongst others. As a direct consequence, we are now seeing widespread withdrawal of plastic drinking straws. The Report also announced that people are spending more on drinking less. Consumers are choosing their outings on the quality and range of food and drink on offer. We have been familiar with this trend for some time as our premium brandies continue to increase in popularity.
For the fourth consecutive year cognac exports are up, according to recent figures published by the BNIC. Volume sales were up by 8.2% (205 million bottles were shipped) and this equated to an increase of 5.4% by value (€3.2bn). The largest market continues to be the US where demand still increases annually. Exceptional increases in demand have been seen in the Far East with China leading the way. “These strong results confirm the lasting appetite of the Chinese for Cognac, even as the market is still stabilising,” noted the BNIC President. Shipments to the UK remaining stable at 10.8 billion, despite the uncertainties of Brexit, were positive and we remain the fourth largest importer worldwide. A delighted BNIC Vice-president concluded that “Cognac wine growers and traders are confident in their future prospects and continue today to fully invest in the development of the appellation, their sector and the quality of their products”.
It would be difficult for me to write another Technical Topic without mentioning Nick Faith who very sadly passed away on 26 September 2018. Nick was a friend whom I have known for more than 25 years. But he was more than that, He was a giant in the cognac industry.
As a financial journalist Nick wrote regularly in the Financial Times and the Economist. He also wrote many books on drink. His first, called The Winemasters, was published in 1978 and won the André Simon Award. Another, and one of his finest was a rather grand full-sized book with many illustrations but actually, he was best known for his book simply called Cognac. It was first published in 2004 (the last edition was published in 2013) and is regarded by many as the Standard in the industry. Here at Hermitage, we still use it occasionally for reference. In 1996 he founded the International Spirits Challenge and in 2010 he was the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award given by the Bureau National Interprofessional de Cognac (BNIC), the ruling body of Cognac. As a fellow traveller to the Cognac region, Nick loved to visit us here at Hermitage Cognacs and talk about the industry, tasting our cognacs and finishing up with lunch and a beer before I took him back to Chippenham to return on the train, another of his loves.
Nick Faith will be sorely missed, not just as a great authority on cognacs but as an inspiration to the industry, he was one of the Cognac Greats.
Another fantastic result for the Hermitage stable as three of our newest additions are awarded prestigious medals at this year's International Wine and Spirits Competition (IWSC 2018). GOLD OUTSTANDING Medals were received by our latest vintages:
Hermitage 1948 Grande Champagne Cognac. Judges comments: "On the palate this cognac is extremely rich and concentrated. Perfectly balanced."
Hermitage 1944 Grande Champagne Cognac. Judges comments: "Absolutely superb! Do not wait to drink this."
All three of our winners are from the top cru as a GOLD Medal was also awarded to the Hermitage 30 Year Old Grande Champagne Cognac. Judges comments: "Powerful yet elegant on the palate. Very complex, very long finish."