The whole cognac industry began with the little guy, tending his vines and creating outstanding eau-de-vie. Today these small cognac producers, often family run houses, struggle to remain in business, such is the competition they face from the ‘Big 4’. These 4 companies are now so large that each has a brand ambassador, presumably to reflect their core values. Interestingly, Hennessy, Courvoisier and Remy Martin have all chosen a trendy rap star, clearly trying to appeal to the younger market. Martell, on the other hand, has gone for a more stylish, feminine image by choosing Diane Kruger. But what about the smaller cognac producers who use their generations of knowledge to produce the very best, single estate, vintage cognacs – who should they choose? Surely it must be royalty – rare, elegantly presented and steeped in history. Or do you have a better idea?
Famous Cognac Houses
During the years after the gold rush in the 1850s, brandy became the most popular spirit in Australia. French companies were quick to seize the opportunity and in 1870 Prunier opened a branch there. A loyal following for the brand was built by their salesman, Émigré Ambroise Lamande. He lived in Melbourne with his pet kangaroo and it is this marsupial that is thought to have been the inspiration behind Maresté's poster and 1929 advertising film. Reputed to be the first cinema advertisement for cognac ever made, it featured a cartoon kangaroo discovering cases of cognac washed up on a beach and gleefully stuffing her pouch with the bottles! However, the global economic depression of the time and rising tensions in Europe led to a dramatic decline in demand for cognac in Australia. In 1938 Prunier closed its Melbourne branch and within a decade or so the brand had all but disappeared. That is, until very recently, when a customer walked into a new wine & spirits shop and enquired about Prunier cognacs. The owner had never heard of them, so he did some research. Impressed by the brandies and the historical connection he decided to start stocking the range. The reaction has been overwhelming, and he now sells more of Prunier's rare and very expensive vintage cognacs than any other outlet in the world. Another good example of how superior quality and historical knowledge increases the value and pleasure derived from your cognac.
Not every cognac house has a Paradis – a designated area in the innermost recess of their cellar – but those that exist are steeped in history. Back in the early eighties, having discovered a cognac which I really liked, I went to the Charente to try and discover its origin. I ended up in Cognac’s twin town, Jarnac, standing in front of an elegant wrought iron gate with an imposing key. Behind it were about 100 very dusty bonbonnes, each with a chalk board describing what was in them. What an eye opener - they contained cognacs which dated from as early as 1805. Each bonbonne (a sort of demijohn in a basket), contained about 30 litres of prized spirits and was sealed with wax to maintain its superior qualities.
Many cognac families select a few of their finest cognacs for storage in the Paradis. The point when a cognac has gained all the benefit it can from the wood depends on many factors but ultimately, it is when the cellar master decides that it has reached its optimum quality. At this stage the cognac is put into glass bonbonnes and sealed so that the generations of gentle maturation in the barrel are preserved. A cognac that has lasted in oak without deterioration for perhaps 60, 70, 80 or even 90 years is going to be good, very good and will have developed the much sought after rancio.
There is little doubt that these cognacs will be superb masterpieces and truly exceptional amongst other cognacs, perhaps worthy only of paradise – the English translation of Paradis. I am sure that these fine old nectars should be preserved and locked away until their greatness can be recognised by true connoisseurs. The Angels have had their 'share', what’s left is worthy of far higher. If, when you next visit the Cognac region you visit an old cognac producer, ask if you can taste a cognac from their Paradis. If such a request is granted, savour it. The cognacs in the Paradis will be the very finest that the house has ever made. If, on the other hand, your request is denied, try our Hermitage Marie Louise. It’s a very fine example and has already won a number of very prestigious awards.
Alexandre Bisquit established his famous cognac trading house in Jarnac in 1819. When his daughter married Adrien Dubouché in 1848, his son-in-law’s name was added to the firm. It remained in family hands until the mid-60s when it was sold to Paul Ricard. Latterly it was owned by Distell but earlier this year it was sold again, to the Campari group, for over 50 million Euros. In many ways the purchase of Bisquit Dubouché by M. Ricard was the start of the firm’s real growth. Not only did he buy the biggest chateau in the region, with more than 200 hectares of vines, he also built a massive distillery at Lignères which had 64 stills. Bisquit cognacs have quite a nutty and fruity style which is admired by many in the industry (compare with our Hermitage 20 yo GC Cognac). As with most of the medium to large-sized houses, their need for more cognacs grew over the years so they also buy in wine and ‘eau de vie’. What a shame that another cognac house has gone to one of the multi-faceted “sell it all” groups.
The famous cognac house of Hine has had a colourful past. After 6 generations of family ownership, the company was sold to the Distillers Company. Later it was bought by Möet Hennessy and then CL World Brands. Probably not the future that British-born founder Thomas Hine had intended. Although Bernard Hine has, since 1963, continued to be involved, the company missed the benefits family ownership brings. Its recent sale to French family firm, EDV SAS, has therefore been welcomed with open arms. Returning to family values with recognition of the longevity of the production process, Hine has been able to rediscover its origins. New releases of 'early-landed', being developed for travel retail, and single estate vintage cognac demonstrate where it's heading. This, coupled with its fresh, youthful new packaging, H by Hine, illustrates the company's desire to progress yet retain its core values, something many cognac houses have lost.
Hine is not the only cognac house to have changed hands recently though. Ivory Coast footballer, Olivier Tebily, bought his first vineyards as a teenager. Acutely aware of the fragility of his chosen profession he planned to one day produce cognac. Buying vineyards as an outsider is a tricky business but he took his search seriously and made good friends along the way. One of them, the son of his neighbour, tragically died leaving no heir to the family estate so when the father wanted to sell his 22 acres, Olivier was the obvious choice. Good to see an injection of fresh blood occasionally!
Previously we reported that Martell had introduced their first non-chill filtered cognac. Since then they have also released an ‘Intense Heat Cask Finish’. Adding a finish to cognac is new territory for the industry as the production process is heavily regulated by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC). Martell, however, have produced their ‘finish’ within current rules. Their ‘Intense Heat Cask Finish’ refers to the intense burning of the oak barrels used for ageing. The result is a cognac with intensely woody tones. Toasting the oak barrels to varying degrees has always been an accepted part of cognac production so this ‘Intense Heat Cask Finish’ should be allowable. In the spirits industry, the phrase ‘Adding a Finish’ usually applies to the use of other used barrels e.g. ones previously containing sherry – we wait to hear the BNIC view on that!
Another first for Martell is the launch of their single estate cognac – something that we have always championed. It is from Domaine de Charbonnière in the Borderies cru and available only at Hong Kong International Airport. Sadly it is neither a vintage nor does it have an age statement so whilst it may be single domain, it remains a blend of unknown age.
Sazerac, one of America’s oldest family owned, privately held distillers, has purchased Domaine Breuil de Segonzac Cognac located in the Grande Champagne region. The property is about 220 acres in size and the purchase includes the cognac distillery, organic vineyards and chateau-style mansion dating from 1870. “Given the roots of our company, we are very excited to add a cognac house to our family, especially one as historic and prestigious as this one,” said Mark Brown, CEO. Sadly, many small cognac houses have been sold to foreign buyers in recent years but usually from Asia. This American investment was inevitable given the recent rise in popularity of cognac in the US. Thankfully the CEO added “We intend to continue the proud heritage and preserve its authenticity and character.” We are always pleased to see small cognac houses, like Hermitage, remain successful.
Brandy has been the traditional spirit of Christmas since the sixteenth century and was immortalised by Dickens in Mrs Cratchit’s Christmas pudding, “blazing in half of half a quarter of ignited brandy”. But it is said that cognac was recognised in 1540 after a Chevalier du Maron took two casks of newly reduced or distilled wine to a local monastery near La Rochelle. The monks tasted one of them and found it to be fiery and tasteless so left the other cask unopened. Many years later they found the unopened cask, the contents of which had matured and were very fine. They named the drink after the town it had come from, Cognac.
Cognac has been used over the centuries in all sorts of ways including the preservation of food, in particular meat and fruit where the term “plumming” referred to soaking raisins in brandy. Both fruit and meat were often incorporated into puddings which were much admired by George I, also known as the Pudding King. So enthusiastic was he that in 1714 he demanded that “plum pudding” be served at his Royal Christmas Feast. Brandy was often used to flame the pudding before serving.
In more recent times, Cognac was the favourite drink of Churchill who often enjoyed it with a cigar. It was said by the last French owner of the cognac house Croizet, that during the war, bottles of their cognac were smuggled out of France by submarine for Mr Churchill. He favoured the fine citrus qualities of their Grande Champagne cognacs.
Today, Hermitage Grande Champagne Pure Vintage Cognacs offer the finest traditional values at Christmas, but we do recommend you enjoy them as they are rather than set fire to them on your Christmas pudding. Visit our Online Store to see the whole range.
The firm A E Dor has been sold to the Cognac co-operative, Uni-Cognac, for an undisclosed sum. We understand that Uni-Cognac are keen to move into the Far East market and regard the Jarnac based firm of Dor as a significant name in the industry.
The firm had a number of owners including a relative, we believe the brother, of the French President Franҫois Mitterrand before it was bought by Odile and Jacques Riviere. Odile ran the firm and was highly regarded in the industry as a gifted blender. She became one of the five best female blenders in the industry. Sadly Odile died in a motoring accident and Jacques was at a loss as to what to do with the firm as his knowledge was not in the same league as his wife’s. He offered the management to his daughter, a pharmacist, but she wasn’t interested and eventually his son, Pierre Antoine took on the management. Pierre knows little of the industry and sadly, the quality of the cognacs from the house have deteriorated.
A quarter of a century ago Brandyclassics took on the distribution of A.E.Dor Cognacs. As generic blends of their day they were highly regarded and their old Paradis is still one of the most famous cellars in the industry with its many bonbonnes of old pre-Phylloxera cognac. Now they have been sold to a co-operative, Odile will be turning in her grave.
We still stock a few of the best A.E.Dor cognacs, have a browse here.
Share price rises despite poor performance
Rémy Cointreau is enjoying a stock market lift after rumours of a takeover bid by Brown-Forman – the makers of Jack Daniel’s and Southern Comfort – raised the group’s share price by 3%. The group has been badly hurt by a Chinese government crackdown on extravagant spending, with sales of the company’s flagship cognac falling 32% in the final quarter of last year, following a 30% drop in sales during the third-quarter. It is reported that the offer was flatly refused and it is difficult to see how a family run business would be prepared to lose control of it, at any price. In China cognac is regarded as a status symbol and our evidence shows that in time, the Chinese will find a way around the new ruling. Remy should and will, we believe, fight hard to keep their independence as the market for luxury goods in China will inevitably return to being a highly lucrative one.