Perhaps one of the last Grandees of the cognac industry, Frapin, is expanding its vineyards to keep up with the demand in China. Frapin, best known for its famous Chateau Fontpinot which is set in some of the best area of Grande Champagne, has increased its vineyards by 11% taking the total area to 240 hectares and sufficient to provide more than 2500 hectolitres of eau de vie. Probably their best cognacs originate from their cellars in Segonzac where they hold many vintages but are best known for the wonderful cognac named after their famous chateau. It is their prized possession, retained after the family feuds in the 1970s when they severed their connection with Remy Martin and ceased to supply them with their cognacs.
Famous Cognac Houses
Yet another big cognac house is up for sale. Hine Cognac, which was founded in Jarnac in 1763, celebrates its 250th Anniversary this year. The name Hine originates from an Englishman who married into the family in the early 19th century and the House has remained in the hands of Hine descendants ever since. Abiding by the founder’s motto ‘less is more’ they have continued to produce relatively small quantities of very high quality cognac. The current owner, CL World Brands, has recently relinquished its stake in Jamaican Appleton Rum and the whisky producers Burn Stewart Distillers fuelling rumours that their parent company, CL Financial, are in financial turmoil. Although there is no news yet of whom the buyer may be, it is a real shame that they are being forced to sell Hine under these circumstances. So many of the smaller cognac houses have been snapped up by the ‘big four’ resulting in quality, single estate stock being lost to the blending process which is used to meet the ever growing demand from Asia.
Larsen, the Norwegian owned cognac House in Cognac has been bought by Remy Martin for an undisclosed sum. The firm was known for their Viking ship bottles and Norsemen ceramic decanters that were often seen in duty free shops at airports. Remy have agreed to keep the brand going as it will fuel their range of customers in the Scandinavian markets. Larsen were negoçiants and don’t make any cognacs themselves but buy them in, mainly from the Champagnes. This may well be another reason why Remy were interested, as like the other big houses, they are desperate to get their hands on as much good quality stock as they can to feed their Chinese customers.
Larsen moved to Cognac in 1919, seduced by the quality of the French brandies. He became well known in the area and was regarded as a connoisseur of fine cognacs. His brand is a market leader in Scandinavia where customers are able to buy Larsen cognacs in the Limoge decanters as well as the luxury Baccarat Crystal decanters that have become synonymous with the brand. It is a shame that yet another of the old cognac houses has fallen to the big four but maybe this was inevitable due to the pressures on the market and the rising cost of cognac. Larsen supply a range of blended cognacs all containing additives.
At the end of our series on the Good and Great Cognac houses, we thought it appropriate to do a bit of chest beating for our very own Hermitage Cognacs. They are not the products of a single distiller, but from family distilleries and cellars with proven production and ageing procedures.
The concept of Hermitage Pure Vintage Cognacs was formed about fifteen years ago, as we recognised the need to move away from blended cognacs which lacked individuality and failed to promote the age of the cognacs in the bottle. Our customers recognised that older brandies are better than young ones.
The difficulty we recognised is that the distillation of cognac must be to between 67 and 72 degrees alcohol, after which all cognacs take many years to drop naturally to 40%, the commercial selling level of alcohol. The problem was that the commercial pressures to sell in volume was outstripping availability, which put huge pressure on the older stocks available in the thousands of cellars in the region. Those pressures have become far more acute now, with world sales of cognacs at nearly double those of the mid 1990s. which meant that the big houses were creaming off the best vintages for blending.
Although there are many distilleries supplying us, we now have four or five who meet our stringent Hermitage requirements for quality and ageing and adapt their cognacs to meet our customer's needs.
In those fifteen years of Hermitage, we have created some of the very finest cognacs and we have the gold medals for best vintages to prove it.
No history of the great and good would be complete without mentioning Unicoop, the Charente farmers co-operative for the wines and eaux de vie sold to so many negoçiants.
“Good and great” are words not often associated with this vast building alongside the main road between Cognac and Jarnac. The building is recognisable by the name of its main brand, Cognac Prince Hubert de Polinac. But strangely enough the cognac brand it is best known for is Henri Mounier, a once famous cognac brand name taken over by the co-operative.
The co-operative's history is short and to say the least turbulent, selling eaux de vie to many of the big houses, particularly Remy Martin. It was probably their association with these big houses that brought them to their knees in 1999, and where then rescued in 2000 with a FF250 million loan by the French government and Credit Agricole, the French bank. The firm has operated for not a lot longer than the past thirty years and once again it appears to be in trouble financially, with talk of joining with another large negoçiant in Cognac
As well as Mounier, the firm owns a lot of other names including Paul Bocuse, La Fayette, Mallet and their biggest acquisition, the firm of Calvet in Bordeaux, They bought the well known Hardy cognacs when they also filed for insolvency. Their saviour in the early 2000’s was a large bottling contract with Grey Goose, the well known vodka house whose sign dominates all the cognac signs on the side of their building.
Who knows, perhaps another saviour will turn up? How about a white swan!
Tiffon is now owned by the ubiquitous Braastad family whose name has been synonymous with a number of cognac houses including Delamain, Bisquit, Courvoisier.
In the start of the twentieth century Sverre Braastard moved from Gjovik in Norway to Cognac and joined the firm of Alexandre Biscuit. Biscuit was established nearly a hundred years earlier and was already well known as a prominent Grande Champagne producer. Whilst working for Bisquit Sverre met Edith Rousseau (the granddaughter of Médéric, who founded the House of Tiffon) ad they were married in 1919. The Tiffon firm developed under their leadership and by the 1940’s they had acquired the rather grand Chateau de Triac, a lavish building with castle keeps on either side of the entrance and with vineyards in both Grande Champagne and Fins Bois regions.
The firm has developed and now has a sizeable international market with sales in North America, Germany and the Scandinavian countries. Their cellars are in Jarnac on the southern bank of the Charente River which provides a good level of dampness and humidity for maturing their cognacs. The firm is still a private company and produces a range of blended cognacs that include the use of sugar syrup and caramel. One of the oldest cognacs is the Reserve de La Famille, which is said to be between forty and sixty years old. But others such as the VS, VSOP and XO blends are only slightly more than the required minimum ages, and they like other houses have suffered from the shortage of eaux de vie.
The Prunier family has been shipping cognacs since 1700. The first member of the Prunier family to start the business was Jean Prunier (1665 – 1732). He was a freeman of the port of La Rochelle, which was the main shipping port for goods on the western coast of France. Jean Prunier was a renowned cognac expert, and living in La Rochelle he had the foresight to watch shippers at the port and was able to create connections with traders (or correspondents as they were called in other countries) and was able to sell their wines and brandies.
The family remained in La Rochelle and Jean was succeeded by his son Gabriel Prunier (1711–1790) and his Grandson, Jean Prunier (1741-1843). They acquired vineyards around the town of St-Jean-de-Angély in the north of the cognac region, but François Prunier (1768-1843), moved to the town of Cognac. He lived in the old quarters by the Charente river in what is now the oldest house in the town. Called the Maison de la Lieutenants or Sheriffs house, it was probably where the mayor of the town would have collected the taxes on the cognac sales from the region.
Alphonse Prunier, who died in 1918, was the last descendent of the Prunier family. She called in her nephew, Jean Burnez, to help running the business and he eventually took over the reins of the firm. He then passed them to Claude Burnez and his sister. Susan Burnez, Claude’s wife, was an English lady from Somerset who inherited the control and management interest for the other family menbers. She retired in 2010 and her Stepson Stéphane now controls the firms and its management.
Prunier have been mainly negoçiants and have specialised in very traditional cognacs, holding good stocks of rare and old cognacs in their warehouse in the town. They also still own the old Maison de la Lieutenants which has become the trade mark of this very old and famous firm.
Brandyclassics stock a wide selection of vintage cognacs from some of the most famous names in Cognac, including Prunier...
Louis Royer is probably better known now than it has ever been during its long life, as a result of its takeover by the giant Suntory organisation in Japan. The firm was started in 1853 by its founder Louis Royer. He was a chief blender at another cognac house and he decided to establish his own distillery. He was an avid beekeeper and a bee is enshrined in the firm’s coat of arms.
Louis Royer is said to have chosen the bee as an emblem from the very beginning of his business and is said to represent the values that have always prevailed by the house, that of diligence and an efficient and lively organisation. It is also the regional symbol of craftsmen and their work.
The family firm has been situated in Jarnac and they have occupied a splendid chateau near the town centre close to the Charente. This is also where the cellars and offices are still located. Five generations of Royer family have run the firm, but since it was taken over in the 1990’s the quality of the cognacs have not improved and their range is now entirely blended. The firm ships over two hundred thousand cases of cognac to many countries as well as more than two hundred and sixty thousand cases of brandy and a further one hundred and thirty thousand cases of vodka and liqueurs. With a turnover of more than 30 million euros and more than eighty employees, cognac has ceased to be a speciality and what was once a great cognac house has now moved into the realms of globalisation. Their young cognacs are mixed with caramel and sugar syrups.
Ragnaud Sabourin is the only known producer of cognac who still uses all eight permitted grape varieties. The main grape variety used in Cognac is the Ugni Blanc, which represents about 95% of all grapes used. Colombard and the old pre-phylloxera grape Folle Blanche are the second most used grapes, representing around 4.5% of the cognac mix - so the remaining five varieties are only very rarely known, let alone seen. They are Jurançon, Blanc Ramé, Bouilleaux, Chalosse and the oldest of all the Balzac blanc.
Many cognac professionals will advise that the grape variety does not make a significant difference to the cognac. That may be true of the highly blended products used for producing VSOP, XO, etc but it is not the case with Ragnaud Sabourin who produce many single estate cognacs with some wonderful characteristics.
The firm came to prominence around the middle of the last century and it is no coincidence that they share the same name as Raymond Ragnaud, just up the road in Ambleville (the connection ended around the middle of the last century with a considerable level of family acrimony). The firm was started by one Gaston Briand, who was president of the growers association and succeeded by his daughter and son in law, Denise and Marcel Ragnaud and their daughter Annie and son in law Paul Sabourin.
The estate is more than 50 hectares deep in the heart of Grande Champagne and produces some of the loveliest cognacs - deep floral and fruity aromas with a classic and deep woody style. All the cognacs produced are aged for longer than the minimum periods. The firm claim that there is no blending of crus, just simply a single appellation of ageing that has provided its reputation for their cognacs fine quality. Whatever they say, their cognacs are exceptional in quality and are some of the most complex light cognacs we have tasted.
Martell is the oldest of Cognacs big four firms. It was started in 1715 when Jean Martell arrived in Cognac from his native Jersey, which was in those days a centre for smuggling brandy into Britain. He married (in succession), the daughters of two Cognac merchants. The second, Rachel Lallemand, was descended from one of the earliest brandy merchants in Cognac. After Jeans death she carried on under the name of Verve Martell-Lallemand. Martell became the leading firm in Cognac during the revolutionary period and is still one of the two largest.
In the mid 19th century control passed to the Firino-Martells who had married into the Martell family and continued to control the business for 150 years. The firm reasserted its dominance after the phylloxera and built magnificent new distilleries, many warehouses and bottling lines. The firm flourished by hard, painstaking selling of its brandies to pubs and cafés in France and Britain (incidentally, Martell pioneered the half bottle, still to be found in many homes today).
In 1922 the Martell’s struck up a 25 year deal with Maurice Hennessy, who were friends. This helped the firm gain dominance in Britain and Hennessy in Ireland. Martell also built up considerable land holdings in Grande and Petite Champagne as well as the Borderies, from where much of its wines originate. In all they had about 270 hectares, but today only a small percentage of that is still owned by the company, producing only one or two percent of their needs.
The firm are firm believers in blending and buy their brandies from around 2600 producers in the main cru’s. The cognacs are stored mainly in Tronçais oak - it is a more tightly grained wood which allows them to mature more slowly. It is often well suited to cognacs from the Borderies, much preferred by Martell, and providing a nutty style to their cognacs.