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Learning about Brandy

  • The Importance of Barrel Age on a Cognac Label

    Barrel AgeThe growth in generic cognac sales over the last quarter of a century has distracted from the single most important criteria in determining the quality of a cognac. The age, or to be precise, the barrel age of a cognac is the most important element of cognac quality, yet we so often fail to ask the age question. Currently there simply is not enough information on the bottle to make it interesting. Compare that to a single malt whisky where the label tells us its barrel age, who made it and even what barrel it was stored in. It is little wonder that single malts outsell cognacs by a factor of 10 : 1.

    Sure, there are other factors that affect cognac quality, the cru, shape and size of the still, the cut, variations in the actual distillation, the size and age of the barrels, the storage conditions . . . . . . the list goes on but the longer the cognac is allowed to sleep in the barrel, the better it is. The provenance is the one piece of information that tells us more about its quality than all the other cognac features put together.

    Of course, where the cognac was made and who made it is important. However, even cognac that has been made in the top cru by a family producer, will lose its identity once it has been sold to one of the big houses as they have to blend hundreds of different cognacs together to meet their customer demands. Fortunately, there are still family firms who sell their cognacs independently. These single estate producers are much more likely to provide cognacs that have aged for more than the minimum number of years and to have kept their best and oldest in the family cellars.

    Modern wine and spirit retailers have little knowledge of cognac. It is not their fault. They simply have not been told and there is no information on the bottle to encourage questions. Many retailers consider themselves as mainly wine retailers, yet if they were to learn about cognac and actively sell it, it would provide them with a much more interesting sale (there are so many different processes it goes through over a much longer ageing process than any other alcoholic beverage). Values and margins are higher, and the story is more involved and interesting than wine. After all, cognac starts as a wine.

    So, you may say “Where do we go from here?” Supermarket shelves are stocked with generic blends which do not sell and if you ask for a brandy in a hotel or bar you are offered a VS, VSOP or XO. Growers and producers must make their cognacs and labels more interesting by keeping some of their cognacs back from the big houses to sell independently with age statements.

    But perhaps the best idea is to draw up a long term plan and ask where producers want to be in the future; struggling to get a decent price from the big houses or offering what their forefathers would have liked, unique cognacs that have been properly aged and recognised for the unique flavours and styles that they have spent generations in perfecting. Not only will they get recognition for their cognacs, but they will get much more money for them as well. Cognacs are complex and have interesting flavours that have developed in their barrels over decades. This is why cognac is the King of all Spirits.

  • Cognac Grapes and Wine Grapes

    cognac grapesMost people associated with cognac are aware that we make it principally with a single grape variety, the Ugni Blanc.  Indeed, more than 80% of all cognacs are made only with this grape.  However, few people are aware that this is probably the world’s most widely planted grape due largely to its big harvests and reliability against disease and adverse weather conditions.  It produces fresh, fruity, very acidic and quite unremarkable wines often used as a base wine in blends.  The Ugni Blanc is also known in France as the St Emellion du Charente but in the rest of Europe it is best known as the Trebbiano Toscano.

    The Colombard is perhaps one of the more interesting grapes also used in cognac production. It was originally planted in South Africa and known as Colombar and is an offspring of the Chennin Blanc. Some of its many synonyms include Bardino Blanc, Bon Blanc, Chabrier Vert, Colombeau, Gros Blanc Roux, Red Tendre and Quene Vert.

    The last remaining of the old varieties still used in cognac is the Folle Blanche.  Today, it is only found in France in the regions of The Charente and Gascony but can also be found in Basque country under the name of Mune Mahatsa.  It is, like the Ugni Blanc, acidic and quite unremarkable as a wine.

    Although rarely seen these days, the other grape varieties that are permitted to be used in cognac production are Juranҫon, Blanc Ramé, Bouilleaux, Balzac Blanc and Chalosse.

  • Bottle Sizes

    Bottle SizesThere is often confusion over cognac bottle sizes. In fairness, there are many different shapes available today which generally hold recognized and approved quantities. But this hasn’t always been the case.  Until the middle of the last century spirit measurements were in imperial quantities and measured in fluid ounces. This was largely because most suppliers were from Britain and even the big cognac houses, such as Hennessy and Martell, had British controlling interest.

    In the mid-twentieth century though, it all changed to metric so that the UK could align itself with the rest of Europe.  The 70cl bottle was born and became the accepted size except in America, where the wine bottle quantity of 75cl was adopted. If this wasn’t confusing enough, a magnum of cognac became the same as a magnum of wine (150cl).  So, although a magnum of wine is twice the size of a wine bottle, this does not apply for spirits.    Further variations occur when cognac houses use handmade bottles (which vary very slightly in size) for special presentations.  These should all contain 70cl but, in order to keep fill levels consistent, some lucky customers may actually receive 1 or 2cl more.

    If climatic conditions change, fill levels become another variant.  Cognac, like other spirits, expands and contracts according to temperature.  Alcohol and bottle quantities are initially measured at 20 degrees Celsius, but on a hot day, the level in a full bottle may appear higher than one that has been stored in a cool place.

    In France, the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), the controlling body of cognac, allows the following sizes: 10cl, 20cl, 35cl, 50cl, 70cl, 75cl (America only), 100cl and 150cl. However, some much older bottles that we have seen contain half pints, pints, imperial quarts, imperial half gallons, imperial three-quarter gallons and 25 quarts (storage jars).  So, if you want to size up a bottle, it’s probably best to check the quantity, you can usually find it in the bottom corner of the front label!

  • Sealing Your Bottle of Cognac

    Sealing cognacFor more than a thousand years cork has been used for sealing wine and spirit bottles. It is a natural product harvested from cork trees which regrow their bark every nine years.  It has been revered by traditional wine makers for centuries as the ideal seal.  However, the cork seal is not quite so ideal for use with spirits as they can, over the years, degrade the cork.  Eventually the cork will turn black and the exposed areas will become so damaged, the cork will drop into the bottle. It is for this reason that cognac producers always advise that bottles should never be laid down for storage.  Corks are also porous and allow tiny quantities of air and spirit to pass through, thereby aiding evaporation. Cognac producers have long recognised this problem so today the quality of the seal is much improved.  This has been achieved partly by the introduction of semi synthetic cork mixtures and partly by encasing the top of the bottle with some form of capping material.

    In the early twentieth century tin caps were used.  This helped protect the cork and seal the bottle further.  These caps had the added advantage of allowing producers to print their name on the top as a form of advertising.  Today, tin caps have been replaced with light alloy or plastic.  Plastic or wooden topped corks are also now used as they make the corks much easier to remove and replace.

    Top quality and old vintage cognacs are often purchased by collectors and investors.  To maintain the value of each, a complete seal is very important. Wax sealing is a good answer to this problem and one that has been used for over a hundred years, but sometimes the wax can become brittle and break off with careless handling. More modern waxes and the use of semi-synthetic corks now provide much greater stability of the cork and increase the long-term quality of the cognac in the bottle. Collectors of old vintage cognacs that have been bottled in the last quarter of a century can now expect the cognacs to remain in perfect condition for a much greater length of time.

  • Armagnac Aromas Depicted in a Seashell

    Armagnac aromasFor many years we have been using a very impressive aroma wheel, set up by the BNIC, to help us describe the different aromas detected in cognac. I suppose it was inevitable that the Armagnaҫais would come up with something similar.  So, instead of a wheel, armagnac aromas have been described in a round seashell with a collection of fruit, herbs, nuts and flowers floating mysteriously from the shell aperture. There are a number of other surprises too since the shell is split into three sections. The inner section denotes a range of ages, 4, 10 and 20 years, and linked to each a number of general types of aroma such as heat, cooking, plants, woods, animal and rancio.  The outer section lists detailed aromas associated with each.  Some are familiar smells such as dates, cedar, cinnamon and plums but those of ether, pharmacy, soap, resin, sap, stables and varnish are much less appealing. I’m not sure how much I would be tempted to taste an armagnac exhibiting any of these aromas!

    Even more surprisingly, the chart seems to suggest that certain aromas are linked to armagnac ages.  Prune is perhaps the most common aroma and taste found in armagnac but it only appears on the chart alongside the oldest. The concept is good, but come on BNIA, you can do better than this.

  • Cognac Classifications on Bottle Labels

    cognac classificationsThere are all manner of cognac classifications found on bottle labels, but what do they actually mean?  Most of the generic terms below describe cognacs made by blending hundreds, or even thousands, of cognacs together to produce a vast quantity of a homogenous product for sale on supermarket shelves.  As demand increases younger and younger cognacs are used in these blends so sugar syrup and caramel colouring are added to obscure the fieriness on the tongue and lack of appealing colour.

    VS stands for Very Special.  Also known as *** (3-star) or Premium, the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend must be at least 2 years old.  Many of these younger cognacs are purchased by the ‘Big Four’ companies in order to meet their ever-growing demand.

    VSOP stands for Very Superior Old Pale.   The youngest eau-de-vie in the blend must be at least 4 years old.  The colour of cognac deepens the longer it stays in contact with the wooden barrel.  Although described as ‘Pale’ these young cognacs can also have caramel added which provides a red glow.

    Napoleon.  Named after the very famous Frenchman, Napoleon Boneparte, the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend must be at least 6 years old.  Up until April 2018, this was also the age of XO.

    XO stands for Extra Old and must be aged for a minimum of 10 years.  Although not official terms, Extra and Hors d’Age are often used to describe cognac of XO quality and age.  Some small producers sell XO that maybe up to 20 years old but, it is unlikely that this will be specified on the label.

    XXO is a new classification that stands for Extra, Extra Old and the youngest eaux-de-vie in any blend must have been aged for a minimum of 14 years.

    Other terms such as Reserve, Très Vieille and Heritage are often used to describe blends that are much older than XXO although none are official nomenclature.  They could be 15 or 50 years old.

    So you can see that it is very difficult to decipher exactly what is in your bottle of cognac with a generic label as only minimum ages are specified and they are highly blended.  Sometimes Single Estate is used to describe a cognac where all the eau de vie used has come from the same estate.  In this case, far fewer cognacs will be used to make the blend so the flavour should be more individual.

    cognac classificationsCognacs with Age Statements (eg 30 Year Old) are more precise as they list the youngest eau de vie used and may also comprise a blend of just one or two cognacs or indeed be Single Cask (unblended).  Vintage Cognacs also give you specific information.  The year on the label describes the year the grapes were harvested.  The cognac will be aged to perfection before being taken out of the wood and placed in glass when it will no longer mature.  Most vintage cognacs will tell you when the cognac was bottled and therefore, for how long it was aged.  This is the category that has the most information available to you, the customer.  They are expensive to produce as the casks are strictly controlled throughout the decades of ageing.  However, you can be sure that you are drinking cognac that has been matured to its optimum level, is unblended and has an unbelievable variation of aromas and flavours.  We call this complexity.

  • Should All Wine Brandies Be Regulated?

    Wine BrandiesThe term “brandy” refers to a spirit distilled from a fruit.  This includes armagnac and cognac as well as a host of other wine brandies made from the indigenous fruits of the region from whence they come. The rigorous controls produced by the various regulatory bodies of each of the two main French wine brandies mean that their products will always be of a recognised quality.  Unfortunately, this is not the case with grape brandies which have no rules to follow.  Most are distilled on large commercial stills from unspecified grape varieties and sold after as little as one year’s ageing.  In addition, their distillation range is not controlled, any grapes can be used and, in some cases, only the residue of the skins, pips and leftover flesh is distilled.

    Many years ago, brandies were made in the wine producing regions, around Bordeaux and Saintonge, where wines were plentiful. The resulting wine brandies were of lower strengths, as the grape varieties used lacked acidity, and they failed to meet with the approval of the traders buying for their European customers. Only the wine brandies from the Charente, ie cognacs, were of an acceptable standard as rigorous quality controls were already in place.  Over the years these regulations have been continued to be refined to meet increasingly higher standards.

    It is right, therefore, that Lucien Bernard, in his discussion with Vinexpo News recently, seeks to create standards that enable us to compare the quality of all wine brandies. We see in the marketplace many cheap grape brandies poorly made with all manner of different grapes, methods of production and storage. We also see some brandies being passed off as cognacs.  This is particularly true in China where counterfeit brandy is shipped in volume, mixed with small quantities of cognac and falsely labelled with respectable cognac producer’s names.  Sadly, we will never be able to control these rogues and it is down to local governments to bring them under control.

    However, there are also some very fine brandies on the market. Some of the Spanish brandies, made under the Solera system, a method which allows for the topping up of barrels which may have contained their famous sherries, are superb. Other good brandies, such as those from Greece and America and the Italian Grappa, also have production controls. Controls on the production of wine brandies is therefore both necessary and desirable as it will improve the quality of the brandies produced and reduce the rogues who seek to cash in on the market that deserves so much better. I’m with you Lucien!

  • Sediment in Cognac

    The cognac industry is quite touchy about the appearance of a bottle of cognac.  In the world of high value spirits, sediment is not desirable as it can either lie on the bottom of the bottle or cause cloudiness of the spirit. But is it really a problem?

    sediment in cognacWell, we all understand that cognac is aged in oak casks.  Initially it is put into new ones and then, after about 6 – 12 months, it is transferred into old ones.  When the casks are new, they are toasted to destroy the harmful tannins in the wood.  At this stage, only the good tannins are available in the wood allowing the cognacs to develop their colour and flavour. Many cognac producers will ask for a specific grade of barrel toasting to suit the desired quality of the finished cognac. Repeated use of the new barrels means that over time, they will become old barrels and so used for long term cognac storage.  However, as the tannins in the wood are used up, the inside surface of the barrel will gradually degrade leaving a cloudiness in the cognac.

    The level of cloudiness will depend on the age and size of the barrel, the type of oak used and the level of toasting initially agreed between the cooper and distiller. The strength and cru of the cognac are also factors.  Cognacs produced from the Champagnes mature more slowly than those from other crus.  The spirit remains stronger in the barrel for longer, producing a cloudy effect and in some cases, containing minute particles from inside the barrel.  As a result, older cognacs, which may have been in their barrels for 40, 50, 60 or more years, may have levels of sediment in them and must be filtered. In most cases, sediment appears at the tail end of the barrel and because it can be very fine, can be missed when bottling. No producer wants to see sediment of any level in his cognac although it is harmless and will gradually settle in the bottle over time.

    When filtering is used to remove the sediment it can be costly as it is slow and some of the cognac is lost during the process. All cognacs do have a minute solids content which is not visible but is part of the cognac.  But remember, the longer it has been in the barrel the finer the cognac will be!

  • The Effect of the Cellar on Ageing Cognac

    CellarsWe place much emphasis on the ageing of cognacs as it is critically important that they gain the maximum maturity whilst in their oak casks. We have spoken before about the barrel size, shape and type of oak but the actual cellar chosen for storage is also vitally important.  The conditions of storage can make, or break, a fine cognac.

    French cellars used to house cognac are typically quite small, perhaps only housing a couple of hundred barrels.  Most are also old and damp, often old stores or farm buildings, perhaps old chapels or buildings that would normally be thought unsuitable for storing such valuable spirits.  Many do not even have a proper floor, just the earth, perhaps where animals have been kept during cold winter months, but it is these old buildings that provide the finest conditions for cognac ageing.

    Good barrel ageing extracts the useful substances from the oak barrels. Tannins form around 5% of these substances but others, including lignin and hemi-cellulose, are also useful.  As these substances gradually dissolve in the maturing spirit, they impart the agreeable sweetness found in some older cognacs. It is therefore very important that cognac spends as much time as possible in contact with these useful elements found in the wood.

    There is of course a limit as to how long these substances last in the relatively neutral oak barrels so it is important to ensure that the barrels are stored in the finest conditions.  The humidity of the old stores in the Charente ensures that the barrels are largely damp on the outside.  This prevents the smaller spirit molecules from escaping and retains them in the oak for a longer period.

    An agreeable climate in the Charente provides more suitable ambient storage in these old stores than in purpose made warehouses on other shores.  ‘Early landed’ cognacs are brandies which are stored in bonded warehouses abroad and have customs documents proving when they were made.  The provision of this additional storage may be an advantage but both the length of time the cognacs are stored and the conditions in bond may fall some way short of ideal.  Only by constant, expert monitoring can it be established when a cognac is ready for bottling and indeed if the storage conditions have allowed the cognac to gain the full benefit from the barrel.

    We hear of all sorts of ideas for brandy storage but whatever is happening on the outside of the barrel, there are only two factors which affect ageing inside: temperature and humidity.  It is the reaction of the old oak barrel and the cognac that will provide us with the finest cognacs.  It therefore seems strange to me that some brandy houses want to age their cognacs in unusual places. A rather well-known Norwegian house has chosen to age a barrel of their 40 year old cognac in a fort in the mouth of the Charentes for a few months “to see how maritime weather affects the finished product”. If the barrels are stored correctly and tightly sealed with a cork which is waxed over to prevent the ingress of air, what difference will the maritime weather make?

  • Cognac As A Digestif

    digestifBrandy has long been used for medicinal purposes, both internally and externally. We read that it was often used in Nelson’s Navy as an antiseptic, sometimes as an anaesthetic and even before then, as a digestif to sooth the effects of eating too much or too rich food.

    A ‘digestif’, taken after a meal to aid digestion, is widely regarded as a means of reducing discomfort. Indeed, good cognac, if consumed in moderation has many health benefits.  Cognac contains antioxidants which can lower cholesterol levels in the blood, thus helping to keep the heart healthy.  According to Lybrate, the online medical service, cognac contains polyphenol compounds which help to reduce inflammation in the cardiovascular system resulting in lower blood pressure. Unlike other alcoholic drinks, pure cognac such as Hermitage, does not contain any carbohydrates.  It does not cause bloating and can be safely enjoyed, knowing that it cannot be converted into fat. However, the same cannot be said of commercially blended generic brandies which contain additives, such as sugar.  It has been proven that cognac also has excellent anti-inflammatory properties making it effective in relieving respiratory issues and improving heart health. The absence of carbohydrates can help in weight management and its antioxidant properties are said to assist anti-ageing.

    When Admiral Lord Nelson was killed at Trafalgar they brought him home in a barrel of brandy, I still give him a wink as I go past his column in Trafalgar Square and I will now ensure I take a small measure as my digestif every evening.

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