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The Cognac Process – Part 14. Modern Times

By the mid-20th century the ‘big two’ cognac houses had become the ‘big four’ with Courvoisier and Remy Martin selling substantial quantities to both the Asian and American markets.  Demand from major cities such as Detroit and Cleveland really helped to boost sales. Remy focused their appeal on cognacs made in the Champagnes but across the board, the growers were not ready for the inevitable surge in demand. Vast new vineyards were planted and as viticulture techniques continued to improve, production levels increased dramatically.  Even so, keeping up with the large volume demand from the big houses was challenging for the Cognaçaise.  Eventually, it was the development of the Chinese markets that saved the day as demand moved towards smaller volumes of more expensive cognacs.  Hennessy had pioneered this market before the Second World War with their XO cognacs but now other houses followed suit.

As a consequence of the growth of the larger houses some of the smaller growers and distillers chose to develop their own styles.  This has enabled specialised houses, such as Hermitage Cognacs, to identify and sell the finest, single estate cognacs from the top cognac crus such as our Hermitage 1975.

The Cognac Process – Part 13. Post War Prosperity

The end of World War II ushered in nearly 30 years of increasing cognac prosperity. The body that was formed to monitor the quality and movement of cognac was known as the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac (BNIC). It managed to greatly improve the relationship between growers and merchants and was, in turn, lubricated by their prosperity. The biggest changes came in the structure of the major firms. In 1947 Martell and Hennessy did not renew their partnership agreement. Martell remained independent and Hennessy merged with the Champagne firm, Moet & Chandon.  In 1971 these ‘Big Two’ houses became the ‘Big Four’ as Courvoisier and Remy Martin expanded – Courvoisier, which was established in the late 18th Century, had just been taken over by Hiram Walker and Remy Martin had grown rapidly without external input specialising, at the time, in Grande Champagne cognacs.

Now it is Hermitage Cognacs that specialise in cognacs from the premier cru.

The Cognac Process – Part 12. Establishment of a Cognac Regulatory Body

Many of the established growers and merchants recognised the need to establish a body to control and manage the quality and sale of cognac. Much of the preliminary work had been done before the Second World War and a great deal of de facto independence from the government had already been gained – the Charente region had been divided into crus in 1909, as a natural consequence of the system of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée,  and  the geographical areas had been delimited by government in 1936. During the War a wine and eaux de vie bureau was created to try and protect the cognac stocks.  After the War this organisation was made official and The Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac or BNIC was established.  The existing Station Viticole’s cognac research laboratories were also placed under its wing and so the BNIC’s role of managing every aspect of cognac production and sales began.

Our Hermitage 1947 is a classic vintage cognac from the post war era, produced at the outset of the BNIC’s establishment.

The Cognac Process – Part 11. 100 Years of Market Growth

The Phylloxera outbreak in 1872 was, in hindsight, the best thing which could have happened to the growers and viniculturists in the Charente. Instead of just producing cognacs for blending, they had to start thinking about what their customers wanted.  At the turn of the 20th century the plague had left many of the growers in a desperate state.  Some of the more financially better off and larger merchants were therefore able to buy land at knock down prices; around one tenth of 19th century values.  Cheap land meant that the vineyards could be replanted with the specially imported American root stock that was Phylloxera resistant.  As a consequence, the quality of the wines produced improved.  Things started to look rosy for the growers but after the First World War, prohibition in the United States slowed everything down again. In 1922, as the decline continued, Martell and Hennessy formed a pact, taking shares in each others firms and effectively carved up the world’s major markets between them.

During the First World War, Hennessy and a well-known grower, Pierre Verneuil, worked together to form what is today cognac’s governing body, the Bureau National Interproffessionel du Cognac (BNIC).  The regulations that the BNIC now bring to the cognac industry protect the distillers and help produce quality cognac.

The Cognac Process – Part 10. 19th Century March for Perfection

One of the biggest changes in cognac production in the 19th century was the change of grape from the Folle, or Folle Blanche as we know it today, to the Ugni Blanc after the Phylloxera outbreak in 1872. The Cognaçais were, in effect, forced to try and understand their viniculture on a more sophisticated level. By controlling crop levels, so as to reduce stress on the new roots, controlling disease and the timing of harvesting the grapes, the quality of the wine improved and therefore the cognac.

The clearer thinking on viniculture also rubbed off on the viticulture and the ageing process. The introduction of wine warmers, different still shapes and sizes, time controls on the grapes before pressing to avoid bacteria and the use of lees to add flavour were all part of the rapid learning which added more attractive qualities to the spirit. As skill and knowledge of the distillation process improved, so too did understanding of the ageing process.  Cellar masters began learning about the effect of the barrels on the quality of the cognac.  Barrels could be made from different oaks, in various sizes and perhaps most importantly, if stored in damp cellars spirit migration could be controlled.

The Cognac Process – Part 9. Prohibition and the war years

Replanting after the Phylloxera outbreak did not restore prosperity.  After the First World War came Prohibition in the United States and crippling state duties in Britain as well as State monopolies in Canada and Norway.  Things became so bad that in 1922 Hennessy and Martell signed a pact to work together, effectively carving up the world markets between them.

Ironically, it was the German occupation of 1940-45 which provoked the springboard for post war cooperation and prosperity.  Cognac was occupied during the war but the commander was a sympathetic figure named Herr Klaebisch.  He had been in school in Cognac before the war and his family had controlled the well-known firm of Merkow.  Klaebisch tried to minimise the disturbance to the Cognaçais, although they had to supply the Germans with enormous quantities of brandy and Klaebisch’s boss, Rudolf Hess, was known to be particularly fond of good cognac. But the Cognaçais cheated by shipping a lot of spirits made from root vegetables, not dissimilar to the Irish Poteen.  This preserved their valuable stocks of real and very old cognacs which is why we are still able to obtain many today.

The Cognac Process – Part 8. The dreaded Phylloxera

The prosperity from the trade with Britain in the late 1800s was sadly doomed as production rose even faster than consumption. Thousands of acres were planted with vines to supply the anticipated surge in sales.  This threatened overproduction was however, overtaken by an even worse disaster. In the early 1870s the infamous louse, Phylloxera Vastatrix, arrived in the Charente and by the end of the decade it had spread to the whole of the region. The plague ended the 100 years of independence by the growers and their stocks grew even more valuable as the devastation spread. The growers tried to treat the vines with chemicals and when Phylloxera-resistant stock was found in America in the late 1880s, they simply did not have enough money to buy the new plants.  So it was the better off merchants who financed some of those in trouble, replanted their vineyards with the new grafted stock and helped with advice and support. But they too had their troubles with fraudulent production devaluing the name of cognac. Eventually this battle was won in 1905 when legislation introduced the golden certificate, Acquit Jaune d’Or, which must accompany every shipment of cognac on the highway, even today.

Over the years we have collected a sizeable stock of pre-phylloxera cognacs.  Our current range can be found here.

The Cognac Process – Part 7. A Change in the Law

In the decades after the fall of Napoleon, newly rich merchants like Messrs Otard and Dupuy built large houses in the woods around the town and with the growth of other firms, such as Martell and Hennessy, the town expanded beyond its walls. It was these big houses who set the price at which the growers would sell their brandies to the merchants who formed hereditary relationships with the growers. They were bound not by contracts but by the habit of regular trading between them in an agreed form and style of cognac. In 1857 the merchant’s position was strengthened by a new law which allowed them to register their trademarks and thus assert their own individuality. Previously most cognacs, especially those sold in Britain, had been sold under the names of the merchants who had imported them in cask, rather as buyers’ own brands are today.

The reduction of customs duties in 1861-62 heralded a brief period of glory when sales tripled in 15 years to nearly 65 million bottles annually. Britain was the biggest market but everywhere in the world, from Latin America to Tsarist Russia, cognac became the most fashionable of spirits and the Charente became the biggest vineyard in France.

The Cognac Process – Part 6. Revolution – what revolution?

In 1789 the locals around Cognac were preoccupied, not with the matters in Paris with the ancien régime but with the frost of the previous winter.  It would have reduced the townspeople to near starvation had it not been for the charitable intervention of some of the wealthier local merchants, notably M Martell. As relative outsiders to the French feudal ways, the Cognaçais were largely unaffected by the Revolution.  During the Napoleonic period they were hurt only by occasional attempts to interfere with trade with Britain which had become their best market.  As a result, Martell and Hennessy were able to gain supremacy, a position they have never subsequently lost.  The defeat of Napoleon in 1815 was a great relief to the region. The town was able to grow beyond its medieval walls for the first time and new rich merchants such as Otard and Dupuy built large houses in the woods around the new town. Even so, Martell and Hennessy retained their pre-eminence and it was they who crucially set the price at which the growers would sell their brandies to the merchants; a pattern that has been continued by the big houses to this day.

The Cognac Process – Part 5. Tradition and Quality

The tradition of quality was slow to develop but was largely in keeping with the local temperament. During the 17th century the Champagnes, known today as the best growing areas, improved steadily and just as the region had produced the best grain, so too they produced the best grapes. By the time of the French Revolution the last areas devoted to growing grapes (the Borderies, an area of land just north of Cognac) had succumbed. Their sweet wines were much prized but a terrible frost in 1766 enabled their rivals in Sauternes, south of Bordeaux, to replace their offerings.

Even before the French Revolution the Cognaçais were not unduly hampered by feudal restrictions. After the death of King Francis 1 the Cognaçais were affected by religious wars. Jarnac, a few miles upstream, was a centre for Protestants, the scene of a crucial battle and later of Protestant redoubt which provided a natural link with the Huguenot mafia, so important for European trade. Even in the 18th century when the Protestants were not officially tolerated, the Cognaçais refused to help the authorities search them out. The region had become prosperous and socially homogeneous.