While Baijiu is the undisputed national spirit of China, cognac is the drink of choice for the country’s elite imbiber. This tradition started about 200 years ago when Shanghai became a treaty port and some of the first companies to take advantage, were cognac producers. In traditional China, drinking, eating, and socialising are all closely tied together and the tendency is for cognac to be consumed neat and in large quantities. There is frequent toasting during which everyone participating is expected to empty their glass or else they will lose face. Cognac isn’t served in snifters, but in small shot glasses or teacups and a Chinese saying directs that it should be drunk ‘as if it were water’. In general, it is the ‘old school’ Chinese who have made it such a popular drink. They are traditional in their habits and interests, taking long, slow lunchtimes and playing Mahjong. The Chinese also care as much about the packaging as they do the liquid inside the bottle. The revealing of a very elaborate and fancy-looking bottle shows respect for their relationships with a group. With cognac now ingrained into so many aspects of their culture, it is not surprising that this French product has become such a mainstay of Chinese life. However, if this enormous demand is to be sustained, the younger generations need to get as excited about the spirit as the old-school set, and that’s a problem that has yet to be solved.
The History of Cognac
Did you know it was National Cognac Day last month? A relatively new addition to the annual calendar and originating in the United States of America, it is celebrated on the 4th of June. As with all popular, American activities it has become a worldwide event, so mark it in your diary ready for 2020! This year Jeanne O’Brien Coffey came up with 5 reasons to drink cognac and we pretty much agree with all of them:
1. It takes a lot of time and money to produce fine cognac which is why it tastes so good. 2. There is a cognac for every palate. 3. It’s cocktail-friendly (but we do not recommend using our vintages for this)! 4. It pairs with everything and can be drunk at any time of the day. 5. It has a unique flavour profile with a myriad of flavours in a single bottle.
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.
M Restaurant has announced that it is to sell its bottle of 1894 cognac for over £6000 for a 25ml shot - that's the price of cognac history. The bottle is reputedly the first blend ever produced by Jean Fillioux, who founded the Fillioux cognac house. Snippets of history such as this are often priceless in the cognac world. Over the years we have sold many such historically important bottles to luxury hotels in London. The ultimate in super-premium spirits, these too have been sold by the measure for thousands of pounds. But to command this sort of price tag, each must have a story attached. Many were produced in the pre-Phylloxera era (pre 1875), when cognac production was considerably different from today, and produced by old family firms that may no longer be in existence. The vintage may also be attached to an event in history, such as the beginning of the French revolution in 1789, which adds to its interest and value. Selling very old cognac is a proven way of increasing bar takings but beware, establishing authenticity is a specialist business; we have been undertaking it for decades.
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.
On a recent trip to the Charente I took this picture of a rose bush at the end of a row of cognac vines. This placement of rose bushes has created considerable interest from our followers. I therefore thought it would make an ideal Technical Topic.
Originally, roses were planted in vineyards as an early warning system. Roses and grapevines typically have the same type of soil and sun requirements. In addition, both are prone to the infestation of a fungus known as powdery mildew. If this fungus appeared on the roses, the vines were sprayed with sulphur to prevent the grapes from succumbing. Downy mildew is another fungus that attacks the green parts of the grape vine. If detected on a rose bush the grape vines were immediately sprayed with a solution of copper sulphate and lime. Another historic reason for the planting of roses dates to when they used horses to pull the plough. The rose's thorns were thought to deter the horse from hitting the post at the end of the row.
Nowadays, there isn’t a horse and plough in sight. Most vineyards use modern methods to monitor carefully the soil and health of the vines. Rose bushes are no longer required, so why are they still in evidence? Cynics will tell you that they attract tourists who enjoy seeing them in situ. Others will suggest they are purely aesthetic or that they provide food for bees and habitat for insects beneficial to the vineyard. Some believe that roses are tastier than grape vines to pests, so they draw these damaging insects away from the grapes.
Whatever the reasons for planting roses in the vineyards today, you must admit that they add to the milieu and create a sense of nostalgia. These are things of which the Cognaçaise are immensely proud.
During the 18th Century smuggling in Cornwall was a way of life. It is said that at its peak, more than 500,000 gallons of French brandy was smuggled in per year. This equates to more than two million bottles. Whole families were involved and the number of smugglers far outweighed the number of Excise men stationed along the coast to stop them. There was a strong incentive to continue since the cost of buying brandy legally, with Alcohol Duty paid, was five times greater than the cost of the contraband. It was often the case that even the judiciary, doctors and priests were in on the act as they provided the funds.
Most of the brandy came from the ports of La Rochelle and Rochefort and illegal shipments arrived regularly at Falmouth coves such as Helford, Gweek, Porthallow and Godrevy. The French were still reducing their wines for easier transportation to England, Ireland and Holland. The quantity of brandy shipped to England did much to support the French brandy industry during the 18th Century. However, by the early 1800s Customs had started to gain a level of control. Some smugglers were apprehended but juries were often reluctant to convict as many had connections with the trade. Even by the mid 19th Century, £millions were still being lost due to the Cornish smugglers evading tax.
Alcohol Duty is of course an important part of the British tax system and is calculated today at a cost of £28.74 per litre of pure spirit. A 70cl bottle of brandy at 40% alcohol by volume (abv) therefore attracts a duty of £8.05. Shipments of cognac to the UK currently stand at more than 12 million bottles per annum and the duty collected is around £100 million.
It goes without saying that smuggling today is vastly reduced. The sale of illegal spirits does much harm to our industry. All shipments of spirits entering the country must be accompanied by documentation stating the quantity of pure spirit they contain. Duty must be paid when the alcohol enters the country, unless it is to be stored in a bonded warehouse. In this case, Duty is paid when the alcohol is taken out of the bond. All UK companies dealing in wines and spirits must be registered with HM Customs.
Cognac is produced in the delimited region of France known as the Charente and Charente Maritime which borders on the Atlantic Ocean. To the west the region borders on the Gironde estuary and includes the islands of Ré and Oléron and to the east it neighbours the region of Angoulême and the foothills of the Massif Central. The production area also covers some areas of the Dordogne and Deux Sévres. The total area of vineyards currently covers 79,636 hectares (ha), close to 200,000 acres, of which 95% is used for cognac production. The Cognac production area was delimited by decree of 1st May 1909 and ratified by decree in 1938. Cognac can only be described as such if it has been made in one of the cognac crus within this region.
There are six growing areas (crus) which are based on the soil features as described by the geologist Henri Coquand in 1860 and ratified by decree in 1938. They are Grande Champagne the second smallest cru with a growing area of 13,159ha, Petite Champagne with 15,246ha and Borderies the smallest cru with 3,987ha of vines. Fins Bois has 31,001 ha of vines, Bons Bois 9,308ha and Bois Ordinaires 1,100ha which includes the islands of Ré and Oléron.
The two top cognac crus, Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, have clayey, chalky thin soils on top of soft chalk from the Cretaceous. The limestone content from the surface down is said to be in excess of 60% in some places. Montmorillonite clay provides fertile soil with good structure and a high water reserve. Wines from these crus provide light, floral cognacs which require long ageing in casks to achieve full maturity. It is generally regarded that the cognacs from Petite Champagne are similar to those from Grande Champagne but with a little less finesse.
Cognacs from the Borderies grow on soil containing more clay and flint. These cognacs are generally nuttier and often have toffee flavours with tones of violets on the nose. They age somewhat quicker than those from the Champagnes and can often be at their optimum quality in as little as 30 - 40 years.
Fins Bois and Bons Bois effectively surround the Champagnes and Borderies. The soil is made up of heavy, clayey, chalky soil with many stones originating back to the Jurassic period. Bons Bois soil also has a high sandy content. Many other crops grow in the Bois along with pine forests and chestnuts. Modern cognac blends contain substantial quantities of Fins Bois and even some Bons Bois can be found in the bigger blends.
The lowest cru of Cognac is Bois Ordinaire and cognacs from here are said to have “the taste of the sea”. Much of the eaux de vie from here is used for making liqueurs containing macerated fruits; the cognacs are unspectacular.
All Hermitage Cognacs are individually selected for their quality and flavour. Most come from Grande Champagne but there are some notable exceptions from the Petite Champagne and Borderies crus. Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education page.
One of the most highly regarded names in the cognac industry, Max Cointreau, died on 19 October at his home in Gensac la Pallue, near Cognac aged 94. Max was joint managing director of Frapin, in the heart of Grande Champagne, having started his career in 1942 presiding over the Domaine Château de Fontpinot.
In the early days, his firm worked closely with Remy Martin supplying many of their wines and eaux de vie. However, in the 1950s he refused to marry the elder daughter of Andre Renaud, of Remy Martin, choosing instead to marry her younger sister. This created a major disagreement and Remy therefter refused to buy their brandies from Frapin. Max lost control of Remy and Cointreau but managed to retain the prestigious Château Fontpinot. He subsequently resurrected the family Frapin brand and in due course, the historic brand of Gosset Champagne too.
Max served as President of the National Union of Liquor Manufacturers, President of the Social Commission of the National Council of Wine and Spirit for eight years and was appointed a Foreign Trade Advisor of France. He was also the Mayor of Gensac la Palue from 1969 to 2001 and awarded with the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, the highest decoration in France.
Frapin has, in past years, produced some wonderful cognacs and memorable vintages; they are regarded highly in the industry with their fine Grande Champagne cognacs. Max Cointreau will be remembered as one of the patriarchs of the cognac industry.
There seems little doubt that alcohol can, in moderation, be good for you. It has been said that drinking cognac provides a greater benefit than other alcohol and scientists tell us that it increases antioxidant levels. These are beneficial substances that keep harmful free radicals from damaging our cells. According to a study published in “Cardiovascular Ultrasound” in 2008, this sort of damage can increase the risk of clogged arteries, heart disease, cancer and vision loss. Drinking alcohol may also help limit the risk of Type 2 Diabetes but beware, excessive consumption can increase the risk of cancer, heart disease and liver disease. Of course, moderation is the key, excessive consumption of any alcoholic beverage should be avoided.
Brandy has been around a long time and traditionally has had many uses as it was available in large quantities from the French and Spanish naval vessels. During the battles, which these navies fought, brandy was often used as an anaesthetic or antiseptic and in one particular extreme case as a preservative. It is said that a whole barrel of brandy was used to preserve Admiral Nelson’s body until it could be returned to British shores. Hardly moderation but Nelson would probably have been pleased that he came home in a barrel of fine French brandy.