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The History of Cognac

  • Why is the French 'Paradis' so special?

    Paradis gatesNot 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.

    bonbonnes in a paradisMany 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.

  • Why are rose bushes planted in vineyards?

    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.

  • UK Alcohol Duty and its Enforcement

    Smuggling brandyDuring 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.

    Cornwall coastlineMost 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.

    UK Duty stampAlcohol 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 Crus

    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.

    crus of CognacThere 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 GC & PC Soilsoils 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.

  • Max Cointreau Dies

    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.

  • Drinking Cognac at Christmas

    Drinking CognacThere 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.

    NelsonBrandy 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.

  • Sniffer Dogs To Detect Phylloxera

    The Phylloxera louse decimated vineyards across Europe in the late 1800s by attacking the roots of the vines.  Many wine and cognac producers lost their livelihoods as a result.  Keeping vines Phylloxera free is therefore vital to the survival of the industry so this latest announcement from Melbourne University is extremely exciting.  Scientists are researching the effectiveness of sniffer dogs in detecting the existence of the louse in the initial stages.  Dogs already trained as ‘sniffers’ can easily be taught to detect other scents and it is hoped that this will extend to early stage Phylloxera at depths of up to a metre below soil level.  We have a number of Very Old Cognacs produced in the pre-Phylloxera era when Folle Blanche was the most commonly used vine.

    Read more news from the cognac industry here.

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  • Is Cognac Better Than Whisky?

    An impossible question to answer, it is of course down to personal taste, but we do have a few facts to consider.  Cognac is made from grapes and whisky from grain so cognac can develop a variety of fruitful aromas and flavours which whisky cannot.  Both spirits are aged in barrels and improve over time but cognac is the more complex, takes longer to produce and inevitably, is more expensive.  Additionally, it is double distilled and must be made in accordance with strict regulations.  Whisky can be produced anywhere in the world but cognac must come from the designated Cognac region in France.  In the mid nineteenth century cognac was the most popular spirit in Britain.  Today it is renewing this popularity with very modern ‘rapper’ ambassadors like Jay-Z and Snoop Dog advocating cognac in their music and their personal lives.  In comparison, whisky has always had its fair share of celebrity endorsements and the recent launch of Haig Club by David Beckham is no exception.  Medicinally it’s said that cognac is better for your heart than whisky and rarely results in a hangover - great benefits certainly but for us, the sheer depth and intensity of flavour, fruitiness, warmth and complexity means that cognac will always be the King of Spirits.

    A really magical example is the Hermitage 43 year old Cognac, sold by Brandyclassics.

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  • Godet, An Historical Lesson

    White Cognac from Coal

    The pressure on cognac houses in the early noughties to sell greater quantities inspired some to try and produce a white or clear cognac. Of course this should not be possible as cognac must be aged in oak and the wood always imparts some colour and most of all flavour. Consequently, when Hennessy introduced a ‘white’ cognac it still had some colour. So, one of the oldest cognac houses, Godet, produced a plan to solve this problem by filtering their cognac through coal. The plan worked and they launched Antarctica as a ‘white’ cognac.  However, Cognac rules do not allow this as the cognac has not been made in the traditional way and the name Godet is associated with cognac. It now seems that the term ‘cognac’ has been dropped but it is still called Godet Antarctica. It is understood that heated discussions about the name continue between Godet, the BNIC and Customs. Rumours in Cognac suggest that the house may be put up for sale but Jacques Godet, the fourteenth head of the firm who conceived the idea after a trip to Antarctica, has recently handed control to his sons suggesting that this is unlikely in the near future.

  • A Story in Every Bottle - Very Old Cognacs

    Cognacs produced before 1900 are very special indeed.  Extremely rare, each bottle has a unique history and flavour which can never be replicated.  Small quantities of cognac were aged in oak casks during this era and over the years, most of that stock has been consumed leaving very little in existence today.  The grapes and distillation methods used in the 19th century produced cognac with drier and more organic flavours.  These characteristics became unique to cognacs of the period as in 1871, the dreaded Phylloxera beetle killed off most of the vines.  It took years to replant with Phylloxera resistant vines and for the brandy industry to recover.  The consequent introduction of the Ugni Blanc grape changed the taste of cognac forever.

    We take great care when sourcing our Very Old Cognacs to ensure quality and authenticity.  Many of them came from small, independent producers and negoçiants who are no longer in existence.  The bottles are often hand blown and have been stored for many years in Cognaçais cellars.  Each individual bottle is extremely precious; it has a flavour to savour and a story to tell - well worth the exclusive price tag.

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