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  • The Difficulty of Describing the Taste of Cognac

    The taste of any drink or food differs from one taster to another so it is difficult to be precise on an interpretation of flavour. However, most people do understand general flavours that they regularly experience. For example, milk, coffee, orange and tea are all daily experiences but defining any one of these flavours is daunting. Perhaps even more so, is the conversion of aroma to taste.  For example, we often describe a cognac as oak flavoured. We may have tasted oak-smoked salmon but how do we explain the taste of oak by itself? Much of what we taste can be described by our perception of the aroma but even this can be misleading. Many people are put off drinking gin by the aroma but when tasted, perhaps with tonic, their perception of the taste changes.

    Aroma descriptionsSeveral years ago the BNIC produced a cognac aroma wheel.  It has often been used to help describe flavour but it includes such aromas as wild carnations, oak moss and cigar box. Converting that into taste is complicated so we try and use more familiar tastes.  In desperation, however, we have resorted to many continental flavours such as rambutan, mangosteen and kumquats.  We also use some old English flavours such as medlar, marrow and thyme. Sometimes, when tasting cognac the flavours will change.  This is particularly true of cognacs from the top cru, Grande Champagne.  Here we often find nutty, rich fruity flavours which tail off to leave citrus flavours of orange or grapefruit peel. These flavours often mature after many years to provide a much desired 'rancio' effect.  This is probably best explained as a type of maderisation.  It has a slightly musty but rich, pineapple syrup and roasted nut flavour that lasts on the palate.

    If flavours are difficult to describe, some of the jargon used in the professional tasting world can be almost unintelligible. We talk about 'the nose' when describing an aroma, 'a finish' when considering how the flavour ends in the mouth or 'a tail' when we consider how a flavour extends to the finish. The term 'flatness' is used when the cognac is largely neutral in flavour and when sugar has been added, it is identified as being 'sticky'.  'Oily' is used to describe water in cognac that hasn't mixed properly with the spirit and 'dead' when all you can taste are the additives.

    Many years ago I was asked by a famous cognac author to describe the flavour of a cognac that has 'gone off'.   This describes a cognac where most of the alcohol has evaporated and a watery and mouldy residue is left. After a lot of consideration, I told him that it was rather like drinking water in which you have washed some dirty old leather boots! He laughed like a drain and included it in his last book as another way of accounting for taste. I should add that I have only ever tasted this effect a handful of times in 30 or 40 years of tasting.  Should you ever be in doubt about a cognac's suitability for drinking, do not worry.  There is never any doubt about one that has gone off!

    Next month we will try and explore as many flavours as possible.

  • New Cognac Presentations in Time for Christmas

    gfit presentationsOur range of Hermitage Cognacs is ever increasing so we have designed some new cognac presentations to suit.

    The latest addition is a bespoke presentation box for our extremely popular Hermitage Cognac Café 20 - the perfect accompaniment to coffee, it can also be enjoyed at any time of the day. The Café 20 now comes packaged in a 'wedgewood' blue box depicting early 20th century French café culture.

    Our Hermitage 20 Year Old Grande Champagne and Hermitage 30 Year Old Grande Champagne Cognacs are both supplied in the extremely elegant 'Helios' carafe. Their new presentation box features the Alembic still, an iconic symbol of the cognac production process.

    We hope you like them too.

  • The Bottle Story - Hardy Legend 1863

    Hardy 1863 is not pre-PhylloxeraThe name 'Hardy Legend 1863' sounds as if it is an exceedingly valuable pre-Phylloxera cognac from the nineteenth century.  (The Phylloxera outbreak swept through French vineyards in about 1875).  Cognacs produced before this time were made with Folle Blanche and Colombard grapes.  Today they are extremely rare and valuable.  The name of this new, US release refers to the year the firm Hardy was established.  The bottle contains cognac aged for up to 12 years and is a blend of Petite Champagne and Borderies.  It is made from the more modern Ugni Blanc grapes.  Still a family firm, A Hardy has been around a long time.  This bottle costs about £50 so do not be duped into thinking it is a bargain from years ago - our pre-Phylloxera cognacs retail at £6000 upwards.  Compare it also to our single estate, Grande Champagne 10 Year Old Cognac, Hermitage Provenance 10, which is priced at just £46 a bottle.

  • Armagnac Popularity on the Rise

    armagnac popularityThe 2017 International Wine & Spirits Competition held in London this summer revealed how our drinking tastes are evolving, reports The Telegraph.  Expert spirits writer Neil Ridley says that our understanding of what we are drinking is constantly improving and he named the top 5 trends to look out for.  One of those is the slow but steady rise in demand for French spirits.  The increase in  Armagnac popularity is particularly evident.   "It is a misunderstood French brandy with huge amounts of history and provenance.  It sits somewhere between single malt whisky and cognac and has a lot to offer a connoisseur or someone new. You can find amazing, aged armagnacs at a fraction of the price of an aged whisky or rum" says Ridley. It certainly matches our experience that vintage armagnacs are becoming increasingly popular. Of course, this means that the prices are gradually increasing too.

    We have most Armagnac vintages from 1930 - 1994 and a few others too.

  • Pineau des Charentes set to take the US by Storm

    area of Pineau des Charentes productionThis summer, the Pineau des Charentes Committee launched its first marketing campaign in the US.  Americans, already enjoy the truly craft, French cognac so are expected to embrace this little-known relative.  Pineau des Charentes is produced exclusively in the French Charentes region and gained the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée status in 1945.  There are now about 500 producers. Pineau is made by adding freshly pressed grapes to newly distilled cognac eau-de-vie, at a ratio of about 3:1.  It must be aged in oak for at least a year and can be white or rosé.   Some producers, such as Chateau de Beaulon, still refer to their pineau as red.  Made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes, it is ruby red in colour, rather than pink.

    While Pineau is fruity and light, Old and Vintage Pineau offer a complex mix of flavours such as nuts, honey and dried fruits.  An artisanal, authentic drink, Pineau des Charentes is completely natural with no sugar added.  It combines the fruitiness of wine with the warmth of cognac and is best served cold.  Try it as an aperitif, in a cocktail or as a dessert wine.

  • Organic Cognac Production is Increasing

    Today, less than 1% of the Cognac appellation is farmed organically, but the number of producers using these methods is increasing.  To make organic cognac a farmer must cultivate his grapes organically for at least 3 sequential years.  That means no chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilisers.  Instead farmers must rely on pre-war farming methods.  For example the use of copper and sulfur, nettle and horsetail infusions, mechanical weed removal and manure and compost fertilisers.  The application of manure and freshly grown fertilisers such as barley and faba beans certainly enriches the precious "terroir".  Organic farmers claim that their cognacs produce different aromas.  We have yet to be convinced but public demand for the green "organic" certification is on the increase.  Even the big houses ask their producers to not use weed killer and employ more sustainable farming methods.  So, although only a few have chosen to qualify for certification, many more, such as Chateau de Beaulon are employing some organic methods, which can only be good for the "terroir" in the years to come.

  • Spirits Education for the Customer

    Trade Training"I am delighted to see that more and more businesses are recognising that education and well-trained staff are the foundations to better customer service and stronger profits," says the CEO, Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET).  The WSTA concur stating that "consumers are increasingly favouring more premium brands". We have always maintained that spirits education is key to the sale of our luxury brandies.  There is a specific Trade Training page on our website and regular newsletters and Blogs ensure up to date industry news is frequently publicised. Those wishing to go one step further will be interested in the new improved Level 2 WSET Award in Spirits.  Also trying to educate the customer is the #ForwardDrinking campaign which launches next month.  It aims to target industry taboos such as 'retros' (when brands pay for bar listings) and 'pay-to-play' schemes (when brands offer monetary incentives, or otherwise, to gain a retail listing).  Maverick Drinks, who initiated the campaign, said "We don't want people using our product because there's a deal attached, we want them to use it because it's a great spirit".  Hear, hear, just what we were thinking.

  • The DOs and DON'Ts of Drinking Fine Cognac

    Adding Water or Mixers

    I wrote in my last Technical Topic about adding water to cognac, supposedly to enhance the flavour.  Of course, we discovered that when drinking fine cognac, this is not the case.  However, some people do like to add some form of mixer(s) to their brandy.  For example, sugar and cream are added to change the flavour completely.  In this instance, it is not a good idea to use an expensive cognac.  Cognac is a rich drink and usually has a complexity of different flavours.  This makes the experience of replicating an exact recipe more chance than judgement. Then there is this question of ice - but think about this. If water is difficult to mix with a spirit, a piece of solidified water is going to be even harder.

    warming brandyAdding Heat

    So, you ask, why don't we warm cognac to enhance the flavour? Well, you can, but we don't drink cognac like wine.  Big mouthfuls are a rarity as the strength of cognac is three times that of wine and a small sip quickly develops to body temperature. We have been asked on many occasions about the use of brandy warmers and before we dump this silly idea, let me just explain.  Driving the alcohol off by heating the cognac will, in most cases, totally destroy the flavour as the alcohol acts as a flavour carrier.  When a cognac has 'gone off', it is because the alcohol has laminated from the spirit.  This means that it sits on the surface of the cognac and escapes as soon as somebody releases the cork. Where this has happened, one never needs to ask if it has gone off!

    Cognac by the fireWhen to Drink?

    Much of the real appreciation of a fine cognac comes by tasting it at the time of day when one's taste buds are at their most receptive, usually around 11am - noon. Some people prefer to taste cognac as an aperitif before a meal.  Certainly, it makes some sense to taste cognac as opposed to whisky before a meal if you are also drinking wine as one doesn't mix grape and grain. But for me, when looking for a small digestif to finish off a nice meal, drinking fine cognac is the best way to recapture the enjoyable events of the day.

  • Hermitage Grande Champagne 1966 Cognac

    1966 CognacLast year we sold out of the very popular Hermitage Grande Champagne 1966 Cognac.  It is now back in stock, though from a different barrel.  The quality is the same but the flavours and strength differ slightly.

    Amazing, subtle aromas of pear, mangosteen and hay combine with complex flavours of almond lychee, macademia nuts and pink grapefruit.  This is an unusual but delicious cognac with charm and elegance.

  • The Charente Scene - Autumn 2017

    Harvest in The Charente

    The CharenteHarvest this year in the Charente region was particularly early.  It started on 10th September when historically, the average date is 23rd September.  According to the BNIC it is expected to be the smallest harvest since 1945 due to various weather conditions, in particular the late frost in May.  They say that the vineyards not damaged by frost can expect 110 to 120 hectolitres per hectare of wine, whereas the frozen vineyard areas will only make 40 to 50 hl/ha - normally, the average is over 100 hl/ha.  Our friends in the region tell us that even though they escaped the frost, the skins are tough and the grapes have not filled out much due to lack of sunshine.


    Better news may come from the BNIC shortly as they are looking for a new president.  The bookies favourite is Patrick Raguenaud, the president of Grand Marnier.

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