The Charentais have returned from their holidays confident in the knowledge that last years’ exports of cognac reached record highs. They are now busy worrying about when they can start the cognac harvest. The weather has been good and the vines have ripened well, the sun is shining and there is every prospect of another good harvest in Autumn 2019. Harvesting machines are at the ready and the grapes have been tested for their pH and sugar content, so what’s stopping them? Well, for one cognac producer, the discovery of 140 million year old dinosaur bones under the vines of his vineyard near Angeac has resulted in a group of scientists moving in. It is believed that the bones are from one of the biggest dinosaurs ever found in France and are just a little older than the oldest Hermitage cognac currently available on the market!
We have spent many years searching for a 40 Year Old Cognac that meets our standards and so it is very exciting to report that the Hermitage 40 Year Old Grande Champagne Cognac has arrived. A great cognac for any occasion but especially for those celebrating a 40th Anniversary or 40th Birthday. If you are looking for 40th Birthday Gifts for next year, two other new arrivals that you may wish to consider are the Baron de Saint-Fauste 1980 Bas Armagnac and the Chateau de Beaulon 1980 Fins Bois Cognac, both distilled 40 years ago. Before you choose though, do check out all our brandies from 1980, we have vintage cognacs, armagnacs and calvados.
For 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.
Not only have we had a record year with the introduction of new Hermitage Cognac vintages, the range has also been awarded an unprecedented number of GOLD Medals. The latest, received from the Luxury Spirits Masters 2019, are for:
Hermitage 1923 Grande Champagne Cognac. A particularly fine example of a 1920s cognac that has taken many decades to reach perfection.
"This has a gorgeous flavour, somewhere between a sultana and a sun-dried apricot with the spirit framing the layers with impeccable integration." Olly Smith, Wines & Spirits Expert
Hermitage 1995 Grande Champagne Cognac. This wonderful cognac comes from the same distillery as our award-winning 1999 vintage but has aged for a longer period, enabling a greater complexity of flavours. It is a rich and beautifully finished cognac, fit for a king.
Exsto Cognac has been created by two French women, sommelier Julie Dupouy and entrepreneur Sabrine Duong. Their idea was to make a cognac from a “female point of view”, not “an old man’s type of drink” nor made in a traditional way through the sole vision of a family-run cognac maker. They picked 8 eaux-de-vie from 15 small cognac producers and were assisted by Vallantin-Dulac’s seventh generation master blender. Their aim was to produce a more elegant spirit with a more fruit-forward style. At the end of the process, they had created two blends: Elixir and Or Imperial. The bottles feature the hand-drawn multi-ringed topography of Cognac’s grape-growing areas - a visual that Dupouy likens to a Mastryoshka doll – while the caps, which include air-tight Vinalok seals, are designed by French glass artists Eve and Laurent George. It will be interesting to see if a new approach to cognac production, unencumbered by family traditions, can produce a different style of cognac. Whether the female influence will result in increased popularity with the ladies remains to be seen.
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.
This year we have had an amazing number of new Hermitage Vintage Cognacs added to the range. We have been thrilled to find so many exquisite and unique cognacs packed with wonderful aromas and flavours for you to enjoy. Many are now Gold medal winners as blind judging panels across the globe have also recognised their superior qualities.
We have not had the chance to tell you about these three yet:
Hermitage Paradis 1893 Grande Champagne Cognac. This was an extremely lucky find as it is regarded by many as one of the finest vintages to come from this important period.
Hermitage 1970 Fins Bois Cognac. It is rare to find cognacs from the Fins Bois in the Hermitage range but this one is special.
Hermitage 1991 Grande Champagne Cognac. Our last 1991 vintage ran out so we were delighted to find such a magnificent replacement with this one from Chez Richon.
There 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.
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.
Cognacs 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.
Rémy Cointreau is in negotiations to buy Maison J.R.Brillet, a family-owned cognac business founded in the 17th century. In addition to the company, the deal is thought to include the family’s vineyard estate and their stock of well-aged eaux de vie. It is located in the village of Graves-Saint-Armant, on the border of Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, the top cognac crus. Announcing the planned takeover, Rémy Cointreau said that it will provide an ‘opportunity to integrate spirits with genuine development potential into its portfolio and to increase, over time, the value of an inventory of eaux-de-vie and vineyards of the highest quality’. It is always a shame to see another of the small, high quality, independent, family-run cognac producers subsumed into one of the ‘Big 4’. A piece of Cognac history will come to an abrupt end and the firm’s precious old nectars will probably be blended beyond all recognition.
Scottish whisky blender, Compass Box, has released a new spirit drink comprising calvados & whisky. The calvados, from the Christian Drouin distillery, has been blended with whiskies aged in French oak casks and Sherry butts. Compass Box’s founder said “We have been blending calvados and Scotch whisky at home for years, enchanted by their complementary qualities. Although one of the world’s greatest spirits, calvados is also one of the most underappreciated”. The result is said to possess ‘layers of apple character married beautifully with malty, vanilla and spice-like notes’. Compass Box is not the only firm to recognise the success of this flavour combination, though. Sweden’s Mackmyra distillery has just released a single malt whisky, finished in ex-calvados casks. Perhaps such ideas will help calvados get the appreciation it so deserves?