For the fourth consecutive year cognac exports are up, according to recent figures published by the BNIC. Volume sales were up by 8.2% (205 million bottles were shipped) and this equated to an increase of 5.4% by value (€3.2bn). The largest market continues to be the US where demand still increases annually. Exceptional increases in demand have been seen in the Far East with China leading the way. “These strong results confirm the lasting appetite of the Chinese for Cognac, even as the market is still stabilising,” noted the BNIC President. Shipments to the UK remaining stable at 10.8 billion, despite the uncertainties of Brexit, were positive and we remain the fourth largest importer worldwide. A delighted BNIC Vice-president concluded that “Cognac wine growers and traders are confident in their future prospects and continue today to fully invest in the development of the appellation, their sector and the quality of their products”.
It would be difficult for me to write another Technical Topic without mentioning Nick Faith who very sadly passed away on 26 September 2018. Nick was a friend whom I have known for more than 25 years. But he was more than that, He was a giant in the cognac industry.
As a financial journalist Nick wrote regularly in the Financial Times and the Economist. He also wrote many books on drink. His first, called The Winemasters, was published in 1978 and won the André Simon Award. Another, and one of his finest was a rather grand full-sized book with many illustrations but actually, he was best known for his book simply called Cognac. It was first published in 2004 (the last edition was published in 2013) and is regarded by many as the Standard in the industry. Here at Hermitage, we still use it occasionally for reference. In 1996 he founded the International Spirits Challenge and in 2010 he was the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award given by the Bureau National Interprofessional de Cognac (BNIC), the ruling body of Cognac. As a fellow traveller to the Cognac region, Nick loved to visit us here at Hermitage Cognacs and talk about the industry, tasting our cognacs and finishing up with lunch and a beer before I took him back to Chippenham to return on the train, another of his loves.
Nick Faith will be sorely missed, not just as a great authority on cognacs but as an inspiration to the industry, he was one of the Cognac Greats.
Here at Brandyclassics we specialise in finding the very best cognacs available to sell under our own label, Hermitage. We painstakingly search out those hidden gems, that have been ageing in cellars since the year they were made, for our customers to enjoy. Sometimes only a barrel or two are available and when they are empty, the last drop of the vintage has gone.
Four of these unique, vintage Hermitage cognacs have less than 10 bottles remaining so this is a fantastic opportunity to acquire an exceptionally rare, exquisite cognac from a bygone era. These precious few bottles really are the last drops available of:
Another fantastic result for the Hermitage stable as three of our newest additions are awarded prestigious medals at this year's International Wine and Spirits Competition (IWSC 2018). GOLD OUTSTANDING Medals were received by our latest vintages:
Hermitage 1948 Grande Champagne Cognac. Judges comments: "On the palate this cognac is extremely rich and concentrated. Perfectly balanced."
Hermitage 1944 Grande Champagne Cognac. Judges comments: "Absolutely superb! Do not wait to drink this."
All three of our winners are from the top cru as a GOLD Medal was also awarded to the Hermitage 30 Year Old Grande Champagne Cognac. Judges comments: "Powerful yet elegant on the palate. Very complex, very long finish."
Probably only the big cognac houses have imported cellar masters. Usually they are recruited from family firms whose skills and experience have, over the years, kept the industry in very good form. Currently most cellar masters are male so, whilst explaining the role, I will use the pronoun ‘he’.
In truth, the cellar master is a multi-skilled person whose understanding of the cognacs in his cellar starts with the fresh eau de vie. He needs to understand how it was made, including the quantities distilled, the distillation temperature and when the cut was made. This information will help him choose the correct barrels to use for both the initial storage and the long barrel ageing in his cellar. Most cognac houses have their own style of cognacs, normally recognisable by experts. He will try to replicate that style throughout his cognacs.
Modern cognacs are usually made for blending. To do this they are poured out of their barrels into large wooden tanks which may hold as much 100,000 litres. Blending is a complex job and much emphasis is placed on the knowledge gained from the cellar’s historical background. Mixing cognacs requires a great deal of experience. It does not follow that mixing two fine cognacs together will produce something of a similar quality. In some cases, especially when very high quality eaux de vie is used, the quality of the final blend is a total disaster.
The cellar master’s role also includes an in-depth understanding of his barrels - their size, the oak used and what they have previously contained (the second stage of ageing is always in old barrels). He also needs to understand how much they were toasted and where he is going to keep them. Many cellar masters move their barrels around the cellar to make full use of the humidity and to keep the cognac moving so it is exposed to every part of the barrel.
Lastly, he tests the cognac by taking samples and checking the level of alcohol. This is done by measuring the temperature and using an alcohol meter. All official alcohol measurements are made at 20 degrees Celsius, so it is important to be able to calculate the actual strength at different temperatures. Small samples are taken to gauge the cognac’s maturity and balance at regular intervals as each barrel produces a cognac with a slightly different flavour and colour. The skill of bringing all these properties together takes many years to learn. It is for this reason that the cognacs produced by family firms are often of a far higher quality than those from the big houses, which are highly blended.
We are really excited about the latest Hermitage 1944 Cognac to make it onto our shelves.
Distilled almost 75 years ago and aged for more than half a century, the Hermitage 1944 Grande Champagne Cognac is truly wonderful. It has a rich complexity of aromas and flavours which last for ages on the palate and they are all wrapped up in a rich rancio .... what more could you wish for?
This really is a little bit of cognac heaven.
We tend to take the humble wine cork for granted but it is, in many cases, the critical factor in preserving our wines and spirits. It protects them from the air outside their glass containers and preserves the qualities of the valuable nectars which are stored within. Many people will argue that synthetic or metal screw top closures are more effective and in the cheaper ranges, particularly of wines, they probably are. Connoisseurs, however, still believe that natural cork has an important role to play.
Cork is the bark of the Quercus suber or “cork oak” tree. A medium-sized, evergreen oak that covers millions of hectares in Spain, Portugal and North Africa. Unlike the frenzied yearly cycle of the wine industry, the evergreen oaks move like sloths, slowly expanding and growing the bark, known as orange bark. The cork oaks are first stripped of their bark 20 years after they are planted. They are then shaved of their bark every 9 years after that for up to 200 years. The date of the last harvest is marked on each tree. The first layer is known as “virgin” cork and is used to make articles of home decoration and granulated cork for insulation. Only when the third layer is removed can it be used for making cork stoppers.
On a cellular level, cork looks like a honeycomb of air pockets. These pockets make cork both watertight and fire resistant which is why it works so well to age wine. Its molecular structure makes watertight seals easily but also lets tiny bits of air move in or out allowing the flavour and aroma to evolve and become more complex over time. This evolution can take many years but beware, whilst water molecules pass quite slowly through cork, spirit molecules are much smaller and pass through more quickly. It is for this reason that many older cognacs always have a wax seal over the cork. Natural ageing of cognacs must be in sealed containers as the gradual loss of alcohol can, over many decades, cause the spirit to degrade to such an extent that it can become completely undrinkable.
The microcellular structure of cork enables it to retain its flexibility and elasticity so always remember to put the cork back in the bottle after use. Also, never let the contents of your spirits bottle come into contact with the cork since this will degrade its structure more rapidly.
The Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac (BNIA) has increased the minimum age requirement for Armagnac XO from 6 to 10 years, in line with a recent change to the cognac definition (see previous news story). The regulatory body said that it hopes the changes will help to raise the “value of the appellation” and emphasise the “real differences” between its classifications. The minimum age of an armagnac (and cognac) is now as follows:
VS 3+ years
VSOP 4+ years
Napoleon 6+ years
XO 10+ years
Just like in Cognac, the Armagnac region suffered from the severe spring weather with the heaviest rainfalls recorded since 1952! Thankfully the barometer has now stabilised and trellising has begun. This essential activity supports the vegetation ensuring good aeration of the grapes and minimal shoot damage by wind. Ripening is also optimised, as leaf exposure to the sun improves and thus, encourages photosynthesis. Of great ecological importance is the efficiency of phytosanitary treatment - the arrangement of the leaves on trellised plants helps this to improve. Finally, trellising also facilitates passage between the vines reducing time spent on viniculture and therefore crop costs. The recent good, stable, summer weather has ensured that this year, the budding and general well-being of the vines are exceptional. Very good news for the 2018 armagnac vintage as if the rain had not stopped, the saturated soils may well have asphyxiated the plants.
This is a very young, vintage cognac (aged for 3 years) but with an interesting history.
It was produced to mimic the pre-Phylloxera style; that is using the single grape variety Folle Blanche from the Bon Bois cru. It is also a single cask vintage with a higher that average alcohol content at 41.3% (although pre-Phylloxera cognacs were often left at cask strength). The Folle Blanche today accounts for only 10% of grapes grown in the region as the majority were decimated in the pre-Phylloxera outbreak and the rootstocks now in use are better suited to cropping Ugni Blanc grapes. Cognacs from Bon Bois are also now much less popular as even the big houses tend to look no further afield than Fin Bois. That said, the Comandon 2012 Cognac is an interesting idea, which we will sadly probably never get to taste, as only 120 bottles were produced for the American market