With effect from 1 April 2018 any cognac classified as an XO must have been aged for a minimum of 10 years. This change of XO Definition means that in the case of a blend, which many are, the youngest cognac used must now be at least a decade old. This is a 4 year increase as previously only 6 years of ageing was sufficient for a cognac to qualify. Regulatory body, the BNIC, comments that the change is designed to extend the quality positioning of XO cognacs and align them with market reality (some XOs are aged for 10 years or more anyway). First announced in 2011, the industry has been given plenty of warning to mature their stocks however, an interim measure has also been put in place. XO cognacs aged for 6, 7, 8, and 9 years and packaged by 31 March 2018 may be labelled and sold as XO until 31 March 2019. Thereafter, all XOs must be at least 10 years old and no doubt the price will increase accordingly.
Just arrived - Hermitage 1968 Petite Champagne Cognac. The mid 1960s produced some excellent cognacs from Petite Champagne and this one is no exception. It needs to stand for a few minutes for the aromas of hazelnuts, brioche, bananas and gooseberries to develop. This is a lighter style cognac, exhibiting many flavours initially of roasted hazelnuts with brioche and a hint of lime. These develop slowly with banana, blueberries and a hint of strawberries with the zest of lime influencing the tail. Distilled 50 years ago, it is a very special treat for someone celebrating their half century in 2018. Cognacs that have been aged for decades have some very special qualities to enjoy.
Armagnac is probably the oldest known wine spirit in the world but the art of distillation was introduced by the Arabs between 1411 and 1441. In the department of France known as the Landes, they produced an agua ardente, or fire water, which was used initially as a therapeutic cure. Tasting Armagnac for pleasure ensued when it was established that storing the spirit in barrels developed desirable flavours.
Armagnacs are the earliest examples of distilled wines known in France. Traditionally they are made using the Folle grape although others, including Colombard, Ugni Blanc and even more recently, the Baco all contribute to its flavour. Initially distillations were on a pot still but by the 19th century the continuous still was more highly favoured. The distillation process of armagnac allows the spirit to be distilled at a much lower alcohol content range than that of its big brother cognac, produced 100 miles to the north. The lower range produces a greater fruitiness (but less refined) flavour in the spirit.
It is this process that produces the major differences between armagnac and cognac. Armagnac can be distilled between 52 degrees and 72.4 degrees alcohol whilst the lower end of the cognac distillation range is 67 degrees. Armagnacs distilled at the lower end of their range have a distinctive prune flavour which gradually turns to a more crystallised fruit flavour if the alcohol content is nearer the top of the range.
There are no major producers of armagnac and even the largest firms only produce around 1 – 2 million bottles per annum. The highest quality, most refined and complex armagnacs come from the Bas cru where the spirit ages much better. Most of the production occurs in the Tenarézè cru where armagnacs with a more perfumed style are made. It is the least industrial of all French spirits so much of the joy of armagnac comes from the variety produced by its highly individual peasant roots.
In many ways calvados is the newest brandy of France. It only became recognised as such in 1942 when the appellation controleé regulations officially gave calvados a protected name. The area around the Valley d’Auge and the land extending east past Lisieux became the principle production area. Here, the Jurassic limestone soil is ideal for growing the various apples required to make calvados.
A range of different apples are used initially to create the finest cider - bitter, bitter sweet, acidic and sweet. These apples have low levels of acidity so a small, firm, Perry pear is also added. This addition, usually 12 – 15 % of the total, is essential as it increases the acidity of the cider to the level required for distillation. Consequently, calvados can often have a pear drop taste which many people dislike.
Of course, the flavour of calvados from each distiller will differ. The distillation techniques, apple varieties, condition of apples when harvested and ageing process will all have an effect. Sometimes a finish is also added. This term describes a process where, in the latter stages of ageing, calvados is stored for a limited period in a barrel that has previously held another spirit or wine. However, many producers find this technique abhorrent as it masks the true identity of their spirit.
The pear drop aroma and taste is most noticeable in young calvados. With long barrel ageing it is significantly reduced because the calvados builds a richness which masks the pungency of the Perry pear. One of the best examples of this is the 1969 vintage by Dupont, a firm that has worked hard to nurture quality in their fine spirits.
The firm of Chateau du Breuil has developed a different method of masking the pear drop effect. They only harvest naturally fallen apples which have started to go brown. At this stage the water content of the apple has dropped and the sugar content is at its highest. These apples produce a sweeter cider and ultimately a sweeter calvados with baked apple aromas and flavours. The period required to age in the barrel for the flavours to mature is therefore reduced. A fine example of this type of calvados is the Chateau du Breuil 15 Year Old.
Our Cognac Buyer has been super busy recently and these latest additions to the Hermitage range are astonishingly good! Both are from the top cru, Grande Champagne. They are wonderful examples of spirit that has been aged naturally, in oak casks, for decades. Indeed they are two of the best cognacs in our portfolio.
Hermitage 1948 Grande Champagne Cognac has been in wood for more than half a century. Distilled 70 years ago it is remarkable, rich and complex and has developed a wonderful, rich rancio which lasts on the palate for a very long time.
Hermitage 45 Year Old Grande Champagne Cognac. This is a cognac of great distinction which must not be hurried. The many aromas and flavours need to be discovered slowly. Its intense rancio is worthy of an even older Grande Champagne cognac.
We have often talked about distillation on the Lees but rarely described why we do it or indeed what ‘the lees’ are.
Many years ago, during cognac production, whole bunches of grapes were crushed in presses to release the grape juice. The process was fairly crude and some stalks, pips and skins found their way into the juice. This negatively affected the flavour of the wine and sometimes even contaminated it. Grape crushing was therefore banned after the turn of the twentieth century.
The newly designed horizontal presses had slats on the sides. These rotated slowly putting very little pressure on the grapes, so only the juice escaped. Modern rotating presses also have hydraulic plates at either end. These plates exert slightly more pressure on the grapes which extracts the maximum amount of juice and some of the pulp (but not the skin, stalks or pips). This combination of juice and pulp is known as ‘the lees’. It is the pulp which provides more of the grape flavours. A wine producer might refer to it as the second pressing.
Most cognac producers will use ‘the lees’ in their distillation as it adds to the quantity produced as well as the flavour. Not all distillers will admit to it though. There is a fear that some buyers believe cognacs distilled not on their lees will be purer, albeit with less flavour. There is also a problem if the producers sell to the big houses as they ask distillers not to use the lees. The big houses require cognacs with greater neutrality for blending with many others from different distillers. Extremes of flavour will affect the uniformity of products which are sold in vast quantities.
Whatever the case for or against this process, those seeking greater individuality of flavours should always look for cognacs that were distilled on their ‘lees’. The Hermitage range is a classic example.
There are so many reasons to enjoy your cognac with a companion this month.
Shrove Tuesday is time for a little indulgence and cognac brings just that. Whether you like to flambé or sip it on the side, it will certainly make your pancakes special. This year Shrove Tuesday falls on 13th February.
Valentine's Day celebrates the sharing of love - how about cognac sharing too? Perfect for a cosy winter's night in front of the fire, it warms your heart as well as your body. And for those who find the amber nectar a little strong, we recommend its cousin, Pineau des Charentes. Less well-known, it's made from cognac 'eau de vie' mixed with grape juice. At 17% abv, it is the obvious alternative for sharing that 'cognac moment' on 14th February.
Cognac is perfect for sharing on any day but when the weather's wintry and cold, it brings all the warmth and enjoyment you could wish for.
For decades we have referred to Nicholas Faith’s book ‘Cognac’ for bits and pieces of information - his books have become the standard in the industry. They are regarded by most professionals as invaluable guides to cognac, it’s history and the thousands of producers in the Charente region of France where the King of Spirits is made. The world of cognac is evolving faster now than ever before. Increased sales volumes have created the need for bigger harvest yields and the means of making different cognacs. It therefore comes as no surprise that a new book on the subject has been provided by Michelle Brachet. ‘The World of Cognac’ is hugely informative and enjoyable to read with points of historical interest as well as individual stories of some of the better-known names in the industry. It also looks at some of the industry changes that have created the modern cognac which we enjoy today. Wonderfully illustrated, it includes pictures of key parts of cognac’s progress through the ages. ‘The World of Cognac’ could well become the natural successor to Nick Faith’s all encompassing ‘Cognac’. Well done Michelle!
For decades we have been advocating the use of tulip glasses for drinking cognac. DB has written much on the subject including one of his monthly Technical Topics. Now it seems other professionals in the industry are speaking out. Well respected cognac producer, Frapin, have called for a ban on brandy balloons. The giant glass does nothing for the spirit. Export Director Bertrand Verduzier said “Tulip glasses are the best way to experience cognac as you get more aromas coming through and with balloons you just get alcohol”. Michelle Brachet, cognac expert and educator, agrees suggesting the introduction of a ‘smash the snifter’ campaign. Frapin’s call to use glasses which help recognise individual flavours in cognac may have been influenced by their relatively recent move into cognacs with age statements. “Our vintage cognacs are a point of difference that show what we’re all about - they are very alive and different to one another” Piveteau said. Good to see others promoting the recognition of individual cognac flavours - our 45 Year Old is a classic example.
Cognac rebrands. Its regulatory body, the BNIC, has just unveiled a new brand identity for the appellation which was officially recognised over a hundred years ago. The logo depicts a rich, copper still-coloured map of the growing region. Bordering the Atlantic ocean, the appellation is bisected by the river Charente and comprises 6 cognac crus. The newly designed logo reminds us that the King of all Spirits is the product of one place only. It is designed to be inspiring, like cognac itself. It should also convey to consumers the wonderful history of the region and craftmanship of the producers. Even the font used has historic connections. It was created by Claude Garamount in the 16th century, when Charente wine was first distilled. Speaking at the launch, Claire Caillaud, BNIC Director of Comms said ”[The logo] will reinforce cognac’s image as a product of guaranteed provenance and authenticity”.