Food pairing is all the rage right now, including with cognac. Hennessy have created a whole dining experience to enjoy their latest cognac blend with a 4-course meal. We never recommend doing this with vintage cognac but as a digestif, it does bring a special enjoyment. Some cognacs have complimentary flavours which go well with after dinner courses, such as coffee (see The Bottle Story). Chocolate is another post-dinner treat and also has flavours found in cognac, as reported recently by ‘The Telegraph’. Our Hermitage Provenance 30 would be an excellent accompaniment with its rich flavours of chocolate and natural toffee. But choose your chocolate carefully too. Recently produced in Ecuador, To’ak is a top quality, vintage, dark chocolate which has been aged for 2 years in cognac barrels. It may be utterly delicious but we’ve never known chocolate to improve with age!
The big cognac houses are well aware of the similarity of their products so the need to spice up their ranges is always evident. We have seen recently the efforts by some to add a cask finish to their cognacs; sherry casks have already been used by one house. But the latest craze is to try and produce a super XO cognac called XXO. Hennessy, who have the biggest sales of XO cognacs, have already launched an XXO in the Far East. They tried to register it as a Hennessy name thereby denying other houses the opportunity to use the term. Unsurprisingly, other cognac growers were far from happy but after debate, an agreement has been reached allowing anybody to use the term for their super XOs. Apparently, these new XXO cognacs will have to be aged for a minimum of 14 years. This seems a strange period to select since many of the smaller houses make XO cognacs up to 20 years old. It took a quarter of a century to change the XO definition from 6 to 10 years, perhaps it will take another 25 years to officially recognise this new, super appellation? It’s an interesting point since many years ago, Brandyclassics negotiated with Otard to launch a super XXO cognac to the Chinese market. It failed not because we couldn’t use the title, but because the Chinese customer thought it too flashy!
Vintage cocktails, made from rare and very old vintage cognac, are trending …… they are also extremely expensive! Interest began with the World’s most expensive cocktail which was created in 2012 and sold for £5500. It contained a 1788 Cognac, 1770 Liqueur and 1860 Orange Curacao. Similar concoctions can now be bought at the very best bars in the world for similarly handsome prices.
Cheltenham Festival also followed suit this year producing a cocktail containing 1937 Delord Armagnac, in memory of Golden Miller, Gold Cup winner 1932 – 1936.
Very old (pre-Phylloxera) cognacs and Armagnacs are, by definition, incredibly rare but those that design these hedonistic cocktail treats feel that they are essential components, creating complexity and length not found in today’s spirits. These qualities are the very reason most would hopefully choose to drink them unadulterated - but single shots of very old vintage brandies do not come cheap either. Last month the world’s most expensive cognac measure (40 ml) was sold for £10,000. Perhaps not as unreasonable as it sounds when some of our very old cognac bottles retail at over £20,000 each. Value is generated not only by the quality of the cognac itself, but in the story of its provenance too.
It’s been a very busy start to the year with interesting cognac events in the diary and the arrival of yet more new stock. Following the BNIC’s launch of a new brand identity for the cognac appellation, they organised a trade-only Tasting event in London. Very well attended, our cognacs with age statements, under the Hermitage label, went down a storm. The event was hosted by Michelle Brachet, cognac expert and educator, who we thoroughly enjoyed hosting when she subsequently visited us in Wiltshire.
Another new Hermitage vintage cognac has just joined our handpicked range. It was distilled in 1948 and comes from the Grande Champagne cru. A remarkable cognac which will be very popular, especially as it is a celebratory vintage this year.
Our range of vintage brandies now includes a vintage from every single year from 1930 to 2000 so if you’re looking for something special do get in touch.
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.