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!
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.
Did you know it was National Cognac Day last month? A relatively new addition to the annual calendar and originating in the United States of America, it is celebrated on the 4th of June. As with all popular, American activities it has become a worldwide event, so mark it in your diary ready for 2020! This year Jeanne O’Brien Coffey came up with 5 reasons to drink cognac and we pretty much agree with all of them:
1. It takes a lot of time and money to produce fine cognac which is why it tastes so good. 2. There is a cognac for every palate. 3. It’s cocktail-friendly (but we do not recommend using our vintages for this)! 4. It pairs with everything and can be drunk at any time of the day. 5. It has a unique flavour profile with a myriad of flavours in a single bottle.
The cognac industry is quite touchy about the appearance of a bottle of cognac. In the world of high value spirits, sediment is not desirable as it can either lie on the bottom of the bottle or cause cloudiness of the spirit. But is it really a problem?
Well, we all understand that cognac is aged in oak casks. Initially it is put into new ones and then, after about 6 – 12 months, it is transferred into old ones. When the casks are new, they are toasted to destroy the harmful tannins in the wood. At this stage, only the good tannins are available in the wood allowing the cognacs to develop their colour and flavour. Many cognac producers will ask for a specific grade of barrel toasting to suit the desired quality of the finished cognac. Repeated use of the new barrels means that over time, they will become old barrels and so used for long term cognac storage. However, as the tannins in the wood are used up, the inside surface of the barrel will gradually degrade leaving a cloudiness in the cognac.
The level of cloudiness will depend on the age and size of the barrel, the type of oak used and the level of toasting initially agreed between the cooper and distiller. The strength and cru of the cognac are also factors. Cognacs produced from the Champagnes mature more slowly than those from other crus. The spirit remains stronger in the barrel for longer, producing a cloudy effect and in some cases, containing minute particles from inside the barrel. As a result, older cognacs, which may have been in their barrels for 40, 50, 60 or more years, may have levels of sediment in them and must be filtered. In most cases, sediment appears at the tail end of the barrel and because it can be very fine, can be missed when bottling. No producer wants to see sediment of any level in his cognac although it is harmless and will gradually settle in the bottle over time.
When filtering is used to remove the sediment it can be costly as it is slow and some of the cognac is lost during the process. All cognacs do have a minute solids content which is not visible but is part of the cognac. But remember, the longer it has been in the barrel the finer the cognac will be!
The concept of barrel ageing is said to have been conceived by wine merchants when shipping their wines from the harbour at La Rochelle. The weak and commonly sweet wines that were shipped along the Charente from Cognac often became rancid. The wine merchants therefore reduced their volume by distillation, before shipping abroad in oak barrels. After their arrival in foreign ports it was noticed that the clear distillates within had coloured and gained in flavour.
Many centuries later we have learnt much about ageing our cognacs. The considerations of barrel age, size and wood are regarded by many as secondary to the dampness and location of the cellar. Dampness in the cellar helps the cognac to mature in the barrel for longer as it reduces evaporation of the spirit through the wood. There are thousands of cellars in the Cognac region which also hosts two major rivers. The Charente passes through the middle and the Ne passes round the southern half of the top cru Grande Champagne. It is therefore reasonable to believe that many of the finest cognac cellars are situated close to these rivers, taking advantage of the increased humidity.
However, ideal damp conditions can be created in other ways. Many old stone-built stores were converted outhouses which had had their floors ripped out, thereby removing any damp course between the building and the earth. New custom-built stores, mainly owned by the big houses, are complete with humidifiers which regulate the atmosphere. A more questionable method of creating damp barrels is to spray them with water but this is usually only employed during very hot conditions.
Of course, wherever they are kept, the atmosphere inside a sealed barrel is unlikely to change. The temperature may alter slightly, and the amount lost to evaporation (known as the Angel’s Share) may differ but otherwise the quality of the cognac should remain the same.
March has lots of reasons to celebrate. The Celts can enjoy St David’s Day or St Patrick’s Day with daffodils and shamrocks symbolising the onset of spring. This floral theme is perfect also to celebrate International Women’s Day and of course Mother's Day on 26th March. All our March Offers have floral tones too - Raymond Ragnaud 35 Grande Champagne Cognac has been aged for 35 years and developed magnificent floral and rich, woody qualities. The visually stunning Pomme Captive Calvados has aromas of green apple, geranium and mint whilst the 5 year old Pineau des Charentes Rosé from Bertrand fills the air with a sweet aroma of rose hips.
Fabulous gifts for those wanting to buy something extra special with just a hint of flowers.
The process of distilling cognacs requires that the wines are distilled twice, the second distillation must be between 67-72.4 degrees. The spirit, known as eau de vie, is water clear and tasting it can render the tongue numb for several days. Little surprise then that young cognacs, aged for the minimum time, have to be reduced to a lower level of alcohol and additives used to colour and hide the aggressiveness of the spirit and so achieve some Cognac balance.
The natural colour of cognac is derived from the tannins in the oak barrels. The use of new barrels after distillation to give the cognac a quick boost can actually provide a more aggressive fieriness in the spirit in the early stages. Whilst a level of colour will develop in the spirit during the first stages of ageing, nothing can overcome the huge imbalance between alcohol and taste until the cognac has been in the barrel for at least ten years. Both sugar syrup and caramel are therefore often used to help address the fieriness and lack of colour in young brandies, a process known as obscuration.
About twenty years ago there was an unscripted charter between the big cognac houses that the maximum obscuration of cognac would be no more than 2%. The increasing demand for young (and cheaper) cognacs has meant that the big houses now buy their cognacs for ageing sometimes only eighteen months after distillation. Often they are bottled as young as 3 years old. This creates a massive problem especially when they are blended with cognacs from the Champagnes which age at a much slower rate than those from other crus. Inevitably, the younger the cognac the more sugar and caramel is needed to create an acceptable level of flavour and balance. As available cognacs become younger, the obscuration level has had to increase and it is now substantially more than 2%.
Of course there is another element to balancing cognacs – dilution. Cognacs will gradually reduce naturally, however, nowhere near quickly enough for the big houses to sell profitably. Young cognacs between 60-65% abv will need more than 50% water adding to them before they can be sold. Water itself is difficult to add successfully though very quick chilling of the cognac can help.
Perhaps the most accepted additive, and one that is far more natural than others, is the use of boisé. Produced by boiling oak chips over and over again in cognac, it is dark in colour and can be viscose. When added to cognac it can provide quite a bitter effect until it has had time to complete its accelerated ageing process. Some people refer to this as a “false ageing” but it is not. It uses exactly the same ingredients as occur naturally in cognac so in effect, it is an age accelerator. However, too much can provide an undesirable bitterness when used in young cognacs.
Balancing the strength and flavour of fine cognacs is a great skill. There is a place for some additives but we avoid the use of sugar and caramel as we believe that any cognac from the Champagnes under ten years old is not sufficiently developed to ever create the truly memorable qualities found in Hermitage Cognacs.
Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education page.
Chapel Down, the highly successful English wine producer, has just released a 23-Year-Old Grape Brandy made from grapes grown in Kent. The spirit was distilled in 1992 and then aged in French oak. According to one spirits writer it has “all the hallmarks of a complex armagnac or calvados but with its own personality”. By definition brandy is a spirit made from a fruit. Just like Chapel Down, armagnac and cognac are brandies made from grapes but they each have to be made under very strict conditions. Most importantly the grapes must be grown in one of the designated cru regions before being distilled according to their respective regulations. Brandy made in the UK is therefore a rarity. All the cognacs, armagnacs and calvados that we supply are produced and aged entirely in France, with one notable exception – ‘Early Landed’. Some smaller houses ship their barrels of young ‘eau de vie’ to the UK to be aged in cellars here. British cellars are colder and drier than French ones so the barrels absorb more of the spirit but the system saves money and sees some fine products such as Hine and Delamain cognacs being bottled in the UK. Not sure that the Chapel Down Grape Brandy will be able to compete with these fine nectars but hopefully the British will support this initiative rather than see it shipped to China along with most other grape brandies.
Online retailer, Amazon, has just launched a new Sommelier By Phone Service in Japan. Prospective purchasers can leave their phone number on the purchasing page of a specific bottle; they will then be telephoned by a sommelier who will answer questions and advise on flavour and alternatives; more information will follow by e mail. Another great innovation by Amazon – or is it?
Here at Brandyclassics we have been offering this service since our inception, a quarter of a century ago. Always happy to talk and advise about our handpicked products by phone or email, we think our experience and expertise provides an even better service than Amazon. So, if you have a question about our products, please contact us on 01225 863988 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Chinese woman reportedly downed a full bottle of XO cognac at a Beijing airport security control after being told that she could not take it on board. Staff told her she was not allowed to carry the bottle in her hand luggage because it exceeded the 100ml limit and so, not wanting to waste the purchase, she apparently drank the entire contents. This did not seem to help her cause any as she was then deemed too drunk to board the flight. But looking on the plus side, at least she was probably too inebriated to taste most of it!