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cognac

  • The Importance of the Cognac Cellars

    Cognac CellarsThe 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.

  • Mother's Day and Spring Celebrations

    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.

  • Cognac Balance

    cognac stillThe 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.

  • English Grape Brandy

    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.

  • Amazon's Sommelier by Phone Service

    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?

    David Baker is our resident expert

    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 cognac@brandyclassics.com.

  • Whole Bottle of Cognac Drunk Before Flying

    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!

    One of the few XOs we stock is certainly too good to be treated in this way - the Fontpinot is to be savoured and enjoyed.  View our whole range of luxury cognacs here.

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  • A Great Name Disappears - A.E.Dor is no more.

    The firm A E Dor has been sold to the Cognac co-operative, Uni-Cognac, for an undisclosed sum. We understand that Uni-Cognac are keen to move into the Far East market and regard the Jarnac based firm of Dor as a significant name in the industry.

    The firm had a number of owners including a relative, we believe the brother, of the French President Franҫois Mitterrand before it was bought by Odile and Jacques Riviere. Odile ran the firm and was highly regarded in the industry as a gifted blender.  She became one of the five best female blenders in the industry. Sadly Odile died in a motoring accident and Jacques was at a loss as to what to do with the firm as his knowledge was not in the same league as his wife’s. He offered the management to his daughter, a pharmacist, but she wasn’t interested and eventually his son, Pierre Antoine took on the management. Pierre knows little of the industry and sadly, the quality of the cognacs from the house have deteriorated.

    A quarter of a century ago Brandyclassics took on the distribution of A.E.Dor Cognacs. As generic blends of their day they were highly regarded and their old Paradis is still one of the most famous cellars in the industry with its many bonbonnes of old pre-Phylloxera cognac. Now they have been sold to a co-operative, Odile will be turning in her grave.

    We still stock a few of the best A.E.Dor cognacs, have a browse here.

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  • David on Technical Topics - Adding Water to Cognac

    We call it dilution in the industry and nearly every cognac needs to have a level of dilution to optimise its qualities.  Some cognacs are superbly smooth and almost too easy to drink whilst others are fiery and aggressive and seem to burn the mouth with every mouthful drunk.  Getting the optimum balance between aggressiveness and flavour is a skill that must be acquired in order to maximise the quality of the cognac.

    Adding water to cognac is certainly not just a case of pouring water from the tap into a barrel of cognac.  The water must be pure and not contain any minerals.  Distilled water is the normal choice but there are some special waters supplied in bulk for big blenders.  The addition of this special water is a skill that has been developed over many years of understanding the noble spirit.  In essence, spirit and water do not mix easily and some cognacs have a higher absorption level than others.  A good diluter can taste the water in cognac if it has not been mixed properly.  There are a number of ways that mixing can be undertaken.

    Some producers dilute their cognacs whilst they are still hot and fresh from the still but this can be difficult as the strength of the cognac gradually reduces from the start of the distillation to the cut (the point where one stops collecting the water-clear eau de vie because it is too weak to provide sufficient flavour).  Other producers will make a “Petite Eau”, a weak blend of cognac and water which is aged in casks before adding back into the cognac to arrive at the right strength.  When a cognac has been produced and aged for many years most will dilute it gradually, a couple of degrees at a time.  Each step can take many weeks before the correct balance is achieved and usually, the nearer one gets to 40% abv, the longer each step will take.

    The speed of dilution depends largely on the speed that the cognac will absorb the water.  A good dilution, where the two components mix without detection, may take several years.  Other factors which may influence the dilution process are the size and shape of the still, the maximum temperature of the hot eau de vie and even the age, toasting and size of the barrels used for storage.

    Cognacs should be diluted to a strength that optimises their flavour and so the final abv will vary.  Take a look at our Hermitage 1975 at 47% and Hermitage 2005 at 40%, both of which are beautifully balanced and full of flavour.

    You have probably gathered by now that adding a drop of tap water before drinking your cognac is not a good idea!  Go to our Brandy Education Page to read more Technical Topics.

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  • David on Technical Topics - Is there a need to Blend Cognac?

    There are between four and five thousand cognac producers in the Charente and Charente Maritime region of France. Only brandy produced here, under strict regulations, is allowed to be called Cognac.

    The world market for cognac is hundreds of millions of bottles but because cognac can only be made once a year, after the grape harvest, the amount that can be sold is limited to how much can be made. The situation is made yet more difficult as even the very youngest cognac has to be aged for 3 years in oak barrels before it can be sold. The big cognac houses supply over 80% of world sales but probably only have direct involvement in about 5% of production.  They rely heavily on the thousands of individual producers to provide enough cognac for their markets.  Blending them provides consistent flavour and is therefore critical to their survival.

    The big cognac names try to assert their authority over the smaller producers, by influencing their distillation methods, with varying levels of success.   By blending hundreds, or indeed thousands, of different cognacs together any of the individual craft and style, which has been developed over the generations of distillation, is lost and the flavour becomes neutral.  Indeed neutrality is encouraged by the major blenders since it is easier to blend neutral spirits than those with complex flavours. There is though, another factor that changes flavour and that is ageing.  By buying their cognacs young and ageing them in their own cellars, the big houses are able to control any variation in style and flavour that may occur.

    Most of the young cognacs sold to the major blenders will be at near distillation strength (67-72%); reduction in strength is therefore necessary.  To enable this distilled water is gradually added, a slow process that can take many years to perform successfully.   Additionally, because these cognacs are so young they will not have developed much colour or taste from the barrels and worst still, they will be aggressive and very fiery.  All these problems can only be addressed with the permitted addition of sugar syrups and caramel.

    The blending process should take years but to meet market demand it is often accelerated.  Blending also fails to promote individuality in the final product.  As a consequence, Hermitage Single Estate Cognacs, with age statements, offer a wide variety of styles, flavours and individuality with which blended cognacs cannot compete.

    Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education Page.

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