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cognac ageing

  • The Importance of Barrel Age on a Cognac Label

    Barrel AgeThe growth in generic cognac sales over the last quarter of a century has distracted from the single most important criteria in determining the quality of a cognac. The age, or to be precise, the barrel age of a cognac is the most important element of cognac quality, yet we so often fail to ask the age question. Currently there simply is not enough information on the bottle to make it interesting. Compare that to a single malt whisky where the label tells us its barrel age, who made it and even what barrel it was stored in. It is little wonder that single malts outsell cognacs by a factor of 10 : 1.

    Sure, there are other factors that affect cognac quality, the cru, shape and size of the still, the cut, variations in the actual distillation, the size and age of the barrels, the storage conditions . . . . . . the list goes on but the longer the cognac is allowed to sleep in the barrel, the better it is. The provenance is the one piece of information that tells us more about its quality than all the other cognac features put together.

    Of course, where the cognac was made and who made it is important. However, even cognac that has been made in the top cru by a family producer, will lose its identity once it has been sold to one of the big houses as they have to blend hundreds of different cognacs together to meet their customer demands. Fortunately, there are still family firms who sell their cognacs independently. These single estate producers are much more likely to provide cognacs that have aged for more than the minimum number of years and to have kept their best and oldest in the family cellars.

    Modern wine and spirit retailers have little knowledge of cognac. It is not their fault. They simply have not been told and there is no information on the bottle to encourage questions. Many retailers consider themselves as mainly wine retailers, yet if they were to learn about cognac and actively sell it, it would provide them with a much more interesting sale (there are so many different processes it goes through over a much longer ageing process than any other alcoholic beverage). Values and margins are higher, and the story is more involved and interesting than wine. After all, cognac starts as a wine.

    So, you may say “Where do we go from here?” Supermarket shelves are stocked with generic blends which do not sell and if you ask for a brandy in a hotel or bar you are offered a VS, VSOP or XO. Growers and producers must make their cognacs and labels more interesting by keeping some of their cognacs back from the big houses to sell independently with age statements.

    But perhaps the best idea is to draw up a long term plan and ask where producers want to be in the future; struggling to get a decent price from the big houses or offering what their forefathers would have liked, unique cognacs that have been properly aged and recognised for the unique flavours and styles that they have spent generations in perfecting. Not only will they get recognition for their cognacs, but they will get much more money for them as well. Cognacs are complex and have interesting flavours that have developed in their barrels over decades. This is why cognac is the King of all Spirits.

  • The Effect of the Cellar on Ageing Cognac

    CellarsWe place much emphasis on the ageing of cognacs as it is critically important that they gain the maximum maturity whilst in their oak casks. We have spoken before about the barrel size, shape and type of oak but the actual cellar chosen for storage is also vitally important.  The conditions of storage can make, or break, a fine cognac.

    French cellars used to house cognac are typically quite small, perhaps only housing a couple of hundred barrels.  Most are also old and damp, often old stores or farm buildings, perhaps old chapels or buildings that would normally be thought unsuitable for storing such valuable spirits.  Many do not even have a proper floor, just the earth, perhaps where animals have been kept during cold winter months, but it is these old buildings that provide the finest conditions for cognac ageing.

    Good barrel ageing extracts the useful substances from the oak barrels. Tannins form around 5% of these substances but others, including lignin and hemi-cellulose, are also useful.  As these substances gradually dissolve in the maturing spirit, they impart the agreeable sweetness found in some older cognacs. It is therefore very important that cognac spends as much time as possible in contact with these useful elements found in the wood.

    There is of course a limit as to how long these substances last in the relatively neutral oak barrels so it is important to ensure that the barrels are stored in the finest conditions.  The humidity of the old stores in the Charente ensures that the barrels are largely damp on the outside.  This prevents the smaller spirit molecules from escaping and retains them in the oak for a longer period.

    An agreeable climate in the Charente provides more suitable ambient storage in these old stores than in purpose made warehouses on other shores.  ‘Early landed’ cognacs are brandies which are stored in bonded warehouses abroad and have customs documents proving when they were made.  The provision of this additional storage may be an advantage but both the length of time the cognacs are stored and the conditions in bond may fall some way short of ideal.  Only by constant, expert monitoring can it be established when a cognac is ready for bottling and indeed if the storage conditions have allowed the cognac to gain the full benefit from the barrel.

    We hear of all sorts of ideas for brandy storage but whatever is happening on the outside of the barrel, there are only two factors which affect ageing inside: temperature and humidity.  It is the reaction of the old oak barrel and the cognac that will provide us with the finest cognacs.  It therefore seems strange to me that some brandy houses want to age their cognacs in unusual places. A rather well-known Norwegian house has chosen to age a barrel of their 40 year old cognac in a fort in the mouth of the Charentes for a few months “to see how maritime weather affects the finished product”. If the barrels are stored correctly and tightly sealed with a cork which is waxed over to prevent the ingress of air, what difference will the maritime weather make?

  • The Rancio

    Brandyclassics MDProfessionally, as an industry assemblage of blenders, cellar masters, connoisseurs, distillers and negoçiants, our aim is to provide the very finest cognacs we can for each market sector. We know that there is no alternative to long ageing in oak barrels to enhance the distillers’ skills and provide the flavour and richness (Rancio) that is so desirable. Perhaps it was by accident in the 16th and 17th centuries that the chemical changes taking place between wood and spirit were noticed. Over the centuries the effects of ageing have been recorded and gradually formed the criteria by which the standard of a modern cognac is defined.

    Cognac cellarsPerhaps also by accident, after discoveries of old barrels in the corners of family cellars, it was found that some of the oldest cognacs had acquired a sort of maderization and developed an interesting richness. This effect was noted in some cognacs after only 20 – 30 years of barrel ageing but those from the Champagnes took longer to develop it. Charles Walter Berry of Berry Brothers is said to have described this character of fullness and fatness in some brandies as rankness (rancio), an effect also noted by some tasters of Roquefort cheese.

    cognac ageingIt is the oak barrels which produce this most agreeable ‘rancio’. Oak has little or none of the resinous substances found in other woods (that can pollute the spirit with undesirable tastes) and it provides a number of useful elements: tannins the best known comprise a mere 5% and lignin, equally vital, a further 23%. Much of the rest is made up of the relatively neutral hemi-cellulose which gradually dissolves in the maturing spirit and imparts an agreeable sweetness found in older cognacs. The tannins and lignins dissolve at different rates so after 5 years 10% of the lignins and 20% of the tannins will have been absorbed. After ten years this will have doubled but in later years the rate of absorbtion will slow. Conventional wisdom says that in some cases it takes 50 – 80 years to absorb all the tannins in the wood.

    Chemically, rancio derives from the oxidation of fatty acids in the spirit into ketones which produce the richness felt on the palate. It is reminiscent of an old madeira wine, a sort of rich pineapple mustiness which we all hope to find when tasting old cognacs. But this is only one of many chemical reactions and their effect on the palate. One team of scientists, led by Dr Heide, detected 334 ingredients in cognac; 24 acetals (ethylates of aldehyde and alcohol), 27 acids, 63 alcohols, 34 aldehydes, 25 ketones, 77 esters, 19 ethers, 3 lactones, 8 phenols and 44 diverse substances. Many of these substances have still not been separated and analysed; some form an important part of the mix; some strongly influence the taste. For example, ethyl compounds are strongly reminiscent of rotten fruit. Finding the right combination of these elements in an old cognac does not always happen but when it does you will know that you have tasted a very fine cognac that may have started its life as much as a hundred years ago. Perhaps the very best example of 'rancio' we can offer is the Hermitage 1914 Borderies.

    Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education page.