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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 Cognac Label

Brandyclassics MDEvery bottle containing alcohol must have a label showing clearly what is in it, including the quantity and alcoholic strength. Most producers of alcoholic drinks are controlled by a professional organisation who regulate what can or must be stated on the label. The cognac label is no exception and in some ways cognac is controlled more rigorously than other wines and spirits.

The professional body responsible for cognac is known as the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac (BNIC). It is a private, state-backed organisation that not only controls the labelling of cognac but almost every other aspect of its production including production areas (crus), grape varieties, wine production, distillation and ageing. It also controls the distribution, sales and duties of every bottle produced.

Hermitage 1975The labelling requirements for a bottle of cognac require the producer’s name and under that the cru may be added and the descriptor “COGNAC”. Modern, generic cognacs are heavily blended with cognacs coming from a wide range of producers and crus so the cru is often omitted from most modern labels. However smaller houses, who produce single estate cognacs, usually state the cru e.g. Grande Champagne or Petite Champagne. Only occasionally do producers state a cru other than the top two but sometimes the term Fine Champagne may be seen. This is used if at least 50% of the cognac in the bottle comes from Grande Champagne and the remaining from Petite Champagne. “Made in France”, with the address of the producer or negoçiant, must be included and age statements, such as vintages, can be used with approval.Hermitage 1975 Cognac label

At Hermitage Cognacs we also add a back label that helps our customers understand more about the cognac they have chosen. This label includes details such as where the cognac was made, how it was distilled and aged and its individual aromas and flavours. Also, in the case of a vintage cognac, it shows the bottling date. This is important as it tells the customer how long the cognac has been aged in the barrel.

Last, but not least, every bottle of spirits over 40% alcohol by volume carries a UK government duty stamp that is applied in France and can be crossed checked with the UK shipping documents issued by the BNIC.

Read more Technical Topics on our Brandy Education page.

The Bottle Story – What’s in a Cognac Label?

We are used to seeing unusual designs of cognac bottles and carafes to catch the eye (many of which have been featured here in The Bottle Story) but recently some big producers have taken to using a bespoke cognac label, designed by a well-known artist, to make their products stand out on the shelves. Hennessy, in particular, must feel that their products are in need of a boost and American tattoo artist Scott Campbell has created the latest artwork. Its purpose, presumably, is to attract younger customers who, in the last 10 years, have embraced the tattoo culture and made it the latest ‘must-have’. Another of Hennessy’s labels was designed by the Italian duo, Carnovsky. A far more colourful affair, this was probably commissioned primarily for the American market. Many of the big houses’ products contain young, blended cognacs which can be difficult to differentiate by taste. These labels are certainly eye catching and will probably serve their purpose of making the bottle stand out from the crowd. Here at Hermitage we take a different approach. Our product, its label and packaging is designed to exude luxury but in a classical, tasteful way. We know that our customers buy Hermitage for the fabulous flavours and individuality of each cognac so gimmicky labels that might look good on the bar, or the sideboard at home, wouldn’t only convey the wrong impression, they’re just not necessary.  Take a look at our cognacs here.