In many ways, the concept of a fine cognac is down to the taster’s perception based on what he has tasted in the past and the flavours to which he has become accustomed in his daily life. But defining those flavours is secondary to understanding what is required of a cognac in order to describe the various properties that bring that flavour about. However, it is probably fair to say that we all like smooth and individual cognac flavours, uninterrupted by other, less desirable properties such as aggressiveness, bland flavours and overpowering sweetness caused by syrups. When judging cognac professionally, the key skill is understanding of the desirable and not so desirable properties that can be found in it. Excluding the initial considerations of colour and aroma, my first consideration is the balance, followed by the complexity and concentration and depth of flavour. All of these are critical in defining what we seek to provide; award winning cognacs.
A cognac that is unbalanced has many aggressive and fiery qualities that hide the style and flavour. In some cases, it may be very difficult to create balance as this is usually created by long ageing in the barrel where it gently mellows. Young cognacs will not have developed flavour nor had time for the alcohol to reduce naturally, so will not be balanced. Where this happens, additives are used to hide the strength but, they also add sweetness to the brandy.
The term “complexity” is often taken negatively. In fact, it refers to a very varied mix of flavours which develop as a result of the reaction between the wood (tannins) and the alcohol in the cognac. Over time, more and more flavours will develop but it is not enough to just have a wide range of flavours, we also look for depth and concentration. It is the depth of the cognac that provides us with the most exciting tastes which are often referred to as “Rancio”. This is a richness but also an intense mustiness that one might associate with an old Madeira wine.
Much of what we do here at Hermitage is to seek out cognacs with all these characteristics. We look to achieve Gold Medals with all we supply but it is not easy as the availability of cognacs which meet this high level of perfection is very limited. Our cognacs are at the very top of the luxury group, there are other groups with much lower standards, many being associated with generic blends and we judge them on a completely different level. There will be good cognacs at every level but there comes a point which is difficult to exceed.