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rancio

  • The Double Rancio Effect

    Double RancioAround 40 years ago I was privileged to be given what today I would describe as, one of the 10 finest cognacs in the world. I was staying at one of the finest hotels in Monaco and the sommelier, whose name was Georges, poured me a glass of A E Dor Hors d’Age No 5, 1840 Grande Champagne. He was seeking my opinion and needless to say, I was completely taken with it.  One of the greatest achievements a cellar master can claim is the production of a balanced cognac with a perfect rancio and this cognac did not disappoint.  Rancio is an intense richness that affects every taste bud in your mouth, providing intense syrupy flavours, as experienced after tasting a 100 year old Malmsley, with the aromas of an old madeira cellar.

    Unbelievably, I have recently found a similarly wonderful cognac, but it has even more exquisite qualities.  Its slightly musty aromas of spices, dried fruit peel, pineapple and roasted nuts combined with dates, liquorice, cocoa and molasses are only an introduction to the intense complexity of aromas and flavours which provide another step of fulfilment in the tasting of fine cognac; one that only a few of us will experience in our lives.  It encompasses the joy of discovering that there is another level of perfection, a perfection that takes a cognac from being one of the ten best to being the very best.  It is the nectar poured from the golden chalice, the pinnacle of perfection and the cognac we can usually only dream about.

    So, what is it that makes this cognac so special? In this very exclusive world of fine cognac the term rancio does not occur often and usually, when it does, we are referring to very old cognacs from Grande Champagne. There is a reason for this. Cognacs from the Premier cru age much more slowly than those from the other crus.  This is due to the soil, or rather I should say chalk, which in the area south of the town of Cognac and north of the river Ne is particularly porous.  The vine roots here can penetrate up to 30 metres into the water margins and as a result, the grapes are fuller producing a more flavourful wine which takes longer to develop in the barrel.

    But it is not the cognac alone that creates a rancio effect. Not so far from the Charente, lie the forests of Limousin where, over hundreds of years, oak has been cut and re-planted to make the barrels in which cognacs are aged. The staves are split and left to age for 5 years before they are cut and formed into barrels. The barrels are toasted just enough to burn off the harmful tannins but leave the good tannins to help mature the new cognac. After some months this new cognac is moved to an older home, into previously used barrels where it will stay until it is decided that the cognac is ready to bottle. This can take up to 80 years when usually all the tannins, lignins and hemi-cellulose in the barrels have been used up and can no longer have an effect on the cognac.  The hemi-cellulose lasts the longest in the wood and it is this that imparts the desirable richness we call rancio.  It was the depth of rancio that made the AE Dor Hors d’Age No 5 so very special but at only 34% abv, the flavours, though easier to detect, may not preserve well.

    Now, imagine what would happen if you aged a Grande Champagne cognac, with all the qualities of AE Dor 1840, in a barrel for 100 years and then put it into another barrel where the hemi-cellulose was still available.  It would provide a ‘double rancio' and that is exactly what happened to one of our cognacs.  It was, after 100 years of ageing, placed back into wood for another 10 - 12 years and the result was the accomplishment of excellence.

    That cognac is our Hermitage 1885 Grande Champagne @46% abv.

  • 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.