Very Old Cognac
The term ‘cognac’ first became known in the early 16th Century. It referred to wines that were reduced by distillation in order to preserve them and make them easier to transport. In those days the distillers sold most of their cognac to buyers who blended and bottled the cognac and sold it under their own names. The bottle labels are therefore of little significance when trying to establish where the cognac was made. Today these buyers are known as negoçiants.
Cognacs produced before the late nineteenth century are completely different from those produced afterwards. An outbreak of the Phylloxera Vastatrix, a tiny yellow bug which feasts off the roots of vines, became prevalent around 1872-4. It destroyed not just the cognac vines but all those across Europe. Before the Phylloxera outbreak, most of the cognac vines were Folle Blanche. After much work in America, a Phylloxera-resistant variety of root was discovered. To this, the Ugni Blanc (a bland non-descriptive, acidic grape) was grafted. This is the predominant cognac grape variety used today. Although the Folle Blanche is still used in small quantities, the pre-Phylloxera flavour, which exhibits drier and more organic flavours, will never be reproduced again.
There are of course many rare and sought-after vintages. In the UK we tend to look for specific ages such as 1805, famous for the Battle of Trafalgar and 1815 for the Battle of Waterloo. The Russians and French celebrate the Battle of Borodino in 1812, as both sides claim victory, and the Americans might celebrate the American Revolution at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. Whatever the vintage of these very old cognacs, one thing is certain, the older and rarer they are, the more expensive they will become. Some of our finest examples of pre-Phylloxera cognac have sold for more than £200,000 each.