The Complex World of Cognac
How a grape-growing region in the south of France unites a coalition of small winemakers and craft distillers with some of the biggest players in the spirits firmament to make the most renowned brandy on the globe
From the Print Edition:
The Brains Behind Homeland, May/June 2012
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One advantage to a farmer who also distills is in collecting nest eggs of a sort. While contracts insure that he sells off most of the result, the grower can maintain an aging cellar himself. Guilloteau regards the casks that he’s retained as a kind of piggy bank to be broken into when he needs cash to buy a tractor or replace his still. There is a saying in Cognac that if your daughter is getting married you can finance the festivities with the proceeds from selling one cask.
The buyers are often such Cognac négociants as Nicolas Palazzi of Paul-Marie & Fils, whose business it is to source exquisite barrels and bottle them in small editions, “Everybody has a stash of brandy,” he says. “Their thinking is you don’t keep money in the bank, because you have Cognac in your cellar.”
For their part, the large houses husband the majority of the region’s eaux de vies, maturing them in oak casks and finally blending them into Cognac. The task is as gargantuan as the scale. Furthermore, the liquid is rotated through different vessels because new casks are better suited to new eaux de vies. As brandies become ancient they find their way into decades-old casks in cellars where moss darkens the walls and cobwebs grow into ropes.
Cognac can also be classified depending on which of six delimited regions it comes from. Many blend between regions, but some expressions, like the flowery Borderies XO Cognac from Camus, use but one appelation. The products of Borderies and Fins Bois, come to maturity faster than those of the Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne regions. The latter are known for aging potential because of the high chalk content in the soil that gives them their names. Rémy Martin uses Grande and Petite Champagne. Therefore the company doesn’t make a VS expression, the youngest of the Cognac age designations at two years old or more. The other two age designations are VSOP (four years and older) and XO (six years and older). These parameters often don’t accurately reflect the high quality of some Cognacs as parts of an XO blend are often 30 years and older. Courvoisier recently introduced the first-age statement Cognac in an effort to better convey just how old its products can be.
Ultimately, Cognac is a blender’s art as the individual casks from huge conglomerations are specifically chosen to mix with others to create the different products the houses offer—and guarantee that they taste the same, bottle after bottle, year after year. The process begins with choosing casks by hand—or more accurately by nose—but the scale of the task now dictates that the large producers use computers to monitor the blending and adjustments with water and caramel coloring (the only two additives legally allowed). Standing next to a glowing screen that seems out of place in a brandy cellar, Patrice Pinet, the Courvoisier master blender, explains that the technology saves on manpower and that other contemporary business practices, like the just-in-time inventory system, keep down carrying costs. “But that’s what Cognac is,” he says. “Tradition plus modernity.”
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