Though Purists May Shudder, France's Premier Brandy Mixes with the Cocktail Crowd
In the wood-paneled tasting room at the headquarters of Cognac producer Rémy Martin, the amiable Patrick Quien takes a sip of the company's brilliantly clear, amber-colored X.O. Special Cognac. He closes his eyes, smiles, and looks heavenward as he savors the subtle mix of dried fruit, nuts, vanilla and oak mingled with touches of chocolate and saffron. Even after 33 years with Rémy Martin he hasn't lost any passion for this most famous of brandies. "It goes down so easily, you hardly know when it's all gone," says Quien, the company's international spokesman.
Would that Quien's countrymen were as enthusiastic. The French, however, aren't big Cognac drinkers--they make up just 7 percent of the world market. Until a few years ago, booming sales in Asian markets helped compensate for the lukewarm attitude among the French, who prefer Port and Scotch as their high-proof drinks of choice. But in recent years southward heading economies in Asia have resulted in huge losses for Cognac manufacturers in Asian markets, and in China the normally avid Cognac drinkers appear to have changed their allegiance to Bordeaux wines.
However, in the United States, Cognac has been "moving up nicely in the past three or four years," says Frank Walters of Impact, an alcoholic beverage industry publication published by Cigar Aficionado parent M. Shanken Communications Inc. According to Walters, after bottoming out in 1993, U.S. sales grew from 1.7 million cases to 2.3 million cases over the succeeding four years, thanks to the increased use of Cognac in mixed drinks (mainly for younger consumers) and the upsurge in cigar smoking.
Though some people would consider a Cognac cocktail--or long drink as it is called in Cognac--a sacrilege, like putting Coke in Château Margaux, long drinks are very traditional in Cognac. "Cognac and water, called fine a l'eau, was very common before World War II," says Claire Coates, head of communication for the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac, a trade organization that monitors and promotes Cognac. According to Coates, 60 percent of Cognac is now consumed in mixed drinks. "We need to introduce young people to what Cognac is," she says. "They will be the drinkers of fine Cognac when they're in their 50s."
Indeed, the new Couvoisier Millenium was created with young drinkers in mind. "It works equally well with ginger ale, water or by itself," says Marc Birnbaum, marketing director of Domeq Importers, which imports Courvoisier.
During a visit to Cognac last fall, I had Cognac mixed, by turns, with tonic water, seltzer, ginger ale, and water, as well as on the rocks. (While long drinks are made with lower-quality VS and VSOP Cognacs, the Cognaçais often drink higher-quality XO Cognac on ice.) I found all these aperitifs delightful ways to begin a meal.
Cognac cocktails are so common that some producers, such as Maison Brillet, make Cognac specifically for mixing. Brillet's Cognac Seltz is a lighter, younger style of Cognac, which is to be mixed with seltzer. In the United States, much of Hennessy's success can be traced to the introduction of the Hennessy Martini a few years ago. (To make it, fill a shaker with ice, add two ounces of VS Cognac, half a teaspoon of freshly squeezed lemon, stir gently and let settle for a few seconds. Then strain into a chilled Martini glass and garnish with a lemon peel.)
Perhaps the best Cognac drink is ready and waiting for you in a bottle. Pineau des Charentes, like Port, is made by adding brandy to pure grape juice before fermentation has been completed. Pineau des Charentes is similar to sherry, but is fruitier and less nutty. To mitigate some of its sweetness, drink Pineau des Charentes well chilled, over ice, or mixed with a good-quality gin.
Cigars and Cognac have always been natural partners, but now several producers, such as Hine, Pierre Ferrand, A. de Fussigny, Gautier and Davidoff (made by Hennessy), have specific cigar Cognacs (see box on page 307). And for those who prefer a lighter, sweeter drink with a milder cigar, Gautier has a delicious aged Pineau des Charentes called Panatela.
Unlike younger Cognacs that go into mixed drinks, Cognacs destined to be cigar companions need to be aged 15 to 20 years or more to develop that quintessential Cognac characteristic called rancio, which has been variously described as the aroma of rancid butter, nuts (especially walnuts), spices (particularly clove and cinnamon), dried fruits, well-aged cheese, worn leather and a damp basement. Old Cognac has a lot in common with cigars, says Bernard Hine of Hine Cognac: both come from plants, both are fermented, both are blended and aged.
Ironically, this fine, aged spirit begins as a young undistinguished wine, one which has been made in the Charente river basin of western France since the third century, when this region of Gaul was controlled by the Roman Empire. By the thirteenth century, the wine--such as it was--became sufficiently popular that Dutch traders carried it as far and wide as the salt for which the Charente coastal region was well known. But throughout the centuries, production eventually outpaced demand, creating more wine than could be disposed of in a timely manner. In addition, the low-alcohol wines suffered under longer sea voyages.
By the 1500s the enterprising Dutch, who had become skilled distillers, decided to distill the wine before transporting it, with the idea of reconstituting this brandwijn, or burnt wine, at its final destination. But the spirit was so delicious that many people never bothered to add the water.
Production proceeded nicely until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the the phylloxera virus devastated the Charente vines. The resulting Cognac shortages spawned imitators in Italy and Germany. To protect the integrity of Cognac, the French government in 1909 decreed that it could be produced only on vineyards within a 2.8-million-acre area that covers much of the Charente and all of the Charente-Maritime departments north of Bordeaux; within the region, Cognac grapes are planted on nearly 200,000 acres. In 1936, the Cognac growing region was subdivided into seven districts, or crus, each with its own unique characteristics. Subsequently, two crus were combined, making six.
The districts form a series of rough concentric circles around the town of Cognac, beginning with Grande Champagne, the most desirable district. As you go outward from Grande Champagne to Petite Champagne, then Borderies, Fin Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaires, the grapes become less desirable. (Champagne in Cognac should not be confused with the place that makes the sparkling wine. Champagne simply means an open field in French.)
Grande Champagne's desirability comes mainly from its chalky soil, which when combined with the district's microclimate produces grapes with high acidity, perfect for long-aged, full-flavored Cognac. Petite Champagne has the second highest chalk concentration.
Every Cognac producer likes to tout the origin of its grapes. For example, Cognac Pierre Frapin prides itself that all its grapes are from Grande Champagne. Just as important, those grapes are estate grown. This is the exception in Cognac, where there are some 10,000 farmers who grow grapes and make wine. Forty percent do their own distilling, the rest sell to distillers. Some Cognac producers, or houses, purchase wine and distill it themselves, while others buy already distilled brandy and age and blend it themselves.
Martell points to its distinct concentration of grapes from Borderies, which is known for its great floral character. Rémy Martin boasts that all its Cognacs are Fine Champagne, meaning at least 50 percent of the grapes come from Grand Champagne and the rest from Petite Champagne. (Grande Fine or Grande Champagne means that 100 percent of the grapes come from the Grande Champagne cru.) Courvoisier has a two-tiered style. At the higher end (XO quality and above), more old cognac from Borderies is used for additional complexity, aroma and length. With VSOP Cognac, Courvoisier uses only fine Champagne Cognacs.
Martell and Rémy Martin, along with fellow "Big Four" Cognac producers Hennessy and Courvoisier, focus on blends of many Cognacs to produce a recognizable house style, much the way Champagne producers (the guys who make the bubbly) make nonvintage blends for their house styles. But smaller producers often make more distinctive Cognacs that are worth seeking out. Maison Brillet, for example, is a grower, distiller and blender that makes single-cru Cognacs from Petite and Grand Champagne. Gabriel & Andreu makes single-district Cognacs from Petite Champagne, Grand Champagne, Borderies and Fine Bois. A. Hardy & Co. makes an absolutely lovely Borderies Cognac.
By law only three white wine grapes can be used in the production of Cognac--Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche. Today about 98 percent of Cognac is made from Ugni Blanc, also known as Saint Emilion Charente in France and Trebbiano in Italy. When asked why they don't make more varietal Cognacs, most producers say Ugni Blanc is the best candidate for distillation and aging because of its high acidity and low alcohol. But Bénédicte Hardy of A. Hardy disagrees. "I think Colombard has more character and ages better than Ugni Blanc. Ugni Blanc was used more because it was resistant to phylloxera (the vine-killing root louse), not because it was better in quality," she says. To prove it, she serves a glass of Hardy Perfection, a 130-year-old Cognac made from Colombard grapes. The Cognac has amazing freshness and youth. (Frapin cellar master Olivier Paultes says the main reason for using Ugni Blanc, by far the most widely planted white wine grape in France, is that it is much more consistent than Colombard or Folle Blanche.)
Once the grapes are pressed, they are fermented into a wine of about 8 to 9 percent alcohol and put into an alembic, an onion-shaped copper pot still introduced into Europe by the Moors in the thirteenth century--alembic is Arabic for still. The shiny copper has since been covered with a reddish brown paint in most distilleries. The stills sit on brick-enclosed gas-fired ovens, which heat the wine. The first distillation is done in a larger still. The harsh beginning and end of the first distillation, known as the "heads" and "tails," are redistilled. The second distillation, which produces the more refined final product, must be done in smaller stills so that more control can be maintained. The whole process takes about 24 hours and produces wonderful aromas reminiscent of freshly baked apple pie. This hominess is somewhat deceptive in large operations such as Martell, where computers do everything except taste. To capture the fresh, fruity quality of the wine, all distillation must be completed by March 31.
The clear brandy, or eau-de-vie (water of life), must be aged in oak for at least two years to soften its hard edges and develop bouquet--vanilla or cinnamon--and flavor from oxidation and exposure to wood. (The oak also gives Cognac its color, though caramel can legally be added.) Cognac is conveniently located near the Limousin forests, whose trees produce porous, medium-grain hard wood that is the most desirable for Cognac barrels. Less porous, more finely grained oak from the Troncais forest in the Allier region of France is preferred for Cognacs that are intended for early sale.
Wood aging is so important in Cognac that Rémy Martin owns its own cooperage, even though the vast majority of barrels it produces are used elsewhere in France. Oak planks are first aged for three years in outdoor conditions to leach out undesirable tannins. Then barrels are painstakingly assembled, mostly by hand, without glue or nails. Once fabricated, the barrels are "toasted" over an oak wood fire to caramelize the wood's sugars. The degree of toasting depends on the individual Cognac producer's style. Rémy Martin, for example, prefers a medium toast.
Once the Cognac is put in barrels, two meters start running. One is a time meter, because great Cognac needs a lot of time to develop. The other meter is a money meter, because time is money. Not only are those barrels of aging Cognac a tremendous investment that can't be recouped for years, but while it ages, Cognac evaporates, about 3 percent a year--the equivalent of more than 20 million bottles. This evaporation, known as the "angels' share," slightly reduces the strength of the spirit, which is 72 percent (144 proof) alcohol after distillation. To lower the final alcohol level to 40 percent (80 proof), the spirit is cut with distilled water before bottling.
As with any alcoholic beverage that is exposed to wood and air, there is a point of diminishing returns. For Cognac that outside limit is about 50 years. Once the desired level of maturity has been reached, Cognac is put in demi-johns, large squat bottles usually covered in wicker, to prevent further aging.
Aging is as important to Cognac as sugar levels are to Rieslings in Germany. And just as German wines are categorized by sweetness, Cognacs are designated by age.
VS (Very Superior), or three-star, Cognacs feature blends in which the youngest stock has been aged at least two and a half years, though many houses age their VS Cognacs longer. For example, Hennessy VS Cognacs range from three and a half to 10 years. VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) Cognacs must have spent a minimum of four and a half years in the barrel. Again, many producers age their VSOPs longer, often eight years or more. XO (Extra Old), Napoleon or Extra Cognacs must have been in wood a minimum of six and a half years. But since this category is a catchall for all the older Cognacs, you'll see many that are--or at least contain in their blend--Cognac that is 30 or 40 years old, or more. Some producers make a distinction between XO and Extra Cognacs, with the latter usually being the older of the two. For example, the Cognacs in Rémy Martin's XO range from six and a half to 35 years in age, whereas the Extra contains Cognacs from six and a half to 50 years in age.
Because the three Cognac categories only specify minimums, the precise age of a particular Cognac may be hard to tell. So one must rely on the integrity of the producer. This is particularly true for very old and very expensive Cognacs, which have been given proprietary names such as Hennessy's Richard Hennessy ($1,500 a bottle), whose blend contains some Cognacs that go back to the early 1800s, and Rémy Martin's Louis XIII ($1,200).
Unlike the Champagne category, in which vintage wines are not uncommon, vintage Cognacs are rare. Jean-Louis Brillet of Maison Brillet believes that the distillation process can "even out" the difference between one vintage and another. However, Bernard Hine of Hine Cognac is a firm believer in vintage Cognacs as an option for consumers. "It's not that they are better than other Cognacs. They are our memory of that vintage," he says. "They also show us wonderful things."
Indeed, Cognac in almost any form is a wonderful thing.
Sam Gugino is a food and wine writer based in New York City.
Tips for Enjoying Cognac
Two long-standing myths prevent many people from enjoying Cognac in its full glory. One is the belief that a Cognac glass should be roughly the size of a fish bowl. Much better is a tulip-shaped or chimney glass with a smaller bowl and relatively straight sides above it, or a long, narrow sherry glass called a copita. The idea is to have a smaller surface area so aromas can be more concentrated.
The other misconception is that Cognac is better when heated by a candle. But would you put a flame to a nicely aged first-growth Bordeaux?
Some other tips:
* Your first sip should be only a drop on the tongue. This gets your palate acclimated and avoids the overpowering "burn" that many feel from Cognac.
* Inhale to increase the sensation of aroma and taste.
* Recork the bottle as soon as you've poured to keep Cognac's bouquet from dissipating.
* For cocktails like Cognac and tonic, start with one part Cognac and two parts mixer. Then, after tasting, add more mixer if the drink is too strong for your taste. For Cognac over ice, use large cubes so the Cognac will not dilute too quickly. The drink changes noticeably after the ice melts.
Cigars & Cognac
Cigars and Cognac are as old a combination as Napoleon and Josephine. But which cigar and which Cognac? A light panetela would be as inappropriate with 30-year-old XO Cognac as a Muscadet is with a saddle of venison. And a full-flavored Cohiba overwhelms a youngish VSOP Cognac.
"There are a range of Cognacs for cigars, such as a lighter VSOP with milder cigars. But we think any Grande Champagne Cognac can be good with a cigar," says Max Cointreau, chairman of Cognac Pierre Frapin. Similarly, master blender Jean-Marc Olivier recommends Courvoisier Napoleon as an excellent choice for all cigars.