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Cognac's Cocktail Comeback

Though Purists May Shudder, France's Premier Brandy Mixes with the Cocktail Crowd
Sam Gugino
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98

(continued from page 2)

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.

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