Wide World of Cognac

Wide World of Cognac
Photo/Jeff Harris

On the nose you get a nuanced meeting of delicate fruits with oak, nuts and vanilla. On the palate come pears, ripe berries, cocoa and toffee. It's the hallmark elegance and complexity of one of the hyperpremium Cognacs crafted by big houses like Hennessy or Rémy, with their vast storehouses of aged wine and spirits. Except this is from family-owned Frapin, which makes single-estate brandies, with its own grapes fermented, distilled and aged in-house. Such finds populate the widening options of the modern Cognac market.

While Cognac touts one of the most exclusive definitions in the spirits world—it arises strictly from about 200,000 acres of vineyard surrounding the southwestern French town for which it is named—the region's output is multi-dimensional. First there's terroir, with six official growing regions—including the chalk-rich soils of Grande and Petit Champagne, the flint and clay of Borderies and the clay and limestone of Fins Bois—with their distinctive flavors that can add to a blend or be enjoyed singularly. Cognac is also defined in age groups. XO (soon to be elevated to a minimum 10 years) is the oldest, but most in that category are far older and brandies like Louis XIII and Paradis can be almost antique.

What's not so obvious is that Cognac is filled with small, independent growers and distillers who feed the four big houses (Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martel and Rémy Martin). Some are now distinguishing themselves in novel ways. Pierre Ferrand puts much stock in terroir, limiting its vineyards, as does Frapin, to the prized Grande Champagne region. Camus has boldly featured a lesser-esteemed region with a Cognac made from the far west island of Ile de Ré. Tesseron blends only brandies that are XO or above. D'Usse concentrates on full-flavored Cognac. Extra-limited Cognacs are the specialty of Nicolas Palazzi's PM Spirits. He scours tiny producers like Jacky Navarre and bottles their brandy at a proof that is cask strength with no additives.

A brash, new approach comes from Bache-Gabrielsen. American Oak in its Natur & Eleganse range is made by aging Cognac in traditional French limousine oak for two years and then transferring it for finishing in American oak for six months.

With the American market for Cognac heating up, we can expect to see more such innovations in the future. But one thing will remain the same: Cognac will always be a fine pairing for a fine cigar.