Unraveling the Secrets of Cognac
BY JASON WILSON | SEPTEMBER 26, 2019
Cognac is a secretive, confounding place. The people who
make Cognac can be tight-lipped and evasive, and don’t like questions from outsiders.
A simple tasting-room question to a producer such as, “How old are the eaux-de-vie
in this blend?” might be met with a shrug and an inscrutable answer like, “Eh,
a minimum of 15 years, but also some 30-and 50-year-old.” This answer may be
completely at odds with what’s found on a company’s own website, which might state
that the average age (or the more nebulous “tasting age”) is “from 10 to 14
“If I was standing
outside with a Cognac maker and asked him what the weather was, he wouldn’t give
me an answer,” said Nicolas Palazzi of PM Spirits, who imports a
portfolio of smaller Cognac producers.
Cognac generally does not have an age stated on the bottle (which
is vexing to a spirits aficionado accustomed to whiskey). The youngest brandy
in a VSOP must be at least four years old, but most producers claim that they
blend much older brandies into their VSOPs.
Until this year, XO had to be a minimum of six years old, but I’ve rarely met a
producer who didn’t insist that his XO was far older. Some insist they never release
an XO younger than 20 or 25 years. As of this year’s rule change, however, the
minimum age of XO is now legally 10 years old. Even then, an XO bottled before
March 31, 2018 could still have brandies as young as six years old, and
technically be sold until March 31, 2019. I have no idea if there’s been a mass
recall of XOs as of April 1st — likely not, so I’m guessing there are still plenty
of less-than-10-year-old XOs on store shelves and back bars. But sometime in
the future — eventually, hopefully — all XOs on the market will be older than
10 years old.
Inside the tasting lab at Delamain
Yes, Cognac Will Make Your Head Spin
Most of the larger Cognac houses, though they may wax poetic
about vineyards and rustic distillation, buy wine or eau-de-vie from a
vast network of hundreds of smaller growers and producers. “There’s fewer than
a dozen houses that don’t sell to the big companies,” said Amy Pasquet, of
Jean-Luc Pasquet, a producer with seven hectares in Grande Champagne (and among
those who do not sell to the big houses).
For most mass-market blends there is very little
transparency about what they’re buying and from where, and what the production
methods might be. On the flip side, many of the small craft producers — the ones
that are the darlings of critics and connoisseurs — can be cagey about just how
much they sell to the big guys. Sometimes they’re only saving a few very
special casks to bottle under their own artisan labels.
This is a region dominated by the Big Four — Hennessy,
Martell, Rémy Martin, and Courvoisier — which sell about 90% of all Cognac
consumed. Hennessy alone controls about 40% of the worldwide market. And it’s
important to understand that Cognac is (and always has been) an international
spirit, driven by tastes and trends in China, Singapore, Russia, the US and
elsewhere. Many of the most successful, historic houses were founded by
outsiders from Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia.
Jarnac town center
Today, about 97% of Cognac is exported, leaving only a tiny fraction
to be enjoyed at home in France. The US is the single largest consumer, with
sales more than doubling over the past decade, from around 42 million bottles
in 2008 to 87 million bottles in 2018. Much of that is at the lower end, and the
majority of those sales are of one product: Hennessy VS (at around $35 per
When a small group of companies controls so much market
share, it can complicate the work of an independent critic. All of the Big Four
were frustratingly resistant to participating in this tasting report. So was
the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC),
the governing body of the Cognac Appellation
d'Origine Contrôlée. In fact, the BNIC was more obstructionist than helpful.
After first agreeing to help with scheduling a number of appointments, the BNIC
notified me (via their public relations firm) a week before my trip to the
region that they would be unable to assist in scheduling any visits. Even
though they represent more than 280 producers, they were unwilling to help
organize a group tasting of smaller or out-of-the-way houses I might otherwise
not be able to visit. The BNIC says it “does not actively participate in
comparative evaluations.” Less than 24 hours before my scheduled visits to
Martell and Rémy Martin, both houses canceled (again, via the BNIC’s PR firm)
saying they could not “accommodate a tasting” at this time.
Over the course of
the late winter and into spring, I was eventually able to gather samples from
all of the Big Four, but only Hennessy was willing to let me taste their high-end
expressions. Even then, they didn’t trust me enough to send samples to my
office — even though every other spirit brand in the world does. No, I had to
make a special trip to New York, to a public relations office, where a brand
ambassador and a marketing staffer poured me samples of Hennessy’s Paradis and
Paradis Impérial in special glasses served on a silver tray. They regaled me
with information about “the jewels of the Prestige collection,” which ran
$1,000 and $3,000 respectively. I was told that Louis Vuitton had designed a
special trunk for the Paradis Impérial.
Sitting in that
office, sipping from my fancy glass and tapping out my tasting notes in front
of the shiny, ridiculously ornate decanters, I realized that Hennessy had to
have it this way. They couldn’t resist shoving the bling-bling in my face. It
wasn’t enough to send a small sample for me to sip and spit alone in my dreary
office, along with dozens of other, rival samples in tiny nondescript bottles,
because without the expensive, collector’s crystal tchotchke to gaze at, the liquid alone would have had
to justify the price.
To be fair, the
most expensive Cognac I tasted was sent as a normal sample in a tiny vial, with
a handwritten label: Hardy L’Été, which is sold in a crystal carafe with sculpted
stopper designed by Lalique. One of the 400 bottles retails for around $16,000.
While I find this price completely insane, I do admire Hardy for having the guts
to let it go head to head in a comparative tasting. For the record, it was pretty
good, but I rated several other Hardy expressions higher (including the Hardy
d’Albatre Rosebud, a veritable bargain at $3,800 a bottle).
The library of bottles at Frapin
Before I go
further, let me be clear: I love Cognac. I love it young and old and
middle-aged. When Cognac is well-made, it’s among the finest spirits known to
humanity. I certainly do not begrudge asking $200 or $500 or even $800 for an
exquisite brandy that has aged for decades, perhaps placed into a barrel by one
generation of artisans, cared for in a dark cellar by the next, and finally bottled,
a half-century later, by the grandchildren. I don’t believe a spirit that’s
experienced this sort of slow, patient, quiet, humble transformation into
something transcendent needs anything more than a simple bottle and a cork
stopper. But what do I know? I’m certainly no oligarch.
That’s why for this
report, I’ve pushed beyond the Big Four, beyond the flashy and expensive, and tried
to bring you a broad sense of what’s really happening in Cognac. I have covered
more than 50 brands and offering reviews and ratings on more than 200 bottles.
I found value and
quality among medium-sized producers like Frapin,
Hine, Braastad-Tiffon, Pierre
Ferrand, Delamain and Bache Gabrielsen, among others. It
should be noted that in Cognac, “medium-sized” is small compared to the Big
Four. “What we produce in one year is what the largest houses produce in one
day,” said Rebecca Montgomery, marketing director at Delamain.
It’s in this midsize
tier where most of the innovation and experimentation is happening. This is
good for Cognac, a region that generally clings to the status quo. Hine has,
for instance, started releasing vintages from its vineyards in the Bonneuil grand
cru (yes, this is actually “innovative”). Pierre Ferrand is perpetually
experimenting with new formulas and wood finishes, aging in Sauternes and
Banyuls casks, and even alternative woods such as acacia, mulberry and
chestnut. Bache Gabrielsen is experimenting with amphora and American oak (borderline
heresy in Cognac). “The big guys have always set the rules,” said Alexandre Gabriel, president of Pierre
Ferrand. “But now, this is a ripe and fun time for Cognac.”
Jacky Navarre, considered "one of the last of the purists" in Grande Champagne
Cognac is also full
of smaller producers: highly-regarded artisans and family-run operations such
as Jean Fillioux, Paul Giraud, Audry, Jean-Luc Pasquet,
Remi Landier, Dudognon, Navarre, Guillon-Painturaud and Du Peyrat, to name just a few. I
believe that part of my job as a critic is to advocate for the people making unique,
idiosyncratic spirits the right way, and so I implore you to dig deep in Cognac
and explore the lesser-known names.
To answer an
obvious question: No, in this report, I have not been able to taste everything
from everyone. But I think you’ll find this to be a fairly exhaustive dispatch
on what’s happening in Cognac right now.
In my report on
Armagnac, published last year, I talked a bit about the differences
between Cognac and its Gascon cousin. Size, volume and marketing are certainly major
differences. But if we set aside the Big Four for a moment and think about Cognac’s
small and midsize producers, we can make reasonable comparisons. There are
three key, fundamental differences: grapes, terroir and distillation methods.
It’s probably no
surprise that good Cognac begins — as the cliché goes — in the vineyard. Said
Patrice Piveteau, cellarmaster at Frapin: “At the beginning, it’s a wine.” Said
Eric Forget, cellarmaster at Hine: “I believe that the final quality of the
Cognac depends mostly upon the quality of the wine.” That white wine is
generally thin, highly acidic, and low in alcohol. But the unremarkable wine
eventually becomes, after distillation and aging, a nonesuch brandy.
with the grape. In Cognac, the wine grower is central,” said Max von Olfers,
managing director of the blog and online shop Cognac Expert.
"Paradis" cellar at Hine
The grape that is
central here is Ugni Blanc, which makes up more than 98 percent of Cognac’s
vines. Pre-phylloxera, Folle Blanche was coveted, and you can still find some
in very old blends and very rare single-varietal bottlings. Nine grapes, in
fact, are technically permitted by the 1936 decree that created the AOC (besides
Folle Blanche, there can be Colombard, Jurançon Blanc, Sémillon and several others). Yet unlike in Armagnac, little Colombard or Folle
Blanche or other grapes are used today.
What Cognac does have over Armagnac is a more diverse selection of
terroirs, with six districts or crus. Grande Champagne is often referred to as Cognac’s grand cru
(which some in the other districts hotly debate). The sole connection to the
famed Champagne sparkling wine region to the north is that the two share a
similar chalky soil, thus the shared name. Grande Champagne has 13,000 hectares
of hilly, rocky, limestone-rich vineyards, with the town Segonzac as its bullseye. Classic Grand Champagne brandies have wonderful
finesse and a lightness of touch, offering delicate floral aromas and notes of
candied orange, ginger and crème brûlée. The eaux-de-vie can
take, and often require, decades of barrel aging.
Petite Champagne, surrounding Grande Champagne’s southern
border, has more than 15,000 hectares of vineyards. The soil is also mostly
chalk, but less airy and more compact, with more drainage issues. It’s not as
long-aging, but you can still find lovely, unique 100% Petite Champagne from
producers like Jacques Estéve, Philbert and Château Montifaud. The term Fine
Champagne, found on many labels, refers to a blend of Grande and Petite
Champagne, with at least 50% Grande Champagne. This designation was pioneered
by Rémy Martin in the 1920s.
North of the two Champagnes, on a plateau to the northwest of the city
of Cognac, sits Borderies, the
smallest and most unique cru, comprising only 4,000 hectares of
vineyards. Thanks to its clay and flint soils, Borderies Cognac is mineral-driven
and nutty, with very distinctive floral aromas. In recent years, it’s become
coveted by Cognac enthusiasts looking for an alternative to Grande Champagne,
and I wholeheartedly suggest seeking out all-Borderies bottlings. Camus, which released the first 100% Borderies
XO in 2000, is the major player in Borderies, with 188 hectares. “When you
arrive in Grand Champagne, the sign says, ‘the grand cru.’ But it is not
true,” said Frédéric Dezauzier, Camus’ global brand ambassador. Smaller,
quality Borderies producers to look for are Grateaud, Ordonneau and Veuve Baron, and many of the high-end négociants
offer Borderies selections.
Inside the tasting room at Bache Gabrielsen
Cognac’s largest district is Fins
Bois, with more than 31,000 hectares surrounding Borderies and the two
Champagnes. Fin Bois has (perhaps unfairly) a mixed reputation, and there is a variety
of soils here with some pockets of limestone and clay. There are, however, many
excellent Fins Bois brandies, often more robust, fruity and rustic, from
producers like Rémi Landier, Du Peyrat, Février and Brard-Blanchard.
“Fruit is the benchmark of Fins Bois terroir,” said Geraldine Landier, fifth-generation
cellarmaster of Rémi Landier. “If there’s no fruit with a Fins Bois, then
you’re covering it up with too much wood.”
The remaining districts are Bons
Bois (over 9,000 hectares) and Bois
Ordinaires (about 1,800 hectares of sandy soils near the ocean). The eaux-de-vie
from here are mainly used for blending, and are not highly regarded. In a scene
from the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger, Bond is offered what’s
described as a “rather disappointing brandy.” When he’s asked what’s wrong with
it, he replies, “I'd say it's a 30-year-old fine, indifferently blended with an
overdose of Bon Bois.” In recent years, there have been some bottlings from the
coastal islands of Île
d’Oléron and Île de Ré (the latter from
Perhaps the most distinctive differences between Cognac and other
spirits are the specific distillation requirements. Cognac must be distilled
twice in copper pot stills, called alambic charentais. The first
distillation results in brouillis, which is low in alcohol, at around
30%. Then comes a second distillation, the bon chauffe, which can only be
a maximum of 72% alcohol. During the second distillation, the “hearts” (which
hold the fruity and floral aromas) are cut from the heads and the tails. All wine
meant to become Cognac must be distilled by March 31 following the autumn harvest.
Alexandre Gabriel, owner of Pierre Ferrand
Once the clear eaux-de-vie has been created, it goes into the
barrel, for years or decades. Though there is a growing trend of cask-strength
bottlings, most often Cognac is bottled at around 40% abv (the minimum by
decree). By the rules of the AOC, reduction with “distilled or demineralized water” is permitted to bring
down the proof, which is similar to other spirits.
However, in Cognac there’s a facet of the final production where things get a bit sketchy
(and secretive). Controversially,
producers here are permitted by AOC rules to add sugar, caramel, and oak
infusion “for final adjustment.”
In fact, a
substance called boisé, a mixture of sugar, oak chips and lower-proof
brandy, is often added to a young Cognac to intensify its taste and texture and
to make it appear older than it is. Of course, boisé is the sort of topic that
few people in Cognac are willing to talk about. And it’s something that purist,
traditional, artisan producers avoid.
is the issue of aging and blending, and the alphabet soup of classifications
(VS, VSOP, XO) as well as several other nebulous designations.
In VS (Very Special), the youngest eau-de-vie
in the blend must be two years old. In VSOP
(Very Superior Old Pale), the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend must be four
years old. In XO (Extra Old), based
on last year’s rule change, the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend must now
be 10 years old.
Stills at Braastad-Tiffon
Beyond those relatively straightforward
guidelines, there are a number of confusing terms in use such as Réserve,
d’Age and Napoléon. “Within
the industry there’s an unwritten rule as to what they stand for,” according to
the Cognac Expert blog. This “unwritten rule” must be the most convoluted fiat
ever established. For instance, according to the BNIC, Réserve falls into the same age category as VSOP.
That means it can technically be as young as four years old. Yet plenty of
houses name some of their decades-old blends “Réserve Familiale.” And if
the phrase Très Vieille Réserve is
used, the youngest eaux-de-vie must
be six years old.
Extra and Hors d’Age are listed in the regulations under the same category as
XO, and are affected by the new rule change. Extra is used for special blends,
but there are no specific requirements. Hors
d’Age has almost always been used to designate a bottling that was older than a
house’s XO, generally at least 30 years old. Extra Extra Old or XXO
must be at least 14 years old.
Even more confusing is the murky, slippery term Napoléon, an old-fashioned name concocted in the 19th
century to connote luxury. “When I first took over, I wanted to kill Napoléon,”
Geraldine Landier of Rémi Landier told me. “But my father insisted, ‘No, we
need to keep Napoléon.’ But fewer people are making it anymore.” When it is
used, it’s often to label a bottling with 20 or more years of age. But other houses
use the term for a sort of “tweener” Cognac that falls between VSOP and XO. In
fact, the new XO rule change will not affect Napoléon. So it can be still used
for six-year-old Cognac.
Château Triac, the Braastad family manor
The Art of
As I said
before: Cognac will make your head spin. I believe it’s the concept of blending
that’s the most difficult for newcomers to the spirit to wrap their minds
In the world of
craft spirits — especially whiskey — the master distiller is the
protagonist, the venerated hero of the show. For instance, most
American drinkers don’t want to hear about blending. We love to talk about
singular things: single malts, single vineyards, single barrels, certain vintages
singled out for their singularity. Blending? You may as well be speaking French.
Blending removes an age statement as the easy shortcut to connoisseurship. With Cognac and other brandies, the master blender plays a much more
important role than the distiller. Yet blending is probably the
most misunderstood aspect of producing aged spirits, and it’s rarely discussed.
On my third trip to Cognac, in
2012, I had a chance to blend with Pierrette Trichet, who at the time was Rémy
Martin’s master blender. Trichet had worked for nearly four decades in Rémy’s
cellar, and was the first woman to hold the position of cellarmaster (she retired
Under Trichet’s direction, I undertook an exercise similar
to what a blender would face on a seasonal basis. She gave me bottles of five-year-old,
15-year-old and 30-year-old eaux-de-vie
and told me to blend them into an XO. I measured out various ratios of eaux-de-vie into beakers and flasks and
started blending, as she observed, poker-faced.
“The important thing with blending is to, as we say, close
the gaps between the ages,” Trichet said. This means she and her team would
taste year-round, so they knew which barrels they could tap for young, fresh
fruit aromas, where to find dried fruit and spice, where to find intensity, and
where to find the older, sought-after notes of nuttiness, baked apple pie and
toffee you find in fine, balanced Cognacs.
With Cognacs that had aged for 20 years or more, they also
looked for the peculiar, hard-to-describe rancio
notes. Rancio is a fascinating element of old brandy. From 10 to 15 years, brandy
can begin to take on nutty or dried flower characteristics, or even notes reminiscent
of sherry. After about 20 years, you may get cheesy or earthy forest-floor
notes or even aromas of curry and saffron. At about 25 to 30 years, you start
to get old tawny port aromas, cedar wood, and hints of antique furniture
varnish. Finally, after about four decades in the barrel, you start to get
strange and wonderful notes of tropical fruit.
Jean-Francois Rault, master distiller at Du Peyrat
Since my challenge at Rémy Martin was to create an XO, in
2012 this meant the youngest brandies in the finished Cognac would have to be
at least six years old. I was told by Trichet to seek a so-called “tasting age”
of around 20 years old. Since one of the brandies I was working with was a five-year-old,
I assumed whatever I created would hypothetically need to go into a barrel again
for at least another year. I say “assumed” because this aspect was not
In my first attempt, I used 50% of the 15-year-old, which
was the most concentrated and intense. Of the remaining half, I used two parts
30-year-old eau-de-vie to one part
five-year-old. Because the alcohol was at cask strength (around 100 proof), I
added a tiny amount of distilled water to bring down to 80 proof — which is
what most Cognac is bottled at. The result, in my humble opinion, was
Trichet took a long time nosing. And then she smiled.
“Mmmm,” she said. “That is a very expensive XO you have there.” More expensive
than Rémy Martin XO? I asked, knowing it was around $150. “Oh, yes, definitely.
You have very expensive taste.”
On my second attempt, I used about 60% of the five-year-old,
with its fresh apricot aromas and buttery mouthfeel, 30% of the 15-year-old,
and just about 10% of the 30-year-old. Trichet told me I was much closer to
Remy Martin’s XO blend on this one.
This was eye-opening to me. I’d always imagined that
expensive Cognacs had much more older eaux-de-vie
in the blend. But doing the exercise, I began to see how a small amount of the
older spirit went a long way.
Afterward, Trichet circled back again to my first attempt, the
one where I used the older brandy. She now took a full sip of the golden
liquid. “Mmm,” she said. “This is a very good Cognac.”
For a moment, I allowed myself to daydream. Would she
consider using my Cognac in a new product launch? Would she release it in a specially
designed crystal carafe, like the bottling I’d seen in the Rémy Martin gift
shop priced at $16,000? Would Chinese billionaires start clamoring for Le Jason
Trichet quickly brought me back to earth. “Very nice,” she
said, and scribbled a little star on my tasting sheet.
I tell this anecdote about my experience blending in the
cellar at Rémy Martin for a number of reasons. I certainly want to highlight
the alchemy, and the human element, that goes into the art of blending Cognacs
at the highest end. I also want to convey that it’s something of a dark art,
accomplished with a subjective methodology that’s enigmatic and secretive.
But I’d also like to point out that, under different
journalistic circumstances, a big brand like Rémy Martin was more than happy to
have a feature writer like me as a visitor in their cellars, tasting with their
master blender and making copious notes.
On that visit, I tasted several of their highest
expressions, including the world-famous Louis XIII, which Rémy describes as “a subtle blend of up to 1,200
distinct eaux-de-vie, the youngest of
which is at least 40 years old.” Louis XIII sells for more than $3,000 a
Line Guillon-Painturaud, one of the few women master distillers in Cognac
Sadly, I was not offered a chance by Rémy Martin to taste Louis
XIII in 2019 for this comparative tasting. They made only their basic three
bottlings available for sampling and review, and this after telling me they
could not “accommodate a tasting” at the cellars while I was in Cognac for 10
days. What changed? I can’t be sure. Maybe they have too much to lose by
chancing a score on Louis XIII.
In any case, since my tasting notes on Louis XIII date back
to my visit with Trichet seven years ago, I cannot now reliably review and rate
that Cognac in this report. But no worries. I’ve reviewed more than 200 other Cognacs
here for your enjoyment. I assure you that a number of them deserve to become
as famous as Louis XIII. And they’ll surely cost you at least a couple thousand
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