The Cognac Primer
An intro to the secrets of this delightfully confounding spirit
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 years old.”
“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 Cognac producers.
For starters, 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 2019, XO had to be a minimum of six years old, but I’ve rarely met a producer who didn’t insist that their XO was far older. Some insist they never release an XO younger than 20 or 25 years. As of a rule change in 2019, the minimum age of XO is now legally 10 years old.
Most of the larger Cognac houses, though they may wax poetic about vineyards and rustic distillation, buy wine or spirit 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.
Got all that? It gets more complicated. Cognac will make your head spin.
This is a region dominated by the Big Four — Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin, and Courvoisier — which sell about 90 percent of all Cognac consumed. Hennessy alone controls about 40 percent 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.
Today, about 97 percent of Cognac is exported — around 226 million bottles — 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 a 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.
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 are frustratingly resistant to participating in a comparatives tastings (such as I did for Vinous in 2019 when I reviewed more than 200 bottles from around 50 producers). So was the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), the governing body of the Cognac Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée.
In fact, I’ve found the BNIC 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 that time.
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. Nope, 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 ever 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).
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 in my reporting on Cognac over the years, 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. In my Vinous report, I 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.”
Cognac is also full of smaller producers: highly-regarded artisans and family-run operations such as Jean-Luc Pasquet, Remi Landier, Dudognon, Navarre, Guillon-Painturaud, Jean Fillioux, Paul Giraud, Audry, 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.
In my primer on Armagnac, 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.
“Everything begins with the grape. In Cognac, the wine grower is central,” said Max von Olfers, managing director of the blog and online shop Cognac Expert.
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 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 percent Petite Champagne from producers like Jacques Estéve, Bertrand, 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.
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 Camus).
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 percent. Then comes a second distillation, the bon chauffe, which can only be a maximum of 72 percent 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.
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 percent 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.
Finally, there 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.
Beyond those relatively straightforward guidelines, there are a number of confusing terms in use such as Réserve, Extra, Hors 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.
The Art of Blending
As I said before: Cognac will make your head spin. But I believe it’s the concept of blending that’s the most difficult for newcomers to the spirit to wrap their minds around.
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 in 2014).
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.
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 discussed.
In my first attempt, I used 50 percent 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 delicious.
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 percent of the five-year-old, with its fresh apricot aromas and buttery mouthfeel, 30 percent 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 XO?
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 bottle.
Sadly, I was not offered a chance by Rémy Martin to taste Louis XIII in 2019 for my big 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, no worries. I’ve reviewed hundreds more Cognacs that I will share with you in this newsletter. I assure you that any number of them deserve to become as famous as Louis XIII. And they’ll likely cost you at least a couple thousand bucks less.