Two classic Cognac houses
“Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.” Samuel Johnson
Any cigar aficionado is invariably aware of the classical paring of cognac and cigars. Unfortunately, the cocktail revival that took hold in the late 90’s triggered interest in many spirits while cognac remained overlooked. Cognac languished as a dated, old-fashioned drink. Increased discernment has blunted these prejudices, and curiosity in this venerable and most rewarding of spirits has returned. The purpose of this short article is to provide background on cognac; profile a couple of the lesser-known cognac brands; and propose cigar pairings that best highlight the specific flavour characteristics of the house.
Cognac is a type of French brandy named after the commune of the same name, located about 100km north of Bordeaux. Cognac is highly regulated, and in order to be considered as such, the brandy must bear each of the following characteristics:
- The vineyards originate exclusively within the appellation of Cognac and / or Charente-Maritime;
- The grower uses defined grape varietals (specifically Ugni Blanc, Folie Blanche, Colombard);
- The liquid is distilled 2 times in a copper Charentais alembic pot still;
- The distilled liquid is then matured for at least 2 years in French oak barrels.
Limousin Casks, Hennessy
PRODUCTION: VINICULTURE, DISTILLATION, FERMENTATION
- The Cognacais are very particular about the origin of their grapes. Indeed, the grape producing areas within the Cognac region can be considered hierarchically: Grande Champagne produces the finest grapes, followed by Petite Champagne. The remainder (Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois) are esteemed but of lower rank.
- Once the grapes have been harvested, the first step is to produce a wine that can be used for distillation. These wines are basic and undrinkably acid.
- The distillation process runs the wine through a copper pot-shaped alembic still. As the pot is heated the liquid inside evaporates. Vapours rise though the neck of the still which extends beyond the pot. The vapour then passes through a condenser which relies on cold water to convert the vapour back into a distillate.
- The first distillation, known as ‘‘la premiere chaufffe” creates a brouillis of 26-32% ABV;
- In the second distillation, known as “la bonne chauffe”, the distiller only keeps part of the liquid. The ‘head’ (volatile compounds which evaporate first) are cut as they contain impurities impacting flavour, and the ‘tail’ (the least volatile compounds) are cut as the alcohol level is too low. Only the ‘heart’ is retained, a liquid with an alcohol level of approximately 70% ABV.
- The next step is critical, as the style is strongly influenced by the wood. The distillate is transferred into new oak, then aged in old oak from the neighbouring regions of Limousin or Troncais. Only these two types of French oak will serve the purpose. Consideration will already be given to the specific oak used. Limousin is a tough wood renowned for its tannic qualities, while Troncais has less tannin and therefore a less ‘woody’ effect.
- Over time both water and alcohol will evaporate and be absorbed into the oak. This evaporation, known as “the angel’s share”, yields a 2-4% annual reduction in ABV for the first 10 years or so, depending on the humidity of the cellar or ‘chai’.
- The level of time in cask will have a bearing on quality, and the French regulator has created a coding system:
- VS: 2 years in cask;
- VSOP: 4 years in cask;
- XO: 10 years in cask.
Cognac is extremely long-lived and can continue to mature for up for 75 years in cask. Once bottled (in bottle or demijohn), the Cognac can last indefinitely. It is quite possible to find bottles dating from the late 1800s (if you look hard enough and have plenty of money).
Much consolidation has taken place in the cognac segment in the past 50 years. The global cognac market is dominated by 4 brands which are themselves owned by the some of the largest drinks groups in the world: Hennessey (LVMH), Martell (Pernod Ricard), Courvoisier (Beam Suntory), and Remy Martin (Remy Cointreau).
Nevertheless, there are still over 200 other Cognac producers concentrated in the small towns of Cognac, Jarnac, Segonzac along the banks of the Charente. Let us consider just two of these: DELAMAIN and TESSERON. These are both highly reputed, family-run houses, exclusively producing XO cognacs at the very highest level of pedigree and refinement.
Founder James Delamain, an Irishman who married into a leading cognac exporter, started the house in 1759. It is now be run by the direct descendants of the founder (although it is now majority owned by the Bollinger family of Champagne). Delamain do not own their own stocks, but purchase spirits from range of growers which it then blends. Its house style is the traditional ‘English’ style, with a light, elegant, almost ethereal profile.
Its core offering comprises 3 cognacs: Pale and Dry, Vesper and Tres Venerable. These core cognacs are supplemented by various specific bottlings and family reserves created from time to time.
Pale and Dry XO is the perfect place to start. It is the quintessential Delamain cognac. This 25-year-old cognac is produced exclusively from Ugni Blanc grapes in the Grand Champagne region of Cognac. The name Pale and Dry refers to its colour and the absence of added sugars that contribute to its restrained, delicate style.
- Colour: clear, light amber;
- Bouquet: fruit including citrus and stone fruit such as apricot;
- Palate: light and delicate in mouth. Impressions of vanilla, florals;
- Finish: full and soft with a medium finish.
Tesseron is considerably younger than Delamain, yet no less distinguished. Its founder, Abel Tesseron, started purchasing land parcels in Grand Champagne and Petit Champagne in 1905. He augmented these landholdings with extensive stocks of old cognac. Notably, the ‘paradis’ of the Tesserons (which contain their most ancient and valuable stocks) hold demijohns of cognac dating back to the early 19th century. Tesseron started as a wholesaler, only selling cognac to the larger houses, however in 2003 Tesseron began to sell direct. In a very short time, Tesseron has emerged as one of the finest exponents of luxury, very old cognac.
Tesseron’s original ‘classic’ line were described as lots, approximating to their age, typically expressed in terms of a generation (e.g. 25-30 years). The line comprised:
- Lot 90 XO Ovation: 15-years-old;
- Lot 76 XO Tradition: 25-years-old;
- Lot 53 XO Perfection: 50-years-old;
- Lot 29 XO Exception: 75-years-old.
To experience Lot 53 XO Perfection is to begin to appreciate what fine cognac can offer. This cognac is sourced from Ugni Blanc and Colombard (pre-Phylloxera) grapes from the Grand Champagne region, which then aged for approximately 50 years in old Limousin oak. The overall effect is simply magnificent.
- Colour: intense topaz, mahogany;
- Bouquet: dried fruits, tobacco, wood, rancio (a unique earthy, musty characteristic);
- Palate: opulent, rounded, pepper, dark chocolate;
- Finish: full-bodied, soft, long-lived.
Blender’s Desk, Bache Gabrielsen
In matching cigars, it is important to identify a cigar profile that complements the cognac. A light-bodied cigar will not overpower a delicate cognac. The inverse is true for more complex, richly flavoured cognacs.
DELAMAIN – HOYO DE MONTEREY. The Hoyo de Monterey brand is an attractive option for a lighter style. As with the Delamain Pale and Dry XO, it has delicate and aromatic flavours with considerable elegance. The prestigious Epicure series, notably the HdM Epicure No. 1 (143mm, 46 ring gauge) would be a worthy companion, yielding a sophisticated, smooth smoke with herbal flavours, and woody palate.
TESSERON – COHIBA. Lot 53 XO Perfection has an immense, multi-faceted flavour profile and should not be rushed. This is a serious cognac which requires focus and attention. Consider then a Cohiba Siglo V (170mm, 43 ring gauge). I believe that the Dalia format and the coffee, cream and tobacco flavours provide the time and the sensory background in which luxuriate in the aromas of this cognac.
Cognac – as cigars – is a subject which rewards endless study and discovery. In parting, I quote the French diplomat Talleyrand who has the last word on the subject.
On observing a Russian friend who tossed his glass of fine champagne in one gulp, Talleyrand took the liberty of advising his friend quite quietly: ‘that is not how you drink cognac. You take your glass in the hollow of your hand, you warm it, you rotate it with a circular movement so that the spirit gives off its aroma. Then you carry it to your nostrils and inhale… and then, my dear sir, you put down your glass and talk about it.’