While I’ve tried a few brandies in my time I honestly don’t have extensive knowledge and experience with cognac. So I was delighted to further my education in this space with at cognac tasting with the VP of North America from Cognac Ferrand Guillaume Lamy.
As with champagne, cognac can only come from one region of the world (the Cognac region of France, located north east of Bordeaux and centered around the city of Cognac). In that region there are a number of different soil compositions which lend flavor and varied characteristics to the grapes made into cognac. The most desirable of these soils is classified as grand champagne. In this case ‘champagne’ does not refer to the type of grape but the type of soil, with champagne literally meaning ‘chalk’ in French.
In addition to the specification of where cognac can come from there are mandates on which type of grapes can be used. Ninety percent of cognac must be made from either the ugni blanc, folle blanche or colombard grapes (all white grape wines). These grapes are harvested and made into a ‘wine’ that is very low in sugar and has absolutely no sulfites.
There’s a misnomer with cognac that ‘good cognac comes from bad wine’, but that’s a total myth. The wine which is used for great cognac comes from some of the best raw ingredients in the world, but they aren’t made into a traditional wine before distilling. The wine which is used for cognac ferrand is an unfiltered brew which includes the macerated skins and flesh from the grape (referred to as the unfiltered lees). This gives the finished product a strong concentration of grape flavor.
I had the opportunity to taste some distillate which was made from unfiltered wine and filtered wine and the difference is pretty remarkable. The unfiltered had a fruitier, richer taste while the filtered tasted more like grappa.
Cognac is double distilled in a special pot still in small batches. With the unfiltered lees there is a high risk of toasting the lees and ruining the entire batch (and if it’s bad enough, ruin the still). The cognac is then stored in new oak and aged for a minimum of 2 years. There are cognacs 70 years and older but 30 years is the real peak for cognac, after which it may be necessary to blend younger cognacs to ‘bring it back to life’.
At the point of distillation, a cognac has over 40% alcohol, and once it’s put into oak that drops as alcohol evaporates into the wood. In the first year the percentage of alcohol in an aging cognac can drop as much as 5% (this drop in alcohol is often referred to as ‘the angel’s share’). The BNIC estimated that the ‘angel’s share’ in the cognac region in 2009 was equivalent to 40 million bottles of alcohol.
Cognacs are classified by age:
- VS (Very Special) which has been aged 2 years
- VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) aged at least 4 years
- XO (Extra Old) aged at least 6 years
Most cognacs are a blend of many years of cognac, but to get a designation like XO, the youngest cognac must be no less that 6 years old. Blending cognac is an extremely complex process which is often referred to as ‘intermingling’ as great care is taken that different vintages of cognac interact in a way to preserve the best qualities of each.
Cognacs are aged in either a dry cellar or a humid one, each giving the finished product unique characteristics. The dry cellaring results in a cognac which is aged faster and is dryer. The dry storage is often used for VS and VSOP cognac. Humid storage is used for vintage cognac and XO and results in a rounder, more supple flavor. One of the tools that cognac producers use is to blend between the two types to create a very refined and balanced cognac.
It’s amazing to me just how much time, attention and care is given to a fine cognac at each step in the process. Guillaume Lamy spoke about a guy at Cognac Ferrand who is in charge of the cognac barrells. The guy’s sense of smell is so acute that he is able to change in and out individual barrel staves to impact the flavor of a cognac.
Ideally a good cognac should embody the essence of the grape that it was distilled from blending that with a symphony of well-balanced flavors from the oak, neither one overpowering the other. I tasted the three main cognacs from Cognac Ferrand: Pierre Ferrand Ambre, Reserve, and Selection Des Anges, and thouroughly enjoyed all three with the Selection Des Anges being my favorite in it’s complexity and flavor.
Cognac is a spirit that can be intimidating for someone who has never tried it, but if you are a fan of wine, grapes and spirits and love the rich sweet tones that oak can deliver or you love a very balanced spirit, cognac is definitely a space worthy of exploration.