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The Cognac Mystique
by Scott Stavrou
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 3.6

High-Spirited Elegance Inside the Snifter

There's a small town of 20,000 people nestled alongside the tranquil Charente River in the rolling green hills of south-western France. This community would be like countless others throughout the world if it weren't for the fact that this hamlet, Cognac, has given its name to what most cognoscenti consider the most esteemed and elite distilled liquor in the world.

Cognac. The very word resonates with elegance and sophistication. It conjures up images of Cary Grant in a smoking jacket glancing across the bar at Audrey Hepburn; James Bond tempting fate in the Casino in Monte Carlo; or more simply a country squire reclining by the fire in a wood-paneled study flanked by his Brittany spaniels. Cognac evokes the timeless allure of the good life -- perhaps one reason why more Americans are drawn to it today -- allowing those who indulge to savor its flavor and image and to escape the imperfect, chaotic reality of modern times.

Unlike so many prestigious classics, Cognac, because of its high quality and some innovative marketing, has managed to actually acquire new devotees. Spurred by the cigar trend, the renewed appreciation for fine dining and classic cocktails (and the general interest in enjoying life), Cognac consumption in the United States has increased each year since the early 1990s.

The Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC) is the governing private cooperative that oversees the marketing of Cognac worldwide. In some ways it functions almost as a cartel, vigorously enforcing the mandates it deems necessary for success among the 200 Cognac houses in the area. Cognac production is the lifeblood of the region, with the vast majority of the area's residents involved in one way or another with production.

Strangely, even though the French take such pride in all things French, they've never been among the world leaders in Cognac consumption. A new campaign seeks to change that: Offrez du Cognac a vos glacons. Translation: "Offer some Cognac to your ice." The French are very aware that they must appeal to young adults because today's 20-somethings are the ones who may become lifelong consumers -- the ones who'll still be enjoying Cognac three decades from now, when they're in their fifties. And the campaign is working. Young adult consumers are buying Cognac and finding that while it still carries its prestige, it's also eminently enjoyable as an aperitif, as punctuation to a pleasant meal or even as an at-home mixer. It blends harmoniously with sparkling water and even stars in a host of designer martinis. (Purists might be aghast at the idea of Cognac cavorting with ice or mixers, but the BNIC heartily promotes such new consumption.) In nightclubs, people are even blending it with Coke. Is this sacrilege? Not if you enjoy it. Pleasure is its own reward, and Cognac is far more versatile than its former staid image might suggest.

A SPIRITED HISTORY

The fact that Cognac has so gracefully endeared itself as a symbol of the finer things in life is a fortuitous coincidence of accident and design, helped along by shrewd producers, industrious traders, European wars and the luck of geography.

The village of Cognac was one of Europe's premier salt-trading towns throughout the Middle Ages, and wealthy northern European merchants quickly became as devoted to fine French wines as to salt. But there was difficulty in transporting wine -- a bulky, space-consuming good -- and crude production methods made the wine prone to break down during long sea voyages home. With the utmost efficiency in mind, the wine merchants decided to distill the wine, "cook it down" from nine barrels into one and then re-hydrate it before selling it at its destination. The distillate was known as eau de vie (water of life).

Because of the fire necessary for distillation, the literal and thirsty Dutch began referring to the product as wijnbranders (burnt wine), which evolved into brandywijn and ultimately into brandy. As the Middle Ages was a time when souls were tried, people quickly discovered that the distilled spirit packed a more powerful punch before being diluted with water. Yes, brandy was good for both water conservation and people's moods.

Trade thrived; peasant thirsts were quenched. Business was so good in fact that many opportunistic English, Dutch and Scandinavian traders set up shop in the Cognac region, establishing some of the more famous Cognac houses that still exist today. This is why family names on so many fine French Cognacs aren't even French. Take, for example, Cognac Larsen, "the Cognac of the Vikings."

With the Spanish War of Succession in 1701, the burgeoning industry stalled, and producers and merchants in Cognac were forced to stockpile and hide their supplies of eau de vie in oak casks in their cellars. Some years later, peace prevailed, the casks were uncorked and out flowed a rich amber liquid with a distinctive new aroma and flavor. Cognac was born.

Over time, production techniques were refined, and double-distillation became the industry standard for what was considered the world's finest brandy. (All Cognac is brandy; however, not all brandy is Cognac.) Other wine regions began imitating the successful Cognac process and producing brandy. Today there are only three officially designated brandy regions in Europe: Cognac and Armagnac in France, and Jerez in Spain.

The French of course have a well-deserved reputation for fine craftsmanship. They also have an innate love of bureaucracy, and in 1909, French appellation laws were enacted to mandate what can officially be designated Cognac. There are three vital factors necessary to obtain the Cognac designation: growing area, distillation, and aging method.

GROWING AREA

The Cognac production area, as defined by government decree, is divided into six districts, or crus, that cover much of the Charente and all of the Charente-Maritime departments north of Bordeaux. Each boasts its own unique characteristics, based on soil chalkiness, penetration of ocean air and the varied micro-climates. The crus form rough concentric circles around the town of Cognac, beginning with Grande Champagne, the most esteemed cru. This is not to be confused with the Champagne area of northern France, which lends its name to your favorite bubbly beverage. (Champagne actually means "open field" in French.) Circling outwards, the other crus are Petit Champagne, Borderies, Fin Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaire.

All Cognac must be produced from grapes grown and harvested within these cru regions and only from white wine grapes. The three permissible varieties are folle blanche, colombard and ugni blanc (Trebbiano in Italy). Approximately 98 percent of grapes used for Cognac production today are ugni blanc. Some growers still harvest by hand, though mechanical harvesting has greatly expanded in recent decades. The fruit is pressed within hours of being picked and the juice immediately fermented. About half the farmers actually do their own distilling, while the rest sell their juice to distillers or Cognac houses. Very few Cognac houses are involved in the actual grape growing, and typically only the larger ones in distillation. The art and nuances involved in producing Cognac come later, during aging and blending.

DISTILLATION

In the distillation process, often described as removing the soul or the spirit from the wine, Cognac begins to develop some of its personality.

Unlike other brandies, Cognac is double-distilled. In the first distillation, the wine is heated over an open flame in copper kettles to pass the vapors through a condensing coil. The resulting liquid is then cooled to form a milky spirit with an alcohol content of 27 to 30 percent. It's then returned to the boiler for a second distillation and the cutting process -- when distillers cut out the "heads' (the first, higher-alcohol vapors) and the "tails" (the remaining weaker vapors) to get at the "heart," (the clear spirit) which can't legally exceed 72 percent alcohol. This colorless, infant Cognac, the eau de vie, is akin to grappa or other unrefined, unaged brandies. Per government decree, distillation of each year's vintage must be completed by the following March 31 in order to capture the fresh, fruity qualities of the wine.

THE COGNAC FINE ARTS: AGING, BLENDING AND THE ANGEL'S SHARE

Cognac must be barrel-aged for a minimum of two and a half years prior to bottling, though the vast majority mature far longer. Due to the great impact of wood on eau de vie, only certain types of French oak are used for the barrels. The main ones come from forests in nearby Limousin (the famous oak that was often used for the interior paneling of luxury autos of yore, hence "limousine"), Troncais and Nevers. Barrels are considered so vital to the final product that many of the larger Cognac houses own private cooperages, where barrels are made sans any synthetic materials that might impart negative characteristics to the Cognac.

Aging is a painstaking and pricey process, for while the Cognac sits barreled, soaking up flavors and colors, a tremendous investment of time and money sits too. The 280 liters per barrel of Cognac sitting in a cellar equal 280 liters of Cognac not being sold. Thus, millions of dollars of Cognac sit in cellars of most Cognac houses. An even more ominous fact is that while Cognac ages it also evaporatesÉ at a rate of three to five percent annually. Though this may not seem like much, it represents about 20 million bottles' worth of product. This is poetically referred to as the "angel's share," and though it represents a hefty loss of profit, it's necessary to achieve the quality that is the hallmark of Cognac.

Few Cognacs go straight from barrel to bottle. So cellarmasters earn their keep by blending eau de vie from different vintages and/or growing areas or even by just moving the Cognac from newer to older barrels. Interestingly, cellarmasters speak of barrels as if they're old friends, and indeed, many barrels they fill won't be used again in their lifetimes. These denizens of the deep stone cellars truly consider their job much more art than science.

According to Cognac producers, young Cognac may be good but is often too bold and too brash. Cognac continues to improve with age for about 50 or 60 years, when it begins to decline and is moved to large demi-john bottles to prevent further aging. Only years spent in barrels are classified as aging years; therefore, a 50-year-old Cognac that sits in a bottle for five decades more is still a 50-year-old Cognac.

The "Big Four" Cognac giants are Remy Martin, Martell, Hennessy and Courvoisier, whose sales account for 85 percent of the total worldwide market. Each house strives for a recognizable style and a uniform standard of taste and consistency, and over the centuries each has developed a discernible signature taste. Ideally, a 25-year-old Cognac maturing today should taste like a 25-year-old Cognac produced a century ago. Even in these larger houses, this is often achieved by handing down the art of blending from generation to generation. Though Cognac the spirit enjoys worldwide popularity, Cognac the place is still a small and insular town and, the distiller's craft is very much an insider's business -- one you learn by virtue of your family.

Remy Martin's Louis XIII is sometimes called the "King of Cognacs" and is certainly one of the most esteemed liquors in the world. It was what Queen Elizabeth II was served when she visited France, what Churchill drank to celebrate his election as prime minister and what Tom Cruise and Bryan Brown wagered in the movie Cocktail.

Louis XIII is bottled in a Baccarat crystal decanter and retails for upwards of $1,500 per bottle. The extravagant price represents a great investment of time and effort, as three generations of Remy's cellarmasters craft more than 3,000 blends before it's bottled. This assures the Cognac's complexity and character, while preventing it from being copied.

The fortunate thing is that you don't need to know all this to enjoy Cognac. Perhaps the French say it best, that it has that certain je ne sais quoi (I don't know what). With anything that can add so much pleasure to the rhythm of your life, maybe it's just as well not to know. A little mystery can be a good thing.


COGNAC DESIGNATIONS

The four designations used in classifying Cognac are derived from English words, since Cognac enjoyed its first surge of popularity among the English. It's classified according to the youngest Cognac used in a blend. So while a two-and-half-year-old VS designation may be blended with older vintages, it still can be labeled only a VS, signifying the youngest blend.

VS - Very Special, aged a minimum of two and a half years

VSOP - Very Superior Old Pale, aged a minimum of four and a half years

NAPOLEON - aged a minimum six and a half years

XO - Extra Old, also aged a minimum of six and a half years, though because of tradition and consumer demand is generally blended with many Cognacs aged several decades or more

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