Cognac (named after the town of Cognac in France), is savoured by connoisseurs as an ‘after dinner’ drink (particularly on cold winter evenings) and is often enjoyed with a good Cuban cigar, although it is now commonly drunk as an aperitif, as a mixer as well as by itself. And it must be said that the new rich in China, drink it at all times! writes Arjun Sawhny.
Right: Arjun Sawhny with his wife and Brand Ambassador, Chian Mei
Our experience of distinguishing between the various grades of Cognac is limited to the names of the brands and perhaps the fineness of the taste, but the real distinction is in its after-taste: the longer the after-taste, the finer the Cognac.
Cognac is a brandy produced in the Cognac region in southwest France, close to the Atlantic and towards Bordeaux and the seaside town of La Rochelle – an area is known for its relatively temperate climate. Cognac, the town, is 450 km from Paris and can be reached by taking the TGV to Angoulême (two and a half hours) followed by a 40-minute drive.
My wife and I were guests of the House of Remy Martin and enjoyed the hospitality of an excellent hotel in an estate in the outskirts of the town and, needless to say, sampled its fine product. The major producers are all located around the town of Cognac.
Cognac has been produced for some 300 years and was sold for its medicinal properties even during the prohibition years in America, the bottles being imported with a Red Cross insignia.
The best Cognac is made from grapes grown in the Grande Champagne region (13,766 hectares) within the Greater Cognac region. Most of the Cognac we drink is produced from grapes in the Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne areas, located at the heart of the Cognac region. A blend of Grande and Petite Champagne Cognacs, with at least half coming from Grande Champagne, is known as ‘Fine Champagne Cognac’.
The term ‘Champagne’ is of Latin derivation and expresses the nature of the soil, which is chalky. Both Champagne and Cognac are produced from grapes grown in this chalky soil which ensures that the grapes are a little sour. Champagne is produced closer to Paris, barely 75 km east of the city. It is important to note that only brandy produced within the Cognac region can be called Cognac – all others are called Brandy. Similarly, only sparkling wine produced in Champagne can be called Champagne – all others are called sparkling wine.
The secret about Cognac is that it is produced as eaux-de-vie (a colourless fruit brandy), with the amber colour being derived later from the oak barrels in which it is aged. The oak wood itself is aged by being exposed to the elements (for up to three years) before it is converted into barrels.
To make Cognac, white wine is distilled in a copper pot and aged for at least four years (as for VSOP for instance) prior to being sold. The eau-de-vie, literally ‘water of life’, so derived continues to be aged or blended with eaux de vie of different years of production until it achieves the appropriate taste for which it is blended.
The main well-known grades are: VS (Very Special), VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), XO (Extra Old). There are also premium grades, which in the case of Remy Martin, is the Louis XIII (pronounced ‘Louis threz’). The Louis XIII is produced entirely from grapes grown in the Grande Champagne; whereas the VSOP and XO are a blend of both Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne grapes while the VS is produced entirely from grapes in the Petite Champagne area.
The highlight of our visit was a Cognac tasting, with lunch at the owner’s dining room at the Club and a visit to the Grande Champagne estates, followed by a tour of the owner’s château where a taste of the Louis XIII from the 100-year-old Limousin oak barrels stored in the private estate will always be a cherished memory.
Louis XIII is produced from eaux de vie aged between 40 to 100 years by four generations of Cellar Masters. Because of the length of the ageing period, it is said that a Cellar Master never gets to taste his own Louis XIII eaux de vie although the taste has remained unchanged for centuries.
This Louis XIII eaux de vie has been appreciated by legends: Picasso, Coco Chanel, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Bill Clinton, Larry Holmes, Oscar de La Hoya, Magic Johnson, Tom Cruise, Quentin Tarantino, Will Smith, among others. A 700 ml bottle retails for over US$ 2000 and, not surprisingly, China is the largest consumer. Though there is little doubt that we will get there soon, and that India will one day be the next largest consumer!