Hidden Gems Of Cognac

8 February 2012

I’ve written a bit about the big guns of Cognac — Hennessy, Rémy Martin and Courvoisier — but I would be remiss in my duties as Odd Bacchus if I didn’t devote at least one post to some of the lesser-known, small-production Cognacs. I can’t think of one brand I tasted that I didn’t enjoy, so it’s worth taking a risk on an unknown name if you see a good deal.

And why take a risk at all? Cognac simply tastes delicious, with complex flavors and often a touch of sweetness. If you like Bourbon, you’ll like Cognac. It’s not heavy, as many people I’ve spoken with fear. VS and VSOP Cognacs tend to feel very fresh, and even the older XOs usually have plenty of vivacious life.

At a grand tasting event in the Museum of the Arts of Cognac, I sampled no fewer than 25 different Cognacs, and although I enjoyed some more than others, there wasn’t a single one that tasted in the least bit unpleasant. Some, like Baron Otard and Prince Hubert de Polignac, have not yet made it to store shelves in the U.S., which is a great misfortune. I’ll therefore confine myself to Cognacs you have a fighting chance of finding:

PAUL GIRAUD (I wrote briefly about the charming Mr. Giraud in this post. All his vineyards are in the Grande Champagne region, the most prestigious part of Cognac.)

  • VSOP: Aged a minimum of eight years, this Cognac smelled of caramel and marzipan, and exhibited an elegantly restrained power.
  • XO: Mr. Giraud, referencing the theme of the Cognac Summit, shared his opinion that “this is the one for the ladies — it’s sweet and smooth.” Indeed it was, with concentrated aromas and rich but lively flavors. It paired beautifully with chocolate.
  • Tres Rare: This 40-year-old Cognac had a luxurious nose, and it really took me on a journey, developing and changing on my palate with a very long finish. Delicious.

FRANCOIS VOYER (The cellarmaster may be young, but he makes some pretty darn impressive Cognacs.)

  • VS: Surprisingly complex for a VS, and very spicy.
  • VSOP: It started slow and smooth, before building to a big finish.
  • XO: An enticing dark amber color. The nose was redolent of caramel, dried fruit and cake. Sweetness gave way to a long, spicy finish.
  • Hors d’Age: Served from a beautiful crystal decanter, this old Cognac smelled like caramel luxury. It had such elegance on the tongue, with deep caramel flavors supplemented by some herbal and spicy notes, and impressive, righteous power. Wow.

LOUIS ROYER (In addition to the Cognacs described below, watch for the “Distilleries Collection,” a range made exclusively from one region, i.e. Bon Bois, Fins Bois, Petit Champagne, etc. The distillery for each Cognac is located in the region as well, for maximum terroir effect.)

  • VSOP: Zippy and very spicy, made mostly with fruit from the Fins Bois region.
  • XO: A deep amber, this minimum 15- to 30-year-old Cognac starts very smooth and velvety and builds to a big, spicy finish.


The Big Guns Of Cognac

1 February 2012

Breakfast Time

Over the course of the Cognac Summit, we visited three of the largest Cognac houses; houses no doubt familiar to most Americans: Rémy Martin, Courvoisier and Hennessy. These three are so well-branded in the U.S., many of us think of them only as their name. It’s simply Hennessy, not the Cognac called Hennessy.

These three brands can be found just about everywhere, but should you be looking for their VS, VSOP, XO or something else entirely? (You can read an explanation of these age categories in this post. They’re imprecise, because, as our Rémy Martin ambassadrice confided, “A Cognac is like a coquette — she never gives her age exactly.”)

We had the fortune to taste a range of Cognacs from each of these three houses (the prices are from Binny’s Beverage Depot unless otherwise noted):

Rémy Martin VS: We sampled this with ice, so the aromas were harder to detect (room-temperature Cognac has a bigger bouquet). But I certainly enjoyed its fresh, smooth flavor profile. About $28.

Rémy Martin VSOP: This one came from a bottle straight from the freezer, so again, I didn’t get much of an aroma. But I loved the texture at this temperature — it tasted surprisingly smooth for a VSOP, with caramel and cake flavors and a spicy finish. About $35. An excellent value.

Rémy Martin XO: I noted aromas of pear, orange and fig. Rich at first, this Cognac tasted a little sharp on the palate as well. About $140.

Courvoisier VS: The fruit for this Cognac, the most popular Courvoisier in the U.S., comes mostly from the Fin Bois region (this post explains the different regions of Cognac). Fresh and spicy, with some vanilla and caramel flavors. Fun to drink. About $26 – a very good value.


Regarding French Snobbery

29 January 2012

A few weeks ago, while batting around blog post ideas for a travel website to which I contribute, I told my editor I planned on writing a piece or two about Cognac. “It’s strange, isn’t it,” I remarked, “that people go to Scotland for the whisky trail, but few travelers seem to think of going to Cognac to visit Cognac houses.”

“Oh, well, people expect — and with good reason, I might add — that they won’t be especially welcome in most of the Cognac houses,” he replied. “You know, they expect to encounter quite a bit of snobbery. It’s the same reason people don’t go chateau-hopping in Bordeaux.”

I have visited much of France, and I have yet to encounter the proverbial French Snob. It’s not because I speak beautiful French — the average 18-month-old Parisian speaks better than I do. But maybe in Cognac, home of France’s most exclusive liquor, it would be different.

The Charming Paul Giraud

It came as no surprise to me that it was not. On our very first visit of a Cognac house, I was charmed by Paul Giraud, (right) whose family has been making Cognac for 200 years. Wearing an understated navy sportcoat, he showed us his atmospheric aging facility, where clumpy black mold caked the cobweb-draped rafters above sweet-smelling oak barrels. Concluding his remarks, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’m just a farmer who makes Cognac.” Of course, it’s an entirely different experience visiting, say, the grand quarters of Courvoisier in Jarnac, but the friendliness and passion for the product were constants throughout the trip, wherever we went.

I met a number of French sommeliers during the trip as well, and none proved to be a wine snob. Quite the reverse, in fact. As we headed back to Bordeaux after the conference, I had a long chat with noted sommelier Dominique Laporte. He had no patience for people who claimed to know all there is to know about wine. “How can you ever really know wine?” he asked. He later argued that there were actually very few “bad” wines out there. I said something disparaging about Yellow Tail, to which he quickly responded, “That wine though, was made to appeal to people who drink soda. You know, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s sweet, it’s simple, it’s cheap. There’s nothing wrong with that.” It turned out I was more of a wine snob than Monsieur Laporte!


Cognac Update

26 January 2012

As I write this, I’m still in France, soaking up all there is to soak in the lovely city of Bordeaux. The International Cognac Summit was exhausting, but an absolute joy to attend. The Bureau National Interprofessionel de Cognac organized a wonderful event full of exciting people, fascinating visits and, of course, gorgeous Cognacs.

One of the most memorable round tables took place the first morning, when the group discussed ways to draw more women to Cognac. The Americans and Brits tossed around various ideas, seeming to agree that appealing Cognac-based cocktails were a big part of the answer. As people debated what ingredients and styles of cocktails women might most enjoy (I say quality ingredients in a delicious combination, the same as men, but what do I know?), I realized the French contingent hadn’t offered any ideas.

I said, “I’d like to hear from our French colleagues on this question. Since 97% of Cognac is exported, it seems to me there’s a huge opportunity here in France to sell more Cognac. What do you think?” I was expecting perhaps some ideas about ways to counter the French stereotype that women who drink Cognac are at best old fashioned, and at worst alcoholics and “bad mothers.”

After a long, silent pause, the moderator interjected, “Maybe Pierre, since you’re a bartender, you would be good to ask?”

I repeated the question, and Pierre (not his real name) replied, “Well, the marketing dollars go where the Cognac is selling, so they don’t have the chance to market so much here in France, because most Cognac is sold abroad. Also, you have to understand that advertising alcohol, it’s not the same as in the U.S. We have laws, so, you can’t just put up a billboard the way you can in America.”

Unimpressed by these rather strange excuses, I asked, “So it’s just hopeless?”

After some noises of consternation started bubbling forth, the moderator was forced to cut off the discussion. We were running late.

Working on ways to draw more women to drinking Cognac was a fine theme for the summit, and a fascinating one as well. But for next year’s summit, it might be wise to devote it to convincing the French themselves to drink more Cognac. There’s clearly a lot of work to be done right at home!

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