MARKETING/DESIGN/CONSUMER TRENDS/INSPIRATIONS Cognac & Brandy News for Consumers & Industry Experts
— Dr. Samuel Johnson, English lexicographer and poet, 1709-1784
At the recent La Part des Anges Auction held in the small town of Cognac, more than 650 guests from around the globe dined on inventive cuisine prepared, of course, with cognac. Then, international collectors engaged in spirited bidding on rare cognac lots with proceeds benefiting the Institut de France’s art collections.
So, how does this distilled brown spirit engender such enduring fascination? Clearly cognac’s lucrative, large-scale commercial aspects figure prominently.
After a sharp 2008 downturn, nearly 150 million bottles shipped in 2009, according to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac. Multinational corporate ownership and savvy marketing help secure such impressive results.
Producers such as Courvoisier, Hennessy, Hine and Martell positioned cognacs as prestige “brands” offering terrific, refined pleasure. Yet commercial considerations represent only part of the story.
“Everything starts with the soils, the climate and Ugni Blanc grapes,” says Renaud de Gironde, a member of Hennessy’s tasting committee known as the Comité de Dégustation. “Without these elements, you cannot create cognac.”
This distinctive terroir of mild maritime climate, chalky limestone soils and naturally high grape acidity serves as the foundation of cognac’s uniquely fresh, bright character. Capitalizing on the conditions, numerous independent grape growing distillers collaborate with firms such as Hennessy.
“We work closely with 1,700 distillers to make sure every step matches our expectations for quality,” Renaud de Gironde says.
During winter, distillers work tirelessly with exacting double distillation to convert white wines into base spirits known as eau-de-vie. These exuberant, clear spirits carry fiery alcohol waiting to be tamed.
Hennessy purchases and transforms the eau-de-vies through patient aging in slightly porous French oak casks. Air exchanges gradually soften the brandies while adding refined color, enticing aromas and beguiling flavors.
Coming from a family associated with Hennessy for 200 years, Renaud de Gironde and his fellow tasters have the savoir-faire to understand and track the spirits’ nuanced changes over many years. Each business day, the disciplined committee tastes aging brandies to glean detailed impressions.
“We don’t know in advance how long each eau-de-vie will spend in barrel,” Gironde says. “But each must be aged properly.”
At any given time, Hennessy ages hundreds of thousands of barrels in thousands of batches. Annual evaluations determine the optimal moment for blending various batches to create harmonious final cognacs in a bottle.
The family-owned Cognac Leyrat, Cognac ABK6 and Cognac Le Réviseur use similar techniques, but on smaller scales, says Elodie Abecassis.
“We are estate growers and producers, rather than brokers,” says Abécassis, who oversees United States distribution. “We respect and express the distinct qualities of each estate’s terroir.”
Leyrat offers an elegant, floral profile, according to Abécassis, while Le Abécassis offers more power and spiciness. ABK6 meanwhile emphasizes fruitiness.
Such diversity appeals to increasingly discriminating consumers, says Flavien Desoblin, who owns The Brandy Library in lower Manhattan. In the quiet, comfortable and unrushed ambiance, customers often linger for hours savoring cognacs’ subtle nuances and pleasures.
“Allow yourself to taste the full range of styles within brands,” Desoblin says. “But always start with the entry-level younger V.S. and V.S.O.P styles to build your palate before progressing finally to the full beauty of older cognacs.”