Cognac: The Spirit and the Place
Cognac; it's a city, a color, a digestif, a state of mind. Richard C Hacker
Let's take a virtual trip "across the pond" over to the beautiful region of France, called Cognac. Like Champagne is not only bubbly, Cognac is not just a spirit, it's a magnificent place in France known for producing one of the most excellent 'spirits' in the world.
Let's face it, when it comes to the vine and winemaking, the French stand alone and their spirit of record Cognac is always a 'top-shelf choice.' No other country has the breadth of history, nor can they beat France regarding its quality or the sheer volume of diversity in the types and styles of wine. France is the template and the standard bearer in the winemaking world. I know some may want to argue this point, feel free to do so, but don't miss out on this inspiring introduction to possibly adding Cognac to your bars line-up, if you haven't done so already.
While many of its regions like, Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne are the most obvious and well known, for producing rare and highly sought-after wines, nearly as expensive as the rising price of gold. Places like Cognac can be overlooked by the casual drive-by wine & spirits enthusiast, so forget about the uber-expensive diamond crusted bottles you've seen on TV or in print.
Today's Cognac is much more than just a pretty bottle, more than a lush spirit to be sipped after dining out at your favorite restaurant, oh-no it's much more my friends it's an experience waiting to happen for prince and pauper alike. It's much richer and rounder than bourbon, and far more savory than scotch, it has a smoothness and elegance neither of those other spirits can ever hope to match. Of course, there's the common and everyday grocery store Cognac's from powerhouse Courvoisier, who delivers VO and VSOP in a variety of value price points, but for just $40 to $50 more you could be swirling and be sipping "le cognac de Napoleon" [fine Champagne Cognac] in your glass, true luxury at a very reasonable price, talking one 'Benjamin' territory.
For just a moment to take a virtual look around France's wine-strewn landscape, there are just as many obscurities as there are outstanding values to be had from little-known appellations throughout the country and this is one of those gems I will be sharing with you today. In this review of Cognac the spirit and the place, you'll discover some fun facts and wonderful pairing suggestions. Even though I predominantly write a "wine-review" blog, it's not much of a stretch to include a guided tour of this wondrously palate-pleasing and spirit-lifting libation, one I enjoy as often as possible.
Mix it up: Maybe you got a bottle of Cognac as a gift, and you're thinking "I really don't want to drink it neat, I'd like to mix it up" so what's the answer? In today's techno-savvy world comes the familiar refrain "there's an app for that" and the folks at the Cognac Summit would love to help you "mix it up," with their iPhone app. This app provides the everyday cork-dork or lounge lizard with some of the most contemporary recipes and has also mixed in some of the "classics" to help you mix it up in style. Their mixed Cognac recipes are drawn from critically-acclaimed sources spanning two centuries. Sounds like a great app, I'd give it a swirl.
Not your father's Cognac: "While the making and traditions of Cognac are a passion for many, steeped [not like your morning tea] in time-honored traditions." So the commercial goes; frankly folks it's time to say goodbye to its stodgy old-guy image. Today's Cognac is shedding its snobby smoking-jacket image [think Captain Nemo] as a country-club spirit, tossing aside the idea that it's only a rich man's [evil-capitalists] drink. Oddly enough it's finding itself mentioned in rap-songs and being mixed in a new wave of innovative cocktails by mixologists [aka bartenders] coast to coast [hello Sidecars].
Sweet Side of Cognac: Who doesn't like the sweet-side of life? Even in Cognac, there's a sweet-side, it sheds its cloak of woody, floral aromas and flavors by inviting Poire Williams Pears to the party. This is a much different Cognac than anything you may have encountered before. One of the great things about this sweet-cognac is that it's easy to spot on the shelf, as it comes in a pear-shaped bottle. This style of cognac is infused with about 20lbs [on average] of Poire Williams pears per 750ml bottle. I have had the chance to sample other well-known cognacs, which were more austere and on the rustic-side of the equation, but Belle De Brillet, Poire Williams Cognac eases the beginner into discovering Cognac, also a nice step-up from Port.
Cognac Today: The cognac region of France, is just some 4 and a half hours southwest of Paris. The region consists of six cru appellations, contained in a small area of some 185,000 acres. Cognac is produced from the areas distinctive, chalky limestone soils, which translate wonderfully in each sip.
Top-Crus in order of quality are Grand Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaries and as with table wines each region is designated on the bottle's label.
The grapes are still traditionally harvested in October, where they undergo two distinct distillations. From December to March the casual observer can see the delicate traditional operation of Distillation Charentaise [2 times] in the Traditional Charentais Pot Still made from pure copper in a ritual unchanged since the 17th century.
1st Distillation: The first 'chauffe' which lasts between 8 and 10 hours produces a cloudy liquid is called brouillis [slightly hazy liquid], and during the 2nd distillation a master-distiller separates alcohol vapors, where the clear spirit emerges from the brouillis.
2nd Distillation: When it's complete the white-wine, [which the French call "eau de vie" water of life] is transferred to oak casks made of 100-year-old Sap and Heartwood trees, where it will stay for 2 years. This old-wood is what transforms this clear liquid into wondrous amber/golden yellow color we have come to know and love. Of course, if it's allowed to more time to barrel-age, [unlike table wine, Cognac does not age in the bottle], you'll see a lot more amber than gold.
Blending: After the cognac is summoned from its slumber, the master-blender will determine the blend and bottle a "consumer-ready" cognac with a minimum ABV of 40%. Each Cognac blend will comprise 100 or more different lots of eau de vie [water of life]. Now this is where an important distinction lies in this process I've described above, in order for Cognac to be labeled "Cognac" that process must be completed by the end of March, or it will be labeled a brandy [a poor mans cognac], it's important to note that "while all cognac is brandy, not all brandy is cognac."
The Grapes: Many folks wonder if Cognac is wine or spirit, the answer really is yes, it is both. Unlike many other spirits, Cognac is actually made from grapes. Yes, grapes many of which the casual wine-drinker are typically unfamiliar with, but they are still part of the Vitis-vinifera [the wine bearing grape] family. The grapes of Cognac are not your everyday household names, nope it's the likes of Ugni Blanc [no not the ugly-grape] as this is the most widely planted and the other two minor players known as Folle Blanche and Colombard.
Cognac Code: Like a page from the movie "Code Talkers" you need to know what all the letters on the label stand for or you'll just be stumbling around scratching your head.
So here are the decipher codes; VS, stands for Very Special a cognac which is stored for at least two years.VSOP stands for Very Special Old Pale, these cognacs are stored for at least four years in barrel before being bottled.
XO stands for Extra Old, the cognacs in this category are stored for at least six years, but typically the average is around twenty years. Finally, you have, Napoleon which is supposed to be equal to the XO quality, aged at least six years before release. The more aging a cognac receives, mean you will likely encounter a much higher price.
Sticker Shock: Many of you see that fancy bottle, and you may instantly think oh-my this won't be in my price range. Folks honesty I've seen some bottles with this description, “handcrafted crystal, dipped in 24-karat yellow gold and sterling platinum and decorated with 6,500 certified brilliant cut diamonds" on a bottle of Henri IV Dubognon selling for a cool two-million each. I know you're thinking cmon really? Perhaps a bit on the ostentatious side of the equation, but you don't have to pay a kings-ransom to get your hands on some very-good Cognac.
Affordable Cognac: Want to dip your foot in the pool without having to take a dive? Here are a few picks that are sure to make your palate and wallet happy. Prunier V.S. - one of my top picks, most intriguing flavor [IMHO], with little to no burn, very affordable and approachable, celebrated with a nice Monte Cristo number four [under $40].
Martell V.S. - Here you have complex, hits ya with a warm-you-up feeling like brandy, the tastes says "I'm worth the money." To me, it undoubtedly represents the 'replacement' to cheap brandy [around $50].
Courvoisier V.S. - A bit on the austere side of the equation, invoking floral and woody flavors and aromas [under $50] but great for mixing, where it's not the star of the show.
There is also the Belle De Brillet, Poire Williams Au Cognac, with just a touch of sweetness, still sophisticated, approachable and very inviting [under $50]. And of course, the most common Cognac, under $50 Hennessey's is excellent for mixing.
Know before you Go: Just as a reminder, many wine stores will not carry Cognac simply because they don't have the license necessary to sell spirits, good to know before you go. Even if your favorite wine and spirits retailer has its stock, it is most likely not an item that will have a lot of depth in their inventory.
Cognac and Coffee: Who knew this would be a great match, but folks I'm here to tell you that they really are sublime partners under the right circumstance and mixed appropriately. I discovered this combination when I ran out of my favorite Irish Whiskey, typically, a fun a favorite-mixer for me on the weekends, but I had run out. So what to do? Head over to the pantry, score what did I find, a bottle of Remy that was left over from a party. So, I decided to blend the two and wow baby, game-on. It was fantastic, since then I've added [invited] a scoop of cocoa to the mix and bang, spot-on and may just have you saying Bonjour Paris yourself. I highly recommend giving it a go.
Pairing Cognac and Cigars: This is one of my favorite pairings and of course not in the traditional sense, thinking about the word pairing [matching food and wine]. That said, Cigars and Cognac are as old a combination as Napoleon and Josephine. Which begs the question; which cigar and which Cognac? According to Cigar Aficionado, "A light panetela would be as inappropriate with 30-year-old XO Cognac as a Muscadet is with a saddle of venison." well said and I would have to say I agree entirely with the sentiment, thus choosing correctly is paramount to maximizing your experience.
Other Voices: Max Cointreau, chairman of Cognac Pierre Frapin, had this comment on the subject of pairing cigars and Cognac, "There is a range of Cognacs for cigars, such as a lighter VSOP with milder cigars, but any Grande Champagne Cognac can be good with a cigar." Similarly, master blender Jean-Marc Olivier recommends Courvoisier Napoleon as an excellent choice for all cigars.
I tend to agree with both of those recommendations, but in my experience, there are many Cognac's which makes for a "spot-on" companion to a majority of cigars, but my favorite is the Monte Cristo number four. Just like the wine treasures you take the time to collect, great cigars need a place to call home, stored properly and a well-made cigar humidor will definitely help you get you there.
Recommendations: This is a fantastic libation to have around the house at all times since it's something you will be sipping over a period of months and not days. It makes for a great after dinner drink to sit back and enjoy with friends and some cigars or just to sip on its own. Cognac makes for a wonderful any-time quaff, neat, chilled or on the rocks and can easily be stored in the pantry without worrying about spoilage for months on end. The next time you see Cognac on the menu of your favorite eatery or on the shelf at your local wine and spirits store, hopefully, you now feel a bit more confident give this wonderful libation a-swirl and live like a king for a moment. So until next time sip long and prosper cheers!