The complexities of Cognac
- Monday 7 December 2009
I’ll be the first to admit that the offer of a trip to the International Cognac Summit did sound like a bit of a jamboree. Especially when I learned that all that was required of last year’s participants – a group of mixologists – was to create a Cognac-based cocktail (see box, p57).
Alas this year, guests were made to work a little harder. Charged with the task of creating an aroma wheel for Cognac, our senses were rigorously tested, sometimes to the limit. We sniffed our way through a barrage of different aromas – often blind, several times in near-darkness, and on one occasion blindfolded – in an attempt to appreciate the nuances of Cognac. By day two, one of our number said he’d never felt so humiliated in his life (and this in good company, with some of the world’s top sommeliers – I counted at least 19 Michelin stars’ worth in the group).
Let’s go back to basics. As a grape-based spirit, Cognac’s aromas have many similarities to those in wine: grapes, fermentation and wood ageing all play a part. The difference is that Cognac’s aromatic spectrum is more dependent on lengthy ageing and less on the character of the rather neutral, floral Ugni Blanc grape used almost exclusively to make it. Even if Ugni Blanc is high in flavour, the concept of terroir is taken as seriously here as in any other wine region.
Grapes grown in the heart of the Cognac area (Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne) give spirits with delicate, lifted aromas. The characteristics are attributed to the soil’s high limestone content, and it is these areas that produce the most long-lived Cognacs of elegance and finesse. The vineyards that encircle the central zone – Fins Bois, Borderies, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires – have soils with varying compositions of clay, sand and limestone. The spirits made here age more quickly and have more open, fruity, grapey aromas in their youth.
Fermentation aromas derive from the quality and health of the grapes, as well as the strains of yeast chosen to ferment them, the temperature, and the presence (or absence) of oxygen at fermentation. These aromas are in the fruity spectrum, and include banana, pineapple, apple, pear and peach. The distillation of the young Cognac wine adds further layers of interest.
The heat from the fire produces new aroma compounds, such as furfural (toastiness) and the use of a copper still removes any undesirable vegetal aromas such as garlic, onions or cabbage. Sometimes wine is distilled with the residue of lees from the fermentation, for greater complexity. At Hine, where all the Cognac is distilled in this fashion, cellarmaster Eric Forget says: ‘Lees are very rich in aromas, but most distillers don’t like to work in this way, because it’s hard. You need to stir the lees up and there’s always a risk of burning them.’
There are other familiar nuances in the Cognac nose. Oak ageing lends aromas found in wine, such as vanilla, cloves, toast and coconut. But it is during the extended ageing, evaporation and concentration of the eau de vie that Cognac’s unique character is formed. In the cool, damp cellars on the banks of the Charente, smaller compounds in the spirit, such as water, evaporate, and larger molecules become more concentrated. New aromas are formed by the slow and complex reactions that take place over time.
It was here that my sensory powers were tested. Fruit aromas change from fresh peaches and plums to rich, concentrated prunes, figs and dried apricots; simple oak tones become a complex blend of cedarwood sandalwood and eucalyptus; light, floral scents transform to essences of jasmine, honeysuckle and hyacinth.
Ageing is key. The official designation of ‘old’ Cognac, XO is a mere six years, but as Cognac takes many more years than this to evolve, many houses’ high-end Cognacs are aged for far longer. ‘Up to 15 years of age, the aromas are all of fruits and flowers,’ says Forget. ‘Later, they become more oxidative. Liquorice, Port, chocolate and spices: that is the real world of XO.’
At a visit to Hennessy, we tasted eaux de vie going back to 1900 with Renaud de Gironde, who tastes 50 or more of these spirits daily. He explained that the tastings determine what oak treatment to use and when and how to blend it into the final products. Each Cognac blend will comprise 100 or more different lots of eau de vie. Showing us a young and fiery, pear-scented eau de vie from Fins Bois, de Gironde judged it to be, ‘delicate and elegant’, so requiring gentle oak ageing.
A 1978 Petite Champagne eau de vie showed lemony freshness and complex, integrated aromas of butter, caramel, honey, honeysuckle and candied fruits. It was mouthfilling and rich, but also delicate and fresh. A 1956 Grande Champagne eau de vie was delicious, with a richly aromatic blend of toffee, prunes, tobacco, vanilla and nuts. ‘Here we are still going up the curve,’ said de Gironde. It seems a shame that such individually interesting eaux de vie end up in a more anonymous product. But de Gironde compares the practice to the harmony of an orchestra: ‘Each blended wine is greater than the individual parts.’
It was a lot to make sense of, and we were aided by Jean Lenoir, creator of Le Nez du Vin, a collection of wine scent bottles. With the help of the Cognac producers, Lenoir drew up a list of 60 of the most common aromas in Cognac. Each of us noted those we found in every Cognac or eau de vie we tasted to form the basis for the aroma wheel (see p57). The most frequently cited were apricots, oak, vanilla, orange, caramel, prunes and honey, but there was a great deal of lively debate before the final wheel was drawn up. All that remains now is to decide on next year’s challenge…