Cognac today is the culmination of centuries of history and generations of accumulated expertise. The world’s pre-eminent brandy (although the Cognaçais don’t care for the b-word), it has conquered the planet from San Francisco to Shanghai, with many millions of bottles of Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin and Courvoisier consumed every year. Change? Innovate? Why on earth would anyone want to do that?
And yet they are. Some of this new thinking is rooted in the way Cognac is made – the grapes used, the oak in which it ages – and some of it is a less-tangible leap of the imagination, lifting the veil on one of the world’s more mysterious spirits and unlocking the stories that lurk in vineyard and cellar.
Alexandre Gabriel, owner and master blender at Maison Ferrand, is the closest Cognac gets to a rebel. Not content with maturing Cognac only in oak barrels, he’d also like to use chestnut, acacia or mulberry wood. ‘The know-how of making these barrels is still alive in Cognac,’ he says. ‘I know quite a lot of people who believe in reactivating some of that heritage. Why should it be sidelined?’
There are ways around the rules, as long as you’re not fussy about what you put on the label. Ferrand’s Renegade Barrel project has seen Gabriel part-mature Grande Champagne eau-de-vie in chestnut wood and, in the third and latest release, prohibited Jamaican rum casks. The catch is that they’re not technically Cognac – which the regulations stipulate must be matured in barrels made of oak, sourced from within France or elsewhere, as long as they have not previously held anything other than wine or fortified wine. Instead, they’re labelled as ‘eau de vie de vin’. But whether the Ferrand fans who snap up these limited releases care is a moot point.
Gabriel would love the regulations to change – he wryly acknowledges that it might happen ‘by the time I’m 75’ – but others are not so sure. Courvoisier’s recent Mizunara release stays within the rules because it was part-matured in a virgin Japanese mizunara oak cask. Had that cask previously contained Japanese whisky, it would have been outlawed.
‘It’s really important for us to have rules,’ says Courvoisier maître de chai Thibaut Hontanx. ‘That’s what makes us Cognac, and there’s still plenty of room for innovation. Mizunara is just one of them, but there are lots of others. If you want, you can create something new.’
Talking out loud
Sometimes true innovation comes not in the way that something is made, but the way it is talked about. Historically, Cognac has been notoriously shy about many aspects of its creation, instead content to surf the fame of its big names, and the catch-all age designations of VS, VSOP, XO et al. That’s changing now. The front labels for Delamain’s Pléiade Cognacs are teeming with frankly geeky information, from cask number to details of filtration and reduction techniques – and, according to Delamain managing director Charles Braastad, that’s no accident. ‘There is so much to say about Cognac, so much to explain,’ he says. ‘We have thousands of casks in our cellars and they are all different. We want to bring more transparency.’
The third annual tranche of Pléiade releases includes a £184 single-cask expression of La Rambaudie, the Grande Champagne vineyard now managed by Delamain. Beyond terroir, the range also serves to highlight the human element – the people who toil, with very little publicity, to craft the Cognacs the world loves. Delamain’s Témoignage de M Dauge (‘Mr Dauge’s Testimony’) is a remarkable Cognac with a remarkable story. Distilled by an octogenarian grower using a tiny, ancient, copper pot still in 1969, just before it was taken out of commission, it matured for decades in his humid cellar at Bourg-Charente, close to the Charente river.
‘This Cognac has been made by one man,’ says Braastad. ‘You’re not buying a car, you’re taking something from him that he’s been cherishing for 50 or 55 years. It’s very emotional, because it’s like father and son.’
The human touch
According to the Cognac regulatory body BNIC, more than 4,000 people tend the vineyards of Cognac, with – to date – little acknowledgement beyond the region’s borders of their crucial contribution. But Baptiste Loiseau, cellar master at Rémy Martin, wants that to change.
Rémy Martin L’Etape – meaning a step, or a stage – is a 7,000-bottle blend of 14 eaux-de-vie sourced from growers across the premier-quality Grande and Petite Champagne regions who have all achieved France’s HVE (high environmental value) certification. Its paper wrapping includes testimonials from them all, a map showing their locations and a QR code giving further information. It’s only available in France so far, but hopefully that will change.
Meanwhile, Rémy Martin Tercet explores this human element further, highlighting the respective roles of a three-person human chain (a tercet is a three-line poem): grower Francis Nadeau, distiller Jean-Marie Bernard and cellar master Loiseau.
Now a permanent part of the Rémy Martin range, it also showcases Loiseau’s quest to dial up the fruit elements of Fine Champagne eaux-de-vie (minimum 50% Grande Champagne blended with Petite Champagne). ‘For me, the cask is something that has to support the flavours in the eaux-de-vie and has to support their potential,’ he explains. ‘We don’t want the oak to overpower the eaux-de-vie.’
And, on the broader aims shared by Tercet and L’Etape, he adds: ‘We have to highlight where we are coming from. It’s not just a question of VSOP or XO any more, it’s about being transparent. We were maybe a little bit too shy about that in the past.’ Not any more.
Eight innovative Cognacs to try
Camus Borderies Special Dry
Camus continues its exploration of the Borderies cru with this supple, fruit-and-flowers Cognac matured in fine-grained, gently toasted Limousin oak for a dry finish. Relatively youthful – three to eight years old – and perfect for mixing. Alcohol 40%
Grippy and assertive by Courvoisier standards, with the house’s trademark juicy fruit edging into more exotic territory, the whole given a perfumed, seductively spicy edge by finishing in Japanese Mizunara oak. Boldly priced, reflecting
its rarity. Alc 48%
Delamain Pléiade Collection Apogée Mr Dauge’s Testimony
Sourced from Bourg-Charente, made in an ancient, small pot still and mainly aged in humid conditions. Rich and dense, with figs, dried apricot and a big lift of anise on the mid-palate. Leather and spice dominate the long-lingering finish. Alc 46%
Domaines Hine Bonneuil 2010
From Hine’s own estate, this is as pure an expression of vineyard and vintage as you’ll find. Elegant, harmonious and fruit-forward, with a pinch of spice, a nip of menthol and no oak intrusion. Alc 42.1%
Ferrand Renegade Barrel No3 Jamaican Rum
When Grande Champagne meets Jamaican rum casks, the result is technically not Cognac, but an ‘eau-de-vie de vin’, as shown on the label. This is intensely fruity – guava, tangerine and black banana – with notes of nutmeg and coffee roaster. Alc 48.2%
Martell Blue Swift
Another Cognac-that’s-not-a-Cognac, thanks to this VSOP’s finishing period in ex-bourbon barrels, bringing rich, sweet notes of grilled pears dusted with cinnamon, vanilla custard and ginger. Toasty, coconutty and eminently mixable. Alc 40%
Rémy Martin L’Etape
A micro-blend (14 eaux-de-vie) showcasing vineyards with high environmental standards. Young and supple, bright and floral, with orange peel melding into peach and gentle spice. The concept is as admirable as the Cognac. Alc 40%
Rémy Martin Tercet
This new addition to the Rémy Martin range highlights the contributions of wine-grower, distiller and blender. Exuberantly fruity – citrus on the nose, darker fruit on the palate – with white chocolate and a linear thread of acidity stitching everything together. Alc 42%