YV&C News Desk
Cognacs of France
A yacht charter with cognac is a match made in heaven
Apr. 20, 2007 05:45 PM
If you aren’t yet ready to consider France heaven, it might be that you haven’t sampled the right bottle of cognac. Writer Scott Rose here gives a primer on cognac culture and guidelines for finding the crème de la crème of cognacs.
A French expression that means ‘The Land of Plenty,” Le Pays de Cocagne, suitably describes the Charente region of southwest France, home to the king of brandies, cognac. Charming villages dot the vineyard-rich countryside, churches and chateaux bear witness to history, and the rites of cognac production are central to life.
Local legend has it that the double distillation requisite to cognac was invented at the beginning of the 1600s by Le Chevalier de la Croix Marron, a pious nobleman. Le Chevalier had a nightmare about the devil attempting to boil his soul out of him. The first attempt failed, so the devil tried boiling Le Chevalier again. He woke up from the nightmare, his soul intact, with the inspiration that he could get to the very essence of Charentais wine by distilling it twice. Never has “The devil made me do it” yielded such heavenly results.
One of the pleasures of cognac connoisseurship is that no matter how much you learn about this fine spirit, there will always be more of interest to learn. Yet one could know everything or nothing and still be held spellbound by the complex aromatics arising from a tulip glass of the amber elixir.
The grapes used for cognac today are mainly ugni blanc, also known as St.-Emilion and in Italian as trebbiano. Various French governmental decrees stipulate which grapes may be included in a cognac and how they are pressed, distilled, aged and stored. Ugni blanc together with colombard and folle blanche grapes must comprise at least 90% of a wine distilled into cognac and many producers use 100% ugni blanc. Up until the 1870s, folle blanche was the predominant cognac grape. A plague of vine lice, phylloxera vastatrix, decimated the crops. A successful recovery from the catastrophe came when hardy rootstocks were imported from Texas and the Charentais grafted European vines onto them. Some of the most prized premium cognacs are blended from pre- and post-phylloxera vintages, which imparts inimitable complexity and finesse to the spirit.
Paradoxically, ugni blanc tends to make for a highly acidic, low alcohol content wine; only through great skill can it be turned into a drinkable libation qua wine. The very qualities that make it problematic as a wine, however, render it perfect for the double distillation that eventually produces cognac.
Grapes of course take a lot of character from the soil, the terroir in which they are grown. A decree of 1938 settled the six vineyard regions, the crus, which could legitimately produce cognac. Moving outwards from the city of Cognac roughly in concentric circles they are Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fin Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaire. Grande Champagne has the chalkiest, most limestone-rich soil and is the most prestigious of the zones. That isn’t to say that the other zones don’t have their desirable aspects. The Borderies zone, for example, features more clay in its soil and produces a more floral eau-de-vie. A cognac labeled ‘Fine Champagne’ is comprised of at least 50% Grande Champagne cru with the balance coming from Petite Champagne to create a cognac recognized for its sublime balance. Note that ‘champagne’ is an old French word for ‘field’ and that its use in association with cognac is not to be confused with the name of the bubbly delight created in the north of France.
Grape juice pressed in October and November is immediately fermented for three weeks and no longer. The double distillation process follows, and must be completed by March 31, as a cognac’s age is computed from the 1st of April. Distillation takes place in traditional copper stills with onion-shaped domes and swan neck tubes. The distillation process is overseen by seasoned experts who have countless techniques for producing a cognac in the styles desired by their houses. The first distillation, la première chauffe, vaporizes alcohol out of the wine. The vapors collect at the top of the still then are led off into a cooling tank where they condense into liquid. This first distillate is called the brouillis (roughly pronounced ‘brew-eee’). Various portions of the brouillis containing different percentages of alcohol are known as the heads (les têtes), the heart (le coeur) and the tails (les queus). Those three segments are separated. The heads are placed into the next new wine. The heart is used in its entirety for the second distillation and must be skillfully combined with just the right portion of the tails, which have great flavor-enhancing potential but which can also augment impurities.
The second distillation is la bonne chauffe (the good heating). It too produces heads, a heart and tails as well as a distillate of overall higher alcohol content. Vigilant distillers must test and taste incessantly, their eyes ever on the alcohol meter, in order to effect the separation at the optimal time.
Many cognac houses distill on the lees, the sediment of yeast cells that settles during fermentation. Doing so makes precise distillation even more challenging yet produces cognac with a fuller, longer-lasting flavor.
Raw, unaged cognac is clear and harsh. The aging process is what lends the finished product its color and mellowed, celestial qualities. Oak casks must be used for aging and come mainly from the Limousin and Tronçais forests of adjacent regions. The lignins and tannins of the wood interacting with the maturing cognac determine the nature of the final spirit. Limousin oak has a looser grain that releases more tannins into the cognac; it is particularly appropriate for cognacs that will be aged many years. Strict regulations govern the construction of cognac casks. For example, the oak must be at least 50 years old and come from between the roots and the lower branches of the tree. Mnemonic hooks always help when you are cultivating your knowledge. Limousin wood has looser grain, Tronçais wood, tighter grain. So it is L for Limousin and loose, T for Tronçais and tight.
A most distinguished eminence, the maître de chai (cellar master) makes important decisions related to cognac aging and blending. The least time a saleable cognac can spend in cask is 2 1⁄2 years. The youngest cognacs are designated as V.S. (Very Superior). Note that most often, many different eaux-de-vie are blended into a single cognac. The age of the youngest liquid in the blend determines the age of the cognac. The blending of different eaux-de-vie into a cognac is called the assemblage.
The second grade of cognac, V.S.O.P (Very Superior Old Pale) must have spirits aged no less than four years. Next in the hierarchy are the Grande Réserve (aka Napoleon) cognacs aged at least six years. XO, frequently said to mean extra-old, is aged a minimum of 15 years.
The truly premium cognacs are aged up to a maximum of between 50 and 70 years. The maître de chai, with his fine nose and storehouse of knowledge, understands when an aging cognac has reached its apogee. At that point, the cognac is placed in glass demijohns called bonbons. Unlike wine, cognac does not continue to age once bottled. Hence, a cognac aged between 1825 and 1865 and then bottled will always be a 40-year-old cognac, albeit one from more than a hundred years ago.
You might hear said that a fine cognac has flavors of fig, ginger, passion fruit, vanilla, nutmeg, sandalwood, jasmine and rancio. Rancio is a Spanish word applied to one of the most coveted flavors and aromas of cognacs aged long and well. It designates a nutty, earthy, spicy perfume and flavor. Think how discerning a maître de chai must be to combine as many as one-hundred different eaux-de-vie into a single cognac with the goal of having it reveal a particular texture and a particular constellation of flavors.
There are good uses to be made of cognacs of whatever grade. Mixed into fashionable cocktails, “yak” has become the official drink of the hip-hop and rap music scenes. Many a VSOP or Napoleon is superb when added to such dishes as beef and wild mushroom pâté with cognac mustard sauce, creamy crab and cognac soup, lobster stew with cognac and fresh sage or sautéed apples with currants and cognac.
French composer Francis Poulenc’s Elegy for two pianos has written in the score a direction for the pianists to play as though there were glasses of cognac sitting on their instruments. Is that not a fitting image for enjoying cognac while on a yacht charter? Most charter yachts will have cognacs in their normal bar stock, but as your tastes become more sophisticated you will want to arrange for particularly outstanding bottles ahead of time.
There are some cognacs so rare they are only to be had at auctions. For a glimpse into that tantalizing arena, do a Worldwide Web search for the term ‘cognac auction.’ The Charente region has stores devoted uniquely to fine cognacs; you may explore one such electronically at www.cognatheque.com Epicures opine that the strict control and artistry exercised by family run cognac houses such as Camus and Delamain result in insuperable spirits. Cognacs are mainly blended from different vintages but one especially rarified portion of the high-end cognac market is made up of single vintage cognacs, selected by maîtres de chai who know which years are true standouts. In order to legally sell a cognac from a single vintage, producers must submit to having their storage areas double-locked with one key left in the hands of an authorized outside inspector.
The big commercial cognac houses all purvey noteworthy prestige cognacs in opulent crystal bottles that do visual justice to their lovingly aged and blended contents. Richard Hennessy, named for the 18th-century founder of Hennessy, is blended from more than 100 eaux-de-vie – many from the Founder’s Vault – and sold in a hand-blown crystal decanter, its neck ringed in silver and its sides engraved with grape vines. L’Esprit de Courvoisier contains, among others, cognacs from the ‘paradis’ cellar of the Chateau Courvoisier, and is sold in a Lalique decanter. Remy-Martin put its now legendary Louis XIII cognac in Baccarat crystal.
French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote verse and prose versions of L’Invitation au Voyage (Invitation to a Journey). The versions are palpably related. Though it is the prose version that specifically invites to Le Pays de Cocagne, (The Land of Plenty), it is in the poem that Baudelaire describes a place evocative of a yacht charter complete with many fine, prestige cognacs. “There,” he wrote, “all is order, beauty, luxury, calm, and sensual pleasure.” (Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté/Luxe, calme et volupté).