Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2008-04-21
Spurned by the French, who now prefer whisky, cognac has become the favourite tipple of rappers from the Bronx and Harlem! Yet the secret of this brandy has not changed for four centuries: to find out more, we went to meet the last small producers of cognac, in the heart of the Grande Champagne region…
“What a nice cup of tea!” (Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1900-2002), after sampling old cognacs at Hennessy in 1980)
From the torpor of the Charentes to the jungle of Harlem…
It’s hard, when talking about cognac, not to slip into a Balzac-style imagery, where the huge competition engaged in by the big trading houses (such as Hennessy, Rémy Martin, Martell and Courvoisier, who control 74% of the world market) contrasts with the small-scale production of the little firms which continue, come what may, to distil, mature and sell their own cognacs… One would also have to evoke the landscapes of the Charentes region, their dazzling light, the chalk that one finds everywhere in the soil but also in the architecture of the churches, châteaux and cellars blackened by fungi*… All of it is true.
Cognac, nevertheless, now lives in the age of globalisation. Thus 2007 was an historic year, with 158 million bottles sold, 95% of them for export. Unheard of! In France, paradoxically, cognac consumption is continuing to fall, in favour of whisky.
Far from the “terroir and tradition” image, cognac owes its salvation to the New York rappers who, in recent years, have made it their cult drink as opposed to whisky, considered a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) drink. “Yak”, as they call it, has thus in no time at all conquered the big-spending hip-hop milieus, and is achieving worldwide success thanks to the hit by the Busta Rhymes-P.Diddy duo: “Give me the Henny [short for Hennessy], [...] you can pass me the Rémy [Rémy Martin], but the pass the Courvoisier”. Globalisation certainly has some surprises in store!
“Cognac is the fruit of an incredible set of circumstances” (1)
How did something which was still at the time of François I (a native of Cognac) just a mediocre white wine, manage to become in time the finest and most fragrant brandy in the world? How did the terrible brandewijn (“burnt wine”) consumed by Dutch sailors in the 17th century manage to win over (under the name of brandy) the most refined courts of Europe in the 18th century? How, lastly, did cognac – deemed too elitist and passé by the French themselves – remain a symbol of France throughout the world?... To find out, I recommend the fascinating book by Kyle Jarrard, journalist with the International Herald Tribune: Cognac: The Seductive Saga of the World’s Most Coveted Spirit (John Wiley & Sons, 2005). This Texan, who fell in love with a woman from Charente 25 years ago, carried out a real “American-style” investigation into the world of cognac. His book, a learned work that is nevertheless full of anecdotes and humour, is good for dipping into and highlights unsuspected connections that exist between France and the United States: the first time this Texan walked in the vineyards of Charente, he looked down – an old fossil hunter’s habit – and found the same ones as in Texas!
(1) Kyle Jarrard, world cognac specialist
© Kyle Jarrard
100% traditional cognacs
Away from the large prestigious houses (all held by multinationals: LVMH, Pernod-Ricard, Rémy Cointreau and Allied Domecq), I recommend paying a visit to the last small producers, in whose company you can actually feel the magic of traditional cognac...
They still grow their own vines, and distil and mature their brandies in their own cellars. The best time to meet them is at 11am, when – with tasting and analytical abilities at their peak – they taste their cognacs and carry out assemblages.
The need to have stocks explains why all small cognac producers belong to family lineages that have amassed a capital of brandies. It is, in fact, impossible to just launch straight into the cognac business!
The heart of the Cognac region, located south of Cognac, is called “Grande Champagne” (old form of the word “campagne” meaning countryside). Covering just a few thousand hectares of vineyards, this zone constitutes the geographical centre but also the very best of the vineyards. The cognacs produced there stand out for their finesse and floral and woody aromas, which linger for a long time on the palate.
The various cognacs
Depending on the length of ageing in oak casks, one can distinguish several types of cognac:
- The trois étoiles (three star) is a cognac of standard quality, between 2 and 4 years old.
- The acronyms VO (Very Old), VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) and Réserve apply to medium-age cognacs that are 4 to 6 years old.
- The terms XO (Extra Old), Vieille reserve, Napoléon and Extra are applied to cognacs that are at least 6 years old.
- Fine champagne designates a brandy from the Grande or Petite Champagne regions.
In Ambleville, the House of Ragnaud-Sabourin is a family firm that has, since 1850, produced wonderful cognacs that are distilled on the premises and aged in oak casks from the Limousin, which hold 350 to 450 litres each.
This renowned firm notably has a stock of brandies that are more than one hundred years old (some of them date back to 1870), bottled under the name of “Le Paradis”: these are exceptional cognacs made from rare grape varieties (such as Folle Blanche) and some that are now extinct (such as Bouilleux, Balzac Blanc and Chalosse)…
The more affordable 35-year-old cognacs (made from Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Colombard) are impressive for their mahogany colour, nose of liquorice and lime and smooth taste, marked by the famous Rancio Charentais. From €24 (4 years old) to €500 (“Le Paradis”).
Lignière, near Ambleville, is a village typical of Grande Champagne, with its Romanesque church and 17th century château next to a lovely river. Here, the Dudognon house produces an extraordinary cognac using old grape varieties (such as Montil and Folle Blanche).
This small firm is one of the last to distil its brandies over a wood fire (rather than gas): starting in December, the cellar master has to feed his wood fire every 2 hours, day and night, forcing him to sleep next to his Charente still for 3 months! The softness of the wood fire makes it possible to obtain a finer, more complex brandy.
Whatever their age, Dudognon cognacs are pure (no sugar added to round off the taste, or caramel to darken the colour), lively, straightforward and sensual: the quintessence of Grande Champagne! From €27 to €189.50 (“Médaille d’Or”).
The other place I would recommend is the small Grosperrin trading house, set up in 1992 in Chermignac, not far from Saintes. The Grosperrin family (yesterday the father, Jean, today the son, Guilhem) purchases batches of cognac from small winegrowers all over the Cognac region (Grande Champagne, but also Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires).
All the cognacs selected are vintage and not “doctored” (no caramel or sugar). It is a veritable one-of-a-kind “collection”, which expresses all the diversity of the terroirs, know-how and years (vintage cognacs are put in casks and bottled under the supervision of a bailiff).
Going against generally accepted ideas, the Grosperrins show that the talent of a winegrower-distiller can make the difference, even if their grapes are planted in an area that is not prestigious: for instance the magnificent 1991 cognac produced on the Île d’Oléron! Above all, Grosperrin cognacs each have their own identity, the 1968 for example (spicy, lemon-scented nose, light and fresh on the palate) or the legendary 1944 (very mild nose of prune, pear and spices, voluptuous and still very lively on the palate). From €49 (1991) to €450 (1944).
Among the other small firms renowned for their cognacs, it is impossible not to mention Delamain in Jarnac (the most famous of them all) and Paul-Jean Giraud in Bouteville, which are also at the top of the hierarchy.
*The torula compniacensis richon is a fungus that feeds on alcohol fumes and thrives all the more because the cellars have to be humid for the cognacs to age well.
“La Davore” 16130 Lignières-Sonneville
Tel: +33 (0)5 45 80 50 42
“La Gabare” 3 avenue du littoral
Tel: +33 (0)5 45 83 74 24www.lagabare.com