Cognac Is a Given for the Season
Issue: December 15, 2009
When I'm in the spirit of giving-and spirits are what I'm giving-I often turn to Cognac. France's eminent brandy is so easy to like that even without knowing the tastes of the recipient, I am almost guaranteed gratitude. This isn't true of every spirit. Some can inspire rabid devotion in one person and a turned-up nose in another. A good Cognac's bouquet of flowers, fruit and nuts rarely fails to find a friend.
And even if you do ferret out a nonbeliever, you'll have the comfort of knowing he'll at least be able to offer you a postprandial nip next time he's hosting dinner.
A third reason to give Cognac is one I've been warming to recently. It's a spirit that affords many levels on which to play; and "afford" may be the operative term here. You can choose a Cognac for just about any budget, from entry-level to hyperpremium brandies that you break into your trust fund to finance. Despite my ingrained parsimony, it's the former tier, not the latter, that I've been reluctant to give in the past.
You see, as a cigar smoker I suppose I have become a bit of a snob over the years about Cognac. I have often insisted that you want X.O. or above in a smoking partner. On that high plateau, you get enough complexity for a great cigar pairing. But that's an expensive neighborhood, as big-name X.O. goes for around $150 per bottle. This is certainly not a price standard to which I would hold a whiskey or a fine rum, and it's also not the hills I usually roam when shopping for gifts.
But among the best news in the Cognac world is the proliferation of very good brandies on a level that is not as expensive. A Rémy Martin tasting I recently attended drove the point home. It matched two Scotch whiskys, a Bourbon and a V.S.O.P. Cognac against its own 1738 Accord Royal. The last is a product the company says is somewhere between a V.S.O.P. and an X.O., but technically it's a V.S.O.P., as legally there is no such intermediate level.
The 1738 easily held its own with some very fine whiskys. The V.S.O.P., which was not identified, did not. The 1738 is about $50, so for a premium of about 10 or 15 bucks, you're in another class of brandy, but without a special letter designation. Further good news: Rémy is not alone in this unclassified realm, as Courvoisier has its Exclusif, Hennessy its Black, and Martell its Noblige.
This is not to say that there isn't still room in the Cognac world for the bargain averse. The four big houses named above each make a stop beyond X.O., at the $300 to $400 level. It's my opinion that this is where you reach Cognac ecstasy. Brandies such as Hennessy Paradis Extra, Rémy Martin 1989 and Martell Creation take you on flavor safaris of ultimate complexity and possess finishes that I still sometimes think of the day after drinking.
But wait, there's more. If you want to go really in-depth, each of the big houses-Martell recently joined the stratosphere club with L'or de Jean Martell-has Cognacs that you pony up several thousand dollars for (try to do it at duty-free if you can). To me this is where the bang-for-the-buck concept may falter. The price premise is dictated by how far the maker has dug into his store (called the paradis) of rare eaux-de-vie, some of which were made more than 100 years ago. Sometimes that adds up to merely different Cognac, not necessarily better. But some people are ignited by the history-in-a-bottle concept.
This is not to say that you should cleave to the big houses. Certainly much Cognac of interest is coming from smaller makers that don't necessarily have vast brandy stores to use in the blending process. Instead, some concentrate on eaux-de-vie from select regions. Smaller makers such as Paul-Marie & Fils and Pierre Ferrand offer further exclusivity with Cognacs made only from Grande Champagne grapes.
Another direction is to not blend years. Hine has been on the forefront of making vintage Cognacs, a concept that is well-explored in Armagnac. These products emphasize the importance of the conditions of the year in which the grapes were grown and then distilled, as well as the conditions during the time the brandy was aged.
The foregoing all adds up to two points: 1. Cognac offers a wide variety of styles that should suit anyone on your gift list; and 2. I'm not a snob anymore. You can ask anyone-anyone, that is, who can tell the difference between a Fine Champagne and a Grande Champagne.
Jack Bettridge is senior features editor of Cigar Aficionado.
WHAT IS COGNAC?
Cognac is brandy made from white wine (typically Ugni Blanc) from the region in southwest France of the same name. It is distilled twice and aged in oak for at least two years.
Hierarchy by Age
In the hierarchy of Cognacs, the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend determines its age designation. In practice, the average ageof the blend is usually much older.
V.S., for very special, is at least two years old.
V.S.O.P., or very special old pale, is four or more years of age.
X.O., or extra old, is at least six but typically more than 20 years old.
Hierarchy by Source
Cognac is divided into six growing areas, which can also be used as designations. The zones are Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires. The first two are the most important; a blend of Grande and Petite Champagne Cognacs, with at least half Grande Champagne, is called Fine Champagne.
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