Cognac is one of the world’s most coveted spirits, and is often referred to as the brandy of the house. It is produced mostly in France and has been around for centuries, but what is the history of this spirit and what does it mean today?
When it comes to spirits, there is no shortage of choices. The “hard liquor” category, however, is subjected to the widest range of flavors and styles, and the variety of spirits available for consumption is a favorite topic of mine. Recently, two unique distillery forms have broken into the U.S. market—the organic farm distillery and the vintage variation. These are new forms of distilling spirit that offer a more natural and organic alternative to the traditional method of distilling. These distillate products are made using a more traditional method, though they retain a “vintage” aspect to their recipe. This in no way detracts from the quality of either distillery’s product, but rather serves to highlight the uniqueness of each
The global wine scene has never been so vibrant and varied. In fact, the only thing that is more varied than the wine scene is the time it takes for a new wine to be born or old wine to die.
Cognac is the world’s most well-known grape-based liquor, beloved by kings and queens, hip-hop stars, and cocktail historians alike. Luxurious and mahogany-gorgeous in the glass, it also works well as a cocktail foundation with additional components.
With a few exceptions, however, the spirit has always favored stability over variety.
“The ‘big four’ [Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell, and Remy Martin] aim to reproduce the same consuming experience every time,” explains Max von Olfers, who operates the Cognac Expert website with his sister Sophie.
“The XO of Hennessy needs to have the same flavor, structure, and color for a long time,” he adds, “and that can only be done by regulating the blending and [adding] additions and coloring and so on.” “Consumers want these goods to taste the same every time,” says the author.
Stills from Maison Ferrand / Photo courtesy of Maison Ferrand
However, change is taking place. Many smaller Cognac producers are increasingly becoming organic, rejecting chemicals, and embracing vintage diversity, whether via single-vintage bottlings or mixing. Some experiment with other kinds of wood in maturing and utilize grapes other than Ugni Blanc, Cognac’s workhorse. Perhaps most importantly, many people are looking for new methods to commit to sustainability.
The late-nineteenth-century phylloxera epidemic impacted modern Cognac production, as it did many other European wine areas.
In the aftermath, Cognac producers focused almost entirely on Ugni Blanc, a reliable, high-acid grape variety. They started a chemical affair with herbicides and pesticides to assist a failing industry battle its way back to some stability, in order to never again suffer near-total crop loss.
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“There was a rush to get back on track after phylloxera, which is odd since it never did,” says Guillaume Lamy, vice president of Guy Ferrand, a Cognac manufacturer.
He claims, “It’s easy arithmetic.” “Before phylloxera, Cognac’s vineyards covered approximately 263,000 hectares [650,000 acres]. It now covers 75,000 hectares [about 185,000 acres]… A lot occurred in Cognac between 1610 and 2020, and it can’t be summarized in 20 pages.”
The papers he’s referring to are the “Cahier des Charges,” which are appellation d’Origine contrôlée (AOC) regulations that regulate spirit production.
The AOC, which was established in 1936, specifies which grape varieties may be used and where they can be cultivated, the kind of stills and barrels that can be used in production, and the amount of boise, sugar, and alcohol by volume that can be added (abv).
Maison Dudognon’s vines / Photo courtesy of Maison Dudognon
While the rules serve a purpose, some producers are concerned that they would hinder creativity.
For example, Ferrand’s Renegade Barrel is matured in both French oak and chestnut wood. The spirit must be branded as an eau de vie rather than a Cognac since chestnut is not allowed under current regulations.
Expansion of Organic Matter
“People just see the final product, but it all begins in the vineyard,” explains Franky Marshall, a certified Cognac instructor and bartender. “It all boils down to a lot of little farmers that provide the wines to the bigger producers.”
According to estimates from the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), a French organization of winemakers and merchants that represents the Cognac sector, just 1% of Cognac producers are certified organic. Many others, according to the group, use comparable eco-conscious manufacturing techniques that aren’t certified.
The majority of the larger Cognac companies have always had a demand for more grapes than they can produce. As a consequence, conventionally grown grapes are often blended with organic products from smaller farmers, negating the effort put into the latter.
“We estimate that only about 20% of organically farmed Cognac ends up in an organically labeled bottle,” says Pascal Rousteau, president of VitiBio, Cognac’s 23-year-old association of organic farmers. “Many producers sell in bulk to the four big houses, who do not yet recognize the interest of the [organic] label,” says Rousteau.
Grosperrin’s labeling and bottling / Photo by Stephane Charbeau
Early frosts, hailstorms, hot summers, and late-season droughts are all factors that must be considered by all Cognac growers.
“Climate change has had an effect on the Cognac winegrowing area, as it has on other regions in France, Europe, and the world,” says Vincent Lang, head of the BNIC’s technical and sustainable development department. “Several years ago, we began taking action. We are optimistic about the future, but we are working hard, as do other wine-producing and agricultural sectors, to adapt to the numerous climatic, economic, technical, and social changes we face.”
According to Lang, some of this effort involves urging the region’s roughly 2,400 farmers and producers to re-embrace innovative soil management as an alternative to chemical weed killers.
A region-wide adaption of High Environmental Value (HEV) accreditation, which emphasizes on problems including biodiversity, plant preservation, fertilizer management, and water conservation, has also been introduced.
“We harvested new kinds of vines resistant to downy mildew and powdery mildew on a big scale for the first time last year,” adds Lang. “Those new types are expected to be formally registered in 2022 and gradually implemented in Cognac vineyards.”
Hennessy, for example, has pledged to eliminate the use of pesticides on its own estate by 2023 and from contract farmers by 2028. The problematic herbicide glyphosate has been prohibited by Martell, and Rémy Martin has pushed hundreds of its farmers to achieve HEV certification.
‘Converting Back’ is a term used to describe the process of returning to
Smaller manufacturers, on the other hand, are making significant adjustments.
The company’s drive toward organic agriculture is described by Amy Pasquet, co-manager of Jean-Luc Pasquet Cognac, as “converting back” to agriculture as it was thousands of years ago.
Most Cognac manufacturers were originally considered “organic,” according to Pasquet, since “chemically manufactured goods didn’t emerge until after WWII.” It was everything done the old fashioned way.”
In 1993, Jean-Luc, her husband’s father, started converting the label’s 34 acres of Ugni Blanc grapes in Grand Champagne to organic. Since the early 18th century, the region has been utilized to produce Cognac grapes.
In his basement, Jean Luc Pasquet pours Cognac / Photograph by Christophe Marlot/Le Studio Photographique
France became the second-largest user of agricultural pesticides to stabilize yields and output in the later half of the twentieth century.
To counteract the resulting pollution and create more distinctive agricultural products, certain grower-producers have changed their methods. These include Pasquet, Dudognon, Decroix Cognac Vivant, G&A Domaine De Marais, Mery Melrose, Guy Pinard & Fils, and Brard Blanchard. Négociant producers that have adopted such practices include Park, Grosperrin, Peyrat, Leopols Gourmel and Prunier.
Francoise Mery of Mery Melrose, a fourth-generation Cognac producer, turned his family’s farms to organic in 2006 and started fermenting grapes with natural yeast.
“We didn’t sure whether there would be demand in organic spirits at first,” Mery explains. “A spirits department is now found in an increasing number of organic stores. It makes sense. People who are interested about organic crops, food, and wine will also purchase organic spirits.”
His initiatives were not instantly embraced by the community.
He adds, “The neighbors don’t look at you very kindly because, you know, you’re different.” “However, it’s ironic since people who live in rural regions should be worried about organic [growing] because they live next to [the land].”
“If we expand and develop, we won’t be able to maintain the same level of quality. Then we’re losing our soul.” —Pierre Buraud, Dudognon Cognac co-owner
Dudognon has long been dedicated to environmental sustainability, producing 18,000 bottles of organic Cognac each year. Distillers build their stills with firepower rather than gas, and they meticulously choose the wood for their barrels.
Pierre Buraud, who co-owns Dudognon with his parents, Claudine and Gerald, adds, “Every year, we go to visit a wood cutter and he chops the oak for us.” “We age and cure the wood for three to five years before bringing it to our barrel builder, so we know the origin, quality, and maturity of the wood.”
According to Buraud, these techniques minimize the need for additions like sugar and caramel.
He claims, “We know we can age youthful eau de vie without adding any color or additive.” “This is the way we prefer to operate. We could purchase more wine or sell more Cognac if we wanted to, but we don’t. We won’t be able to maintain the same level of quality as we develop and expand. Then we’re losing our soul.”
Hardy Cognac’s fifth-generation distiller, Benedict Hardy, shares a similar perspective. She introduced an organic Cognac to her family’s brand in 2015.
“It’s a huge change. It’s a crusade, after all! “Hardy says.
“If you make that choice, you won’t be able to put an organic label on a bottle for approximately ten years,” Hardy says, adding that you won’t be able to use herbicides or pesticides during that time. “Everything is unique. The barrels are unique. The pumps and hoses must be thoroughly cleaned. Inspectors are present when we bottle. It’s not as simple as it appears.”
Organic Cognac sales account for just 3% of the company’s earnings, but it sets a significant precedent for Hardy.
“Every year, we see a little growth,” she adds. “It’s not amazing, but we’re gently but steadily expanding our market. Food is very important to the French. What we create must serve as a model for others. We won’t need as much pesticide and herbicide if we don’t overproduce.
“More isn’t always better,” she explains. “Less is sometimes better.”
Cognac in the Future
Smaller businesses also experiment in different ways.
“In terms of grape diversity, I think that organic farmers who bottle their product are more inclined to plant ancient varietals like Folle Blanche, Colombard, or Montils, since many of their members have these kinds of vines,” Rousteau adds.
In 2020, Pasquet will offer its first 100 percent Folle Blanche. Buraud also produces a 100 percent Folle Blanche and farms Montils and Ugni Blanc grapes.
“People began to abandon Folle Blanche in the 1930s because it is difficult to grow,” explains Buraud. “For many years, the Folle Blanche was on the verge of extinction. My grandpa was preparing his grandfather’s eau de vie one day when he remembered and thought that something wasn’t quite right. Something wasn’t quite right. The Folle Blanche was gone, he realized.
“That’s why we’ve decided to re-grow it. It was replanted for the first time in 1999. It was the first year we were able to sell it in 2009.”
Maison Dudognon’s cognac distillation / Photo courtesy of Maison Dudognon
The desire to connect Cognac’s history with its future led Sophie and Max von Olfers, the siblings behind the Cognac Expert website, to create their own label, Sophie & Max Seleccion. They source and curate bottles from small, family-owned producers and sell them on their website.
According to Max, they’re interested in conveying the tales behind each bottle. “Can you tell me about it? What was the name of the family that created it? When did it come into being? Is it true that the sun shone that year? What occurred in this vintage, exactly? Is it mixed? ”
For centuries, the family has cultivated the land. Max intends to grow his own vines the next year. Meanwhile, he’s focused on broadening the market and changing people’s views about Cognac.
“Is it true that a Cognac with additives is inherently bad? He replies, “No.” “On the other side, I’ve tasted very young Cognacs with caramel and sugar. They’re black, yet delicious on the tongue, with a lingering burn.
“It’s incomprehensible. The nature of vintage wine is that it tastes different every year. It’s all about who you are.”
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The world of cognac has always been a bit of a mystery, with some of the most famous brands known to have evolved over the course of decades, yet remaining the same in today’s market. The question is: how do these ‘vintage’ cognacs compare to the new ones?. Read more about organic cognac and let us know what you think.
This article broadly covered the following related topics:
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