Samui Wining & Dining
Cognac Counts

Why this ageless drink still rules the brandies.

 

27Ooday, the most striking thing about cognac, unlike wine, is that it has remained so constant. Very little has changed about its image, style, extremely high quality and meticulous production process. Nothing has been re-invented. And somewhat surprisingly, no new brands have broken through. As far as I can tell, contemporary consumers’ perceptions remain very similar to what I remember, when I first started working in the food and beverage industry, in the late '70s.

    When most people think of cognac, their minds may conjure images of alcoholic refinement, which radiates class and history, but may not be accessible to all. It’s a high-class tipple for the discerning, but the cost, and even the taste (which is meant to be enjoyed neat) make it prohibitive to many. Its popularity was probably at its height in the middle of the last century, although it was a drink only for the elite. Since then, correlated to the levelling of society, appeal has steadily declined. These days, bottles of excellent (but expensive) varieties tend to sit, gathering dust, on the top shelves of well-stocked bars in up-market restaurants and swanky hotels. Overlooked by the majority of modern consumers.

      To address this, I have a feeling that it’s just a matter of time before the marketing gurus decide to go on some kind of re-branding exercise, aimed at the new generation of drinkers, who are so fond of wine in general. To try to shake off its old-fashioned and stuffy image, the copywriters will, more than likely, come up with new angles, such as blending the famous-name cognacs in mixed drinks and cocktails. No doubt horrifying the traditionalists, at the same time. Because thus far, mixing cognac, as opposed to lower-quality (ordinary) brandy, is something that would be considered nothing short of sacrilege! It could be quite a hard sell too, as using a cognac for this purpose would be very expensive. And after all, nobody ever suggests mixing luxurious and fashionable drinks such as Cristal Champagne. Not even the anarchic hip hop rappers, partying all night in New York’s trendiest nightclubs. But don’t be surprised if said rappers are used in an attempt to 'sex-up' cognac. Or, God forbid, the renaming of it, to something perceptually cool, like 'the Na!' It’s the sort of unlikely combination that might just work on the new generation, through sheer unorthodoxy.

 

 Indeed, many growers state
that the quality of their cognac
depends almost entirely on
the soil it’s grown in.


      But the fusion of modern throwaway values and loose conventions, with the super-orthodoxy and traditional values of the old-world, time-has-forgotten region of Cognac, in south-west France, is admittedly, hard to contemplate. In time-honoured tradition, the French continue to proudly boast of their two regions with wine industries based entirely on the distillation of the crop. Brandy can be made from any wine, but Cognac and Armagnac are specific in their qualities, governed by strict laws, and as firmly based on their terroirs (land), as Bordeaux or Champagne. To a connoisseur (and believer in the magical elements of terroir) there is an uncanny fresh-grape sweetness about a good cognac. As though the soul of the vine has been encapsulated and condensed. It makes them think not just of wine, but of a truly great wine, displaying all the same elusive complexity and desirability. Indeed, many growers state that the quality of their cognac depends almost entirely on the soil it’s grown in. And, the next time you enjoy a glass, concentrate, you will find it’s true that a certain earthiness is quite evident in the flavour and aroma of fine cognac.

       However, it’s not just the land that is responsible for cognac’s class. The production process is vital. As soon as possible after the wine has stopped fermenting, it’s double distilled in pot stills for the winter months. And one barrel of cognac comes out for every ten of wine that went in. Then, ageing in oak, is as much a part of the process as the distillation. A particular oak wood, from forests in central France is favoured for its high porosity and rather low tannin content. Three years inside the barrel is the legal minimum for any cognac. In practice, many have a lot longer. VSOP's (Very Special Old Pale) have five years, or more. Cognac is normally diluted, with distilled water, to 40% alcohol. Sweetness and colour are adjusted with sugar and caramel (which explains its caramel-like appearance). Each shipper has a house style, and secret way of obtaining its own uniqueness, as well as reserves of very old cognac to draw on for famous premium and deluxe brands. And it would take a very brave person to even consider changing (or modifying) the iconic bottles of the vintage and XO Hennessey, Courvoisier, Remy Martin and Martell brands.

      It’s worth remembering that, rather like watches and sports cars, certain classics retain their allure because of their reliably superior quality, corresponding prestige and high price. Cognac is one such thing. The sophisticated draw may stem from the fact that one’s grandfather savoured it, after dinner, with a Cuban cigar. Or, it may simply be that cognac embodies the quality and status that attracts people who love the finer things in life. Timeless classics are currently in vogue again. It could well be that the return to popularity, of what is arguably the finest distilled alcoholic beverage in the world, is about to return with a vengeance. But please, out of respect for the makers, always drink your cognac neat!

 

Peter James


 


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