Cognac Blends Heaven and Earth

While it courts the cocktail crowd, it keeps its eyes on paradise
Cognac Blends Heaven and Earth
Roger Morris

It wasn’t that many years ago that we were content with just sipping our cognac after dinner, perhaps savoring its fragrant aromas and tastes with espresso and a good cigar.

Those simple days are gone. Cognac has taken the dinner menu and turned it upside down by penciling in its name as a before-dinner cocktail and has loosened the world’s barkeeps to invent hundreds of possibilities to whet our appetites. And that means that cognac has had to make some adjustments at its distilleries in the Charentes River Valley.

Like its less-famous cousin, armagnac, cognac is a brandy made from grapes that have first been distilled into a base wine. Laurent Lozano, director of research for the large and popular distiller, Hennessey, explains that where those grapes come from and how they are made into wine is extremely important.

“Distillation is just a concentration of the flavors you find in the wine,” he says, hence the flavors and complexity of the wine itself are key. Or, as Alexandre Gabriel, owner of Cognac Ferrand puts it, “It drives me crazy that some reference books say that good cognac is made from bad grapes.”

That rap comes from the fact that cognac picks its grapes when they are less sweet and more acidic than most table wines, a key to brandy production. Yet people around the town of Cognac in western France are as proud of where their grapes are grown as are those noted terroir fanatics of Burgundy.

In fact, there are six distinct Cognac growing regions, or crus, whose soil and climate produce wines that are each different in their degrees of fruitiness, spiciness, floweriness, finesse, and complexity. For that reason, almost all cognacs are blends, both of regions and the number of years their young brandies, or eau-de-vies, have languished in oak barrels and casks — the rarer ones for over a century.

These blends can result in such wonderful pleasures as the Bache-Gabrielsen Hors d'Age, a blend of barrels from Cognac’s Grande Champagne cru (average age: 55 to 60 years) that I had at last week’s La Part des Anges charity auction dinner in Cognac.

But other blends are equally important to the cognac market. Holding up a glass of Hennessey Black in his lab in Cognac’s riverfront district, Lozano says, “Black is designed to be used in cocktails, so it is made from eau-de-vies that are fruitier and have less time in barrels. With vodkas and some other white spirits, the flavors of the cocktail depends more on the other ingredients,” he continues. “Cognac has more flavors, so the flavors of the other ingredients are secondary.” In other words, it would be a waste to use Black in a Bloody.

Similarly, Ferrand and some other Cognac houses also make blends to further cognac’s traditional role as after-dinner fare, specifically “cigar cognacs,” for post-prandial puffery. And, some blends taste better with the bitterness of espresso than others.

That does not mean that the connoisseur of aged cognacs needs to fear being washed over by this New Wave. A tour of any cognac aging cellar will lead — if you’re lucky — to a small underground cellar with a gravelly floor for increased humidity to help preserve the really old stuff. For example, during a tour of Cognac Hardy during last week’s festivities, I was able to sip rare, unblended vintages made in 1956, 1935, and 1904.

They were all different, very complex and, as my eyes rolled upward, just heavenly. Which is fitting, because while the cocktail hour may have its earthly rewards, the distillers of cognacs still refer to each of these small collections of barrels and demijohns as their “paradise.”