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Art of distilling & blending - Why great cognac is in high demand

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  • By ANDREW ROSENBAUM (Interview Blouin USA Fall issue)
Art of distilling & blending - Why great cognac is in high demand

“It was a particularly exciting sale”, says Richard Harvey, Master of Wines at Bonhams, talking about the July 13 auction in London of bottles of 1840 cognac, exported in cask and aged in the UK. “We had international participation for what is usually a specialist interest.” Cognac that was moved to the UK and aged in cask in Britain has special qualities, because the cool and moist local climate enhances the effects of the wood, Harvey explained. The five lots brought in more than £10,000.

Prices keep rising, because there is only so much great cognac available for sale, points out Bay van der Bunt of Breda, Netherlands-based Old Liquors, which hosts the largest collection of great cognac in Europe. What’s more, limited editions still constitute collector’s items. A good example is the recent sale for a charity held by Artcurial in the town of Cognac, where a bottle of Martell was sold for €31,000 (£27,417) after being offered at €11,000. The Baccarat-crystal bottle was designed in 1954, and the box was created by the artist Thierry Drevelle. The bottle contained an eau-de-vie from 1920 which came from a single oak cask.

“Where there are unique bottles, prices soar!” insists Stephen Mould, Head of Wine at Sotheby’s Europe, who agrees that demand for great cognac — both for very old bottles and for blends of old spirit bottled in new objets d’art produced by the great cognac houses — is definitely on the rise. There are no statistics kept on cognac sold at auction, but, according to David Baker, managing director of the Bradford-on-Avon-based dealer Hermitage Cognacs, exceptional cognac has seen nearly a 100 percent rise in price at auction over the past 10 years. Why? “A vintage dating from a historic date such as 1812 or 1914 means that you are drinking liquid history, adding to the uniqueness and mystery of a great Cognac,” Mould points out. “The art of a great cognac comes from centuries of experience in distilling and blending,” adds Benoit Fils, maitre du chai (master blender) at cognac house Martell, where his team tastes about 3,500 eaux-de-vie every year.


What makes a great cognac?

You can probably guess that just having an old cognac doesn’t make it great. As the famous cognac producer Jean Monnet once said: “The great thing about making cognac is that it teaches you to wait.” First, grapes have to be grown and harvested. Cognac, in the French Southwest departement or county of Charente, is where the grapes are grown. Around the town of Cognac are six small areas where the best white grapes for making cognac are located: These are Bois Ordinaires, Bons Bois, Fins Bois, Borderies, Petite Champagne and Grande Champagne (nothing to do with the wine called champagne; it’s just an old French word which originally meant “open country”).
The most-used grape is the Ugni blanc. The best cognac comes from the Grande and Petite Champagne areas, which is why you will see old cognac labelled “fine champagne.” These grapes are fermented until they reach about nine percent alcohol levels, and then they are made into the components of cognac, the “eaux-de-vie” which means simply a spirit distilled from wine. Wines for cognac are twice distilled, to bring them up to the very high alcohol level of 72 percent at which they can be used for cognac blending. The ‘double-distillation,’ as the French call it, enhances the special elements in the wines very effectively. First, however, the eaux-de-vie are themselves aged, for as much as two years. They then go into an oak barrel, and can spend up to 40 years there in which the wood gives character and form to them.


A vintage dating from a historic date such
as 1812 or 1914 means that you are drinking liquid history, adding to the uniqueness
and mystery of a great Cognac
— Stephen Mould, Head of Wine, Sotheby’s Europe

How and where the aging process takes place is very important — unstable weather conditions can rudely affect the final result. This is why there is special interest in so-called “landed cognac,” which was exported in the 19th century to the UK for aging and bottling. As cognac ages, it needs to be "topped up," because alcohol disappears over time. Cognac aged in the UK barrels does not need to be “topped up” and so retains quality. Some cognacs come from a single eau-de-vie from a specific barrel.
Others are blended by the “maître du chai,” the famous ‘nose’ of the great cognac houses, into very special cognacs for which the experience and artistic skill of the blender makes all the difference. So, whether a bottle of cognac is old or young, what matters is how it was produced, blended and aged. For young cognac, there are three different grades: VS, or very special, aged at least two years, VSOP, very superior old pale, aged at least four years, and XO, extra old, aged at least 10 years. But great cognac is always aged for many years in the barrel.
Cognac does not age in the bottle like wine, so the barrel-age is what makes the difference. The value of a bottle of very old cognac depends heavily on its condition. If the seal has been broken, a good part of the contents may have evaporated or deteriorated. “In the collection of great old cognac, you don’t just look for an old bottle from a good producer, you look for a carefully stored bottle,” warns van der Bunt.
In the case of the 1840 cognac stored in the UK, the cognac sat in the cellar of an old English manor house for 100 years, and so was in excellent condition for sale. “When all the conditions are right, great cognac has a very complex nose — even more than a great Burgundy or Bordeaux — and a musty richness on the palate that is unequaled,” explains Baker. “Truly great cognac has what producers call “rancio:” A walnut oil-like nuttiness that is soft yet bitter.” In fact, cognac experts say that each bottle has 25 sips in it. “You don’t drink cognac, you place it on the tongue and let it disappear,” explains van der Bunt. “There is nothing in the world like a great cognac, which is why some people pay 10-20 thousand pounds for a 50-year old bottle and then just enjoy it.” (It is said that Russian connoisseurs often do this just to talk about it afterwards).


Pre- or Post-Phylloxera?

For collectors, the most prized cognacs are so-called “pre-phylloxera,” that is, made with grapes grown before the fungus epidemic that destroyed Europe’s wine industry stock in the late 19th century. The grapes grown before the epidemic came from plants that had different qualities than those that replaced them after almost complete destruction. “This does not mean, however, that cognac made ‘post-phylloxera’ is not collectible,” explains Baker. “Many collectors look for specific producers from later years. Vintages, or years of production like 1920, are also highly prized because the quality of the eaux-de-vie is well-known.” It’s clear that collectors do favor ‘post-phylloxera’ limited editions which offer the best of the great cognac houses — Hennessy, Hine, Martell, Remy Martin, Courvoisier, Delamainand Croizet among others. “They are very successful at auction,” Mould says, “but they may become victims of their success if the houses try to sell too many of them.” Recent sales show only great interest: A lot of Remy Martin Louis XIII Black Pearl cognac — specially blended from the producer’s finest eaux-de-vie — in a crystal decanter sold for as much as £17,000 per lot in in a London sale on April 6, 2017. But investment in pre-phylloxera great stock is just as successful. “I bought a bottle of 1795 Brugerolle in a hand-blown bottle, specially intended for Napoleon’s officers to take to the front with them in 1990,” says van der Bunt. “That bottle cost £20,000 in 1990 and it is now valued at £138,000.”


Asia, Russia strong at auctions

Buyers in Asia and Russia continue to play a major role in the market for great cognac. “Cognac has always been a status symbol in Asia, where top businesspeople routinely sit down over a bottle of XO,” Baker says. “And Hong Kong is still the most important auction site for great cognac.” But Mould notes that the economic slowdown in Russia has hurt that demand, and the policy changes in China have also meant less great cognac purchasing there. Nonetheless, he notes sales for particularly interesting pre-phylloxera bottles have reached levels of £30,000 – 40,000 recently, and seem likely to stay at those levels. But interest is equally strong from Europe and the US. A recent release of a 1947 vintage “hors d’age” (ageless) cognac in London of 186 bottles highlights this. This vintage spirit from a well-known distiller was aged for more than 40 years in barrels. Experts say it has developed a good rancio, and the nose has flavors of sweet spices, ripe medlars, Muscat grapes, ripe plums and cocoa. It is being snapped up by collectors. Demand for pre-phylloxera cognac of this quality is likely to continue to grow, while supplies diminish. “Demand for great cognac stays consistent,” comments Mould, “but prices can be expected to keep rising as competition for the best increases.”