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Cognac Master Class: a study of style, terroir and maturation in nine glasses

Nine Cognacs at San Francisco Wine School
Nine Cognacs at San Francisco Wine School
Hoke Harden

At a recent seminar on Cognac for David Glancy’s San Francisco Wine School, several professionals and cognac enthusiasts gathered to Taste & Compare© a selection of fine cognacs designed to illustrate the nature of terroir, maturation and house style…a primer, if you will, of the range and complexity that cognac, the most iconic brandy in the world, can be capable of.

The nine cognacs selected showcased the characteristics of AOC Cognac, which encompasses the entire region, as well as the separate AOC Crus of Petite Champagne, Grande Champagne, and the Borderies. In addition, different designations, often of the same brands, were included to show the effects of extended barrel maturation, from VS to VSOP to XO grade.

Most people taste cognacs individually. Seldom do they have the opportunity to taste a full range and compare them one to the other to determine how and why they differ. Those differences can be summed up succinctly in three aspects: the house style (determined by how the cognac is made and blended); the terroir (source of the cognac, as different locations and soils produce significantly different iterations of cognac that can be fairly easily to discern; and the maturity of the cognac (barrel influence, oxidative aging and concentration create tertiary elements in cognac that quite literally changes the nature of the brandy dramatically).

This Cognac seminar was designed to touch on all three of the basic aspects, so that the tasters could “pursue” an aspect in any direction they wished.

1. Courvoisier VS Cognac
An AOC Cognac, and thus capable of being sourced from anywhere in the entire delimited area, although this is purportedly composed of Fins Bois and Petite Champagne, Courvoisier VS is an example of “entry level” cognac in a definitive house style. Maître Assembleurs (‘Master Assemblers” or blenders) select particular cognacs to blend together to follow as closely as possible the established house style. The designation VS signifies the cognacs in the bottle must have spent at least two years in barrel prior to blending.

Cognac is dominated by the great commercials houses---Hennessey, Remy Martin, Courvoisier and Martell---and they have the largest share of market. Each has a quite distinctive style, for a variety of reasons. Thus, this cognac represents house style in a young cognac: it is fairly simple, straightforward, dominated by fruit and oak, with robust flavor.

2. Remy Martin VS Petite Champagne Cognac
Somewhat of a rarity for a major house in that it is 100% Petite Champagne Cru in a young blend (designated VS but one assumes quickly through comparison that it is somewhat older than required), the Remy Martin also shows the house style, here enhanced by the specific terroir. Petite Champagne is an important cru for cognac in that it has some similarities to the highly-valued but slower aging Grande Champagne Cru, generally shows brighter, lighter and more floral aromas, and ages slightly faster. Here the nose is more lifted, with much more expressed florality and a lighter and brighter flavor---precisely what you would expect from Remy Martin.

3. Pierre Ferrand “Original 1840” Three Star, 1er Cru de Grande Champagne Cognac
Pierre Ferrand is a small and highly specialized house that sources only from the highest rated vineyards of the Grande Champagne. It has a reputation for “over-delivering”; that is to say, consistently putting older-than-required cognacs into its blends. Although officially a “Three Star” (an alternate designation of VS), this cognac was developed primarily as a brash, robust cognac for cocktails, although many people prefer it by itself. To create the “Original 1840” owner Alexander Gabriel worked with consultant David Wondrich to replicate as closely as possible the original nature of cognac from the 1840s, before successive waves of phylloxera and oidium devastated the area and changed the essential grape varieties. Cognacs back then were considered more brash and flavorful, with greater florality and expression of fruit and spice…and were not infrequently higher in alcohol. Hence the Ferrand is 45% alcohol rather than the more customary 40% of today.

Here one could distinguish both a clear house style and a distinctive expression of the terroir of Grande Champagne; to cement that expression though, one would have to search through the other cognacs to see if it is replicated.

4. Le Reviseur VSOP Single Estate Petite Champagne Cognac
Stepping up the comparisons, we introduce a small house exclusively from the Petite Champagne, so we can compare it to the previous Remy Martin VS, but now have to factor in the effects of greater maturation as VSOP requires a minimum of four years of barrel age and this seems even more. We can also compare it to the Grande Champagne in an attempt to further define the terroir of each cru. The bright lift of aromatics, the flowery notes, and almost juicy mid-palette, enhanced with light caramel notes supports its Petite Champagne orgins.

5. Camus VSOP Elegance Cognac
Camus Cognac has been aggressively expanding its presence for the last few years, and it is sometimes referred to as “the Fifth House”. One of its finest assets is the extensive holdings in the much-sought Borderies Cru. Borderies has a heavy deposit of clay soil and is famous for producing a softer, fruitier and more mellow style of eau-de-vie which ages quickly---and thus is a good blender for smooth and velvety texture. Camus VSOP, although a diverse blend, has a goodly portion of Borderies, and it shows, both in the fruit-and-toffee nose and the soft texture of this well-constructed and highly satisfying cognac.

6. Remy Martin VSOP Fine Champagne Cognac
Returning to Remy Martin, we have the flagship of their portfolio, the most popular VSOP cognac in the U.S. The RM style shows through clearly---clean, bright and highly aromatic---but this is more highly structured, with finer granularity. “Fine Champagne” is a designation allowed when the blend consists of only Petite Champagne and Grande Champagne cognacs, with a minimum of 50% Grande Champagne. That is considered an ideal mix by many, combining the bright florality of Petite with the structured intensity of Grande. Switch back and forth between the Petite Champagne and Fine Champagne and you have two different cognacs under the same house style. Factor in the extra aging and maturation of the VSOP---it is obviously and significantly older than the minimum required---and you have stepped up into an entirely new range of complexity.

7. Pierre Ferrand Ambre 1er Cru de Grande Champagne Cognac
Pierre Ferrand does not usually choose to state a specific age, preferring a name designation and blending the cognacs to their own internal demands. It is commonly accepted that the Ambre, their best-selling cognac, is an XO-grade with an average of 10 years. Combine that age with the quality of the 1er Cru Grande Champagne and you have an estimable expression of both maturity and terroir. Most cognaçais consider the ten year mark the point where barrel maturation, oxidation, evaporation and concentration combine to create the prized element of rancio, that complex essence of earthy, mushroom,leather, spice, chocolate and tobacco aromas and flavors that lifts fine cognacs into a higher zone. In the Ambre, those rancio notes begin to emerge, teasing and tantalizing the palate. The tight, almost mineral-like structure of Grande Champagne begins to open and reveal its internal abundance, a perfect example of ‘the four ages of Cognac’ all rolled into one blend. Compare it to the Pierre Ferrand 1840 and it is easy to see both the similarities (of origin and style) and the differences (more rich, full and complex).

8. Camus XO Elegance Cognac
Again, time to compare, most obviously with the preceding Camus VSOP Elegance. Now it is easy to determine the elements of maturity: the fuller, broader mouthfeel, the toasted caramel, roasted nuts, dried fruits and hints of chocolate that signal greater age and development. The Camus style is still there--soft and approachable---but other, deeper and darker aromas and flavors emerge.

Compare it to the preceding Ambre and it seems, softer, more mellow. Compare it to the upcoming Remy Martin XO and it seems more earthy, less aromatically driven.

9. Remy Martin XO Excellence Fine Champagne Cognac
Remy Martin XO maintains its characteristic style through the expression of the two Champagne crus in an elegant blend that shows power and finesse simultaneously. At a minimum 22 years of age, the bright aromatics of fruit and flower remain but transformed into deeper and more complex, more brooding tones; the fresh fruit has become preserved fruit, the honeysuckle has become pressed rose petals, and the cognac exudes warm and expansive odors of baking spices and dried orange peels. With Remy Martin alone we’ve gone through the cognac of springtime (VS), the cognac of late summer (VSOP), and now the cognac of late autumn.

As you Taste & Compare in this manner, all the cognacs fully reveal themselves and the distinctions among them become more obvious. Tasting in isolation can tell you whether you like something, or not. But by tasting and comparing a full range, you learn to identify the elements of what you like and what you don’t. And that’s the difference between a cognac drinker and a cognac connoisseur.