Cognac producers are increasingly appealing to non-traditional cognac drinkers—which means new packaging, cognac cocktails, and even American oak expression.
With a mischievous twinkle in his eye, Bernard Hine, of the eponymous cognac house, placed two glasses of identical-looking brandy in front of me. This was a test. Both were from the 1975 vintage. The only difference was that one was matured in France and the other in Britain. But which? I took a sniff of one and, thinking aloud, said: "Mmmm, caramel."
"No! It does not smell of caramel!" Bernard replied, looking at me as if I'd just insulted his family and all of France. We argued a bit. The twinkle disappeared. This wasn't going very well. I smelled the other glass. It was fresher, grassier, less mature-smelling. I held the second one up: "This one was matured in Britain," I said, trying to sound confident. He paused. He's going to throw me out of the house, I thought. Instead, he told me I was right. I breathed a sigh of relief.
British-matured cognac is known as "Early Landed," and Hine are one of the few houses that still produce this most traditional of styles; the company is known for its vintage offerings. But in recent years, Hine has also branched into what is, for it, radical new territory. Along with an increasing number of cognac producers worldwide, the house is experimenting with nontraditional ways of producing and marketing the spirit—and in doing so, they hope to change cognac’s image as either a fusty after-dinner drink or something that people drink to show off rather than savor.
Traditionally, most cognac producers have prioritized consistency— not vintage variations—in their products. Therefore, most cognacs are blends of years sold in a consistent house style. They are labelled as VS (Very Special, minimum two years aging), VSOP (Very Special Old Pale, minimum three years) or XO (extra old, minimum six years.) Just under 90% of production comes from the Big Four: Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell and Remy Martin.
What doesn't come across in commercial cognac is the sheer diversity of terroir there is in the region. Cognac is very rarely named after a specific vineyard or area. The region is divided into appellations that are in decreasing order of excellence: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires. Almost all cognac will be a blend of areas and ages. As Per Even Allaire, the Hine Sales Manager, puts it, "soil is forgotten about in Cognac."
Part of the reason for this is that very few cognac producers control the whole process from vine to bottle. The Big Four are predominantly negociants: they buy spirits and then age, blend and market them. According to cognac expert Nicholas Faith, their own vineyards "account for an insignificant percentage of their requirements."
Hine, however, are a little different. They own enough vineyard to provide for 30% of their production. According to Even Allaire, "the raw material is the essence of what we do." And in 2014, they decided to branch out even further: they released a cognac not only from a single year, like “early-landed,” but from a single vineyard, Bonneuil in Grand Champagne, a terroir that Even Allaire describes as "absolutely magnificent." The wine from this vineyard is distilled at the nearby Distillery St. Denis. Hine make the brandy in small batches so they can preserve more of the character from the wine. "It's bespoke, there is no standard recipe," Even Allaire told me. He described how the distiller, M. Espinard, worked by sight and smell rather than computer.
As with most cognac, Bonneuil is made with 100% Ugni Blanc grapes. The original grape of the region was Folle Blanche, but after phylloxera (the vine eating louse) ravaged the crops between 1875 and 1895, the vineyards were replanted with the easier to cultivate Ugni Blanc (a.k.a. Trebbiano). Small amounts of Folle Blanche still exist, however: Chateau de Beaulon produce a 7-year-old varietal Folle Blanche cognac with a delicate floral flavor.
Chateau de Beaulon and Hine Bonneuil are sold in wine-like bottles, with none of the bling that you might associate with the product. Their discreet packaging shows how cognac’s customers are changing. Previously, all expensive cognacs were lavishly-packaged to appeal to the buoyant Chinese and Russian markets. But anti-corruption legislation in China means that luxury goods can no longer be used as “gifts” to facilitate business there, and Russia has been hit by falling oil prices. And regardless, according to Even Allain, both markets are becoming more sophisticated.
Cognac producers are also looking to reach out to non-traditional cognac drinkers. Sommeliers are even beginning to pair cognac with food. When I was a guest of Hine earlier in the year, we drank the Bonneuil 06 with a salmon ceviche, which proved an excellent match. Indeed the previous vintage, Bonneuil 05, won Spirit of the Year at the 2015 Sommelier Challenge.
Meanwhile, some houses are moving away from the traditional cognac designations—VSOP, etc.—and opting for more evocative names instead, the thinking being that those might resonate more with consumers. The firm of Leopold Gourmel, for instance, released cognacs named "Gourmel" and "Age du Fruit." Bache-Gabrielsen launched a range called "Natur & Eleganse" that look like craft gins with their squat retro bottles and bold labeling. These products are aimed squarely at a younger market, with none of the stuffiness or opulence of traditional cognac marketing.
Bache-Gabrielsen are certainly going to ruffle a few feathers with their American oak expression. When I mentioned it to Marie-Emmanuelle Febveret, the PR representative from Hine, she looked aghast and said, "That's not possible!" Cognac is always aged in French oak; American oak has a stronger, and some might argue less subtle, taste. Bache-Gabrielsen's modern take tastes like a cognac slowly morphing into a bourbon. I can see why it might upset the cognac purist—but it does taste spectacular with a chocolate brownie.
It's also a great mixer in place of rye or bourbon in a cocktail such as an Old-fashioned or Manhattan. Mixing cognac used to be rather frowned upon, but it's now encouraged by the cognac houses keen to get in on the cocktail boom. Hine serve a Horse's Neck: a mixture of cognac, ginger ale, lemon, ice and angostura bitters. Lovely it is, too. They use their bestselling expression, H by Hine, which has a fruity sweetness. According to Even Allaire, this sweetness comes from distilling the wine on its fine lees (small particles of dead yeast left over from fermentation).
Lesser cognacs are sweetened with caramel, and it now dawns on me why I so upset Bernard Hine: He thought I was detecting added caramel when I was actually trying to describe the rich, sweet smell that comes with maturity that the French call rancio. My advice for you if you're ever a guest of a Cognac house: Don't use the C-word.
3 unusual bottles that will give you a taste of the new wave of cognac:
Hine Bonneuil 06 (Post Wines and Spirits $140)
Not only from a single vineyard and single vintage, but also from a single cask. It smells grassy and floral with notes of ginger, cinnamon and cloves. The palate is similarly fresh with oranges, pepper and vanilla to finish. This has just been released. The 05 is very good, too, though gentler, with sweeter fruit and a little less acidity. One can see why it appeals so much to sommeliers.
Bache-Gabrielsen American oak (Chelsea Wine Vault $46.99)
On the bottle it says "Aged in Tennessee Oak Barrels for minimum of 6 months." This cognac is a very dark colour, like a highly-sherried scotch whiskey. The spirit is full-bodied, oily even. It's peppery and fiery with tonnes of fruit followed by charred, vanilla and coconut flavors that scream American Oak!! Very interesting and appealing. Serve it to the cognac purist in your life for a strong reaction.
Delamain Pale & Dry XO (Mission Liquor $78.88)
This firm are unusual in that they are still family-owned, their cognacs come only from Grand Champagne, and they make no VS or VSOP—only XO and above. This is elegance personified. You can really taste the wine lightly seasoned with peppery and toffee notes. It's very persistent.