Liquids: Cognacs

During the final winter of my unmarried youth (a.k.a. just before I got engaged), I took a trip to France with my buddy Jeff that my future fiancée called my “last binge.” Fellow writer and consummate liquids savant Jeff and I concocted a 10-day tour de force that included a six-day search for every possible wine bar we could find in Paris, followed by a four-day sprint south across Cognac to taste the oldest brandies we could get our hands on. Of course, the Paris leg of the trip proved as fabulous and hangover-inducing as it sounds, but it was the visit to Cognac I remember more because it was there that I had one of those rare life-changing experiences that can only be described—among wine geeks, anyway—as an epiphany.

It happened in the presence of Patrick Raguenaud, cellar master at Martell, one of Cognac’s oldest houses and one of the “Big Four” top-selling producers. (The other three are Hennessy, Rémy Martin, and Courvoisier.) Raguenaud poured us three ancient glasses of Grand Champagne Cognac, one from 1848, one from 1875, and one from 1913. The 1848, he explained, had been kept too long in a wooden barrel, so its fruit was hidden behind bitter tannins. The 1875 he described as possessing a flat, “closed” aroma, hiding notes of cinnamon and apricot. The 1913, he proclaimed, was simply beautiful in both its caramel-scented bouquet and its powerful, smoky flavor in the mouth. Then, without warning, he poured a few drops of the 1848 into the 1875, sniffed, sipped, and said, “Voilà.” The blend released a remarkable explosion of aromas and flavors that were lacking in the separate parts. And there was the revelation: Blending—brandies of different ages and regions coming together in the hands of an artist—is the essence of Cognac. Raguenaud also confirmed for me that when it comes to winter-warming brandies, the French leave the rest of the world out in the cold.

Surprised to hear that Cognac is a brandy? It’s true: All Cognacs are brandies. But not all brandies are Cognacs. Got that? First, let me define brandy as a spirit made by distilling wine, then aging it in oak barrels. This means brandy can be made in some form in every winemaking region in the world, although the laws and regulations governing its production vary widely. The French, of course, have built a reputation for producing the greatest brandy in the world by figuring out which soils, climates, grapes, production methods, and blending techniques are best suited to specific regions of the country, the finest of which is Cognac. That said, only brandies from the Cognac region can be called Cognac, just as Burgundies can come only from France’s Burgundy region.

Like all of France’s great wine-growing regions, Cognac has its own “appellation contrôlée,” a governing standard that says Cognac can come from any of only six designated vineyard areas just north of Bordeaux: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, or Bois Ordinaire. The first two are the only ones you really need to know, as they’re considered the most prestigious.

Cognac starts with three principal grapes, all of them white—ugni blanc, folle blanche, and French colombard—which are fermented into wine and then distilled. The method used to distill these young wines is critical to the resulting spirit. In Cognac, it’s traditional to distill the wine twice in a tall, bulb-shaped copper container called an Alembic still. This process renders a raw brandy that is then poured into oak barrels where it will mellow and age, slowly transforming into a soft, fragrant Cognac. (Cognac is typically aged a minimum of 30 months, though an aging period of up to 150 years is not unheard of.) Next, a cellar master or master blender analyzes the brandies and decides how best to prepare a blend consistent with the style of the producer or “house,” just as Raguenaud did for us at Martell’s cellar.

If it’s been a while since you’ve poured a snifter of Cognac, you’ll be pleased to rediscover its delicate, fragrant floral bouquet (tempered by some sharpness of alcohol); its deep amber color; and its rich, warm, slightly sweet flavor balanced by the subtle character of wood, tannin, and alcohol.

With my new drinking partner in tow (a.k.a. my wife), I set out one frigid night to recapture the warmth of Cognac right here at home. First stop was Hamersley’s Bistro, where owner Fiona Hamersley steered us toward a silky, smooth Courvoisier VSOP, one of her best sellers at $14 a glass. It tasted of chocolate and nuts and had a slightly citrusy finish.

At Aquitaine, the burgundy banquettes and warm candlelight are a nice setting in which to enjoy a floral, vanillin glass of Delamain Pale & Dry XO ($14). General manager Don Bailey attributes Cognac’s appeal to its status. “You can be drinking something that can be older than you,” says Bailey. “It’s tangible and makes you contemplate when you’re drinking it. It appeals to all the senses: sight, smell, taste. A very sensual spirit.” Bailey says he pours about six cases of Cognacs and Armagnacs just during November and December alone.

Brian Simpson, bar manager at Grill 23, doesn’t have my favorite Hine “Rare” Fine Champagne VSOP, so we order his favorite, Pierre Ferrand Abel ($45), a 45-year-old 100 percent Grand Champagne Cognac, which is an excellent choice. “We serve a lot of the Rémy Martin Louis XIII for $150 a glass,” Simpson says, making the pitch. Alas, since my editor’s paying, we’re not splurging.