By Felipe Schrieberg
Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the second edition of London's The Cognac Show, organized by online whisky retailing giants The Whisky Exchange. Aimed at attracting anyone who appreciates fine spirits, it serves as an important platform to educate both the U.K. drinks industry and the public on just how delicious Cognac can be.
It certainly served as a superb and intense introduction for me, especially given the similarities between Cognac and whisky, as both are distilled spirits aged in oak.
However, there’s some differences. Where something like single malt whisky is made from malted barley which is then fermented like beer before distillation, Cognac is made from distilling wine (the resulting clear spirit is called eau de vie). Like whisky though, Cognac is mostly exported around the world. This very French drink is not really consumed by the French themselves; over 98% of it goes to international markets.
Here’s some other facts. It’s pretty well known that Cognac has to be produced in the region of Cognac in France (otherwise it’s brandy, really), but it also has to be aged in French oak, mostly Limousin or Troncais wood.
For the most part Ugni Blanc grapes are used, produced in six production regions (Grand Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois à terroirs), each possessing certain soil characteristics which then affect in different ways the final taste of the drink itself.
When it comes to maturation, the liquid is then categorized into age groups, and labelled accordingly. A VS (Very Special) Cognac refers to liquid maturing for a minimum of 2 years, VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) a minimum of 4 years, Napoleon Cognacs a minimum of 6 years, and XO Cognacs for at least 10 years (this rule for XO came into force since 2018, XOs and Napoleons used to be the same thing).
Arriving at the show, I quickly learned there’s plenty more out there besides the big brands such as Remy Martin, Hennessy, and Courvoisier. There’s over 200 Cognac producers packed into a small region, and by attending the Cognac Show I got to sample just a tiny sliver of what’s out there.
Here’s some recommendations on some truly wonderful and unusual Cognacs that I got to try over the course of the day. Hopefully, this list serves as a useful introduction to a delightful new world of taste and class, with some quality liquid available to purchase at pretty budget-friendly prices. I’ve placed them here in alphabetical order.
Originally established in 1643, Augier is currently the world’s the oldest Cognac house. However, they’re currently pushing 3 Cognacs, emphasising a flavour profile rather than displaying any information about age. I found the Oceanique to be a bit raw, malty, and balancing elements of coconut and vanilla with a saltier, grapefruit-bitter edge. The Singulier is waxier and fruity (think dates, figs, and strawberries), and the Sauvage manages to combine earthy, nutty flavors with marzipan, apples, and pears while still feeling rather soft.
A 5 generation family operation, Camus Cognac’s main operation is based out of the La Gîte Estate purchased by the family in 1991. I managed to try two of their products. The VSOP Borderies Single Estate is spicy, with cardamom and ginger pushing through into a gentle woody palate. The XO Borderies, however, is a dry tannic monster, rich and leathery.
A De Fussigny
Established in 1815, this Cognac house prides itself on its ‘miscellaneous expressions’. Both the Cognacs I tried from here were radically different from each other. The Superieur is malty and creamy like a Bounty bar but also has fruity undertones including melon and raspberries. The XO, like most XOs I tried, is much drier. Cherries, raisins and milk chocolate accompany a marmalade intensity but there is a lingering finish that reminds me of onion chutney.
A new brand first bottled in 2013, though the eau de vie from the Fanny Fougerat estates was blended for bigger brands for a long time before that. I tasted two out of the four Cognacs available. The Laurier d’Apollon is a limited edition release, and one of the most herbal and floral Cognacs I tried. The softness of Scottish gorse blends together with more robust bergamot, though the taste is softer than the nose. The Cedre Blanc XO is a chocolate toffee cake of a drink, accompanied by the usual strong tannins found in older Cognacs.
It’s unbelievable, but the Frapin family have been making wine since 1270, though distillation began much later. The business still is in the family, and more recently, their VSOP Cognac won ‘Best VSOP’ at the U.K. Cognac Awards. I found it to be tangy and dry. Tropical fruits accompany grape nerds candy and green tea. I really enjoyed the XO Chateau de Fontpinot, however. Raspberries and cinnamon give way to more herbal elements, along with tamarind bitterness. Pretty budget friendly for an XO, too.
Hardy’s, established in 1863, gets its name from its founder, an English wine importer who loved Cognac so much he changed his name from Anthony to Antoine. Both the Hardy Cognacs I tried were excellent. The Legend 1863 combines citrus, spice, mint, with the oak that comes through. On the higher end , the 25 year old Noces d’Argent is a delight. Nutty and floral while also goopy and sharp like orange marmalade, all the good stuff from older Cognacs is present, including the tannins, wood, and a hint of cereal malt.
I quickly stopped by the stand of this famous Cognac brand to try its XO release, which is the first XO ever created, apparently. It’s also superb and complex. It’s creamy and spicy, like combining a chai tea with a clafoutis, while also providing a solid helping of tannic bitterness as well as peaches and cinnamon.
Originally founded in 1715 but now owned by Pernod Ricard, Martell was one of the first Cognac houses and is a pretty big global brand. I got to try its VS, one of the most recognizable Cognacs out there, which was pleasant enough neat, with caramel, toffee, and grassy notes coming through. More well-known is its Cordon Bleu XO which was originally released in 1912. This one is more citric, though there’s plenty of richer flavors such as passion fruit and black tea at play, and I caught a nice little floral waft of lavender too.
Time was running out by the time I visited the Maxime Trijol stand and so I only got to try one of their higher end releases, the Dry Collection no.1. An older Cognac, it was a totally delightful fruit party, surprisingly devoid of the heavier tannins most older Cognacs will possess.
These were some of my favourite Cognacs of the entire show. They are gorgeous. Prunier has been in operation for over 250 years, so they definitely know a thing or two about producing the good stuff. Their VSOP was my favourite of all the show’s VSOPs that I tried. Softly tangy while rooibos tea, tobacco, and cumin spice all blend in sublimely with a delicious waxy texture. The Tres Vielle XO was a richly layered smorgasbord of almonds, liquorice, dates, and mint.
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