The London Cognac Summit
All images by Robin Goldsmith.
Cognac may be quintessentially French, but it is inexorably linked to UK, Irish and Dutch traders, particularly during the 18th century. Many of its famous names can trace their roots to the British Isles – Richard Hennessy from Ireland, Thomas Hine from Dorset, Jean Martell from Jersey, to name just three. Currently exported to over 160 countries, Cognac is enjoyed throughout the world, with increasing interest being shown from Asia. It is a legally protected and regulated name, delimited to a region in western France bordering the Atlantic Ocean with a relatively mild climate. Divided into six growing areas or ‘crus’, which define the appellation, the finest Cognacs come from Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne. These names are not related to the famous sparkling wine area, but refer to an ancient French word for chalky soil, which the regions share.
All Cognac must be aged for at least two years, the precise length of time controlling the designation given to the bottled product, according to the following traditional convention:
- ***(3 stars) or VS (Very Special) = minimum of 2 years ageing
- Reserve or VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) = minimum of 4 years ageing
- Hors d’âge, Napoléon, XO (Extra Old) = minimum of 6 years ageing
However, the most notable Cognacs may have been aged for many more years in oak, prior to bottling.
- Early Landed Cognac, which has been shipped to the UK when young and aged in damp, cold cellars there, rather than in the warmer cellars of the Cognac region. This can result in a particularly smooth, light or delicate style.
- Fine Champagne, which is a blend of Cognacs from Grande and Petite Champagne, with at least 50% coming from Grande Champagne.
- Vintage Cognac, which refers to a single harvest.
The London Cognac Summit 2013 took place on 30th October at the Cock’n’Bull Gallery, downstairs at Mark Hix’s Tramshed restaurant in London’s Shoreditch area. Showcasing the excellence, variety and versatility of this classic spirit, there were 13 brands represented at the London event with over 50 Cognacs available for tasting and a couple of cocktails to sample as well. Of particular interest were two talks, one by renowned Cognac expert, Nicholas Faith and the other by Fiona Beckett, wine critic and food and wine matching expert.
Nicholas Faith spoke about the changes within the Cognac industry over the past 30 years. While the big four companies (Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin and Courvoissier) continue to dominate, there are plenty of new styles available now, reflecting a willingness to experiment. There has also been an increase in quality levels overall. In 1976, one third of the 110,000 hectares of vines was dug up, effectively changing the Cognac map. As Nicholas explained, vineyards were then concentrated in the best areas away from the coast. The industry became more concentrated, as many medium-sized companies ceased to trade, while smaller enterprises started to develop, making good-quality Cognacs with their own special character.
Cognac is a versatile drink, taken neat, over ice, with water - as in the English tradition of brandy and soda - or in cocktails. Its adaptability also appears to have been recognised more by the brands themselves, over the last 15-20 years. Thus, in addition to both the classic and newer styles, some of the quality offerings we now see on the market have been specifically designed to be used in cocktails.
In terms of food matches, Cognac has often been married to chocolate, but given its gamut of expressions, that must surely represent too narrow a view. This is what Fiona Beckett demonstrated, matching different Cognacs with a variety of meat-based dishes. For example, a VS was paired with a medium-rare burger topped with a slightly sweet cheese. The richness, sweet fruit and toffee-like flavours of the Cognac with a hint of coffee on the end palate worked well, particularly as the burger did not have an overpowering smoky or charred quality being medium rare. In contrast, smoked brisket with a sweet glaze demanded a richer style of Cognac, so an XO was chosen with its rich, creamy and butterscotch notes. Some attendees favoured a splash of soda water or ice in their drink, whereas others preferred the specially created cocktail containing pomegranate juice, plum jam, Benedictine, fresh lime and VS Cognac.
The following includes brief tasting notes of the Cognacs I sampled on the day.
With a tradition dating back to the 13th Century, the Frapin family owns over 300 hectares of land in the Grande Champagne area. The company grows, harvests and presses all its own grapes, before distilling and aging into top quality Cognacs, without the need to purchase extra materials from an external source. The UK importer is McKinley Vintners.
- VSOP Grande Champagne
Aged for 10 years, this has a fruity and floral bouquet with hints of toffee, vanilla and banana. A smooth, creamy palate is characterised by toffee and apple notes with good length.
- VIP XO, Grande Champagne
A single-vineyard Cognac, aged for 25 years in drier cellars, this is an elegant and beautifully rounded high-class Cognac with spicy and floral characteristics.
- Extra Reserve Patrimonale, Pierre Frapin
Aged for 40-50 years, this sweeter Cognac exhibits notes of caramelised apricots with hints of cigar box. Complex, harmonious and wonderful, this is a Cognac to savour.
All the Cognacs from the historic House of Delamain are made from Grande Champagne blends. They are aged in old 350-litre French oak barrels, which reduces the tannins, ensuring more elegant, refined results. The prices listed below are retail sales prices from UK importer Mentzendorff & Co..
- Pale & Dry XO
Based on Cognacs aged on average for 25 years, this is floral, fruity and light, with notes of pear and caramel and is seen as a versatile style for drinking any time of the day.
- Vesper XO
Based on Cognacs aged for 35 years, this expression is rich with deep aromas and flavours, complemented by softer woody and vanilla notes. This is more of a late afternoon or winter drink.
- Très Vénérable
Based on Cognacs aged for 55 years, this is floral, spicy and smooth with notes of butterscotch.
Based on Cognacs aged for 45 years, this is fruity, nutty and very smooth with notes of toffee and a long finish. It is bottled in a specially designed and stylish decanter.
The company began bottling in 1972 and concentrate on expressing specific qualities in each of their Cognacs. As a result, rather than the conventional naming of XO or VSOP (they do not produce VS or ***), they label the front of their bottles according to the character of the Cognac, i.e. fruity or floral etc.. However, the back labels still retain the traditional categorisation. The UK importer is Liberty Wines.
- Bio Attitude Organic 2006
A certified organic Cognac, this is delicate, light, clean and floral with notes of cherry blossom and honey and could be a good match for sweet desserts.
- Premières Saveurs 6 carats
Fresh notes of pear and vanilla are evident in this Cognac. It would make a good pairing with coffee.
- Age du Fruit 10 carats
A different style of Cognac, this has an oilier mouth feel and fuller taste, characterised by citrus and peach notes with a hint of mango. This could be a great finish to a salty meal.
- Age des Fleurs 15 carats
Warming, rich and smooth, this expression displays notes of chamomile, cinnamon and vanilla and would be a good match for venison.
- Age des Epices 20 carats Très Vieux
Spicy, honeyed and with notes of leather, this is a powerful style which could complement good quality dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa content).
- Quintessence 30 carats
Refined and classy, this is Léopold Gourmet‘s top Cognac, with a complex array of fruity, floral and spicy notes on the nose and palate, followed by a very long finish.
Established as Cognac distillers in the 1850s, Merlet was a small family business, supplying Hennessy and other major Houses. In the 1970s, however, the company uprooted many vines to replace with blackcurrant bushes and became a successful and award-winning producer of Crème de Cassis and other fruit liqueurs. Moving on to 2010, the company returned to its roots, recreating its own brand of Cognac, having first sought feedback on the desired style of spirit, primarily for cocktails. The UK importer is Cask Liquid Marketing.
- Merlet Brothers Blend
With an average age of 7 years among the eaux-de-vies used to make this 40% ABV Cognac , the resultant spirit is floral, light, fruity, with a hint of spice and made for blending.
- Merlet Selection St Sauvant
A limited edition blend of some of their finest Cognacs, this is richer, more rounded, complex and powerful (45% ABV). With notes of aniseed, cinnamon, cloves and five-spice on a fruity backbone of peaches and apricots, this would make an ideal, warming, sipping Cognac for the Christmas season and winter months.
Founded in 1763, Hine is the only Cognac House to hold a Royal Warrant. With an extensive range of highly regarded Cognacs at VSOP level and above, they also produce several vintage versions which have spent an average of 20-25 years in barrel. For optimum quality, several of their Cognacs use grapes grown solely in Grande Champagne. The UK importer is Pol Roger.
- H by Hine
This is fresh, floral, fruity and smooth with notes of apricot, pear and vanilla plus a hint of cedar wood. A blend of 20 Cognacs with a minimum of 4 years ageing, this is designed to be drunk on its own or used in cocktails.
- Hine Rare VSOP
A Fine Champagne blend of over 25 cognacs, this is fruity, perfumed, smooth and delicately spicy, with notes of pear, cedar wood and a hint of tobacco.
- Homage to Thomas Hine XO
This elegant and fruity edition is a blend of Early Landed Vintage Cognacs from 1984, 1986 and 1987, matured in Bristol, topped up with some extra old Cognacs aged in HINE’s own Jarnac cellars. Aromatic orange and toffee apple notes are present with a slightly bitter, herbal or vegetal edge and a long, rich finish.
- Hine Antique XO
This is a blend of over 40 Cognacs from grapes grown in Grande Champagne and aged for a minimum of 10 years. It is perfumed, spicy and well-rounded, with notes of vanilla, apple, nutmeg and an almost treacle-like richness.
- Hine 1981 Early Landed
Matured in a warehouse outside Bristol, the nose is fruity and gently floral with notes of caramel and honey. On the palate, there are similar characteristics with added notes of blood orange and a smooth finish.
Further general information can be found on the Cognac website.
Specific information on Cognac cocktails from the Summit can be found here.