The finest Cognacs are deeply flavored, richly textured, and best discovered on their native ground.
You would never know it was an unusually warm October day from the depths of the Hennessy Founder’s Cellar, where my skin prickled in the damp darkness—not just from the sacred chill in the air, but also from the secrets that I was uncovering in the heart of France’s Cognac region. I had entered into one of the region’s most prized Cognac cellars, the holding place for eaux-de-vie made centuries ago. Some of the spirits slept in rows of weathered oak barrels, gaining complexity and character with each passing season. Others dozed in rotund glass demijohns known as Dames Jeannes, their age suspended as if in a time capsule.
As one of France’s oldest and most successful Cognac houses, and since 1987 part of the LVMH group, Hennessy is the world’s largest producer of Cognac. It sells more than 55 million bottles per year around the world, according to Euromonitor International, a market research group, and is the best-selling Cognac in the United States. Eight generations of Hennessys have overseen the brand, along with seven generations of master blenders from the Fillioux family. As a result, its spirits are known for their consistency of taste, quality, and style. Every Hennessy VS—or Very Special, the youngest blend of which is aged at least two years—tastes like the previous bottling of VS, while every VSOP—Very Special Old Pale, at least four years old but usually much older—tastes like previous VSOPs, and so on. Cognac’s complexity and character develop steadily over time: Floral and fruit aromas intensify and tannins become soft and supple as the spirit’s components integrate as it rests in the barrel. This is why mature Cognacs are a great draw for collectors who know the depth of character that can reside within the bottle.
Like most collectibles, Cognac has had ebbs and flows of interest over the years. The cigar vogue of the 1990s bolstered Cognac not only as a drink but also as a prized addition to the cellar. Today, the thriving cocktail culture has created a growing appreciation for fine and rare spirits and Cognac has been swept up in the fervor. Last year in the United States, Cognac sales were up 12 percent in volume, with total imports of about 50 million bottles, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. But volume and exports tend to not matter to collectors, who focus on rare bottles or limited-edition releases that are unlikely to attract the average consumer.
Collectible Cognacs generally fall into three categories. The first includes new, limited-edition releases that feature a blend of well-matured eaux-de-vie from a producer’s reserve stocks. They often come in elaborate crystal decanters or unique, artistic vessels. Some of the most noteworthy examples are Frapin Cuvée 1888, Rémy Martin Louis XIII Black Pearl, and Delamain Le Voyage.
The second category comprises younger, limited-edition serial releases and bottlings from a particular cru, single cask, or single estate. The Forgotten Casks is a special bottling from Henry Preiss, founder and CEO of HPS Epicurean, who created the series in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Cointreau and Alain Royer. “The Cognac is produced by blending select older Cognacs in small batches,” Preiss says. “Every release features a different combination of ages and regions that yield their own character and style.” Another exceptional choice in this category is Réviseur XO. Produced with grapes sourced solely from a single estate in the Petit Champagne cru, the Cognac won gold at the 2014 International Wine and Spirits Competition in the XO category.
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