Spirits: The Other Cognacs
There is a decidedly dickensian feel to the premises of Delamain, the Cognac négociant in Jarnac, France. The company has been making Cognac there since the 17th century, and the facility, with its earthen-floor cellars and wood-paneled tasting room, looks as if it hasn’t changed since its founding. This old-world ambience is fitting, because Delamain, along with a handful of other small houses, continues to take a deliberately old-fashioned, artisanal approach to the production of small amounts of very old, very special Cognac.
The Cognac trade is really two separate and quite different businesses. One comprises the Big Four—Rémy, Hennessy, Martel, and Courvoi-sier—which account for more than 80 percent of the Cognac sold in the United States. The other includes the few small houses, such as Delamain, Frapin, Fillioux, and A.E. Dor, who emphasize only character and quality and do not produce any Cognac for the mass market. Each makes a handcrafted spirit that suits its own particular style.
Every cask of Cognac is different, and at each of the Big Four houses, the blender’s task is to meld these disparate elements into vast quantities of consistent products. The small houses approach the blending process from a different angle. At Jean Fillioux, owner Pascal Fillioux, the great-grandson of the founder, crafts the house’s intentionally inconsistent product. “Pascal chooses one aroma at the beginning of the blending process,” says Fillioux’s wife, Monique. “Then he selects the other barrels based on how they will work in harmony with that key aroma. The large houses have to blend such a huge volume that it’s impossible for them to make something special, something with character and personality.”
Anyone who has tasted Rémy Martin’s Louis XIII would certainly beg to differ with Madame Fillioux’s assessment of the Big Four’s Cognacs.
Like the premier offerings from the Big Four, the best of the small-house Cognacs (Fillioux Reserve Familiale, Delamain Tres Venerable, Delamain Reserve de la Famille, Frapin Extra Grande Champagne, Frapin Cuvée Rabelais, and A.E. Dor Hors d’Age Extra No. 9) have a freshness, zing, and fruitiness to them. They are light, yet at the same time exhibit a multilayered complexity, and even in 50-year-olds, you can still taste the Grande Champagne grapes from which they come.
The Big Four’s best Cognacs are made from Grande Champagne grapes, while the small houses make their Cognacs exclusively from these grapes, which produce a spirit particularly suited for long aging. “Ninety-eight percent of Cognac going to the U.S. is VS or VSOP [the two youngest categories]; we do only XO and older,” says Charles Braastad-Delamain, the commercial director at Delamain. While Hennessy boasts that it sets aside 10 percent of its yearly production for long aging, which is for more than 20 years, Delamain sells no Cognac younger than 25 years.
To a discerning palate, Cognac doesn’t become interesting until it reaches 20 years old, and it acquires true elegance and finesse only at 40 or 50. “The fact that we are a family-owned company allows us to make major investments, including carrying very large inventories to increase the quality of what we are selling,” explains Beatrice Cointreau, who is the managing director of Cognac Frapin and whose grandmother was a Frapin. “We know we won’t be judged from one year to another, but rather on a long-term basis.”