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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The third and perhaps most intriguing category is exceptionally old releases in their original packaging. Surprisingly, these bottles, which can be more than 200 years old, are often purchased by connoisseurs who are not looking for a showpiece—they intend to drink them. At the French company Oxygénée, owner David Nathan-Maister works with customers via the Finest & Rarest division to locate vintage bottles that can “create a time capsule experience.” Fortunately, the spirit’s high alcohol content acts as a life preserver, which means, as Nathan-Maister puts it, “You can expect an old Cognac to taste between very good and mind-blowing, as long as it’s been stored properly.”
Recently, these super-old Cognacs have been fetching high prices at auction. Last year, an exceedingly rare bottle of 1762 Gautier Cognac fetched nearly $60,000 at Bonham’s New York. The slightly misshapen, handblown glass bottle was coated in cellar grime, with no alcohol content noted on the handwritten label. “There has always been an interest in Cognac,” says Richard Harvey, the head of Bonhams’ wine department, singling out releases from the early 19th century such as 1802, 1811, and 1812, “which were mostly bottled in the early 20th century to meet the tastes of Edwardian England. . . . But there is also demand for the premium blends produced by the major Cognac firms, such as Rémy Martin’s Louis XIII.”
After we emerged from the Hennessy Founder’s Cellar into the welcome warmth of the bright October sunshine, we headed to the house’s Le Peu vineyard to catch a glimpse of the season’s last grapes being harvested. There are almost 200,000 acres of vineyards in the Cognac AOC, the second-largest wine region in France after Bordeaux. Located 100 miles north of Bordeaux in the Charente and Charente-Maritime districts, Cognac is subdivided into six crus: Grande Champagne, Petit Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires (or Bois à Terroir). The crus surround the town of Cognac and are differentiated primarily by the soil and climatic conditions.
On the day I visited the distillery, Hennessy was pressing Ugni Blanc grapes, which would be distilled into eau-de-vie after fermentation. As the bladder press hummed, I was offered a sample of freshly fermented wine. Cold and sharp, it made my mouth sting with acidity. As a result of its light body and high acid content, Ugni Blanc (also known as Trebbiano) makes excellent eau-de-vie that is ideal for aging. Prior to phylloxera, the devastating aphid that destroyed nearly 6.2 million acres of French vineyards from 1870 to 1890, Cognac was made primarily with Folle Blanche grapes. But Folle Blanche was difficult to grow, so once the blight was over, farmers replanted their vineyards with Ugni Blanc and today it is Cognac’s most plentiful grape.
But many aficionados believe that Folle Blanche produced a far superior spirit and as a result, there has been a recent surge in collectors seeking vintage bottles from the pre-phylloxera era. “Very old Cognac has an undeniable cult following,” Nathan-Maister says. “Some people become obsessed with it because Folle Blanche creates a Cognac that is much more nuanced.”
Today’s Cognac is made primarily with Ugni Blanc, plus some Folle Blanche and Colombard grapes. After they are harvested, pressed, and fermented, they undergo a double distillation. The first pass allows the distiller to discard impurities and select the best part of the run. The second distillation, known as la bonne chauffe, refines the eau-de-vie. This all transpires in a special copper pot still developed in the Charente region. After distillation, the eau-de-vie is put into oak barrels from the Tronçais or Limousin regions to begin its long loll. The Cognac is around 144 proof when it goes into the barrel, but as it ages, a small amount of evaporation occurs and the distiller will use this opportunity to add water and reduce the alcohol level to a more manageable 80 proof. Modern Cognac is usually bottled at this level, although older Cognac was often released at higher levels.
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Although virtually every aspect of production is regulated by French law, there are numerous opportunities for Cognac producers to create a distinct style, and these styles and even individual bottles vary in the way they evolve over time. In general, as Cognac ages, it loses its youthful fruity tang on both palate and nose and acquires broader, deeper, and more complex notes tending toward layered sensations of toffee, fig, and a lingering impression of oak. The more time in the barrel, the more these disparate components meld together, resulting in a seamlessly hedonistic elixir.
The higher alcohol of older Cognacs will often make them noticeably richer and more satiny on the palate, with a longer and more opulent finish. And do not discount the visceral impact of tasting a very aged bottle. “Some of these Cognacs were produced when Marie Antoinette was alive,” says Nathan-Maister. “Drinking an old Cognac can be an emotional, nearly religious experience that you’ll likely never forget.”
This day at hennessy, the future lay in the hands of Yann Fillioux. For seven generations, the Fillioux family has been working with Hennessy to perfect the art of blending eaux-de-vie. Today, Yann Fillioux reigns as Hennessy’s master blender, a role he began training for at the age of 19. Now 68, he rises each morning to meet with Hennessy’s Comité de Dégustation, the tasting committee that samples and blends hundreds of eaux-de-vie. “Hennessy is all about continuity of quality,” says Fillioux. “It’s important that we prepare for the next generation of Cognacs by choosing eaux-de-vie that will age well into the future.”
In 2010, Fillioux reconstructed the bespoke blend that was presented to the Russian czar Alexander I in 1818. Originally created by Jean Fillioux, the Cognac has been reborn as Hennessy’s highly collectible Paradis Impérial. Featuring eaux-de-vie aged up to 130 years, the Cognac resides inside a Baccarat crystal decanter with a collar made of silver and 18-karat gold.
But Fillioux’s next special release will be even more meaningful for the house: This year, Hennessy celebrates its 250th anniversary, and in April it will mark the milestone with the Hennessy 250 Collector Blend, a limited release that combines about 100 eaux-de-vie that were aged in 250 250-liter barrels in the Founder’s Cellar. “We have always lived to the rhythms of Cognac in my family,” explains Yann Fillioux. “This blend of eaux-de-vie forms the ultimate Cognac, one of great distinction that is full of life and intensity.”
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Five Cognacs to Covet
Here are five Cognacs that will enhance any collection.
Pierre Ferrand Collection Privée 1914
In 1914, when many men left home to fight World War I, the women of Grande Champagne joined together to distill the wine that had been made earlier in the year. After aging in Limousin oak casks and resting in demijohns for nearly a century, the resulting Cognac became Pierre Ferrand Collection Privée 1914. Each 750 ml bottle is numbered and signed by the cellar master and includes a certificate of authenticity countersigned by an officer of justice. ($1,500, cognacpierreferrand.com)
Frapin Cuvée 1888 Cognac
A spiral of 24-karat gold thread embraces the stunning decanter of Frapin Cuvée 1888, a Cognac that was created to honor the company’s esteemed founder, Pierre Frapin. Select pre-1888 eaux-de-vie from Grande Champagne were blended to produce only 1,888 700 ml bottles of this limited-edition Cognac, which features a high proportion of Folle Blanche. ($6,000, cognac-frapin.com)
Rémy Martin Louis XIII Black Pearl Anniversary Edition
In 1874, the House of Rémy Martin pioneered the super-premium Cognac category by releasing Louis XIII, an exceptional Cognac that gained worldwide recognition at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900. In celebration of the blend’s 140th anniversary, Rémy Martin has released 775 individually numbered 750 ml bottles of Louis XIII Black Pearl Anniversary Edition, a blend of nearly 1,200 eaux-de-vie sourced from Grande Champagne that range from 40 to 100 years old. ($25,000, remymartin.com)
Chapters of Ampersand Et No 1
A collaboration between Tiffon Cognac, the master blender Folke Andersson, and the Swedish crystal artist Göran Wärff resulted in Chapters of Ampersand’s Et No 1, a striking piece of art. A blend of Grande Champagne eaux-de-vie from 1974 and 1943 has been combined with pre-phylloxera Cognac from 1870 to create a 300-bottle collector’s item. Each 750 ml bottle is numbered and signed and includes a certificate of origin. ($8,395, chaptersofampersand.com)
Hennessy 250 Collector Blend
In April, Hennessy marks its 250th anniversary with this limited-release 1-liter bottle. The master blender Yann Fillioux and his team created an ideal marriage of eaux-de-vie that were aged in 250 250-liter barrels beneath the banks of the river Charente. ($600, hennessy.com)
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A Vintage Guide
Here are Cognac’s primary age designations, which must appear on each label.
VS: Very Special (or Very Superior). The youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is aged at least two years.
VSOP: Very Special (or Very Superior) Old Pale. Each eau-de-vie is aged at least four years, but is typically much older.
Napoléon: Aged at least six years, but typically aged 20 years or longer.
XO: Extra Old. Aged a minimum of six years but typically much older, with the average at least 20 years old. On April 10, 2016, the age grading of XO will change to a minimum of 10 years.
Hors d’Âge: Translates to “beyond age.” The eaux-de-vie are at least 20 years old, but can include selections that are 30, 50, or even 100 years old.