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AMA Cognac – always in style

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I tried to be clever and find a famous quote regarding the aristocratic distilled wine spirit known as Cognac. Alas I couldn’t find one. Maybe its noble nature negated such mockery? So the next best is my improvised quote; “I have never had so much Cognac that I couldn’t lay on the floor without holding on”.

With respect to many desired distilled spirits like Whiskey, Armagnac, Brandy etc., Cognac seems to rise above. Technically, Cognac is Brandy, but it is defined by processes and geography.

It is produced in the Charante region in south-west France, around the town of Cognac. In 1909, the appellation was developed to define grape usage and sub regions, and in 1935 the double distillation process was enshrined in legislation, ensuring quality and purity.

Essentially made from Ungi Blanc grapes (90 per cent), the acidic white wine is naturally fermented, and then distilled.

The first run, about 30 per cent alcohol, produces the main body of the product. The “head” and “tail” of the distillate contain impurities, are often discarded.

The second distillation produces the desired body or eau de vie, the water of life. This is 70 per cent alcohol.

It is aged in French oak from Limousine and Troncais. The barrels impart flavor, color and tannins. Water and alcohol are gradually lost during maturation, at the rate of about 3 per cent a year.

When the desired age is reached, the Cognac is diluted with distilled water to reduce the alcohol concentration to a more acceptable 40 per cent.

The ageing process is noted under its appellation description: VS (Very Special) has a minimum age of two years (although all cognacs are older than the category described), while VSOP (very special old pale) has a minimum age of four years, and XO (extra old) is aged for at least six years.

There are some special categories that have no time limit, Hors d’age (no time limit), and can be up to 40 years old. These wines are very intense and, because of natural evaporation, don’t require the addition of distilled water.

Each Cognac house has a master blender. This ensures quality and consistency. The major players are Hennessy, Martell, Courvoisier, and Remy Martin. There are about 200 producers.

Of note on the label is the word “Champagne”. This refers to the types of soils with limestone featuring in the Cognac region, akin to the actual Champagne sparkling region.

One of the worst myths propagated about Cognac is that it should be served heated. It is only warmed in the winter months in the tasting cellars of Cognac, when the surrounding temperature is five degrees Celsius. When warmed, the alcohol in Cognac predominates, and it is best served at around 15 to 16 degrees.

Another myth is that it must be served in a brandy balloon – this is a waste of time. A small tulip shaped glass is the best shape to envelope the complex flavors.

In the early years of its maturation, a Cognac will display the fruit characteristics of oranges and apricots. As it matures beyond 12 years, flower characteristics such as jasmine, violets and, occasionally, honeysuckle come to the fore. Once you get past 20 years, spices like vanilla, toffees and coconut become increasingly apparent. Very old Cognac can display oxidized characteristics like old Sherries.

Cognac Tasted

Hennessey VS – light amber color, with a youthful floral fruity nose. Some oranges, burnt caramel, and lemon zest are noted. The palate is light at first, with an enveloping sweetness and soft mouth-feel. Mild acidity is noted. A very good Cognac offering value for money, given the probable use of eight-year-old Cognacs in its blending.

Hennessey XO – much darker than the VS, with an appearance like old bush honey. Amazingly complex spices of leather and cinnamon, with some fruit characteristics and honeysuckle aromas. A very generous Cognac, with an enormous depth of flavor that lingers. A true sipper on the cooler nights. At least 25-year-old Cognacs used in the mix.

Courvoisier Napoleon XO – not quite as dark as the Hennessy XO, but a complex beast of aromas. Orange, apricot and coconut influences abound. The vanillin and coffee notes are amazing.

Delamaine Pale and Dry XO – a clearer, lighter gold. Flirtatious florals with some apricots. Delicate spices and hints of vanilla. An old Cognac with a youthful flavor and mouth-feel. Its age is intimated by hints of mild oxidation.