Sunday, November 29, 2015 –
Mondiale Cognac Tasting
On November 29, 2015, more than two dozen members of Chicago’s Société Mondiale du Vin explored the fascinating world of Cognac in the beautiful home of Vice Chancelier/Argentier Al Kutchins and Genie Kutchins. Bailli Honoraire Neil Spinner and Vice Echanson Manfred Raiser led the afternoon’s fascinating Cognac lesson.
Everyone has heard of Cognac and knows it has a long history and reaches great heights of expression when crafted by master producers, but what is the real story? Members who attended this masterful blending of story telling and tasting now know the answers and I will do my best to summarize the highlights to bring this information to others who were unable to attend and to remind and refresh those who were there.
Cognac is brandy that is made from wine produced in the Cognac region of France, just north of Bordeaux. The name brandy comes from brandywine, which was derived from Dutch brandewijn, “gebrande wijn” meaning “burned wine”. The Dutch had been importing salt and wine from the Cognac region (the Charente) as early as the 13th century and had a tradition of distilling not long after. The thin wines from the region did not survive long sea voyages, so the idea was an attempt to concentrate the wine and then reconstitute it with water at a later date. Eventually, they realized it would be more efficient to distill the wine at the source and established distilleries in the Charente as early as the 16th Century. Soon afterward, the French began opening their own distilleries, refining the double-distillation process.
By the 17th Century it became apparent, due to many lengthy shipping delays, that the “eau de vie” (the French expression for “water of life”) improved in taste from the months or years spent in the barrels and could even be consumed direct from the casks without dilution.
The “burning” of the wine, is of course the heating of the wine to distill it. Wine is placed into a still and heated, causing the alcohol in the wine to evaporate (vaporize) out of the liquid. The vapors then cool and condense, dripping into a barrel. This process is then repeated a second time to increase the alcohol content and further concentrate the distillate. The eau de-vie then drips down into the barrel as if from the stars, whereby we get the term “de stellare” from the Latin.
You may have noticed that Cognac and Champagne are often connected. This may derive from the classes of cognac called “Grand Champagne”, “Petit Champagne”, and “Fine Champagne”. I mistakenly thought that Cognac was brandy made from “Champagne”. A better understanding of the word “Champagne” will clear this up. Champagne, as a word, is derived from the Latin, Campania, which means open fields. It happens that the wine area in Champagne and the wine area in Cognac are both areas with open fields that derive their name in this way. So we have two wine related Champagne areas in France. One is our trusty source of magnificent sparkling wine derived from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and the other is the part of the Cognac region where the best grapes are grown.
There are six regions of grape production in Cognac. The very best are in the central region and have chalky soil. As you move away from the central region the soil is more limestone or clay and then more sandy. These six regions are: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires.
There is another designation called “Fine Champagne” which is not a physical region, but a designation allowed when the Cognac is made from a minimum of 50% of Grand Champagne, and the balance from Petit Champagne.
There are nine varieties of grapes that are allowed for the production of Cognac, but most of the most common are: Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Folle Blanche.
Ugni Blanc is the dominant grape at this time due to its high acidity, low alcohol, mold resistance and most importantly, it took well to the American rootstock that was required after phylloxera destroyed almost all of the European grape vines in the late 1800s. The somewhat fragile traditional grape varieties (Colombard, Folle Blanche…) have been replaced by the Ugni Blanc, which is more resistant and is now used for more than 90 per cent of the production of Cognac.
We learned that Cognac is doubled distilled in a form of pot still and is made in batches; this is contrasted with Armagnac, which is produced in a continuous-process still.
The brandy or Cognac is distilled twice and has an alcohol level of about 70% when it is put into oak casks from either the Troncais or Limousin forests that are very close to the Cognac region.
There is much more to learn about the intricate production details, but I will move on to issues of selecting, drinking and enjoying Cognac.
Cognac is divided into grades called “comptes” based on length of time of aging in barrels, and are often described in English terms due to the strong influence the British had in the Cognac trade in the 18th century.
Official quality grades of cognac are the following:
• V.S. (“Very Special”) or *** (three stars)
This designates a blend in which the youngest brandy has been stored for at least two years in cask. (Compte 2)
• V.S.O.P. (“Very Superior Old Pale”) or Reserve
This designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least four years in a cask. (Compte 4)
• XO (“Extra Old”), Napoléon, or Hors d’Age
This designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least six years. (Compte 6)
• XO (after 2018)
The minimum storage age of the youngest brandy used in an XO blend will be set to ten years. (Compte 10).
One thing to remember is that very few producers adhere to the minimum aging requirements, preferring to age their products longer, sometimes far longer, than required. For example, hors d’âge (“beyond age”) is a designation which BNIC states is equal to XO, but in practice the term is used by producers to market a high-quality product beyond the official age scale.
Let’s mention glassware. The classic brandy snifter, often a large bowl with or without a warmer, is mentioned here only to condemn its use. It should not be used because the large bowl and heat will only concentrate the alcohol fumes, this is the opposite of what you want to do. It is preferable to use a small, normal wine glass preferably one which narrows slightly toward the top, or a tulip-shaped glass. And while we are at it, excessive swirling also is a no-no as it too will increase the alcohol premature release of strong alcohol vapors. So sniff and sip gently and if you are noticing a strong alcohol effect, slow down.
We tasted several Cognacs but I would like to draw attention to the fact that VS is not of particularly good quality and may be better suited for mixing in cocktails, such as a Brandy Alexander or Sidecar. On the other hand, Cognacs such as the higher quality VSOPs and XOs should be reserved for sipping neat.
Of the VSOPs from the major commercial producers, the Remy Martin Fine Champagne Cognac was recommended.
In the XO grade, the producer Delamain was tasted and recommended as a standout sipping Cognac. Delamain is considered by many to be one of the best of the medium-sized producers and, along with Hine, one by which many large brands are often measured. What does it do differently? One characteristic of their style is derived from the fact that they prefer not to use new barrels in the belief that use of new oak imparts undesirably harsh tannins and overly oaky flavors, producing a result while lighter in color than the deep amber of some of their competitors, results in a more elegant product.
Our fourth Cognac, called “Fontveille” was from a small grower-distiller called Ragnaud-Sabourin. Although called “Alliance 35” It did not carry any of the normal “compte” designations. This is often the case when cognac producers make something beyond the quality inferred by the “compte” designations. This “Alliance 35” was, in fact, a 35-year-old cognac and had a beautiful, elegant flavor with a long aromatic finish.
Additionally we tasted a very special Jules Duret Grand Champagne – Serie Speciale Lot 024/98. This was a bottling of old Cognac that was made from grapes harvested before 1870, hence before phylloxera so it was made from European rootstock Folle Blanche. It was a special treat made possible by Vice Echanson Manfred Raiser’s generosity.
The meeting concluded with a delicious Sunday supper prepared by Chef Rôtisseur Emily Adler with assistance from her husband, Professionel du Vin Jeremy Adler. The meal was a wonderful conclusion to an educational day.
24 October 2015
Cher Confrères and Consœurs:
COGNAC - THE ESSENCE OF THE GRAPE
Chez Al and Genie Kutchins
3546 Vantage, Glenview, IL
Sunday, 29 November 2015, 3:00PM
Price: $75 for Mondiale Members / $95 for Non-Mondiale Members
Please join us as we explore the magic of fine Cognac. Our expert guide is Bailli Honoraire Neil Spinner who has a lifelong passion for this precious elixir.
We will learn about the history of Cognac, the six appellations of the region, the process of producing and aging Cognac and how it differs from Armagnac. As we taste, we will compare the different qualities of Cognac and learn the meanings of their confusing designations. We will taste Cognacs from those barely over 3 years of age to those over 25 years old.
As an additional treat, we will be sampling a fabulous Armagnac from 1966. What better way to pay tribute to our Chapter’s 50th Anniversary Season than to sample one produced in the year we were established?
The final Cognac sample will be from a cask, hidden near Jarmac in1896 in a secret cellar known fondly as the “Paradise Cellar.” It is a Grande Champagne Cognac (First Growth) from the heart of the region, which produces the very finest of all of Cognac. They are the most delicate, complex, and sophisticated and improve the most through aging. Come join us to taste these exquisite products and hear “the rest of the story”!
Our hosts will be Argentier/Chancelier Allen Kutchins and his wife Genie who are graciously inviting us into their beautiful home. Our meeting will conclude with supper for which you are encouraged to bring your own bottle from your cellar. Chef Rôtisseur Emily Adler will take charge in the parental kitchen with hubby, Professionel du Vin Jeremy Adler giving critical advice.
Dress code is elegant casual with decorations for members. There is ample street parking. Space will be limited, please sign early. Salut!