There are brandies, and then, there is Cognac. Brandy is grape spirit procured by distilling wine. Brandies are produced in every part of the world. But, like Darjeeling Tea and Champagne, when these brandies come from a special region of France, named Cognac, and are made using specified grape varieties, namely Ugni Blanc-Folle Blanche-Colombard, and in compliance with the vigilant legislative procedures, they are known as Cognacs. That’s a long one for a simple explanation. Let me try again. Cognac is not just a brand of alcohol, it is a wine spirit made in a specific region of France called Cognac. Now that sounds much easier to chew, no?
For information buffs, (and just because sometimes we like to complicate things so you may think us more intelligent than we ever will be) the Cognac region also makes brandies. So what differentiates them from each other? Brandies are simply distilled grape spirit pertaining to no legislative guidelines. A brandy abiding to strict Appellation Origine Controlee (AOC) guidelines and specifications is crowned as Cognac. Another level up Cognac from a designated area within the region itself: like say, Fine Champagne (FC) Cognacs. This is an even more controlled appellation obtained by blending the various Eaux-de-vie (with an ‘x’ implies plural, there is nothing “eau-de-vies”), hence assuring quality produce. Another classification segregates Cognacs based on the ageing that they have been given. This is not an industry standard as most prized companies age under each category for longer than stipulated by the law.So we have:
• Very Special (VS) – Youngest Eau-de-Vie (EDV) in the blend must be at least 2 years old
• Reserve, Very Old (VO), Very Special Old Pale (VSOP) – Youngest EDV is at least 4 years old
• Napoleon, Extra Old (XO), Hors d’age – Youngest EDV is minimum 6 years old.
Napoleon is a style that falls between VSOP and XO and was originated during Napoleon era and was promoted by him, hence the name. Again, not a standard.
One of the most well know houses producing Cognacs is Remy Martin. It was setup in 1724 by a monk of the same name. Only 17% of the Cognac production falls under Fine Champagne Cognac classification. Of this, 80% of the production is accounted for by Remy Martin, the only style the house produces. This fact gives them the title of ‘The Heart of Champagne’. The house strictly has been and continues to utilise the Pot Still distillation method. To add to thecharacter, they let the wine age on lees and it is not filtered before distilling, thus adding an added edge to the spirit. The house ages its spirits in specially hand-crafted 350 litres Limousine (a type of oak from a forest of that name) casks. The house is a top-ranked Cognac house in France and enjoys a high rating under the superior quality Cognac category, that is, VSOP and above.
First produced in 1874, ‘Louise XIII’ is the finest Cognac that comes from the house, often called the ‘King of Cognacs’. It is a result of careful selection, blending, and aging of EDVs by four cellar masters. A blend of over 1200 EDVs (!), the spirit is aged for a minimum of a 100 years (!!), therefore also (aptly) called ‘Century in a Bottle’. A 100% Grande Champagne, the spirit is aged in rare 100 years old carrels called ‘Tiercons’. It was the favourite cognac of Sir Winston Churchill and has been tasted by many, from Charlie Chaplin to Quentin Tarantino. It is now available in India priced over INR 2 Lacs (for a bottle, duty-free we presume).
We tasted two cognacs from the house (no, sadly the Louis XIII wasn’t amongst them). Here are the tasting notes:
• REMY MARTIN VSOP: A mild charred caramel colour with notes of molasses, honey, prunes, figs, cedar, tobacco, smoke, sweet spices, vanilla, and a strong fruity backbone. Very smooth charred wood punch with burnt cigar, tobacco, animal skin, and smoky aftertaste. Hint sweet with high acidity. The spirit has seen 14 years of barrel aging.
• REMY MARTIN XO: The company believes this spirit is rested in a decanter rather than a bottle. With 37 years of age, it has a deep amber colour with golden rims. Sweeter, spicier, and complex yet relaxed nose with oak (of course), figs, prunes, and candied fruits’ nose. Deep plum, liquorice, cloves, dark honey and prominent cinnamon notes. It is a fruity spirit with some sweet orange and dried white fruits. Very smooth and rolls down as softly as Pashmira silk. No burns, no edges, it is a frill-less cognac to be enjoyed across generations: between grandfathers and grandsons.