That's the spirit
Liquid gold is rocking the digestif world
"We're very proud of our Cognacs - we like to think of them as haute couture," says Patrice Piveteau, deputy managing director and Frapin Cognac cellar master at Domaine Château de Fontpinot, deep in the heart of Cognac country.
Frapin is the only Cognac to have ever received the much coveted title of best spirit in the world for its Multimillésime label, but is little known outside its circle of connoisseurs.
Piveteau says that Frapin is "aimed at a discerning clientele". The château produces a line of unique luxury Cognacs (1,888 bottles in each series), featuring a high proportion of the rare folle-blanche grape, blending reserves dating back to 1860.
In a bottle created by the Cristallerie Royale de Champagne, topped by a 24ct gold stopper, Frapin Cuvée 1888 has been described as "one of the rarest and most valuable Cognacs ever released" and is one of Gayot.com's top 10 Cognacs in the world.
Yet, think Cognac and you'll probably think of the big boys - Hennessy, Rémy Martin, Courvoisier and Martell. Dare to go under the radar and you might strike liquid gold. There are thousands of Cognacs, including some real gems well known to a discerning few that create a buzz wherever they appear. They are the boutique Cognacs and are quietly rocking the digestif world. Boutique Cognac is single estate, coming from vines where it is distilled rather than from all over the Cognac region. It is rare because output is small-scale.
Hands-on and low-key production techniques often eschew modern technology in the distilling process. Some producers focus on vintage and year rather than a mixture of older and younger eau-de-vie in the barrel, while others rely on ancient reserves to produce bottles of outstanding hors d'âge Cognac: luxury in a glass. Like a good garage wine, boutique Cognacs are different, so the best are highly sought after. The devil is in the details; each one is unique and once it's gone, it's gone. Indeed, some of these Cognacs are utterly brilliant, winning international awards, appearing in Michelin restaurants and being lauded by the cognoscenti. Often, there is no fine château to visit, no tourist tastings, no guided tours. Instead, there are countless caves of priceless barrels distilled generations ago using time-honoured techniques, maturing quietly over decades in the gloom.
Sommelier and wine writer Alice Feiring described Audry as "the best Cognac you've never heard of" in a Time magazine column, despite it being available in some of the world's best restaurants, from Guy Savoy to Joël Robuchon.
Bernard Boisson, the owner of Audry, is the personification of the French gentleman, and his elegant Cognacs are extraordinary. He revived the family business in the early '80s, taking samples from age-old casks to three-star Michelin chefs and sommeliers - and he has never looked back. From a medal in Hanoi in 1887 to a place among the top three in a 2012 blind tasting by leading sommeliers for Tasted magazine, Boisson says of his blends: "It takes time for the marriage to be consummated, but once it is consummated, it is a lasting and beautiful relationship."
The incomparable and very rare Audry Exception is the top of the series. Sublime ambrosia, aged from 40 to 60 years, this complex, layered Cognac bears testament to the patience and savoir-faire of generations. There's always a rebel - a mover and shaker who, such as Picasso, knows that you have to learn the rules like a pro so that you can break them like an artist.
Olivier Blanc, the dynamic head of Léopold Gourmel (named after a maternal grandfather), has done just that. Following the rules of the great wine châteaux, he has destructured Cognac production and has changed distillation methods, using richer wines to retain more of the fruit flavours. He describes his Cognac Quintessence as "my vision of an exceptional Cognac of our time, inspired by our admiration for the best old vintages of the first-growth Bordeaux wines".
From grape to glass, his Cognacs are feisty, challenging perceptions and introducing Cognac to a new generation. Organic, flowery, spicy or woody, each Cognac is named after the aromas in the bottle and given carats to denote age (carat is "year" in Parisian slang). The Cognacs are a harmony of flavours and purity. The 30ct Quintessence is as headily perfumed as good Sauternes. "The world is our village, and we want to make the world Cognac intelligent," Blanc says.
With most of its harvest going to the big Cognac houses, family producer Paul Beau sells a limited amount under its own label. The business might be a discreet affair, tucked away in the heart of the Grande Champagne region, but its premier cru Cognacs are sumptuous, winning major awards in prestigious competitions.
It concentrates on producing older Cognacs - the youngest is a VSOP, said by a connoisseur to be "the work of a master at the very top of his game". Blending Cognacs from its phenomenal reserves, it uses traditional methods to produce fine Cognacs in small quantities, with stunning results.
Paul Beau Hors d'Age is described by Cognac expert Pablo Ferrand at Cognac Only Boutique in Bordeaux as "a reference by which to taste other fine Cognacs". Superlatives abound: this is one of the most decorated Cognacs available, using eau-de-vie aged for 20 to 30 years, from one of the oldest bouillieurs de cru - artisanal Cognac distillers - in the region.
As Cognac master Jacky Ferrand suggests: "Cognac is for pleasure. Like Proust and the Madeleine, it reflects the essence of our pasts and everyone finds something different in their glass; the good Cognac is the one that talks to you." Indulge yourself.
The age of a Cognac depends on the youngest eau-de-vie (distilled wine) in the blend. Unlike wine, Cognac ages only in the oak barrel, not the bottle.
VS: Very Special or three-star Cognac.
Youngest eau-de-vie in the blend aged at least two years in oak.
VSOP: Very Superior Old Pale
Youngest eau-de-vie in the blend aged at least four years in oak.
XO: Extra Old
Youngest eau-de-vie in the blend aged at least six years in oak, although often they are upwards of 20 years.
Similar to XO
Between VSOP and XO
Similar to Hors d'Age
Similar to XO, this is used for Cognacs of exceptional age and quality (the term means "beyond age").
Reputed Cognac-growing region
Follow the rule of THREE:
Eye - look at the Cognac's colour, whether it is golden or a deeper colour (this is no indication of age), and how it reflects in the glass; whether it has "legs" (leaves traces on the glass when gently swirled), as this promises complexity.
Nose - professional tasters can taste a Cognac by nose alone. Raise the glass slowly; the odours will change and deepen as the glass nears your nose.
Sniff gently and then more deeply. Let the Cognac talk to you.
Palate - sip your Cognac slowly. Look for sweetness at the tip of your tongue, bitterness at the back of your mouth, and for salty and sour sensations at the sides of your mouth.
How long do you retain the taste of it once swallowed? Are the flavours balanced? Are they pleasing?
Finally, take your time. The Cognac should breathe in the glass first, then be sipped and enjoyed.
Cognac should be drunk from a tulip glass.