The London Cognac Summit

Cognac

Cognac may be quintessentially French, but it is inexorably linked to UK, Irish and Dutch traders, particularly during the 18th century. Many of its famous names can trace their roots to the British Isles – Richard Hennessy from Ireland, Thomas Hine from Dorset, Jean Martell from Jersey, to name just three. Currently exported to over 160 countries, Cognac is enjoyed throughout the world, with increasing interest being shown from Asia. It is a legally protected and regulated name, delimited to a region in western France bordering the Atlantic Ocean with a relatively mild climate. Divided into six growing areas or "crus", which define the appellation, the finest Cognacs come from Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne. These names are not related to the famous sparkling wine area, but refer to an ancient French word for chalky soil, which the regions share.

All Cognac must be aged for at least two years, the precise length of time controlling the designation given to the bottled product, according to the following traditional convention:-

However, the most notable Cognacs may have been aged for many more years in oak, prior to bottling.

Subcategories include:-

The London Cognac Summit 2013 took place on 30th October at the Cock’n’Bull Gallery, downstairs at Mark Hix’s Tramshed restaurant in London’s Shoreditch area. Showcasing the excellence, variety and versatility of this classic spirit, there were 13 brands represented at the London event with over 50 Cognacs available for tasting and a couple of cocktails to sample as well. Of particular interest were two talks, one by renowned Cognac expert, Nicholas Faith and the other by Fiona Beckett, wine critic and food and wine matching expert.

Cognac

Nicholas Faith and Fiona Beckett in animated discussion.

Nicholas Faith spoke about the changes within the Cognac industry over the past 30 years. While the big four companies (Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin and Courvoissier) continue to dominate, there are plenty of new styles available now, reflecting a willingness to experiment. There has also been an increase in quality levels overall. In 1976, one third of the 110,000 hectares of vines was dug up, effectively changing the Cognac map. As Nicholas explained, vineyards were then concentrated in the best areas away from the coast. The industry became more concentrated, as many medium-sized companies ceased to trade, while smaller enterprises started to develop, making good-quality Cognacs with their own special character.

Cognac is a versatile drink, taken neat, over ice, with water - as in the English tradition of brandy and soda - or in cocktails. Its adaptability also appears to have been recognised more by the brands themselves, over the last 15-20 years. Thus, in addition to both the classic and newer styles, some of the quality offerings we now see on the market have been specifically designed to be used as mixers.

Burgers

Medium-rare burgers with cheese found to be a good match for Cognac VS.

In terms of food matches, Cognac has often been married to chocolate, but given its gamut of expressions, that must surely represent too narrow a view. This is what Fiona Beckett demonstrated, matching different Cognacs with a variety of meat-based dishes. For example, a VS was paired with a medium-rare burger topped with a slightly sweet cheese. The richness, sweet fruit and toffee-like flavours of the Cognac with a hint of coffee on the end palate worked well, particularly as the burger did not have an overpowering smoky or charred quality being medium rare. In contrast, smoked brisket with a sweet glaze demanded a richer style of Cognac, so an XO was chosen with its rich, creamy and butterscotch notes. Some attendees favoured a splash of soda water or ice in their drink, whereas others preferred the specially created cocktail containing pomegranate juice, plum jam, Benedictine, fresh lime and VS Cognac.

The following includes brief tasting notes of the Cognacs I sampled on the day. All prices shown are for retail, where known, unless otherwise stated and may vary among different retailers.

With a tradition dating back to the 13th Century, the Frapin family owns over 300 hectares of land in the Grande Champagne area. The company grows, harvests and presses all its own grapes, before distilling and aging into top quality Cognacs, without the need to purchase extra materials from an external source. The UK importer is McKinley Vintners.

Cognac

All the Cognacs from the historic House of Delamain are made from Grande Champagne blends. They are aged in old 350-litre French oak barrels, which reduces the tannins, ensuring more elegant, refined results. The prices listed below are retail sales prices from UK importer Mentzendorff & Co..

Cognac

The company began bottling in 1972 and concentrate on expressing specific qualities in each of their Cognacs. As a result, rather than the conventional naming of XO or VSOP (they do not produce VS or ***), they label the front of their bottles according to the character of the Cognac, i.e. fruity or floral etc.. However, the back labels still retain the traditional categorisation. The UK importer is Liberty Wines.

Established as Cognac distillers in the 1850s, Merlet was a small family business, supplying Hennessy and other major Houses. In the 1970s, however, the company uprooted many vines to replace with blackcurrant bushes and became a successful and award-winning producer of Crème de Cassis and other fruit liqueurs. Moving on to 2010, the company returned to its roots, recreating its own brand of Cognac, having first sought feedback on the desired style of spirit, primarily for cocktails. The UK importer is Cask Liquid Marketing.

Cognac

Founded in 1763, Hine is the only Cognac House to hold a Royal Warrant. With an extensive range of highly regarded Cognacs at VSOP level and above, they also produce several vintage versions which have spent an average of 20-25 years in barrel. For optimum quality, several of their Cognacs use grapes grown solely in Grande Champagne. The UK importer is Pol Roger.

Further general information can be found on the Cognac website.

Specific information on Cognac cocktails can be found here.

This article is also available on The Alcohol Professor website.

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