Cognac Looms Large

 Cognac's rolling hills  (Photo Lyn Farmer)

Cognac's rolling hills  (Photo Lyn Farmer)

Cognac is both a region and a spirit, and it is beautiful in both its incarnations. It is nearly as intensively planted with vines as nearby Bordeaux, an hour’s drive to the southwest, and even more beautiful with its rolling hills and quaint villages. It seems not to have dawned on many wine lovers that brandy, of which Cognac is a particularly exalted type, is the most wine-friendly of all spirits since it is made from grapes that are first vinified as wine before being distilled as “brandtwein,” or "burned wine," the origin of the name brandy.

In truth, the wine from which most brandy is made is pretty horrid stuff, rather thin in texture and harsh in its acidity. Amazingly, those very qualities that make the initial wine so uninteresting to a wine lover give its magic to finished Cognac (a name used only for a brandy made from grapes grown in this one small region). Think of it like a diamond – that initial lump of carbon is pretty ugly, and even the rough diamond pulled from the earth is pretty dull, but once it is cut and polished…well, something beautiful emerges from that rough beginning. So it is with Cognac, and in that realm, Louis XIII, carefully crafted from patiently aged Cognacs spirits, is the Hope Diamond.

 The glorious Paradis at Hennessy with spirits from the 19th and 20th centuries aging quietly (Photo Lyn Farmer)

The glorious Paradis at Hennessy with spirits from the 19th and 20th centuries aging quietly (Photo Lyn Farmer)

Cognac is generally considered the most elegant, refined and complex of brandies and the industry has worked hard to foster the link between Cognac and luxury. As with most spirits, Cognac changes with age, which is to say, with time in wooden barrels where it slowly mellows over time (it does not change at all once put in glass and sealed from the air). There are specific legal categories for Cognac, beginning the youngest spirit, aged two years and called "VS" for "Very Superior" or "Very Special." The next level is called VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), denoting a Cognac aged a minimum of six years (recently raised from the four year minimum that was mandatory for several decades). It is with this category that we come to one of Cognac's elusive secrets: even with the new VSOP minimum of six years old, many companies (they are called houses, just as in Champagne) will aged their VSOP (or at least some of the brandies that are blended into it) for ten years or more.

 A wicker-clad Dames-Jeanne of 1854 Cognac in the Paradis of Cognac Hardy (Photo Lyn Farmer)

A wicker-clad Dames-Jeanne of 1854 Cognac in the Paradis of Cognac Hardy (Photo Lyn Farmer)

The legislated designations top out at XO, which must be a minimum of ten years old and here many of best houses have a problem: they can make an XO and age it ten or more years, but what about levels beyond XO? There aren't any in French law, so as one finds with the prestige cuvées of Champagne, many Cognac houses make a number of very old blends and give them proprietary names. They'd rather have no formal age statement on a bottle of a blend that averages 50 years of age than give it a designation like XO that only assures it is at least 10 years old.

And thus we come to Paradise, or Paradis in French, the designation given to the small area in the aging cellar of a Cognac house where the very oldest spirits are stored. Truth to tell, Paradise can be very large for a house like Hennessy where they have many, many barrels of old "eaux de vie" as the spirits are called before blending. And when an eau de vie has spent as much time in a barrel as prudent, it is removed before absorbing too much oak flavor and kept in wicker-covered glass bottles called “Dames-Jeannes” (demijohns in English). These flasks may hold only 10 or 20 liters of a precious Cognac from a long ago vintage (as in the 162 year old spirit in the photo) but a little ancient spirit goes a long way in a blend.

Still, 20 liters isn't all that much, so the announcement this week that Louis XIII, the ultra-prestige Cognac made by Remy-Martin, would release a six-liter decanter of the exotic spirit was a dazzling pronouncement. Louis XIII said they will release a (very) limited number of hand-blown Baccarat crystal decanters that each holds six liters, as much liquid as some rare demijohns. The youngest spirit in the Louis XIII blend is 40 years, and the oldest is upwards of 100, so it is appropriate that a six-liter bottle is named for Methuselah, a Biblical character who, according to legend, lived an extraordinarily long time. 

 Le Methusalem of Louis XIII (Photo Louis XIII)

Le Methusalem of Louis XIII (Photo Louis XIII)

It took 20 craftsmen to produce the crystal decanter for Le Methusalem of Louis XIII, and I imagine six or eight cellar masters over the last century contributed to the spirits that ended up in the eventual blend. 

Harrods in London has the first allocation of the bottles with a three-month exclusivity before it goes on sale worldwide in November. At £60,000, the new bottle is a bit out of the average consumer’s price range (though the post-Brexit tumble in the value of the pound sterling may help some international buyers). It does come with several accoutrements to assist with the dispensing of the liquid including eight crystal glasses and a silver pipette to withdraw the spirit so the owner needn’t worry about pouring the ungainly thing. 

I must confess Louis XIII is a bit out of my spirits budget, but I do love Cognac in all its guises. Next week I'll share some cocktails that feature VS Cognac, and suggest some VSOP and XO Cognacs that deserve a place on your bar.