As a civilized after-dinner drink or as an occasional aperitif, few libations can compare with Cognac, the great brandy of France. Yet, for all its prestige and renown, Cognac attracts scant attention among wine and spirits connoisseurs. This is unfortunate, because it has so much to offer.
However, Cognac's current doldrums are not terribly surprising. Novelty is the lifeblood of the connoisseur, and there really hasn't been anything new to say about Cognac since the Napoleonic Blockade. Ironically, that little tiff between France and England ultimately created the drink that has today stolen the thunder from Cognac, single malt Scotch. Unable to obtain their beloved digestifs from western France, the English turned to their Scottish cohorts, who concocted a vaguely Cognac-like spirit from barley malt as a substitute for their favorite brandy, which is made from grapes from the Charentes region of France. Almost two centuries later, many more connoisseurs can expound upon the intricacies of Islay, Speyside, Highland and other single malts of Scotland than can explain the difference between one brand of Cognac and another. Yet, given the chance, I suspect many malt advocates might find the original spirit a wee bit finer.
Recently, things have begun to stir in the Charentes. Among the most exciting developments is the introduction of single distillery Cognac. These bottlings are to Cognac what single malts are to Scotch. Whereas most Cognacs, like most major brands of Scotch (i.e. Johnny Walker Red, Dewar's, Cutty Sark), are blends from various distilleries, these Cognacs are the product of just one distillery. Just as a single malt Scotch isn't necessarily better than a blended Scotch, single distillery Cognac isn't inherently better than good blended VSOP or XO. But it is almost sure to be more individualistic, since it reflects the skills, distillation techniques and possibly even the engaging individual quirks of the cellar master. And that individualism will give connoisseurs the essential element that Cognac has been missing for too long--something to talk about.
The newest entries in the single distillery arena are from an unlikely source, Hennessy Cognac, a large house owned by Moet-Hennessy, a luxury goods conglomerate with ties to everything from Dom Perignon to Louis Vuitton luggage. I say "unlikely" because, fairly or not, I had always thought of the big Cognac houses, such as Hennessy, Courvoisier, Remy Martin and others, as "the bad-guys" in the Cognac story. While their products have often been excellent, they have marketed Cognac through glitzy advertising and snobby "lifestyle" appeals, all the while hiding the identities of the small, distinctive distilleries whose Cognacs went into their blends. In addition, the party line has been that "blended is better." To be fair, there is something to this. In the hands of a master blender, the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts, and there are many truly great blended Cognacs. On the other hand, the blending story has also provided a convenient cover for Big Cognac to hide its mistakes and pump out boatloads of homogenized VS on unsuspecting consumers.
Hennessy is to be congratulated for being the first major house to enter the single distillery arena. It should be noted that at least two other houses also put out single distillery products, Louis Royer & Gabriel and Andreau. The latter's single district line of Cognacs (e.g., "Fins Bois," "Petite Champagne") will be labeled with the name of the distillery starting this fall. Gabriel & Andreau also owns Pierre Ferrand Cognac, which is a single distillery Cognac made exclusively from estate-grown grapes in the Grande Champagne district. The Louis Royer Cognacs have not been tasted, but the Gabriel & Andreau/Pierre Ferrand products (distributed by Bacchus) can also be highly recommended. The following are my tasting notes on the new Hennessy Cognacs.
Camp Romain Single Distillery Cognac (Selected by Hennessy; $48; France): Robust and assertive, with hints of oak and earth, this Cognac could almost pass for a single malt, particularly one aged in sherry casks, such as Macallan. The cellar master, Betty Leseur, learned her art from her father. The distillery is located in the Fins Bois area of Cognac, where it buys most of its grapes.
Izambard Single Distillery Cognac (Selected by Hennessy; $47; France): Because it is so fragrant and fresh, this is more in the classic Fins Bois style than Camp Romain. The Izambard family uses specially seasoned oak barrels to impart a distinctive damp forest bouquet that is quite enticing. A delightful Cognac, my personal favorite.
Le Peu Single Distillery Cognac (Selected by Hennessy; $49; France): A small-capacity alambic still with a gracefully curved swan's neck is said to give this Cognac from the Grande Champagne district its gently rounded softness and subtle, lightly hazelnut bouquet. The palate has good attack on the entry, with a lightly oaked finish.