Cognac’s Street Etiquette
The “etiquette” (or label) on a bottle of cognac is an arcane document. Even understanding how old your cognac is requires some cryptography. According to the officials in Cognac, V.S. stands for Very Special, and means that the youngest eau-de-vie blended into the bottle is at least two years old. The next step is V.S.O.P., or Very Superior Old Pale; the youngest of these is four years old, although most are much older than that. Finally, there is X.O., which, in defiance of good spelling, stands for Extra Old and guarantees six years. Some cognac houses buck at these Anglicizations and instead call their X.O. “Napoléon.” Referring to L’Empereur is a patriotic gesture, but I’m not sure how the uninitiated are supposed to understand this as an aging designation.
If you find this system too fussy, then I have good news for you. There’s a new term on the market: O.G. It stands for Original Gangster, and it’s the name of a new brandy released with the assistance of rapper Ice-T. The producer, Aiko Importers, says that it is a rich spirit with notes of fruit and vanilla, but I find this hard to believe. I don’t think Ice-T does anything with a hint of vanilla. Of course, at the time of writing, O.G. is still an unofficial designation, but can formal regulation by France’s Ministère de l’Agriculture et la Pêche be far behind? After all, this brand is legit, and it needs to be protected from posers.
Cognac is itself a brand, but it is one of great antiquity, not unlike Champagne or the Rolling Stones. Cognac is simply the name given to brandy that’s made by traditional methods in the Cognac region of France. Brandy is a spirit made from distilled wine, but it differs from other grape liquors like grappa because it is matured in oak. This barrel influence is especially vital in cognac because its principal grape is Ugni Blanc, a variety with mild flavours, low alcohol and high acidity.
The preponderance of Ugni Blanc gives cognac more refinement than most other brandies (such as the rustic Armagnac), but it doesn’t have much punch on its own, so the extended oak aging adds layers of complexity. For every year that the cognac sleeps in the barrel, different flavours coalesce, with fresh and floral aromas darkening to spice and fig. To create a well-rounded palate, a cellar master will blend together various batches (called eau-de-vie); the oldest ones are generally reserved for V.S.O.P.s and X.O.s.
The terroir of Cognac is celebrated for its elegance. The territory is sub-divided into six crus, arranged almost concentrically with the best regions nestled inside the others like Russian dolls. Although must cognacs are blends, some particularly fine bottles attempt to capture the terroir of specific crus. The best cru is Grande Champagne (no relation to the sparkling wine), which is renowned for finesse and longevity. Next comes Petite Champagne, whose character is similar to its big brother, and the Borderies, which impart floral and spicy notes. The bottom three crus are collectively known as les bois: they produce a fruity cognac that ages quickly in the barrel and thus finds employment making youthful Very Specials.
Cognac, of course, is more than just a regional brandy: it is an emblem of wealth and good taste. But as the nature of wealth changes, so does Cognac. For example, in the early 1990s, over half of the world’s supply of cognac flowed into Asia, and especially into the fabulously wealthy bellies of Tokyo and Taiwan. It was prized precisely because it was expensive — according to the Wall Street Journal, the average bottle price in Asia was three times more than in North America. However, when the markets of the East cratered in the late 1990s, so did cognac sales. The next few years were a grim time for these winemakers — until a new saviour appeared out of the gloom: the Original Gangstas.
In 2001, Busta Rhymes threw open the door to cognac’s future with the hit rap single “Pass the Courvoisier, Part II.” The accompanying music video featured Mr. T pouring out servings of cognac like a trucker dispensing ketchup on a grilled cheese sandwich. It’s a difficult image to get out of one’s head. But more than fine art, it was priceless publicity: the greatest gift that the cognac house of Courvoisier has received since the Red Coats caught Napoleon smuggling some barrels of Courvoisier with him into exile.
Today over half of the cognac sold in the United States goes into the African American community. “It is true, when Monsieur Busta Rhymes featured Courvoisier in his video, with the many attractive ladies, our sales jumped by 40 per cent,” Pierre Szersnovicz, a director at Courvoisier, told me at a recent tasting. “It’s a huge market.” But this new market is changing the way Cognac is made and sold. For instance, you can now buy cognacs that are specially designed for mixing into cocktails, such as Hennessey Black V.S. ($74.95) and Courvoisier Exclusif V.S.O.P. ($69.95). These bottles are crafted to have the kind of strong, fruity flavours that can survive immolation in a can of Red Bull. However, they lack the finesse that makes cognac the digestif par excellence.
Cognac’s urban refurbishment comes with some intriguing side-effects. The rap star Snoop Dogg has an endorsement deal with Landy Cognac , and Ludacris has released his own brand. Dr. Dre is also introducing his own line of cognac with the appetizing name “Aftermath.” He’s aiming to release it simultaneously with his latest album, Detox. (Take that, 12-step program!) Of course, all is not sunshine and roses in this brave new world. The venerable cognac maker Rémy Martin had to cashier its spokesman, the musician T.I., when he was arrested for drug possession. He had just left prison. He was still on probation. He was also fired by his other client, AXE Body Spray.
Will the trashy side of the hip-hop lifestyle tarnish cognac’s image? There’s no sign of it yet. In fact, cognac seems poised to recapture its place as the tipple of choice for those who would rule the world. I recently sensed the true end of the Great Recession when I was invited to taste Courvoisier’s new flagship, L’Essence de Courvoisier ($3200). It’s a blend of about 100 rare eau-de-vie, many dating back to the early 20th century. As one of the most expensive cognacs ever made, it’s not the sort of product that gets released in a shaky economy. On the other hand, only 50 bottles were assigned to Canada. 2000 bottles, on the other hand, are going to China, and the oligarchs of Russia are another major customer. These new markets are driving up the price of cognac everywhere, especially the most expensive bottles. It’s uncertain to say how cognac will change to meet their particular tastes – but one thing is certain. There is new wealth in the world, and it’s thirsty.
L’Essence de Courvoisier ($3200)
This is less of a brandy and more of a thought experiment: Can painstaking blending of ancient eau-de-vie create a cognac that is so smooth that it tastes like a kiss? I suppose so. L’Essence has no brandy burn – just silky nuances of sandalwood, nuts, brioche and ginger. Because of its age, the fruit is retiring. From beginning to end it is dry, delicate and gentle.
Hennessy X.O. ($231.15)
This is a rich and dark style of cognac, with a chewy nose. As a finely made X.O. should, it displays superb integration and structure; the taste of figs laced with cinnamon, anise and peppermint. It is complex rather than elegant, although the finish is as persistent as a standing ovation.
Gaston de Lagrange X.O. ($99.95)
Gaston de Lagrange’s X.O. from Grande Champagne is fascinating and idiosyncratic. It presents smoky and medicinal notes on both the nose and the palate. This is a powerful and spicy cognac, full of dried fruits and a fine lattice of crème brûlée. The focus is superb.
Remy Martin V.S.O.P. ($89.95)
This is a fine light brandy made under the “Fine Champagne” designation (meaning that it is a balanced blend of the two best cognac subregions, Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne). In this bottle, youth is charming. The subtle flavours of the Champagnes are fresh and lively, featuring apples and apricot sweetened by a touch of honey.