A Special Report on the Comeback of Quality

A Touch of Paris

A Touch of Paris no. 17

Cognac is so famous that its very name has come to be synonymous with the word brandy. The name is now protected throughout the world and only the genuine French article may be called Cognac. But protection of its name has not kept Cognac from going through severe ups and downs on the market.

Today sales are booming and new records are being established, 114.1 million bottles sold in the 1977/78 wine year (September to August), an increase of almost 16 percent over 76/77. This makes Cognac the largest French beverage export with 23 percent of the total exports of wines and spirits. Cognac earned for France more than the combined exports of Bordeaux and Burgundy wines.

The picture wasn't so rosy in 1974 when the bottom fell out of a worldwide wine boom that extended even to distilled products of the vine. The following slump lasted for three years and its effects are still being felt in some ways.

During the boom in the late 60's and early 70's everyone was convinced that the millennium had come. Far too much land in the Cognac region was replanted with vines that had just begun to bear as the boom was coming to an end.

Everything hit at once. Prices went too high and the consumer, especially in the export market, was turned off. Worse yet, the price of oil was quadrupled, sending Western economies into a general downswing. Naturally, luxuries were the first notch in the belt-tightening, and good Cognac is a luxury, however desirable and necessary.

Yes, "necessary" because when everything is going wrong it is precisely the so-called "luxuries" that keep you going. Paradoxical perhaps, but nonetheless true. When things seem at their grimmest, a mellow glass of Cognac can set the world right again and bring cheer into what first looked like a hopeless situation.

Which is perhaps a better explanation for why Cognac keeps bouncing back from one setback or another with such regularity. The big Cognac companies would like to think that their efforts have something to do with it. Their advertising budgets, special promotions, duty-free sales, etc.

No doubt all that helps, but at bottom what really counts is the Cognac itself. The efforts made to offer a quality product that really grabs your tastebuds is what it's really all about.

And recent sales prove this point. What sells today is quality, not just quantity. Despite a hefty 40 percent difference in price, sales of well-aged VSOP and even older Cognacs are rising twice as fast as those of the more pedestrian three-star or VS (the current equivalent, for some houses, of three-star). Twenty years ago quality Cognacs held less than 15 percent of the market. Today that figure has grown to nearly 37 percent.

Just what is a three-star or VS Cognac? And what the hell does VS mean, when you just about had VSOP figured out? Well, the one comes from the other. It was the English, as early Cognac aficionados when most of the rest of the world had yet to discover the delights of this French brandy, who were responsible for the term VSOP.

This is what they called the better-aged stuff that arrived on their not-so-isolated island: Very Superior Old Pale. We must be led to believe that coloring to a uniform darkness with caramelized sugar was not practiced then, for in general, the older the Cognac, the darker. VS is merely half of VSOP, and distinctly that much younger.

Current French regulations governing the various types of Cognac cover both the age and provenance of the Cognac in any given bottle. All aging takes place in oak barrels. Once a Cognac is bottled it ceases to age, so it is the age at the moment of bottling that counts.

Three-star or VS (Very Superior) must be aged for at least 2-1/2 years in the barrel, VSOP for at least 4-1/2 years in the cask and "Napoleon", "Extra" and other like names implying considerable age, for a minimum of 6-1/2 years in the wood. These are only minimums. The better qualities contain varying proportions of much older Cognacs.

Cognac also falls under the French laws of Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée that also govern wines and where they may be made under particular place-names. Thus Cognac may only come from a region in the departments of the Charente and Charente-Maritime (plus two small bits of the Deux Sèvres and Dordogne departments).

The region is subdivided into areas of quality, determined by the type of soil, that form concentric rings around each other. In the center lies the premier cru, called the Grande Champagne, along the south bank of the Charente between the towns of Cognac and Jarnac, the second center of the Cognac trade.

The Grande Champagne has great finesse and body, ages very slowly and covers a very chalky subsoil. Surrounding it on the south of the river is the Petite Champagne, almost as good but somewhat faster aging. Just north of the river and west of the town of Cognac are the Borderies, which give a lot of finesse but less body than the first two.

Surrounding these three are the Fins Bois, in turn surrounded by the Bons Bois. Lying farthest out, and including the offshore islands of Ré and Oléron, are the Bois Ordinaires and Bois Communs. The Fins Bois give a Cognac with a distinct earthy quality that retains a certain finesse. The others tend to be just plain earthy.

In all of them the same grapes are grown and the methods of distilling are identical. Geography is the determining factor. The main grape variety today is the Ugni Blanc, locally known as the Saint-Emilion, although it has nothing to do with the red wine of that name. Two older varieties are also still in use to a small extent, the Folle Blanche and Colombard.

Some 30,000 growers tend the 100,000 hectares of vines in the Cognac region, but four Cognac firms completely dominate the market: Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell and Rémy-Martin. These four alone account for two-thirds of all exports. All are located in the town of Cognac, except for Courvoisier in Jarnac.

As François Mégard, General Sales Manager for Courvoisier, put it: "For the average consumer, there can't be much difference between the big houses. Cognac is Cognac. What makes the success of a firm is to have some of the best-quality Cognacs and then do a lot of work and innovation in marketing and advertising."

He has a point, but then each of the "Big Four" prides itself on a different approach to making or marketing a quality product that has put them where they are. Courvoisier is not one of the oldest firms. In 1900 it was perhaps only 25th in size but aggressive marketing of its product brought it into the select group of four.

Courvoisier developed the whole theme of associating Napoleon with Cognac, which has been so successful that nearly every firm now markets a "Napoleon" quality of well-aged Cognac. And there is historical justification for this association.

The Emperor is known to have drunk it and to have been supplied by Courvoisier, among others. But it was Courvoisier that had the brilliant idea of placing the words, "The Brandy of Napoleon" in English, on their bottles and in their advertising, thereby scoring a remarkable publicity coup that still serves them well.

Hennessy was established in 1765 by a veteran of Louis XV's Irish Brigade that defeated the English and Dutch at Fontenoy in Belgium. Hennessys still direct the firm that carries their name. The firm's master taster, Maurice Fillioux, is also a direct descendant of the Fillioux who did the same job for the first Hennessy. Thus continuity is a very strong theme in this company.

But Hennessy is equally proud of its stocks of aged Cognac, the largest in the world. These serve especially in the VSOP, Napoleon, XO (Extra Old) and Extra qualities. These stocks of ancient brandy are kept in what is locally known as a "paradise", except that Hennessy's "paradise" is bigger than anyone else's.

Cognac in barrels go back to the early 1800's. These are not entirely from the year indicated on the barrel because they must be constantly topped up, occasionally with younger Cognac, since about three percent, "the angels' share", evaporates every year and nourishes the black fungus that coats every building where Cognac is stored. Other Cognacs in heavy glass demijohns go back to 1800 and before, but these are no longer evolving since they are no longer in wood.

Martell is even older than Hennessy, for it dates back to 1715, the last year of Louis XIV's 72-year reign. There is one small firm, Augier, that is older, but Martell is the oldest of the "Big Four".

As at Hennessy, an eighth-generation Martell still runs the family firm and the chief taster is the seventh generation of the same family in that all-important job. Tradition and continuity are strong here as well, and the "paradise" kept well stocked with ancient Cognacs.

But Martell believes also in the different qualities that different crus bring to a blend and likes to refer to its product as cognac à quatre crus (Cognac from four growths). There are, in fact, seven crus, but, as we have seen, three of them are pretty ordinary.

Martell uses the noble Grande and Petite Champagne, but also Borderies for its smoothness and Fin Bois for its more rapid aging and touch of earthiness. The firm believes this blend is responsible for the Martell taste and that all four growths together achieve a better harmony.

No one who favors Martell would argue the point, but the last of the "Big Four" has a policy very different from that of the others. Rémy-Martin will use nothing but Grande and Petite Champagne in its blends, whether VS, VSOP (which are Fine Champagne, that is, a blend of both areas), or Napoleon, Extra and Louis XIII, all of which are Grande Fine Champagne (100 percent from the Grande Champagne).

Rémy-Martin is also proud of having the largest cooperage in Cognac. It is organized as a separate company wholly owned by Rémy –Martin. This cooperage makes all the barrels necessary for the mother company from Limousin oak and also sells barrels to other firms in other countries as well as to such prestigious Bordeaux châteaux as Yquem.

Rémy-Martin (and undoubtedly other firms as well) has found it necessary to develop an unrefillable bottle for shipment to certain countries where the temptation to reuse the original bottle filled with cheap local brandy is overwhelming.

The bottle has a special neck incorporating a little glass ball that allows the contents to be poured out but prevents anything entering the bottle. It just shows to what lengths you have to go to protect a good name.