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From Charente to China: Celebrating Cognac
by Eunice Fried

In the Charente region of France, about 275 miles southwest of Paris, where the nearby ocean sends an opalescent mist over chalky, rolling hills, there is a small medieval town of cobblestoned streets and old houses. The name of the town is Cognac, and for 400 years, it has been the home, the heart and the namesake of the world's most famous brandy.

Cognac is a spirit born of wine, at once warming and exciting, relaxing and romantic, a brandy of sheen and elegance and finesse. At its finest, its color is translucent amber; its aroma is deep, complex and fragrant, mingling vanilla, spice, a touch of almonds, perhaps a hint of licorice, pear or violets; its texture is rich liquid velvet; and its flavors linger long after the last drop. Virtually every country that makes wine, makes brandy. But only the brandy made in this special place in a special way can be called Cognac.

Over the centuries, the fame of this elite brandy has spread throughout the world. Today, while Europe remains Cognac's first market and the Americas are the second, Asia is a formidable third. In China particularly, Cognac is enjoyed not only before or after a meal, but often with the meal and especially if the meal is a banquet.

The characteristics that make one brandy different from another come from the grapes and the soil in which they are planted, the climate in which they grow, the method by which the wine is distilled and the barrel in which the new brandy is aged. Change one factor and you change the brandy.

The factors that make Cognac unique begin with the region's chalky soil. Cognac country is divided into six districts with the finest Cognacs coming from grapes grown in the chalkiest soil. This soil is richest in the two districts closest to the town of Cognac called Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne. Do not confuse their names with the great sparkling wine of France whose grapes also grow in chalky soil in a region northeast of Paris. Champagne in this context is an old French word derived from Latin that means open fields where the soil is rich in chalk.

The other Cognac districts, in descending order of chalkiness and therefore, quality, are Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaire with the last being farthest from the town of Cognac. In all districts, the grapes grow in a climate moistened by mists blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean.

Even in Cognac's finest growing districts, the white wine produced from its vineyards is not appealing. Thin, tart, it offers few pleasures as a table wine. But this weak wine has just the right attributes to make a superior brandy, among them, high acidity which helps give Cognac structure.

It is the alambic, the copper pot still, that releases the wine's hidden beauty and transforms it into newborn Cognac. Soon after the wine finishes fermenting in the fall, it is distilled by this centuries-old method. Throughout winter, the air of the Cognac region is suffused with a rich, warm aroma as round-bellied pot stills in every small family distillery convert an ordinary wine into a singular brandy. In the alambic the wine is heated slowly in a massive onion-shaped copper pot that sits over a brick furnace, separating the alcohol from the heated wine and vaporizing it. As it cools, it condenses. Then it is distilled again to produce a more highly refined and concentrated liquid of about 70 percent alcohol. The first and last thirds, which carry the pungent constituents known as congeners, are discarded, and only the "heart," or middle third, is kept. This is the new-born Cognac — clear, colorless and fiery.

The pot still method is long and arduous, taking 14 hours to produce 1,000 gallons of brandy. The continuous still, a more modern method used in some of the world's other brandies, can produce that much in an hour. But only the pot still can create the finesse that is Cognac, and only by distilling it twice does the new spirit emerge so pure and rich.

Now a third factor comes into play — the oak barrel in which the new Cognac is aged. Traditionally made from trees of the Limousin forest where the wood is wide-grained, these barrels impart just the right degree of oak flavors and tannin. At the same time, the wood is not airtight, allowing for slow evaporation — about two to three percent a year. In Cognac they call this loss the "drink of the angels."

When the aging period is completed, the brandies are tasted and blended, often with much older Cognacs, to achieve a certain style and balance, harmony and smoothness. Its alcohol is reduced to 80-proof, or 40 percent; often, its color is adjusted with a bit of caramel; and it is bottled. Unlike wines, Cognac does not continue to age in bottle. It has reached maturity and is ready to give pleasure.

But which Cognac? Each Cognac house produces a range, from those as young as two years to aristocratic Cognacs whose ages are counted in decades; and from blends of Cognacs from lesser vineyards to those made only from grapes of the finest vineyards.

To understand a Cognac's label is to understand the brandy. At the basic level are those that are simply Cognac, a blend that has been aged at least two years and is usually labeled VS (Very Superior). A Cognac labeled VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) means that the youngest Cognac in the blend has been aged in oak a minimum of four years. Cognac labeled Fine Champagne refers to one that is a blend of Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne grapes with at least half coming from Grande Champagne. Cognac labeled either Petite Champagne or Grande Champagne comes entirely from grapes of that district.

Cognac aged a minimum of six years are allowed to use such terms on their labels as XO, Extra, Napoléon and Vielle Réserve. After six years of age, however, it is the integrity of the individual Cognac house and not the laws supervised by the Bureau du Cognac that guarantees age. Houses using these terms set their own standards usually beginning with Napoléon, moving to XO for an older Cognac and on to Extra for still older ones.

While most houses market a VS and VSOP, each has one or more prestige Cognacs in the six year and older categories some of which have been given proprietary name. Hennessy, a house that dates back to the mid-1700's, has a particularly large stock of old Cognacs which benefits its two most prominent bottlings — XO and the older, splendid, top-of-the-line Paradis, a proprietary name. Rémy Martin, also begun in the 1700's, concentrates on Fine Champagne Cognac with a polished XO, the lovely Extra Perfection and the elegant Louis XIII. Martell, another house born in the eighteenth century, markets an XO, Extra and its well-aged, distinctive Cordon Bleu. Courvoisier, a 200-year old house, is know for its Napoléon, XO and its smooth Initiale Extra. Pierre Ferrand offers a 30 year-old under the name Sélection des Anges. Gabriel & Andreu is a house that does not blend across districts; each of its Cognacs comes totally from a single one. Its Petite Champagne is composed of 25 year-old Cognacs while its Grande Champagne is 35 years old. Delamain is known for its XO called Pale & Dry, a rather subtle 25 year-old Cognac; Vesper which is 35 years old and Tres Venerable which is 55 years old. Hine rightly calls its prestigious Grande Champagne Cognac, Triomphe.

While fine VSOP's cost about $33 to $45, prestige Cognac reaches well beyond that. Delamaine Vesper, for example, costs $110 while its Tres Venerable is over $200. Expect to pay $100 for Rémi Martin XO and $180 for Hine Triomphe. And then there is the limited edition Cognac, L'Esprit de Courvoisier, a blend of more than 50 vintages of Cognac, some nearly 200 years old reportedly including one made for Napoleon during his exile in Elba. Only 2,000 decanters of L'Esprit have been made, and 500 have already been sold, so hurry. Oh yes, the price per decanter is $5,000.

Of the more than 200 Cognac houses, four — Hennessy, Rémi Martin, Martell and Courvoisier — account for most of the world's sales. But do not discount the fine and lesser-known smaller houses such as Delamain, Hine, Gabriel & Andreu and Pierre Ferrand. For all the fine points about Cognacs, nothing says it like a taste. Actually, nothing says it like a sniff, for the message of Cognac lies mostly in its aroma. Pour about a half inch in a medium-size brandy snifter or wine glass that tapers a bit at the top. Swirl to release its bouquet. Inhale, slowly, all warmth and tingle and profundity. Sip. A few drops are all you need to know its wonders.

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