The most popular drink that I’ve not delved into yet is most definitely brandy. Despite years of being dragged to wine tastings as a child, many of which ended with a tot of brandy, I have never really got round to tasting much since I’ve started to form opinions on drinks. My abiding memory is of not being able to bring the glass closer than a few inches from my nose as the strong smell formed an almost physical barrier for my arm, my brain stopping the pungent liquid from getting within a potentially damaging distance. I recently tried some Cardinal Mendoza and realised that I should probably give more brandy a go. I, in my usual fashion, totally forgot about this until the details of the November tasting at The Whisky Exchange dropped into my mail box – a tasting of the Rémy Martin cognac range. A more expensive evening than usual, at £60, but with matched nibbly food and a promise of Something Special.
The name of brandy is ancient, a derivation of one of the two names that are generally given to spirits, burned wine (brandwein, brandewijn), and producers use the other name, water of life (aqua vita, eau de vie, uisge beatha [whisky], etc) to describe unaged spirit. Brandy is, put simply, distilled wine. As distillation spread across the continent cunning tradesmen started transporting and selling it around the world – regular wine was quite bulky, but more concentrated brandewijn took up less space and could be watered down at the destination to provide a winey drink if required. This meant greater profits and as the trade grew brandy became the most popular spirit in the western world. It was slightly toppled by the phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800s, with whisky producers taking the opportunity to build their trade, but it is still one of the largest spirit categories in the world.
There are two main named regions of brandy production in France – Armagnac, in the southwest near to the Pyrenees, and Cognac, based around the town of the same name about half way up the country in the west. Armagnac produces a lot of different brandies, with many small producers distilling and maturing their own spirits, but Cognac is known for its large producers, including Hennessy, Hine, Martell, Courvoisier and, naturally, Rémy Martin. There are still smaller producers around Cognac, but the business has developed over the years such that most distilled spirit is now sold to the big houses, who then age, blend and distribute the brandy.
In order for a brandy to be called Cognac there are a number of rules:
- The grapes must be produced in one of the six designated growing regions around Cognac
- The spirit must be distilled twice (Armagnac is often distilled only once in a column still)
- The spirit must be aged in French oak
- The spirit must be aged for a minimum of 2 years
- The spirit must be bottled at a minimum of 40%
The six growing areas each have their own soil types, each producing different grapes of differing types and quality. The central areas, known as Grande and Petite Champagne, produce the best and most sought after grapes, wines and spirit, generally considered the most suitable for aging. They aren’t named for the Champagne wine region but instead take their name, as does Champagne, from the latin term campania, meaning field. The soil in the Cognac area is chalky and soaks up water like a sponge, locking it away during the wetter, cooler periods ready for when the vines need it during the hot summers.
The grapes used are mainly Ugni Blanc, aka Trebbiano, the second most widely planted grape in the world. It doesn’t produce particularly interesting wines, with low alcohol and a high acidity, but makes a good starting point for brandy. In addition there is also Colombard and Folle Blanche (the old grape of Cognac and Armagnac, although it is not used much in modern times due to the fragility of the vines), although these make up about 5% of production with 95% being Ugni Blanc. While the brandy houses do produce some of their own wine and distillate they buy most from individual producers, who do the growing, wine production and distilling. Brandy making isn’t an all-year-round process, and growers have to pick their grapes by September and distill their spirit by the 31st of March in the next year or it can’t be used to make Cognac.
The brandy making process is as one would expect – pick grapes, press them, ferment the juice to make wine, distill the wine into a high alcohol ‘eau de vie’, age it in barrels. In Cognac the distillation generally has a couple of distinguishing features, at least for Rémy Martin. Firstly, they use pot stills, rather than the column stills of Armagnac, called an Alambic Charentais (Rémy Martin’s hold about 25 hectalitres). This is similar to the distillation process used for whisky, with an added chamber called the “Wine Warmer” which is used to hold the wine before it is put into the still and also has the pipe from the top of the still to the condenser passing through it, recycling some of the heat from the still to warm the wine. I found this rather pretty animation which explains what goes on. The first distillation, producing a liquid called the brouillis at about 25%, is then redistilled to produce eau de vie, at about 70%. This spirit is then put in barrels to mature. The second difference is that they distill the wine on the lees – the sediment of yeast and other bits that falls out of the wine as it rests is left in during distillation rather than being filtered out. This is done to give more flavour and a silkier mouthfeel to the spirit.
Barrel-wise, in order to be called Cognac french oak barrels need to be used. Generally these are new oak, at least for the first stages of maturation, and mainly come from the Limousin and Troncais forests, with the former being more popular for Rémy Martin’s brandy. Limousin oak is known for its quality and is a tannic wood that works well for longer aging. Wood from the Troncais is less tannic and is better for younger brandy. The different classifications of brandy are, mainly, to do with how long they are matured for:
- Cognac/VS/Very Special – aged for at least 2 years
- VSOP/Very Special Old Pale – aged for at least 4 years
- XO/Extra Old – aged for at least 6 years (although this will rise to 10 years in April 2016)
Rémy Martin mature their brandy in overground warehouses to start with, moving them underground as they get older as well as moving the spirit to different casks, often older and larger than the new casks used for initial maturation. The evaporation from the barrels (the infamous angels’ share) runs to about 3% per year in Cognac, similar to that of Scotland, and a standard new barrel of 350 litres will be reduced to 100 litres of 40% liquid after about 50 years.
The next step of brandy production is blending. As with most single malt whiskies, instead of bottling each barrel individually brandy is blended from a variety of casks to produce the consistent flavour profile for the specific brandy being produced. The classifications specify the minimum age of brandy used in a bottle but, again similarly to whisky, often older spirit is used to ensure that the flavour is correct. The blending is often done in large blending vats, some of which are very old indeed, with repairs being done constantly over hundreds of years. Caramel spirit is allowed, adding a depth of colour for consistency (whether that is actual consistency, or consistency with an ‘ideal’ darker colour that the producer wants to push on their customers as a sign of ‘quality’ or ‘age’ is a different matter) but it doesn’t look like Rémy Martin use it for at least their cognacs above VS classification.
Rémy Martin has been around for quite a while, with the man the company is named for starting as a wine grower in 1724 and his descendants still running the business today. The distinctive centaur logo was introduced by 5th generation Paul-Émile Rémy Martin in 1870, also an era of expansion as they introduced their first premium product in 1874 – the Louis XIII. Claimed to be the world’s first ‘super premium’ spirit, it is still produced today and sells for a suitably ridiculous price. By the time the 7th generation rolled around further distinguishing from other spirits on the market was required and Andrew Renaud helped the introduction of the designation ‘Fine Champagne Cognac’ in 1977, used for Cognac containing only wines produced in the Grandes and Petites Champagne regions and applied to all of Rémy Martin’s regular output. The current president, Dominique Hériard Dubreuil, is the 9th generation of the family to run the company, with her father, André, being responsible across the world. While Rémy Martin produce some of their own eau de vie they are also the biggest buyer of Grande and Petite Champagne produce (buying in about 95% of their needs), setting up a growers alliance in the 1950s and paying a yearly fixed price with bonuses for spirit that is judged to be exceptional. Substandard spirit is rejected but doesn’t go to waste, being sold on to other companies with different standards or requirements to Rémy Martin.
Our host for the tasting was Alex Quintin, UK brand ambassador for Rémy Martin, who had the designing of the Rémy Lounge at Vinopolis, the room we started the evening in, as one of his first tasks on taking over the role a few years back. My drinking companion Jason, of Whisky Squad organising fame, and I sat around in leather armchairs next to a replica blending vat, built insitu due to its size preventing it being brought in whole, awaiting the tasting with a brandy cocktail each. Jason had a French Mojito replacing the rum from a regular mojito with brandy, for a mix of brandy, mint, sugar syrup, lime and fizzy water. As with many rums in the regular mojito, the flavour of the spirit was overpowered by the other ingredients and it’d take a side by side tasting to pick this one out as different to the norm. I went for a Sidecar, a much more traditional brandy cocktail originating sometime around the end of World War 1. It’s an equal mix of brandy, Cointreau and lime juice, stirred with ice and strained, and it worked quite well – citrusy and sweet with a hint of the caramel edge of the brandy peeking through.
We then moved into the same room that I did the Old Pulteney tasting earlier this year to start the main event. We started with a slightly different take on drinking brandy – Rémy Martin VSOP served at -18ºC. The small shooter that it came in was entirely frozen and it was served with a piece of salmon and cream cheese roulade. On the nose it had almost nothing, as one would expect for something served so cold, and to taste it didn’t have a whole lot more – a hint of fruit and warmth combined with a silky mouthfeel. The intention here wasn’t to give a lot of flavour, but to give the hit of cold and texture of the chilled brandy. It worked quite well with the salmon bite, cutting through the creaminess of the cheese and enhancing the smokiness of the salmon.
We moved quickly on to brandy number 2 – some more Rémy Martin VSOP, this time served at room temperature. It had a delicate nose, with vanilla, cinnamon, sultanas and peach. To taste it was rounded and fairly rich, although lacking a little in body, with spicy apples, more vanilla and a long sweet finish. This was served with some roquefort, which I donated to Jason due to being a cheese wuss. The VSOP is a blend of about 240 different cognacs ranging in age from 4 to 14 years, put together by the Rémy Martin cellarmaster Pierrette Trichet, the first woman to hold the position, and her team. It’s the most popular VSOP in the world, with over a third of all bottles sold in the classification being produced by Rémy Martin. As such its flavour profile didn’t surprise me – unsurprising, easy drinking and pleasant: the sort of thing that pretty much everyone will like.
Third on the list was Rémy Martin Coeur de Cognac. A cognac that sits between the XO and VSOP classifications (and thus classified as a VSOP, I assume) which was first bottled in 2007, it aims at being more luxurious (luxury is a word used a lot around brandy) than the regular VSOP without losing the easy drinking appeal. This one was served in a slightly ballooned tumbler, great for general drinking but not quite so useful for nosing and tasting. The nose was spicy with a meaty richness. It was more savoury than the VSOP, with an underlying caramel brittle note. To taste it was very smooth, but there wasn’t much to it. Sweet fruit, a pinch of salt and pepper and a little bit of woody spice. Not particularly interesting, but very much a nice drink. Some ice was brought around and I dropped a cube in for a bit of experimentation. At first more sweetness and sour fruit came out as it watered down, but it didn’t take much dilution and quickly lost all of its fairly limited complexity. Worth a couple of drops of water if you don’t particularly rate it from the bottle, but not a lot more.
The last in the regular range was brought out, filling our remaining glass – Rémy Martin XO Excellence. The oldest expression in the the normal range this is already at least 10 years old, with brandy up to about 37 years old also going into the mix of 350 cognacs about 85% of which came from Grande Champagne. It sat quite heavily in the glass, with slow moving ‘tears’ down the sides that Alex told us was in part due to the distillation on the lees, adding a thickness to compliment the richness of flavour. On the nose it was much more interesting than the first two, with sultanas, concentrated vanilla, almost ripe grape, sponge cake and a hint of PX. To taste it was rich and spicy, with cinnamon and cloves. It was also quite tannic with a cooling effect along the sides of the tongue, and a touch of menthol. The finish was long, rich and woody, lingering for a decent length of time. Much more my kettle of fish this, but not quite as tasty as the Coeur de Cognac, despite that brandy’s less interesting flavours.
At this point we were out of glasses and having checked online the prices of the bottlings we’d tried I was starting to feel a little bit ripped off. However, we were asked to finish our drinks and follow Alex through to The Whisky Exchange’s shop, where we were confronted with a darkened room, red lit and with our final brandy centre stage – Rémy Martin Louis XIII. At about £1300 a bottle this is over half as expensive again as any booze I’ve drunk before and was the Something Special promised in the email. The brand has been around, as previously mentioned, since 1874, and is named for the king of France during the time written about in Dumas’s Three Musketeers. It is made entirely from grapes from Grandes Champagnes and is blended from about 1200 cognacs ranging from 40-100 years old. The final aging of the Cognac is done in giant 550l tiercon barrels originally used to transport brandy by ship in the 1800s. In the past it was sold by the barrel, but these days it comes in a hand-blown crystal decanter, with 24ct gold detail, made by Baccarat. We were served the brandy in heavy crystal wine glasses decorated with a fleur-de-lis, all adding to the theatre. On the nose it was very floral, with honey suckle, and sweet with delicately perfumed fruit – melon and peaches. There was also a hint of flowery honey and a marzipan nuttiness. To taste there was cinnamon, almonds and woody spice. My succinct note simply says “Like eating twigs and sweet flowers”. An impressive drink, but for me not £1300 of impressive.
All in all it was a rather interesting introduction to brandy making and one house’s approach to flavour. One thing that sat over the whole thing was that everything seemed a bit more polished than the whisky market – things are still a bit rough and ready with whisky, despite the best efforts of the Chivas Brothers and Glenmorangies of this world, while Cognac has had a few more years to firmly bed down its luxurious image. Flavour-wise I wasn’t overly impressed, although the Coeur de Cognac was a tasty drink and the Louis XIII was definitely more complex by an order of magnitude than anything else tasted. Price-wise things seems to be even more polar than the whisky market, with the VSOP and Coeur de Cognac coming in at about £30 (a very reasonable price for either), the XO at about £100 (a bit much in my opinion) and the Louis XIII at £1300 (a price point that stops being about the quality of the spirit, and which has risen steeply over recent years) – for the ‘regular’ consumer there doesn’t seem to be anything filling the £30-£100 gap, something that a whisky company wouldn’t do. All this just goes to show that the market for Cognac is a different beast and one that I need to look into more. Any excuse to have a few more tipples…
Rémy Martin VSOP
VSOP fine champagne cognac, 40%. ~£30 from Master of Malt
Rémy Martin Coeur de Cognac
VSOP fine champagne cognac, 40%. ~£35 from Master of Malt
Rémy Martin XO Excellence
XO fine champagne cognac, 40%. ~£100 from Master of Malt
Rémy Martin Louis XIII
XO grande champagne cognac, 40%. ~£1300 from Master of Malt