Spent the holiday in Chicago so I’ll have several new wines to review shortly—all good ones! But since it’s a festive time of year, I thought I’d hit a couple of areas that readers have requested more info, since the characters in my books seem to sample these a lot.
I’ll start with a beverage that is, for the most part, out of the realm of my $25.00 price limit. But since I happen to enjoy it and have two favorites which are very close in terms of affordability, I thought I’d take a stab. What’s the beverage? Cognac.
So, what the heck is cognac? There is a saying, “All cognacs are brandies but not all brandies are cognacs.” Technically, brandy labeled as cognac must come from the Cognac region of France. There are strict rules for its preparation beginning with the grapes used, through the pressing, distillation, and aging processes. The entire area of the Cognac region encompasses about 200,000 acres, actually quite a small territory.
The grapes used are covered by the decrees governing the cognac process and come from the white wine varieties of Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard. Each has its own purpose. The Ugni Blanc is a late maturing disease resistant grape. Oddly, the Folle Blanche and Colombard produce thin wine that wouldn’t ordinarily be bottled. But it’s perfect for the distillation process leading to cognac. The soil is critical to producing cognac. Again, it produces wine that is not very good, but is ideal for distillation. The soil conditions in the Cognac region vary, ranging from chalky to red clay to green fields. The quality variations in cognac are related to the amount of chalk present in the soil. Generally, more chalk content increases the quality of the cognac, and the softer the chalk, the better.
After harvesting, the grapes must be pressed in traditional horizontal plate presses rather than the more modern continuous presses which exert too much pressure and could damage the skins, causing the pressed product to become bitter. This, too, is covered by a decree. Fermentation is natural—no chaptalization (sugar addition) is allowed. Fermentation takes over two to three weeks at which point the wine is quite delicate and must be distilled immediately while it’s still fresh. Because the alcohol content is low, it takes about ten gallons of wine to make a gallon of cognac. Distillation is done in a charentais pot still, an onion shaped copper boiler that’s heated over an open flame. A swan-necked copper tube connects the pot to a condensing coil and cooling tank. This first distillate is called brouillis, a cloudy liquid with an alcohol content of 28-32% by volume. The brouillis is subjected to a second distillation from which the final distillate or eau-de-vie is obtained.
The eau-de-vie is placed in oak casks created from 100-year-old French oak trees taken from either the Limousin or Troncais forests. The wood transfers its tannin and color to the young cognac during the aging process. Troncais tannins are said to impart smoothness while Limousin wood is known for the strength and balance it imparts to cognac. Aging must be for a minimum of 2 years but can be fifty years and more.
Cognac is not a single year’s distillation but rather a complex blend of many different cognacs ranging in years of age. The final step is the blending of the individual cognacs, a process that is more art than science.
Cognacs have several designations:
V.S.: Very special. These cognacs are the youngest but must have been aged for at least two years.
V.S.O.P.: Very superior old pale. The youngest blend here is at least four years old.
X.O. and Napoleon: These are the top of the line in which the youngest blend is at least six years old.
The top cognac houses are Remy Martin, Courvoisier, Martell, Hennesey, and Camus. Many of these cognacs start at $100.00 and up and some can be well over $1,000 a bottle. But if you have a hankering for something different, especially when the temperature dips and the world is covered in a blanket of snow, here are a couple of my favorites that I can afford. Keep in mind that you don’t open a bottle of cognac and consume the entire bottle at one sitting. The alcohol content is about 70%, slightly less than whiskey. Instead, take a wine glass, or a small snifter and fill it about a quarter full. No more than two ounces at a time. Let it breath for a while to open up the aromas. Then bring the glass to your nose and sniff it delicately. Note the bouquet. Lastly, take a tiny amount into your mouth, run it over your tongue, hold it, then swallow it. You should feel a nice warmth spreading across your body.
First up, Courvoisier V.S. It’s about $30.00 normally but watch for sales. I usually get it for $27.00 which is pretty close to my $25.00 limit. The bouquet brings subtle tones of plums, raisins, almonds, and vanilla. It’s a delightful aroma that won’t bring tears to your eyes like some brandies I’ve had. It’s very smooth in the mouth and on the finish, with notes of raisins, currents and vanilla. My favorite.
Remy Martin V.S. It’s priced the same as the Courvoisier. Very smooth and drinkable. Milder aroma of vanilla, hazelnuts, and plums.
If you want to stretch your budget a bit more, try Camus VSOP, about $40.00 a bottle. It contains a high proportion of the rarest cognac growths and has a beautiful aroma of hazelnuts and almonds. Slightly fruity too. On the palate, it shows notes of vanilla, hazelnut, and peppery spices.
Until next time, enjoy some wine.