A new generation of outstanding, unusually youthful, cognacs are challenging the idea that older equals better. Nicholas Faith reports
Old good, older better, oldest best.’ It’s one of the most cherished beliefs in Cognac and yet, shock horror, the house of Frapin successfully challenged it for the first time just a few years ago when it won both Best Brandy and Finest Spirit at the International Spirits Challenge (ISC) 2008 for its Le Multimillésime, a blend of three cognacs, none more than 30 years old.
The shock was the greater because Frapin is such a respected name in Cognac. It’s been in the hands of the same family for centuries and its brandies come exclusively from a single estate situated on the slopes of the Grande Champagne. This sub-region produces the vast majority of the finest cognacs – and its brandies are notoriously slow to mature. By contrast, cognacs from the ‘outer circles’ – the Fin Bois and the Bons Bois – tend to reach their peak at 20 years or less.
Patrice Piveteau, Frapin’s cellar master, is naturally lyrical about his baby: ‘It’s well-balanced, delicate, elegant,’ he enthuses, a view clearly shared by the judges at the ISC, who declared: ‘it has explosive tastes and is well-balanced without too much wood’. Also, a crucial sign of age: ‘you get the flavours of candied – not fresh – fruit’. In fact the blend is an echo of the policy found in Frapin’s recent single vintage offerings, the next of which will be a 1991 – a mere adolescent in the eyes of many cognac experts. Piveteau is, he says, ‘trying to change the idea of a great cognac, one that we can really love’.
‘I don’t mind if people want younger cognacs – you make more on VSOP than XO’ Sebastien Guesdon, Roast
But not everyone is so enamoured by youthfulness. One of the most eminent believers in truly old cognacs is David Baker of importer Brandy Classics. For him, the very finest cognacs were distilled between 1880 and 1930, a period when distillers ‘had learnt how to distil brandies properly and how to treat them when they were ageing’. Yes, he says, young brandies can be good, but ‘good old ones are bound to be better. It takes 50 years for a cognac to mature properly, any time before that, the distiller has to modify the brandy with caramel or sugar.’
Raving about rancio?
The real distinction between the viewpoints of Piveteau and Baker is their attitude to rancio, a set of flavours and aromas akin to the best rich fruitcake, which the best cognacs develop after they’ve passed their 20th birthday. For Baker, this is essential for providing that vital ‘richness and fullness’ in a cognac.
By contrast, Piveteau is unworried that some of his finest brandies have only a little rancio – he prefers elegance. Typically, his softer, more floral and elegant brandies provide a distinct contrast to the best from Ragnaud-Sabourin, another family firm which owns an estate on the same slopes as Frapin and whose Florilege contains some of the purest rancio I have ever come across.
There are also many technical reasons to beware of truly old cognacs, by which I mean those alleged to be more than 80 years old. In the past, distillation was much more of a hit-and-miss business than it is today, ensuring a wide variety of quality in the basic spirit – and a bad young cognac merely turns into a rotten old cognac as the years go by.
Baker, however, is totally unworried by the time spent in wood: ‘it should be a minimum of 50 years and can be up to 70 or 80’. Yet many cognacs – especially those handed down through the generations by small producers – are kept in wood too long, resulting in an overwhelming taste of wood on the palate. Worse, cognacs can suffer from mouldy casks, or demijohns which have been sealed inadequately with rags, causing oxidation. Above all, many cognacs are simply not suitable for extreme ageing and lose so much strength that they are merely vapid liquids, barely stronger than fortified wines.
Obviously the arguments will go on, with some extreme modernists – though not me nor Piveteau (for Frapin also sells a much older, more rancio cognac) – believing that the importance of rancio is simply a snobbery, while traditionalists will still believe that it is the vital ingredient in the greatest of cognacs.
In looking for freshness and elegance are we bowing to modern tastes? I don’t think so. The ‘Frapin Challenge’ will not destroy the concept of maturity put forward by Baker; rather, it will provide an alternative scale of values and, above all, will destroy the veil of mystery which surrounds old cognacs. It will force them to justify themselves rather than be accepted as superior merely because of their age.
AE Dor XO Fine Champagne
Drouet et Fils VSOP
Dupuy XO Tentation
Esteve Reserve Ancestrale
Pierre Ferrand 1840
At the The Bar at The Dorchester, age, as well as rarity, is still a major selling-point, according to assistant bar manager Simon Rowe: ‘We’re still really about XO or ultra top-end cognacs like Louis XIII Black Pearl and L’Esprit de Courvoisier – that’s what people in our bar want. We’re also seeing a lot of interest in really fine and rare cognacs, and very old spirits more generally – I’m planning to get several pre-phylloxera cognacs.
‘But I never really look at cognac as having an age statement. Cognac is still very much about brand loyalty and prestige – and if you’re going to spend £27.50 on an XO, you’re going to go with something you know, aren’t you?’
However Sebastien Guesdon, bar manager at Roast restaurant, has noticed a shift towards a more informal, lighter way of drinking cognac that could favour younger-style brandies: ‘I think cognac is really coming back into fashion and on different occasions too – we’re seeing a few people now drinking it with soda as an aperitif, and the other day I tried a frozen shot of H by Hine which was just fantastic. More of the cognacs we’re seeing are lighter, not so sweet or heavy, and appealing to a younger market, particularly to women.
‘From a business point of view, I don’t mind if people want to drink younger cognacs – you make more margin on a VSOP than you do on an XO, after all.’