The Cognaçais love to point out that their product is made with grapes – and grapes express terroir. But is the message getting across? Michelle Brachet finds out
Regionality matters in Cognac. While all steps of the cognac production process from grape variety to blending have an effect on the final product, where the grapes are grown is an extremely important factor, too. In this, it is unlike other spirits, where the provenance doesn’t impact character. There are six growing regions or ‘crus’, all with different terroir.
Grande Champagne (16,606ha)/ Petite Champagne (15,746 ha)
The Champagnes consist of clay-heavy, chalky, thin soils on top of soft chalk. Montmorillonite clay provides these fertile soils with good structure and water reserves. Vine roots can penetrate more than 20 metres through the chalk, and the subsoil acts as a giant sponge through which water slowly rises
during prolonged dry periods.
The soil in the Borderies contains clay and flint stones from the decomposition of limestone. Cognacs from here reach optimum quality after a shorter period.
Most of this area is covered by clay and chalk soils (known as groies) that are similar to the Champagnes. Lying in a lower area known as the Pays Bas, north of Cognac, the soil is heavy, 60% clay.
The soil on the coast and in several valleys has eroded from the Massif Central and is sandy, especially in the southern vineyards. Vines are often dispersed, mixed with other crops and surrounded by forests of pine and chestnut.
Here, the soil is almost exclusively sandy in an area that lies along the coast or on the islands of Ré and Oléron. The wine produces fast-ageing eaux-de-vie with a characteristic maritime aroma and flavour profile.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the big differences in soil across the Cognac region, each cru produces eaux-de-vie with very different aroma profiles and characteristics.
Cognacs from the Borderies tend to have a rich floral characteristic of violets; Fins Bois cognacs age quickly and are round and smooth, with a bouquet of freshly pressed grapes; cognacs produced near the coast in Bois Ordinaires are heavily influenced by the climate of the Atlantic Ocean – you can almost smell the sea; Grande and Petite Champagne cognacs are fine, floral and suited to long ageing.
Every cognac brand has a ‘house style’ that must be consistent year on year. The range of cognacs a house produces often includes blended eaux-de-vie from multiple- as well as single-cru cognacs.
House style comes from the amalgamation of all the steps in the production process, and regionality is an integral factor in it.
Martell’s flagship Cordon Bleu, for instance, is a blend of more than 100 eaux-de-vie from different crus, but with a predominantly Borderies influence.
The regionality of cognacs often plays an important part in a cognac house’s marketing strategy, a means of differentiating its products from those of its competitors.
Rémy Martin, for example, produces only Fine Champagne cognacs. To label a cognac Fine Champagne it has to be a blend of at least 50% Grande Champagne with the rest Petite Champagne. This vineyard sourcing forms the backbone of Rémy Martin’s marketing strategy.
Some houses produce only cognac from a single cru, and sometimes just from a single estate or vineyard.
For the smaller houses, in particular, history and location can be key to individual house styles. Cognac Frapin, for instance, has been located in the heart of the Grande Champagne region for 20 generations,
Regionality, in other words, is very much at the heart of every cognac house’s philosophy.
Thirst for knowledge
So much for the realities of history and production. But do the different crus really matter to the sommelier, bartender, or consumer? Opinions within the drinks trade differ on this subject (see below).
Some think it’s easiest to concentrate on what’s in the glass; others think that outlining the source of a cognac’s grapes can be a selling point provided it’s well explained. Sceptics counter that the public are still largely brand focused and simply not ready for such in-depth knowledge. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are no simple answers.
With the vast canvas of different cognac styles and characteristics to work with there is clearly a good deal to get excited about, but there remains one inescapable truth: that the basic level of cognac education in the UK – both for trade and consumers – is generally not good, and that’s a factor when it comes to regionality.
The UK may be number four on the cognac export list, but the majority of cognac drinkers simply choose a brand they trust, rather than knowing what is actually in the bottle, where it has come from and how it has been made.
So while regionality might be a key factor when it comes to the production of cognac, until drinkers engage more with the category and there is a genuine thirst for more knowledge, these finer details in the liquid will probably remain largely unknown.
Regionality in Cognac: hit or miss?
Does regional differentiation help when it comes to actually selling the stuff?
Steve Crozier, Hawksmoor
‘Guests are still quite firmly set on brands…’
‘Guests are still firmly set on brands of cognac. When I first started bartending it was probably most bartenders’ weakest spirit category in terms of knowledge and understanding regional flavour differences, but I see a lot more bars stocking a much wider range of cognac houses now, with an emphasis on single region stuff. Most bartenders that I work with now have a good understanding of regions in cognac and how that translates into what’s in the bottle. But it is a realm that most customers haven’t quite grasped yet.’
Mickael Perron, Library Bar manager at The Lanesborough
‘I prefer to concentrate on what is in the glass…’
‘Most of the cognacs sold are blends of grape distillates from different regions, and regionality could lead to confusion, because there are many more factors that can influence the flavour profiles of cognacs. Regionality for cognacs can create expectations in terms of taste and quality, but I prefer to concentrate on what is in the glass, regardless of where the cognac has been produced.’
Naomi Schimek, Cognac Park brand ambassador and cocktail creator
‘There is an increasing demand for transparency…’
‘Customers generally don’t know the difference between the six crus – or even that they exist. Many of them don’t even know that cognac is made from grapes! But that is all slowly changing. There is an increasing demand for transparency. People want to know where their spirits come from and how they are made. More people are learning about cognac and its terroir, but we still have a long way to go.’
Agostino Perrone, master mixologist, The Connaught Bar
‘We filter the information and make it accessible to the public…’
‘Regionality is a key aspect in today’s F&B scene and consumers are interested in the provenance of a product. However, apart from a few connoisseurs, general awareness for cognac is low.
'How we position a brand to guests, the product quality and region very much influences their decision-making process. I strongly believe that, as bartenders, we are the key between the producer and consumers. We filter the information and make it accessible to the public.’
Want a cognac that captures a regional style? We’ve got ’em right here for ya...
Cognac Frapin – Château Fontpinot XO and VIP XO
Delamain Cognac – Très Vénérable
Château Montifaud – L50 Héritage Louis Vallet
Famille Estève Cognac – Très Vieille Réserve de la Famille
Camus Cognac – Borderies XO
Cognac Park – Napoleon Borderies
Cognac Leyrat – XO Vieille Réserve
Pierre Lecat Cognac – XO Memoire
André Petit Cognac – XO Très Rare
Lheraud Cognac – Vintage Bons Bois 1968
Camus Cognac – Ile de Ré Cliffside Cellar
Jean Grosperrin Cognac – Vintage 1991