The art of Cognac hinges on blending

The impressive array of samples available to the master blender at Frapin.

 

Blending is the art of combining Cognacs of different ages and origins in order to produce the highest level of harmony in the finished product. It also enables each brand to craft its own distinctive style which the cellar master should be able to reproduce. We went to check the premise out. 

Every part of Cognac is conducive to blending. Differing, yet well identified vineyard sites – even though the boundaries can occasionally shift – brandies kept in barrels for decades in sometimes dry, sometimes damp cellars, and endless possibilities for combining these ingredients. It would be a crying shame not to use every key on the metaphorical piano, but one essential parameter needs to be factored into the equation: it is all very well running the full gamut, but the same tune has to be replicated over and over again. At the major Cognac houses, the cellar masters are true virtuosos and they played us their scores fortissimo.

 

Hardy: The significance of provenance

 

For cellar master and blender Michael Bouilly, the provenance of the brandy is the number one factor. “There is a huge difference between a batch that has been bought and one that has been distilled by the company. In the first instance, we cannot undo what has been done in terms of ageing. In the second, on the other hand, we have complete control over this factor. For instance, to produce an XO, we don’t put the Cognac in new casks for 10 or 15 years, because oak influence would be too pronounced, whereas we could do that for a VS or a VSOP which will be blended and bottled quicker. We might also use larger containers of up to 560 or 600 litres which promote faster ageing than a 350-litre cask”. The other important aspect is what Michael refers to as ‘flavour enhancers’. “These are very concentrated ‘correcting’ brandies that have been matured several times in a row in new casks to add the flavour of mature Cognac to the blend. They are used at low doses and help maintain a consistent flavour in the various qualities”. Then there is alcohol reduction, used to bring alcohol content down to 41 or 42° proof. “It needs to be done gradually by adding weaker brandies and not suddenly at the end of the Cognac’s life in casks. Otherwise, it becomes less homogenous and takes on the typical fiery flavour of alcohol”. You quite naturally come to realise that reduction – which is very little mentioned – is also an integral part of blending.

 

Frapin: Small-scale vineyards but large-scale quality! 

Deputy managing director Patrice Piveteau, who runs virtually everything from the vineyard through to the bottle at Frapin, has a lovely way of describing the company’s approach: “Right from the word go, we control the entire contents of the balloon glass, because the major difference between us and other Cognac firms is that we own 240 hectares of vines in the heart of Grande Champagne”. He immediately weighs his words, though, by adding: “Conversely, I don’t have variable sourcing in the growths. To produce a fairly broad-ranging array of Cognacs, I rely on different styles of maturation, using new oak to varying degrees and cellars that are either dry or humid, for instance. This grid forms the basis of blending for Frapin Cognacs”.

The subsequent challenge is to replicate the style of each quality from one year to the next using inventories from different harvests that evolve differently depending on countless factors. Patrice Piveteau draws on his expertise, his experience and also his perfect knowledge of his inventories. As he points out: “Blending is not just about combining the very good batches – that would be too easy. You have to find the right balance, the alchemy that enables each component part to reveal itself without relying too heavily on one at another’s expense. That’s where the real complexity lies!” For reduction, Frapin does not use weaker brandies. Reduction is integrated into the entire blending process by using demineralised water sometimes very early on, or even several times for a batch of the same provenance in order to provide an extra palette of flavours. The more keys there are on the piano, the greater the chance of the melody finding favour with the audience!

Chairman Thomas Gonon introduces us to the company: “The brand was established in 1987 by Alain Royer who had just left Cognac Louis Royer after it was bought by Japanese group Suntory. It is now controlled by the Russian spirits distribution firm, Aroma”. The cellar master and winemaker Veaceslav Olaru joins us. Born in Moldova, he studied oenology, majoring in dark spirits. He joined the company in 2010 as head of the laboratory and became cellar master at the start of 2011. The company’s configuration is quite unusual. Due to lack of space, the brandies are matured outside the facilities by service providers then blended on site and reduced using demineralised water in at least three stages. Depending on the qualities, blending is based on a fusion of different growths: “For the Sélection we use all the growths, but mostly Fins Bois aged for 2 to 8 years. The Supérieur is a Fine Champagne (Grande and Petite Champagne with at least 50% of Grande) incorporating batches aged between 4 and 12 years old. The XO is also a Fine Champagne with brandies between 10 and 25 years old, and the Extra is 100% Grande Champagne aged for between 12 and 35 years. The range is consistent and in keeping with Cognac conventions. Depending on the label, the blend also includes 0.8 to 1% sugar syrup and a minute percentage of caramel, most notably for the Chinese market. The brandies are then homogenised in tanks for 3 to 12 months depending on the qualities. The final stage involves cold treatment and filtering with another month’s rest in tanks before bottling.

 

Meukow: Feline Cognacs

Anne Sarteaux, the cellar master at Meukow, likes to describe her Cognacs as powerful and supple, just like the panther featuring on the labels. 

Cellar master Anne Sarteaux reveals some the company’s secrets: “Our sourcing mainly involves brandies aged 0 to 4 years old that come from our partner companies who are familiar with the style and standards of our brand. We then continue the ageing process in our cellars so that maturation matches the different qualities”. To achieve this, Anne can tweak various aspects, starting with the choice of storage cellar for the casks: “We are fortunate in that we have several maturation sites with different characteristics. In the dry cellars, the brandy loses less alcohol content, whereas in humid cellars, it tends to become mellower”. The brandies are therefore moved between the cellars depending on how they evolve.

 

For all of its blends, the company users flavour enhancers, i.e. inventories of different Cognacs depending on the qualities (VS, VSOP, XO…) that are specially prepared to be added in varying amounts to each blend. Distilled water is added to reduce alcohol content and is added gradually during the ageing process at varying rates depending on the qualities (VS, VSOP, XO). Once again, Anne likes to be very specific: “It must be as slow as possible. After each reduction, standing time is required so that the Cognac retains complexity and finesse. This is a key stage. At Meukow, we have different reduction techniques depending on the quality of the brandies and their final destination. The aim is to preserve a consistent style…whilst aiming for optimum quality. The Meukow Cognac that was enjoyed yesterday must taste the same as today’s and tomorrow’s. This implies impeccable balance between powerfulness and suppleness, mirroring our emblem – the panther”.

 

Hennessy: Methodical with in-depth knowledge of inventories

The undisputed leader of the Cognac market has a very precise, codified concept of blending. Benoît Gindraud, a member of the tasting panel and head of Maturation and Cooperage, expounds further: “First of all, approximately two thirds of our supplies come from new brandies and batches no more than 2 or 3 years old. This allows us to ascertain their profile from the outset and place them in the best ageing conditions possible”. 

Blending really starts – or at least the preparatory stages start – with the annual tasting of each batch of stock! Every brandy is gauged, scored and commented on until it reaches its peak. When this occurs, the batch is naturally directed towards a quality that matches its age to be blended as VS, VSOP or XO. The company’s mantra is that blending must allow each batch to contribute to quality and add something. Benoît Gindraud continues: “This is why we do a first round of blending by pre-blending brandies with an average age of 15 to 25 years. For an XO, for example, each initial blend is then blended with at least four or five others”. And that’s not the end of it. The batch then undergoes a ‘consolidation’ phase in casks, usually for at least 20 months. Four or five flights of ‘consolidated’ brandies are subsequently blended to produce the final blend. “Ultimately, this means that a Hennessy XO may be made from an original 500 batches, obviously in very variable quantities”.

 

Counter examples

 

Every theory carries within it the seeds of its opposite. Why should all Cognacs be derived from a skilful blend of hundreds of batches of differing origins? In fact, this is an impossible task for a wine grower owning a few unbroken hectares. So we went off in search of some unconventional brands that have chosen to go down a different route, more suited to their resources and their desires. We found the following two. Bourgoin Cognac, embodied by Frédéric, is located in the village of Tarsac, which is part of Saint-Saturnin near Angoulême. The present-day estate stretches over the Petite Champagne and Fins Bois growths but Frédéric focuses on the Premiers Bois site, a minute growth with sub-soils from the Cretaceous period that was left off the Cognac appellation map in 1909. Here, the Cognacs come as they are, in other words, they are not blended, filtered, coloured (by adding caramel) or sweetened (with added sugar). They are hand bottled by vintage, vineyard and cask and old vintages are always marketed with their original alcohol content. The results are astounding, a far cry from classic conventions and more akin to the world of whisky. Frédéric also happens to be a very genuine and likeable chap too!!

 

Raison personnelle : Bertrand de Witasse in front of his wood-fired pot still

Raison Personnelle is a similarly offbeat brand. Its name stems from the fact that in 1994, Sabine and Bertrand de Witasse chose to leave Paris and their very well-paid jobs to become wine growers in the Charentes region. They now farm 20 hectares of vines in the village of Angeac-Champagne in Grande Champagne. They have learnt everything from vines, spraying, diseases and soil types to wine making, distillation and maturation, as well as keeping accounts and dealing with the never-ending flow of paperwork… They have become seasoned winemakers and distillers, and the proud owners of two Charentes pot stills, one of which dates back to 1935 and still runs on a wood fire – a challenging technique that Bertrand has mastered to near perfection. The Cognacs mirror their owners, starting with their names: 1.1, 1.2 and 2.0, a nod to their former profession. One important detail is that they are distilled using wood and aged to the sound of Rock ‘n’ Roll!

 

 

They usually stem from four years of distillation – 1996, 1997, 2000 and 2002 depending on the current labels – and are genuine, robust Cognacs not lacking in finesse or authenticity. Their complex, mature aromatics are coupled with a pleasant saline touch. They may well be boutique-scale Cognacs, but their offbeat style, supported by the unfailing enthusiasm of Sabine and Bertrand, most certainly makes them memorable.

 

By Sylvain Patard – Photographs: Courtesy of the estates – Frédéric Comet