“January 2020, a group of us drinks writers were packed into a little car winding its way up over the country hillside roads of the Grande Champagne region of Cognac. Its driver, XO Madame founder Irène Doreau who works for BNIC when it comes to host special visitors, apologized for the view: “Of course, the vineyards are even prettier in summer. But winter has its own poetry”. We don’t mind the lack of foliage, we’re excited to be here and eager to taste the results of past harvests.
XO Madame specialises in tours of the area showcasing everything it has to offer. In this case, we’re on an exploration of Cognac, the spirit, and our first stop is at Bourgoin, a Cognac maison that boasts its own vineyards and distils eau de vie for other houses. More recently, it has begun producing a new Cognac which bears its name, made using its own grapes. The result is delightful, and so is the discovery of a refreshing cognac-based serve consisting of equal parts Bourgoin Cognac, tonic water, and Bourgoin’s own verjus.
Rules and quirks
Bourgoin is an independent family business, with four generations having grown the grapes and produced and matured the eau de vie that becomes Cognac. While this longevity seemed remarkable to me, I would quickly learn that a fourth-generation family business here is actually quite common. Bache Gabrielsen, blending eau de vies from 80 different suppliers to create its cognacs, is also a fourth-generation family operation. Delamain, with its older, rich cognacs made exclusively from Grand Champagne grapes, has been in business for over 200 years. Frapin has been around since the 13th century. The history of the region and the spirit it produces are tied to the families and communities that have lasted here for so long.
Though Cognac uses only water, grapes, and yeast as ingredients and follows strict rules for its production, maturation, and blending, the long-lasting producers inevitably develop unique quirks that contribute to both its character and flavour. For example, at Delamain I had a chance to learn (and have a cheeky sip) of ‘les Faibles’, older Cognac (around 15% ABV) used to water down other cognacs before they are bottled. Bourgoin are creating cognacs matured in ‘microfuts’, 10 litre casks that bring increased contact between liquid and wood leading to new and unusual flavours.
Living archives and something new
Then there are the cellars. On paper, they are simply the places where the futs, the casks holding eau de vie, are stored. In reality, they serve as living archives, museums, and tasting spaces. This is especially the case with the paradis cellars containing the oldest eau de vie that every Cognac house owns. The combination of silence, light, and reverence in these spaces is not unlike being in a church. These cellars, which wildly vary in shape, size and microclimate, will hold Cognac many decades old, often nesting a collection of cobwebbed demi-johns dating all the way back to the 18th century, even when Napoleon was still alive.
The history of Cognac revolves strongly around tradition, yet it also serves as inspiration for something new. Originally founded in 2012 and located within the excellent Francois Premiere Hotel, Bar Louise is Cognac’s first proper cocktail bar, using Cognac as the foundation for its superb drinks and bringing a new exciting perspective to the spirit. For our happy group, the favourite cocktail of the night was improvised by our bartender Germain, mixing together Peach Liqueur, egg white, fresh lime juice, and VSOP Cognac. I think it will be that combination of tradition, innovation, and charming quirkiness that will ensure that cognacs remain relevant to anyone who enjoys a high-quality drink.”