Top ad area, 970 x 250 (could be anything though)

On a tour through cognac country

James Dowling
April 22, 2024
8 min

When you say “Cognac”, two things spring immediately to mind: leather-lined English gentleman’s clubs and the four dominant names in the business – Hennessy, Martell, Courvoisier and Remy Martin. Always the contrarian, I am going to avoid both the clichés and the four big boys and, instead, focus on four of the more interesting smaller players, all of whom happen to be family-owned.

But why talk about Cognac and not our own spirit, Scotch? Firstly, there is a lot less of it. The market in Scotch is around four times the size of Cognac’s, yet great Cognacs represent exceptional value – for example a single-vintage, single cask Cognac will be half the price, or less, than an equivalent single malt Scotch from the same year. Add to this the fact that Cognac is one of the most regulated drinks in the world.

For example, it must be made from a short list of grape varieties grown in a specific area of France, and then, once the grapes are harvested, the wine produced must meet several quality regulations. Then it must be distilled into spirit within a short, specified period, and this spirit must be distilled in stills of a specified size which can only be heated with a naked flame. The spirit must be distilled twice and after this second distillation must then be stored in oak casks for a specified minimum period.

What also differentiates Cognac and Scotch is that in Scotland everything is usually done completely in-house, while in Cognac you will find firms who will only grow grapes, harvest them and then sell them on to others who will then make the wine and distil it. Then there are other houses who will buy young spirits and age them, and still others who sell fully matured Cognac to the big boys so that they can blend it into their spirits to raise the quality. I know this is getting complicated, so let’s take a closer look at some of the firms, where things will become a little clearer.

Cognac Pasquet is the smallest of the houses I visited and, while it can trace its wine-growing roots back to the early 1700s, it only began to make its own Cognac around 150 years later. Currently run by Jean Pasquet and his American wife, Amy, it was one of the first houses to decide to produce only organic Cognac; making their first steps in 1993 and then applying for the certification two years later. Producing organic Cognac may seem like a very modern thing to do, but it is important to realise that for most of its history, all Cognac was organic. It wasn’t until after WW2 that widespread use of chemical fertilisers and insecticides became common practice. In 1998 the authorisation was granted and since then Pasquet Cognacs have carried the organic label. The Pasquets have around 15 hectares of vines in the heart of Cognac and do everything from creating their own natural yeast to bottling and labelling.

Distilling the wine concentrates not just the alcoholic content but also the flavours and aromas. As the different constituents of the heated wine condense at different temperatures, decisions have to be made as to when in the distilling process to begin and end saving the portion of the distillate which will, after two years in cask, officially become Cognac. This raw spirit is clear, slightly oily and very alcoholic (around 70%). It is the chemistry between this raw spirit, time and the oak casks in which it is stored that produces the final product.

Recently they have begun to buy old single casks of Cognac from small family distillers in the region and bottling them under the name “Trésors de Famille”. These Cognacs are around 40 years old, or older, and each cask produces about 500 or so bottles. Their small scale, environmental credentials and artisanal production methods place Pasquet at the other end of the scale to the four giants of the industry but mean that they are perfectly in tune with 21st century customer demands.

Distillerie de Chez Sabourin is the youngest of the operations discussed here, being only 25 years old. Originally, their principal activities were growing, pressing, distillation and aging for other producers as well as for themselves. However, in 2019 they decided to launch their own Cognac brand “Patte Blanche” or “white paw, - a metaphorical badge of identity. This was blended from spirits they had held in stock since their founding. Fortunately, the firm had made the decision to farm organically early in their existence, so all their spirits are now certified organic by the French authorities. They produce four Cognacs under their label: a VS (Very Special), which is at least two years old; a VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) at least four years old; an XO (eXtra Old) guaranteed to be ten years old, and an Extra, also at least ten years old, but with a much higher proportion of older spirits in the blend. English is used for its descriptors, rather than French, because the British Isles were, for many years, the Cognac's principal buyer. It is also worth noting that many of the Cognac houses were founded by British expatiates. Hennessy was (of course) originally Irish, as was Delamain, Martell came from the Channel Island of Guernsey, Otard from Scotland, while both Hine and Exshaw were English.

Photograph © Getty

One of the more interesting Cognac houses is Tesseron, founded at the turn of the 20th century when the founder Abel Tesseron saw that the major brands were starting to promote their XO blends and realised that they were going to need a source of high-quality vintage Cognacs for blending. So, he began to purchase old casks and demijohns from all over the region and continued to age them in his expensive cellars. For the rest of the firm’s history, they were an anonymous supplier to many of Cognac’s other houses. However, around twenty years ago, the decision was made to blend and bottle some of these extremely old Cognacs under their own name. Unlike most other houses, they produce nothing less than XO and their blends go up to one known as “Extreme”, which uses some spirits well over a century old and costs a staggering £5,000 for a 1.75 litre bottle.

Tesseron has 37 hectares of vines, in both the Grande and Petite Champagne areas. It vinifies and distils all its own grapes and stores them in humid cellars in the crypt of a 12th Century church. Cognacs age much more slowly in humid cellars, because the air is already saturated with water vapour, so almost no water can escape through the pores of the oak casks. Alcohol can evaporate freely, meaning that the alcoholic levels gradually decrease, and the spirits become softer and more mellow. The skill of a master blender is to vary the proportions of spirits not just from different ages but also from humid and dry cellars where the reverse happens, with lots of the water evaporating, thereby concentrating the alcohol and intensifying the effects of the oak on the spirit. The master blender is the single most important member of the team at any house and is usually the only individual in the firm whose name is publicised.

The largest of the four firms I had the privilege of visiting is Frapin. It was founded, in its current form, in 1870, although the Frapin family have been producing wine and spirits in the area for over 750 years. They own the largest single vineyard in all the Grande Champagne region – 240 hectares – as well as one of the most beautiful châteaux in all the area, Château Fontpinot. One branch of the family produced the famed French writer, Rabelais and, as a nod to him, the company crest is a quill pen displayed discreetly on each bottle.

Once the eaux-de-vie is distilled, Frapin places it in casks made from the famed oaks of the Limousin Forest, then, after a couple of years it is then transferred to other oak casks, which have been lightly toasted on the inside. For the rest of its life, the spirit will be moved between the firm’s humid and dry cellars until the master blender decides that it is time for the spirit to be blended. Then it’s back into another cask for more aging. Finally, one of two things happens, the master blender decides it can now be bottled and sold, or – more rarely – the spirit is decanted from the cask and placed into a glass demi-john. Once this happens, the spirit is essentially “frozen”, as, unlike wine, Cognac does not age once it is in a glass container. These demi-johns of both blended and single-vintage Cognacs are kept in a separate part of the cellars, known as a “Paradis”. They will be used, perhaps decades from now, in blending to add depth and complexity to the most desirable bottles from the house.

In the last few years big-name Cognac has become widely visible with rap stars featuring expensive bottles in their videos, while at the other end of the price spectrum, the cocktail boom has increased the demand for the younger bottles as the base for popular drinks such as the Sidecar; and all of these seem to be centred around the big brands. Nothing wrong with that but, just as in the watch industry new exciting indepedents are challenging customers to expand their horlogical horizons, maybe this piece will tempt you to look beyond the Big Four and try one of these lesser-known names instead.