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Cognac

Sometimes I do a post that I have every intention of following up on. But then, it falls through the cracks. Here is that very post:

https://teleburst.wordpress.com/2009/12/29/brandy-vs-cognac/

Last year, I wrote about brandy and cognac. I mentioned that I’d be getting a little deeper into the cognac thing, so, half a year later, here we are!

As I mentioned in that post, cognac is a subset of brandy. It’s named for a small mercantile town just north of the Bordeaux region of France. Cognac sits on the Charente River, which empties into the Bay of Biscayne at Rochefort , just north of the Gironde estuary, the site of the most fabled (if not the most “grand”) Chateaux in the world such as Margaux, Latour and Lafitte.

In the middle of the last millennium, the Charente was a somewhat significant river for shipping, sending barges laden with casks of brandy to the world and receiving spices and other exotica from around the globe. Cognac was a natural river port, but actually, the town further upstream, Jarmac, current home of Courvoisier, was on track to be the “home of cognac” that Cognac itself eventually became. According to Nicholas Faith’s great book on cognac, which, sadly, I can’t put my hands on at the moment, Jarmac was a more significant port, but a nobleman who had influence (perhaps it was Louis XIV) decided to show favor to Cognac over Jarmac (I’m going by memory here). Hence, most of the “houses”  ended up in Cognac proper, formerly a large salt distribution center. It’s quite possible that without noble intervention, we could all be drinking jarmac today.

Most people aren’t aware that cognac is like blended scotch in that most of the cognac that we consume is blended from many different barrels. Each “house” has its own flavor profile that it keeps standard through the use of the cellar master (Le Maitre de Chai – yes, it’s still very much a man’s game), but it is based on as many as a hundred different sources. There are a handful of producers that make a product similar to a single malt scotch, but they are very rare.

Cognac was designated a wine growing region on May 1, 1909. It took another 30 years for Cognac to be declared a Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) or Controlled Appellation of Origin.

The region itself is broken down by zones  which roughly correspond to the geologic tendencies. there are six such “growing areas” ranked in order of quality and considered “crus” under the AOC –  Grande Champagne (GC), Petite Champagne (PG), Borderies, Fines Bois, Bons Bois, Bois Ordinaries. Finally, there’s an oddball designation, Fine Champagne, which is a blend of the top two crus.

Don’t be confused, the word champagne has nothing to do with the bubbly chardonnay drink that we pop on special occasions. In fact, cognac must be made from at least 90%  Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanché or Colombard. 

The four predominate soil characteristics of the region are chalk, clay, limestone and sand. Each of the regions has a specific composition that sets it apart from the others. This helps distinguish the flavor profiles as much as the blending does.

Here’s a map of the region. You’ll note that it looks roughly like a target:

Map courtesy of the Borderies distillers Domaine du Buisson and can be found here:

http://www.v-c.vc/tessendierusa/domainedubuisson/index.html

This is a small distillery that blends from their own vineyards, so they are closer to the spirit of the single malt scotch distiller, although they still blend from various casks. They just don’t buy from a variety of producers like the major houses do.

Anyway, getting back to the map, you can see that the highest designation, Grande Champagne, comes from a roughly round region that would be considered the “bulls-eye”. Some call it “The Golden Circle”. This is the home of the biggest distillers and the source of the highest quality raw stock. Its soil is mostly chalk, clay and limestone. It is this composition that gives the best cognac its renown for consistent quality. However, as in the case of Domaine du Buisson, excellent cognacs can be found outside of the region, although they can be hard to find in the US. Also, there are some blends that rely on grapes from outside this region, such as Martell’s Cordon Bleu, which relies on the nutty and floral characteristics of grapes grown in Borderies.

Now that we’ve briefly discussed the regions, lets delve into the various quality designators and the production of cognac. 

First of all, you should know that if there’s an age designate, the age refers to the youngest vintage used. the minimum age requirement is two years, but this is virtually never used. Distillers usually start at 12 years and go up from there. Until it’s blended, the wine is known as eau-de-vie (waters of life). Cognac is twice-distilled, normally in pot stills, also known as alembic stills. These are onion shaped copper pots.

http://blog.cognac-expert.com/distilling-cognac-pot-still-alembic-charentais-french-alambic/

The ratio of eau-de-vie to cognac is roughly 9 to 1.

The various initials that are supposed to designate quality are sometimes confusing to the novice. The lowest quality cognac is called VS, or “very special”. I don’t know what makes it “very special”, since there’s no S rating, but there ya go. Here they are in order from bottom to top:

VS – very special. This is the “youngest” of the cognacs. Minimum age of the eau-de-vie is 2 years old.  Technically, you could have 95% of the cognac being 50 years old and only 5% 2 years old, and it would still be considered VS. Theoretically, this could be far superior and pricier than a VSOP or XO.  Obviously, a distiller would be out of his or her mind to do this. VSes are generally made from the youngest of the usable vintages. The fact that it’s the lowest designation doesn’t mean that it’s bad, just that it won’t have the distinctive and rich flavor profiles of headier blends.

VSOP – very special old pale. Sounds very British, doesn’t it? I suspect that they are responsible for the designation, especially since the acronym refers to English words. This is the next step up in quality and price. The minimum age of the  eau-de-vie is 4 years old. Generally, you’ll see the average age of the eaux-de-vie ramp up as we go up the rungs.

XO – Extra old. Minimum age is 6 years old. Now we’re talking mostly old vintages, some of which can be a half a century or more old. This is going to change to 8 years in 2016, assuring an even more exclusivity.

You also have other qualifiers. Napoleon falls somewhere between VSOP and XO. It must be as old as an XO, but presumably, the average age will be lower, so it won’t be quite as expensive as an XO, but it demands a premium above VSOP.

Hors d’âge (beyond age) is basically a premium XO.  Louis XIII de Rémy Martin and Hennessey Richard (pronounce it ri-CARD) are examples of this. For example, Louis XIII uses 1200 different eaux-de-vie, some of which are 100 years old.

Extra – older than XO, you might think of this as an XXO. This can command a premium double that of an XO.  Rémy Martin even has an “Extra Perfect” that almost  doubles the price of Extra.

There are a couple of other more obscure designations that we’ll let slide.

There is one maker who is famous for ocean maturation – Kelt. They send barrels on a 3 month tour (as opposed to the three hour tour that Gilligan and his mates made). Unlike the Skipper and Maryanne, these barrels come back at the end of their voyage. This is done to pay homage to the origins of brandy and cognac as well as possibly introduce the variations in temperature and the influence of the salty sea air.

Cognac is traditionally served in a warmed brandy snifter, although Riedel and others have designed dedicated cognac glasses that look more like larger port glasses. Warming the glass allows the aromatics to be released, giving the taster a profound nose of rich scents. Whenever I serve a cognac, I give it a little swirl on the table to encourage this aroma. there are even nice devices that perform the function of warming that you are unlikely to see in most restaurants.

Cognac should be savored at the end of a meal and not drunk in conjunction with food, although any rule can certainly be broken. If you drink cognac with savory dishes, both will suffer. I really don’t even suggest serving cognac with sweets. That’s better left to sweet dessert wines. While some drink it with various juices, if you’re going to mix them, you should stick with cheaper brandies. It’s a waste of your money and the quality of the spirit.

Well, I hope that this very large thumbnail sketch gives you a better appreciation for this fine spirit. As a waiter, you should always keep cognac in your back pocket for those guests who clearly have an eye for quality. A little prompting could add another $10 – $300 to the check and provide the guest with a taste of luxury so often lacking in today’s dining.

http://blog.cognac-expert.com/farmers-resellers-players-structure-of-cognac-business/

Brandy vs. Cognac

OK, a quick quiz:

Brandy is to Cognac as:

A. The Ku Klux Klan is to Barack Obama

B. Barack Obama is to Glenn Beck

C. The Republican Party is to Tea Baggers

The answer is: (a qualified) C.

I qualify it because I’m sure you could find a tea bagger that isn’t a Republican (I’m talking to you Mr. Independent). You might even find a Democrat or two that is a tea bagger (in a political sense, of course).

But, sweeping politics aside, basically, all Cognacs are brandies, while only a subset of brandy is Cognac. Armagnac is also a brandy, but it is produced in the Armagnac region instead of the Cognac region (it lies just south of Cognac).

So…what is a brandy?

The word comes to us from the Dutch word for “burned wine” – Brandewijn. The Dutch discovered that if they distilled wine, they reduced the volume so they didn’t have to pay as much tax when they shipped it from place to place.

Societies had been distilling wine since pre-Christ times, but the Dutch perfected the process to save some tariffs. They intended to turn it back somewhat into wine by adding water (and volume) at the final destination, but discovered that the product was good on its own (it developed character from the wooden barrels that it was transported in, much as a great Bourbon or Scotch gets its character from barrel aging).

“Burned” came from the distillation process.

Brandy is called Brandwein in Germany (“burned wine) and eau de vie in France. Kir is cherry brandy (not to be confused with Kir, the cocktail). Slivovitch comes from the Slavs and Metaxas comes from Greece (it’s a brandy hybrid, if you want to be precise). Some people even call Calvados ‘brandy” even though it’s an apple-based distilled spirit, instead of grape spirits. In fact, many brandies are adulterated after the fact by the maceration of various fruits, although Calvados replaces grapes with apples, while other brandies take the maceration route.

Basically, you can consider brandy a distilled grape product. This means that grappa is technically a brandy as well.

Think of Cognac and Armangac as brandies with pedigrees. Armangac is usually more “rustic” and rough-hewn than Cognac. This is due to a slightly different process and a different geographic influence.

This is only an overview. later, we’ll get into such things as XO, VSOP, etc. In the meantime, Google is your friend…

The famous Louis XIII from Rémy Martin. Nicknamed “Louis Trey”, it’s a blend of 1200 different Cognacs, aged from 40 to 100 years and offered up in a Baccarat crystal bottle worth $100. It’s traditional in restaurants that serve this precious liquid that the person who orders the last glass from the bottle gets the bottle as a gift. A single serving of this usually runs around $150, and the smart restaurant performs a bit of ceremony when they serve it.

Quick tip

Yesterday’s quick tip was about being careful to reprint checks. I can hear some of you newbies ask, “Why would you have to reprint a check up to three times if you print a check right before dessert? Wouldn’t the most you would have to reprint it is one time, assuming that they got dessert”?

Well, a good waiter never assumes that they’re finished. Yeah, yeah, I know that most of the time, you’re hoping that they’re going to leave quickly so that you can get another table. And it’s true, in the middle of the rush, sometimes rather than up-selling, you downplay dessert.

However, there are plenty of times when the “dessert course” can mean a significantly bigger check, especially if you’re in a more upscale establishment (I know that most newbies won’t be in such a place, but you should still understand that there are times when what you sell post-entree can raise your check significantly).

There have been times when I’ve asked before they order dessert whether they want coffee and they say no. Then I bring the dessert and halfway into dessert, they realize that they need coffee. So I ring up coffee (printing the check and discarding the previous check that I’ve already printed) and go get it for them. Then, because I had already previously asked them if they wanted Bailey’s with their coffee or port, one or two of them decides that Bailey’s would be nice when the coffee hits the table. So I bring the Bailey’s, having to reprint the check and discarding the old one while I do it. Then I get back to the table and someone decides that port would be nice. So the reprinting check thing happens again. And, as I think I’m finished for sure, two of them decide to cap off the meal with cognac.

Of course, I don’t mind all of this grand desserting because they’re one of my later tables and the bill has just risen by an extra $60.

When I get a table that starts doing this, I get back into the selling mode, even if it’s in the middle of a rush, depending on how I’ve read the table during the meal. That’s because, in my current restaurant, you never know where it’s going to end. One of my fellow servers thought they were finished with a deuce when the two businessmen decided to have two glasses of Louis XIII, or as we like to call it in the business, Louis Trey. Those two glasses of cognac are $150 a piece. His deuce, an already nice deuce at $300, doubled instantly. And they never would have done it had he not suggested it and sold it as an experience, even though he thought they were through. He just had a feeling about them based on their demeanor and how they had been ordering through the meal and he rolled the dice. He never gave up on them. and he got a great $120 tip instead of a really nice $60 one.

I realize that many of you don’t have those kind of selling opportunities. But most of you can upsell things like Bailey’s and Frangelico with coffee. This should be SOP for you. If a table has been drinking any type of alcohol, you should always solicit at least Bailey’s when you solicit coffee. It can mean an extra $20 on your check if you sell two or three of them. and hell, they’re going to have coffee anyway, right? Might as well  make it a $10 coffee instead of a $3 one.

Obviously, you don’t want to build your check by $20 and lose a turn, because that can cost you another $60 table. So you should be aware when you should and shouldn’t be somewhat aggressive about up-selling the dessert course. Just don’t get in the habit of automatically going into down-selling mode when you pick up the entree plates because you want to get them on their way so that you can get your next table. You just never know. Pick your times and places and then go for it. Don’t forget that a grand dessert finish to a meal will leave the guest with the ultimate dining experience and might very well be reflected in your tip percentage.

Louis XIII

Louis Trey, baby.