You know you’ve got a good seminar on your hands when David Wondrich drops by and decides he wants to sit in on the panel–and first thing on a New Orleans Saturday morning at that. Such was the (wonderous) state of affairs at Cognac Ferrand’s Tales session, An Exclusive Tasting of Rare Pierre Ferrand Cognacs. Of all the offerings at Tales this year, Ferrand’s was the only one I purchased a ticket for in advance, rather than depending on my trusty media credentials and the standby line. Surprised? Read on.
In the world of distilled spirits, Cognac falls into the brandy category–that is, distilled spirits made from fruit. To be called Cognac, it must be the following: made from a specific types of grapes, grown in a specific region of France, and distilled in pot stills. It also must be aged for a minimum amount of time in in French oak barrels from the Limousin or Tronçais regions. These regulations are stylistically similar to regulations for bourbon and single malt Scotch whisky, creating a minimum-quality bar and preventing just any old grape-based spirit from being labeled Cognac and passed on to the unsuspecting consumer.
With all the relatively recent focus on age statements and regulations for single malt Scotch whisky and bourbon, people seem to have forgotten (or never knew) that Cognac producers had similar labeling protections decades earlier, in the early 1900s. And today you can still enjoy those Cognacs made so many years ago.
Cognac as a category is being pulled in several directions these days. First is the (presumably) dwindling number of vintage cognac aficionados – cue images of smoking jackets and cigars by the fire. Second is the craft cocktail movement that’s rediscovering it as a classic ingredient. And finally, Cognac’s long association with luxury and sophistication has triggered celebrity endorsements by hip-hop artists like Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, Ludacris, and Snoop Dog who promote it as a lifestyle spirit. Rest assured, the Cognacs in Ferrand’s session here at Tales are unequivocally in the first category: Extremely vintage, no mixing or beatz in sight.
Internationally acclaimed wine expert and author Doug Frost moderated the session. This makes perfect sense, as what is Cognac if not distilled French wine? The scents and flavors of wine carry into the Cognac distilled from it, so a wine expert is a fine choice to speak about Cognac. Joining Doug was Alexandre Gabriel, the CEO of Cognac Ferrand and Plantation Rum. Although not listed on the official program as a panelist, spirits writer extraordinaire David Wondrich showed up to provide color commentary throughout the session. David is a longtime collaborator with Alexandre, helping with the development of products like Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, Plantation Stiggin’s Fancy, and the recently released Plantation O.F.T.D Overproof rum.
The session was similar in format to a session Alexandre did at Tales last year with Plantation Rums. The idea: Alexandre scours the aging cellars at the Ferrand estate in the Cognac region, selecting rare and exotic expressions, and carrying a bottle’s worth of each to New Orleans. Part spirits tasting, part education, and part Plantation infomercial, the sessions are limited to twenty people and tickets aren’t cheap. But those with the foresight to grab tickets as soon as they go on sale are rewarded with a truly unique opportunity that induces stratospheric levels of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) in their friends.
Rather than just diving into tasting the Cognacs, our session started with Cetacean Punch, a special recipe of David’s utilizing green tea, lemon juice, Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, Batavia arrack, oleo saccharum, and ambergris (i.e. secretions from the intestinal tract of a whale). Yes, you read that correctly. It’s classy. And it seems this wasn’t first time David has used Ambergris.
Doug kicked off the formal part of the presentation by laying down the foundation of Cognac – its history and production method, with particular emphasis on the specific region of France where it originates and the grape varietals used. Alexandre took over from there, focusing on the aging and blending process, both of which are far more complicated and labor intensive than you might imagine. It’s not at all just dumping new-make Cognac into a barrel and letting it sit for three, ten, or even thirty years. Rather, the aging team samples each barrel at least every few months and makes adjustments, perhaps replacing a stave, moving it to a warehouse with different humidity, and so forth.
I can’t begin to recount everything that Doug, Alexandre, and David spoke of, but here are some of the highlights that I noted:
- Within the Cognac region, there are two sub-regions, Grand Champagne and Petite Champagne. However, neither is where the bubbly champagne originates. The word “champagne” derives from campaign, as in a military campaign waged over the rolling hills of the countryside.
- The Cognac production area was defined in 1909. The six appellations are Grande, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois à Terroirs.
- The large amount of limestone in the Cognac region soil makes for high-acid wines, which are ideal for making flavorful brandy.
- Before the advent of steel tanks, refrigeration, and fast travel times, you couldn’t get fresh wine flavors unless you lived in a winemaking region and consumed the liquid within a few weeks of it being made. Distilling wine to make Cognac was a way to preserve fresh wine flavors.
- Cognac stills must be heated by direct fire. No steam heating, as is the norm in Scotch whisky.
- The regulatory board for Cognac reviews the rules every thirty years and makes adjustments.
- The aging process is the reverse of distillation – you keep what doesn’t evaporate.
- There was quite a bit of discussion about rancio and the various types (levels) that evolve the longer the spirt ages in a barrel. Rancio is a particular set of flavors that only emerge after decades of aging. Early on (e.g. after twenty years), it typically has floral and nutty notes. Decades later, spices and tobacco emerge. And around fifty years, overripe fruit and polished leather come to the front.
- It’s possible to overage a Cognac, which is why barrels are constantly monitored. When the contents are deemed to be the best they can be, the contents are transferred to glass demijohns, which halts aging and preserves the flavor and alcohol content. Another reason to halt aging is if the barrel contents get close to the minimum allowed ABV of 40 percent. Generally speaking, a spirit’s ABV drops over time in the barrel, the result of ethanol evaporation.
- The collection of glass demijohns with fully aged Cognac is held an area colloquially known as “Paradise.” Two tickets to Paradise, please.
(Editorial aside: In the whisky and rum world, we tend to lose our collective cookies and pay crazy amounts of money and attention to spirits aged thirty, forty, or fifty years. Yet in the Cognac world, expressions with equivalent years in wood are substantially less expensive. More about this in a moment.
Our tasting featured six expressions, all of the Grande Champagne variety:
Sauterne cask finished: A most unusual Cognac due to secondary casking in barrels that previously held sauternes, a sweet French wine. Until very recently, it was assumed that a secondary casking prevented the spirit from being labeled Cognac. However, Alexandre said his careful review of previous regulations never specifically enacted such a restriction. A blend of vintages, aged for eight years in Limousin oak and ex-sauternes casks, 43 percent. Side note: Approximately 2,300 bottles of this expression should be coming to the U.S.
1975 vintage: Aged for forty years in medium-toast Limousin, 44.9 percent.
1973 vintage: Aged for forty-two years in medium-toast Limousin, 44.4 percent.
1972 vintage: Aged for forty-three years in medium-toast Limousin in a humid cellar, 43.4 percent.
1969 vintage: Aged for forty-six years in Limousin, 43.9 percent.
1914 vintage: Aged for seventy-two years in Limousin, 40.2 percent.
Yes, you read that last entry correctly. Distilled more than a hundred years ago, and aged for 72 years. In 1987 it was transferred to a glass demijohn for storage. Ferrand’s web site tells its compelling story, quoted here:
In the winter of 1914, when their husbands had gone off to defend their country in World War I, the women of a little village in Grande Champagne got together to distill the wine made from the grapes harvested a few months earlier. This became the legendary Pierre Ferrand Vintage 1914. Aged in Limousin oak casks for many decades, the spirit was then carefully transferred into a few demijohns where it remained for many years until it was bottled by Cognac Ferrand.
Alexandre also mentioned that there are only around 200 bottles of this 1914 expression left. A quick search online shows it’s available for around U.S. $1,500, which seems like a crazy bargain when you consider how much an equivalent bottle of single malt Scotch whisky costs. For instance, a seventy year aged Glenlivet goes for approximately U.S. $23,000.
No detailed tastings notes to be had from the session here–there was simply too much to absorb. Each Cognac was wonderful and easily differentiated from the others, even with only a year’s difference between the 1972 and 1973. That’s a huge testament to the effect that different growing seasons and barrels have on the end result. No two barrels affect the spirit in the exact same way, which is why the cellar masters like Alexandre are constantly evaluating and changing conditions for the aging spirit.
While it was thrilling to savor and enjoy the 1914 while thinking about its history, my personal favorite was the 1969. Unfortunately, unlike the 1914 vintage, the 1969 doesn’t appear to be readily available at the moment. Perhaps this means that I will need to visit Cognac Ferrand’s Paradise and see if I can find a few precious drops to savor. Until that happens, I’ll have my great memories of this event at Tales to keep my inner Cognac flame alive.