August 06, 2015
Cru Cuts: The Legacy of Hennessy Cognac
You’d never know it was an unusually warm October day from the depths of Hennessy’s Founder’s Cellar, where my skin prickled in the damp darkness—not just from the sacred chill in the air, but also from the secrets that I was uncovering in the heart of France’s Cognac region.
I had been given permission to view one of the region’s most prized cognac crypts, which hid the lives of eaux-de-vie from centuries ago. Some slept in rows of weathered oak barrels nearly 200 years old, each breath contributing to their age with every passing season. Others dozed in rotund, wicker-encased demijohns known as Dames Jeannes, which suspended their age like glass time capsules.
As one of France’s oldest and most successful cognac houses, Hennessy is the world’s largest producer of cognac. The brand is also the best-selling cognac in the United States, where it owns a 55% share of the market. Eight generations of Hennessys have overseen the brand, along with seven generations of master blenders from the Fillioux family. As a result, the company prides itself on its consistency of taste, quality, and style. All VS must taste like the previous bottling of VS, while all VSOP must taste like previous VSOP, and so on. This is quite a difficult task considering each bottling contains 100s of different eaux-de-vie from various vineyards and distillers.
Originally built as a potter’s storage facility in 1774, Hennessy’s Founder’s Cellar is reserved solely for the company’s finest and oldest eaux-de-vie. As the single most important ingredient in cognac’s recipe, eau-de-vie is made by distilling wine twice in an alembic pot still. After coming to rest in a Limousin oak barrel, the eau-de-vie may lie in wait for over a century before being selected for one of Hennessy’s esteemed cognacs. If you’re lucky, you may sample one of these ancestor eau-de-vie in a special, limited-edition release, such as the company’s namesake cognac, Richard Hennessy, which is infused with eau-de-vie aged up to 200 years. Releases like these tend to be an excellent investment for cognac collectors who clamber to obtain the scarce and exceptional.
Last year, an exceedingly rare bottle of 1762 Gautier cognac fetched nearly $60,000 at an auction through Bonhams. The slightly misshapen, hand-blown glass bottle was “coated in cellar grime,” according to Bonhams’ auction remarks, which also noted that “no alcohol content [was] indicated” on the hand-written label. The question was whether the buyer had purchased the vintage cognac as a showpiece or to create a once-in-a-lifetime drinking experience that he would enjoy with friends. Either would be a testament to the dedication and desires of the proud cognac collector.
While Asia has seen a recent decline in cognac imports, sales grew significantly in the U.S. in 2014, where the category rose 12% in volume and total exports equaled 59.9m bottles. But “volume” and “exports” don’t tend to matter to most cognac collectors, who instead focus on expanding their own collections with rare, limited-edition releases that are unlikely to attract the average consumer.
As far as cognac’s concerned, age is its greatest triumph. As it rests in the barrel, a cognac’s complexity and character develop steadily over time as floral and fruit aromas intensify and tannins become soft and supple. This is why mature cognacs are a great draw for earnest collectors who realize the depth of character that can reside within the bottle.
After returning to the welcome warmth of the bright October sunshine, we headed Hennessy’s Le Peu vineyard to catch a glimpse of the season’s last grapes being harvested and fermented. Approximately 79,000 hectares of vineyards are grown in the Cognac AOC, which is the second largest wine region in France after Bordeaux. The area lies 100 miles north of Bordeaux in the Charente and Charente-Maritime districts, which can be subdivided into six crus: Grande Champagne (not to be confused with the Champagne wine region), Petit Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires (or Bois à Terroir).
Today, Hennessy was processing Ugni Blanc grapes, which would eventually be distilled into eau-de-vie after fermentation. As the bladder press hummed, I was offered a sample of the freshly fermented wine. Cold and sharp, it made my mouth sting with acidity. As a result of its light body and high acid content, Ugni Blanc (also known as Trebbiano) makes excellent eau-de-vie that is primed for aging. Prior to phylloxera, the devastating aphid that destroyed nearly 6.2 million acres of French vineyards in the mid 19th century, cognac was made primarily with Folle Blanche grapes. Complex growing issues led farmers to replant their vineyards with Ugni Blanc once the blight was over, and today it’s Cognac’s most plentiful grape.
There are some, however, who believe that Folle Blanche produced cognac that was far superior than Ugni Blanc. And as a result, there has been a recent surge in collectors seeking vintage bottles from the pre-phylloxera era.
“Very old cognac has an undeniable cult following amongst educated collectors,” says David Nathan-Maister who sells 18th and 19th century cognac through the French company, Finest and Rarest. “Some people get obsessed with it because Folle Blanche creates a cognac that is much more nuanced.”
Fortunately, the spirit’s high alcohol content acts as a life-preserver, which means it’s much less likely to spoil that its undistilled cousin, wine.
“You can expect an old cognac to taste between very good and mind-blowing, as long as it’s been stored properly,” adds Maister.
Hennessy’s 500 acres of Ugni Blanc are distilled into only one percent of the eaux-de-vie they require. So, the rest is sourced from 1700 additional growers, winemakers, and distillers throughout Cognac’s top four crus. This allows the blending team to have more flexibility when creating the perfect cognac, as they’re able to source eaux-de-vie with a wide range of aromas, flavors, and mouth-feel.
Of course, obtaining superb eaux-de-vie is only part of the cognac-making process. Sourcing high quality oak barrels that will be used to age the precious eaux-de-vie is another. At Hennessy, barrels are purchased primarily from Taransaud Tonnellerie, a former subsidy of Hennessy.
On the morning of my visit to Hennessy’s cooperage where barrels arrive for mending and fine-tuning, a host of highly skilled coopers were hard at work. Braced stiffly to support themselves from the physical challenges of the craft, the coopers shaped the bare bones of barrels—staves, hoops, heads, and rivets—while standing amongst soft curls of wood shavings.
The head cooper handed me a metal hoop the size of an extra-large pizza and asked me to build the “barrel rose” by precisely lining up a number of staves inside the ring. I quickly learned that this is not a feat for the clumsy. Once the staves were in place, the cooper went to work building what looked like a roaring bonfire in the middle of the room. With brute strength, he turned the splayed barrel on its end and placed it down over the fire. Sparks tumbled into the air as bright flames licked the interior surface of the oak. The heat would be used not only to manipulate the barrel’s shape, but also to toast its interior, which adds structure and flavor to the eau-de-vie that would eventually age within.
Once the eau-de-vie has been aged, it awaits the verdict of Yann Fillioux. For seven generations, the Fillioux family has been working with Hennessy to perfect the art of blending eau-de-vie. Today, Yann Fillioux reigns as Hennessy’s master blender, a role he began training for at the age of 19. Now 68, Fillioux rises each morning to meet with Hennessy’s Comité de Dégustation (tasting committee) to sample and blend hundreds of eaux-de-vie that will eventually become the brand’s best-selling cognacs.
“Hennessy is all about continuity of quality,” says Fillioux. “It’s important that we prepare for the next generation of cognacs by choosing eau-de-vie that will age well into the future.”
One of a master blender’s greatest skills is to recreate the flavor profile of a historic cognac utilizing a completely new set of eaux-de-vie. Recently, Fillioux recreated the bespoke Hennessy cognac that was presented to the Imperial Russian Tsar Alexander I in 1818. Originally created by Fillioux’s great great grandfather, Alfred Fillioux, the historic cognac has been reborn as Hennessy’s highly collectible Paradis Impérial. Featuring a blend of more than 100 eaux-de-vie aged up to 130 years, the cognac resides inside a Baccarat crystal decanter with a collar made of silver and 18-carat gold.
As the sun began to reflect its retiring flames onto the Charente river, I arrived at Château de Bagnolet, Hennessy’s historic estate near the town of Cognac. Built in 1810, the pristine white mansion echoed the architecture of colonial Louisiana. Inside, crimson red wallpaper wrapped the main sitting room like a present, while clapboard windows opened onto chestnut trees and lavender. Tonight we were celebrating the approach of Hennessy’s 250th anniversary, and eighth generation host Maurice Hennessy was beaming with pride.
“I used to think I was going to be a farmer,” he told me, his eyes twinkling. “But my uncle persuaded me to work for the family business. I think I made the right decision.”
FIVE COGNACS TO COVET:
Pierre Ferrand Collection Privée 1914
In 1914, when many men left home to fight World War I, the women of Grand Champagne joined together distill the wine that had been made earlier in the year. After aging in Limousin casks and resting in demijohns for nearly a century, the resulting cognac became Pierre Ferrand Collection Privee 1914. Each bottle is numbered and signed by the cellar master and includes a certificate of authenticity countersigned by an officer of justice. ($1500, 750 ml)
Cognac Frapin Cuvée 1888
A spiral of 24-carat gold thread embraces the stunning decanter of Cognac Frapin Cuvée 1888, a cognac that was created to honor the company’s esteemed founder, Pierre Frapin. A selection of very old eaux-de-vie from Grand Champagne were blended to produce only 1888 bottles of this limited-edition cognac, which features a high proportion of Folle Blanche. ($6000, 700 ml)
Rémy Martin Louis XIII Black Pearl Anniversary Edition
In 1874, the House of Rémy Martin pioneered the super-premium cognac category by releasing Louis XIII, an exceptional cognac that gained worldwide recognition at the Paris World Fair in 1900. In celebration of the blend’s 140th anniversary, Rémy Martin has released 775 individually numbered bottles of Louis XIII Black Pearl Anniversary Edition, a blend of nearly 1,200 eaux-de-vie sourced from Grand Champagne that range from 40 to 100 years old. (Average price: $25,000, 750 ml)
Chapters of Ampersand Et. No 1
A collaboration between Tiffon Cognac, Master Blender Folke Andersson, and Swedish crystal artist Göran Wärff resulted in Chapters of Ampersand Et No 1, a striking piece of art and luxury. A blend of Grand Champage eaux-de-vie from 1974 and 1943 has been combined with pre-phylloxera cognac from 1870 to create only 300 bottles of this collector’s item. Each bottle is numbered and signed and includes a certificate of origin. ($8395, 750 ml)
Hennessy 250 Collector Blend
In 2015, Hennessy will celebrate its 250th anniversary with the limited release of Hennessy 250 Collector Blend. Master Blender Yann Fillioux and his dedicated tasting committee created the perfect marriage of approximately 100 eaux-de-vie that were aged in 250 barrels (that held 250 liters each) beneath the banks of the river Charente. ($600, 750 ml)