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November 2009


Drunken Angels
By Baroness Sheri de Borchgrave


Every year an estimated 27 million bottles of Cognac literally vanish into thin air, evaporating from the barrel—leaving the dank cellars of the spirit's eponymous birthplace moist with what has become known as the "angel's share."

(click photo for larger view)

[Photo of 1904 Baccarat Crystal Decanter with Cognac]

On a recent tour through the region, I descended into these dark caverns where the oldest spirits, or eaux de vies, lay entombed. These Cognac crypts and "paradise" cellars hold spirits distilled as far back as the 18th century.

Cognac is made from grapes grown in the cru vineyards of the Cognac region. The white wine grapes, usually of the ugni blanc variety, undergo a double-distillation process in alembic copper stills. The resulting eau de vie, at 70 percent alcohol, is then aged in oak barrels—two years for the VS, at least four years for VSOP, and six to 20-plus years for the rare XO.

The forth annual Angel's Share auction—benefitting France's national art treasures —brought together representatives of the region's most prestigious producers. Each house offered up a rare bottle. The most visually impressive, from the house of Dupuy, came encased in a Baccarat crystal decanter designed in 1904. The lot, bid up from the enthusiastic crowd of 500 that had gathered for dinner under a massive white tent beside the Charente River, went for 2,800 Euros. Bidding for Delamain's 40-year-old bottle (estimated at 400 Euros) soared even higher, eventually netting 3,500, while Martell's donation, L'Or de Jean Martell (a limited edition of 100 in a gold-painted hand-blown crystal decanter) fetched an astounding 5,500. The feverish bidding was a testament to the allure of the world's most prestigious brown spirit.

While the wine world is inching back into the black after a recession retrenchment, Cognac sales—buoyed by the demand in urban America and a still voracious Asian market—remain as strong as ever. The strength of the spirit drove the post-auction breakfast discussion at Chateau Bagnolet, Cognac Hennessy's corporate castle where I'd slept for the night. Maurice Hennessy, my host for croissants and coffee and a direct descendant of the family that founded the brand in the 18th century, divulged that a more famous American visitor—the rapper Common—had sat in my chair just two nights before. Hennessy, like all the biggest producers, has embraced the so-called "urban market," with marketing targeting and collaborating with the hip-hop community.

China's thirst for extravagant bottles remains only slightly tempered; the smallest producers have begun to release prestige cuvées. Tesserson, which has one of the largest collections of long-aged eaux de vies, recently debuted Extreme, a rare blend sold for a cool $3,500 a pop.

After my Hennessy breakfast, I set out to explore what in the region the public can see (Chateau Bagnolet is, alas, only open for VIPs). Cognac's top houses all offer tours with tastings, and some have museums. By the end of the week I'd visited six different producers and consumed my own angel's share. It's a complex wonder, floral and fruity when young, growing rich and spicy with age. In the oldest bottles are unusual notes and aromas: fig, apricot, walnuts, candied orange, honeysuckle, even crême brulée. Among the most interesting hint, in very old Cognac, is a flavor known as rancio, which translates as "rancid" and encompasses an odd, indescribable (yet actually highly desirable) combination of marmalade, blue cheese and mushrooms.

Along with producing fine Cognac, many of the loftiest houses also have plenty of history to share. Courvoisier, in the quaint town of Jarnac, was Napoleon's Cognac. Their extensive museum houses a fine collection of Napoleonic memorabilia, including one of the emperor's hats. At Cognac Frapin, the association they're selling is to Gustave Eiffel, a good friend of the founder (box office star Gérard Depardieu is a frequent visitor). The founders of Otard, which boasts a 1,000-year-old castle that's open to all, claim Leonardo da Vinci as an original fan.

While many Cognac producers like to dwell in the past, Remy Martin, for one, puts a more modern foot forward. The venerable house has begun marketing custom machines for dispensing iced Cognac shots—a surprising new way to drink this sipping elixir. Hennessy, which holds 43 percent of the market share, has also begun promoting the idea of serving Cognac chilled.

The Cognac region's umbrella trade organization took the concept even further, encouraging a resurgence of Cognac cocktail creativity by pushing a region-wide signature drink. This Cognac Summit is a tall drink made with Cognac, Sprite, fresh ginger and cucumber. It was at the artisanal house of Cognac Ferrand that I tasted this libation. But having glimpsed all the hard work it takes to create a single dram of Cognac, I found it too sacrilegious to dilute.