Wine Openers: Introduce yourself to cognac
Cognac seems a stranger to many wine drinkers, but with Edesia — A Palisade Culinary Wine and Spirits Adventure set for Sunday at the Wine Country Inn, now is the perfect time for a formal introduction.
All Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac. Brandy can be made from any fruit grown anywhere. Cognac, however, is made only from select grapes grown in the Cognac region of western France.
While every Cognac maker has his or her own theories of where to grow the best grapes, Cognac maker Rémy Martin (officially The House of Remy Martin), the presenting sponsor of Edesia, uses grapes only from two respected growing regions: the Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne areas.
It is said that Cognacs from these regions (there are six sub-regions in Cognac) have a more refined taste and texture, thanks to the terroir, including an even climate and soils rich in limestone and chalk.
Cognac begins as a thin, acidic white wine made principally from the Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano in Italy) grape. It’s not a table wine. It is made specifically for distilling into brandy and Cognac.
It’s said that Cognac is distinguished from the rest of the brandies by its grapes, the twice-over distillation process, barrel aging and the blending skills of the cellar master.
The unfiltered white wine is distilled twice in copper stills (Italy’s grappa sees a similar process), with only the best of the first distillation making it into the second. This process takes 24 hours and results in “eaux-de-vie,” the waters of life.
The distiller’s primary chore, based on generations of secrets, is to know when to select the heart of this second distillation, extracting the “head” (too alcoholic) and the “tail” (lacking harmony) in the process.
This part of the distiller’s role has often been compared to that of an alchemist, of turning the colorless, highly alcoholic distillate into the final golden liquid.
It is such a pivotal and celebrated role, only a few, select people ever become cellar masters.
Pierrette Trichet is Remy Martin’s current cellar master, only the fourth person, and the first woman, to fill the company’s cellar master role in a century.
“Releasing the aromatic heart of the Fine Champagne cognac is my life’s work,” Trichet is quoted on the Remy Martin website (http://www.remymartin.com).
By French law, the 70-percent alcohol eaux-de-vie must be aged in French oak barrels made of aged Troncais or Limousin oak. Remy Martin prefers Limousin oak because the oak’s cell structure provides a desired interplay between eaux-de-vie, air and wood. Some of Remy Martin’s blends use 100-year-old eaux-de-vie.
Oxidation while in the barrels gives Cognac its characteristic color and flavors but also results in up to 60 percent loss, which is why nine liters of wine are needed to make one liter of cognac.
After aging, Cognac is bottled and graded, a system begun in 1865 by Maurice Hennessey.
The grades include: VS — Very Special (or three star), aged for a minimum of three years; VSOP — Very Superior Old Pale (or five star), minimum aging for five years; and XO — Extra Old (or Napoleon) aged for six or more years.
You can serve VS or VSOP Cognac in blended drinks (fruit juices, tonic, soda) but the preferred way to serve the better Cognacs is neat, no ice or water, in a medium wine glass.
Finally, despite a sagging global economy, worldwide sales of cognac hit record highs in 2011, according to the Bureau National Interprofessional du Cognac.
Consumers purchased 162.9 million bottles of Cognac in 2011, equal to more than five bottles each second.
Information about Edesia — 1–5 p.m. Sunday at Wine County Inn, tickets $49 — is available at http://www.edesiapalisade.com.