In Cognac, the descendants of the early merchants and blenders – the big four houses of Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin and Courvoisier – are today responsible for 85% of all the Cognac consumed around the world. And the vast majority of what they make is blends, painstakingly constructed from hundreds of individual eaux-de-vie.
Now, though, the status quo is being challenged, and much of the change is coming from within. A younger brigade of distillers is experimenting with innovative cask maturation techniques and championing a fresh emphasis on that most French of concepts: terroir. Some would like to go even further, ripping up Cognac’s strict rulebook to allow the doors of creativity to be thrown open. Instead of just using oak casks for maturation, why not chestnut? Or mulberry?
The Cognac region is divided into six vineyard areas, or crus, and the combination of terroirs gives blenders a varied palette of eaux-de-vie to work from. Grande Champagne may be the most illustrious subregion in Cognac, but each locale plays its part, from the lighter chalk influence of Petite Champagne to the clay-limestone of Fins Bois and the more diverse Bons Bois appellation. Eaux-de-vie from Fins Bois and Bons Bois may lack finesse and longevity, but they have plenty of fruit and structure to keep the blenders happy. Then there is Borderies, whose eaux-de-vie are delicate, floral and beguiling in their youth.
There’s no doubt that the Cognac region remains one instinctively focused on the art of blending. But Cognacs like those now being made by Frapin, Hine, Camus and Delamain – unblended, distinctive and rich in provenance – are adding new layers of colour and interest. And you might soon find yourself arranging your Cognac collection not by age classification but by vintage, vineyard location and terroir type.