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What your choice of Cognac says about you

Its devotees would argue that their love of Cognac marks them out as arbiters of elegance and sophistication. But are some brands more elegant and sophisticated than others? Joel Harrison provides some counsel for those considering their own house style

Words by Joel Harrison

The Collection
(photo: Xavier Young)

As a region, Cognac harbours more than 4,000 growers across almost 8,000ha of vineyards supplying some 2,000 distillers. The eaux de vie of these small, farmhouse operators are purchased by larger houses – from the globally reputed names, to more boutique producers. And while in recent years these smaller, artisanal brands have become de rigueur for those consumers seeking something a little more recherché, a handful of big names continue to dominate, providing the building blocks of any respectable drinks trolley.

Cognac’s undisputed heavyweight champion, Hennessy is joined at the top table by Martell, Courvoisier and Rémy Martin. Each of these ‘Big Four’ has its own style in the glass, and its own personality outside of it. Three of them have been bottling Cognac since the 1700s, with Courvoisier the youngest of the bunch, dating back merely to 1828. These producers have spent generations building their success around their house style, but much like in the world of fashion, styles fall in and out of favour…

For those looking to align themselves with a particular brand, what does your choice of Cognac house say about you? Here, I pick out six producers towards the top of the tree and consider what sets them apart – and what defines their identity.



For the Champagne drinker

Hidden away in the cobbled streets of Jarnac, Delamain has been bottling Cognac since 1824. Today, the house is owned by Bollinger (which took a majority stake in 2017) – an apt match for a producer that prides itself on its light and elegant brandy. The name of Delamain’s leading expression, Pale & Dry, sums up the overall house style. The delicate spirit rests in casks, resulting in a supple and fruity rendering that speaks of its oak influence. However, it is the approach to bottling only spirits made from grapes grown in the Grande Champagne region that sets the brand apart, as well as the reduction of some of its aged brandy to bottling strength using low-strength Cognacs known as faibles.

With an eye on quality, Delamain has taken the rather unusual step of eschewing the entry-level VS and VSOP releases, starting its range at the longer-aged XO. It also avoids the use of caramel colouring and sugar sweetener, relying only on the naked flavour of the grape, which is very much ‘rested’ rather than matured in oak. This approach can be seen clearly in the selection of single-estate, single-vintage, single-cask bottlings under the Pléiade banner, on which the producer is now focusing heavily. One such bottling draws on spirit made from grapes grown on Delamain’s own La Rambaudie vineyard, a 21ha site in the heart of Grande Champagne.

Much of the Pléiade series is focused on showing off the details of the liquid within, listing as much information as possible. One intriguing release from the current crop, however, is a little more opaque in provenance. Delamain knows only that the spirit for Mr Dauge’s Testimony was distilled in 1969 and that it rested in a damp cellar at distiller Mr Dauge’s house, before being moved into glass demijohns. Just 45 bottles have been produced, and it is the perfect reflection of the Delamain house style, showing an elegance of soft fruits, copper and blood orange on the nose, with a palate that is full of figs, plums, damsons and light vanilla notes with a touch of IPA hops.
One to try: Delamain Pale & Dry, £95 Waitrose Cellar



For the cigar smoker

Frapin doesn’t follow the well-trodden path of most houses, which act as blenders and bottlers, cherry-picking spirit from the region’s many distillers. Instead, being a Cognac château (one of very few, and the only one in the Grande Champagne area), Frapin is obliged to grow all its own grapes and carry out the vinification, distillation and maturation processes within the grounds of its own grand house – in this case, Château Fontpinot. When you consider that Frapin has been owned and operated by the same family for 22 generations, the story of this house becomes even more remarkable.

This is the very definition of single estate, and as a result, yields are lower than other houses: Frapin produces fewer than 500,000 bottles a year (in a market that sells 250m annually). The house roots itself in diligent vineyard management across 240ha. From this, 3m litres of grape juice are pressed and turned into wine, employing malolactic fermentation to add a distinct sherbet note to the base wine. Distilling on the lees lends the spirit rounder aromatics.

Matured in a mixture of both damp and dry cellars, the resulting Cognac is medium in weight, with a rounded, cigar-box note. This is seen most brilliantly in Fontpinot XO, which is rich and rounded, with hints of new leather, griddled apricots, strawberry and freshly rolled cigars. It is no surprise the house produces a cigar blend, since the flavours in the Frapin expressions pair well with rich tobacco, the smoke and fruit complementing each other perfectly.
One to try: Frapin Fontpinot XO, £105 The Whisky Exchange

remy martin

Rémy Martin

For the classic car owner

One of the most recognisable names not just in Cognac, but all drinks, Rémy Martin was founded in the early 1700s and today has some of the most respected stocks of eaux de vie in the region. Rémy’s fame is built on a consistent house style (plus its Art Deco bottle stylings) that delivers exactly what Cognac lovers would expect: fruity, yet underpinned with leather, oak and vanilla; sweet but not sickly; smooth but slightly grippy. It is at once a heritage product, but also modern and forwardthinking. It is the crowd pleaser of all Cognacs, consistent from year to year.

Partly due to the use of both Grande and Petite Champagne grapes, and some shrewd relationships with smaller producers, Rémy has developed a style that is best expressed in its XO offering: packed with figs, dates and quince, balanced with a light hazelnut note and oak spices to yield a lasting finish. There is a light toffee sweetness, driven by an unctuous, slightly fatty grape note that eventually finds itself in ripe summer-fruit territory.

Rémy is, of course, also home to the exceptionally fine Louis XIII, a Cognac made up of over 1,200 different eaux de vie, all from the Grande Champagne terroir, and some of which are aged for over a century. Housed in a Baccarat crystal decanter, it is an icon of the category and unique in age, complexity and stature.
One to try: Rémy Martin XO, £190 Selfridges



For the Scotch lover

One of the smaller producers on this list, Hine is based in the town of Jarnac, a neighbour of fellow boutique house Delamain and the imposing powerhouse that is Courvoisier. The house sits on the north bank of the River Charente, which has played a pivotal role in Hine’s focus on ‘early landed’ Cognacs – that is, those made in the region but matured elsewhere.

The riverside location was ideal for sending barrels on through the ports of La Rochelle and Tonnay-Charente to England – notably Bristol, where the majority of its Cognac would be shipped. Of late, Hine has parcels resting in Scotland, too. These early landed Cognacs (which are sent back to be bottled in the region, as all Cognac must be by law) carry a more delicate profile, due to the mild and humid maturation conditions. Hine bottles single vintages from barrels matured in Cognac, as well as the early landed stock matured in the UK, making for an interesting comparison. The vintage selections focus on a single year’s production across the two regions from which Hine draws its grapes, combining Petite and Grande Champagne to yield Fine Champagne, a designation of which Hine was something of a pioneer. The house also owns its own vineyards in the Grande Champagne district of Bonneuil, from which it produces a limited-edition vintage bottling.

Hine has a focus on being a mixable Cognac, through its H by Hine VSOP. However, it is the Antique XO that expresses the house style best. This blend of around 40 eaux de vie produced exclusively from Grande Champagne grapes has a robust palate of fruit and oak, with a nutty overtone and hints of spice.
One to try: Hine Antique XO, £140 Berry Bros & Rudd



For the perfume connoisseur

The headquarters of Courvoisier, one of the bigger producers in the region, sits alongside the River Charente in Jarnac, towering over the town’s smaller producers. Despite its imposing buildings, this brand prides itself on a more floral, delicate style, drawing on grapes grown in the two top crus of Petite and Grande Champagne, as well as using the more earthy fruit grown in the larger Fins Bois region and across the wider Borderies area.

The aim of this blend is to ensure a lightness of touch to the final product – not as delicate on the oak as you might find at Delamain, but a well-matured, floral Cognac that shows off rose water and light orange-blossom tones alongside oak spices drawn from the maturation.

The devotion to floral notes means Courvoisier crafts its own barrels from French oak trees in sustainable forests with a 50/50 mix of tight and lightly grained wood. That said, it isn’t afraid to experiment with barrel ageing – it recently released an expression matured fully in Japanese Mizunara oak, the first Cognac to be aged in this unique style of cask.

The floral notes can be seen most vividly in the L’Essence release. Made from a blend of extremely rare eaux de vie, some produced in the early 20th century, all exclusively from the Grande Champagne and Borderies crus, it has notes of honeysuckle, candied ginger, rose and lavender. The heritage is apt for a house boasting a strong history, with legend suggesting it was the favourite of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose image remains a key part of its branding.
One to try: Courvoisier XO, £114.95 Master of Malt



For the luxury addict

In the kingdom of Cognac, Hennessy wears the crown. With almost a 50% share of the market, this house dominates to the point of being virtually synonymous with the spirit. It has a focused but distinct range, often with limited editions whose branding is designed by artists and fashion designers. Don’t let the packaging blind you, though, to the fact that the house’s buying power alone ensures that the quality inside the bottle always shines through. For while there may be a trend for smaller, more boutique houses right now, there’s a reason the big players became big.

Many drinkers come into the world of Cognac via Hennessy, meaning its house style is vitally important. And as part of the luxury brand house LVMH, Hennessy delivers a suitably rich, silky, smooth Cognac to be sipped and savoured, with the XO a classic example. In this expression, you’ll find leather and light tobacco notes, some oud and sandalwood, and plenty of ripe red-fruit notes. It’s a style that is typical of the whole range, but it appears in increased focus in the older expressions. For a really great example of how rounded old Cognac can be, try the ridiculously rich Hennessy Paradis, which the house describes as ‘voluptuous’. It’s not wrong.
One to try: Hennessy Paradis, £1,050 Clos19