French Brandy: Cognac vs Armagnac
February 4, 2019
French Brandy: Cognac vs. Armagnac | Unraveling the Finest Eaux-de-vie, exploring their flavors, heritage, and distinct essence. 🇫🇷
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Cognac is as much a cultural icon as it is a luxurious brandy. Before you have sampled any of the local firewater, there is a gorgeous, historic town to get to grips with, comfortably situated in France’s sorely underrated Charentes region. You’ll discover ancient cellars and traditions, gourmet restaurants, and quaint cafes – Cognac is no one-trick pony. Its charms appeal to sybarites from around the globe, even travelers who eschew spirits for lighter beverages.
Yet, if you love the world’s greatest brandy, Cognac will never disappoint. There are almost 200 producers of Cognac, over 80,000 hectares under vine, and numerous crus or vineyard sites. Terroir is king across Cognac, emulating the ethos of Bordeaux, Champagne, and Burgundy. Moreover, there is no such thing as ‘just Cognac,’ for styles, ages, and qualities vary enormously – there is plenty to discover, even for the seasoned, hard-core Cognac drinker.
However, newcomers to this majestic spirit may be interested in some finer details. According to legend, divine intervention plays a role in the production of Cognac. Producers distill the wine Eaux-de-vie (literally translated as the water of life) to make brandy. Vintage Cognacs are rare; most Cognac is a blend of different, barrel-aged Eaux-de-vie produced from several stipulated grape varieties from the six sub-regions: Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Folle Blanche. Most houses adhere to the standard Cognac production framework: they ferment the wine for three weeks, distill it twice in Charente cooper, and then age it for at least two years before bottling it as Cognac. As you’ll discover below, the best examples are breathtaking in their depth, refinement, and complexity. The very pinnacle of an excellent spirit!
Let’s start with one of the best examples of luxury Cognac. Hine is one of the oldest producers in the region, awarded a Royal Warrant from the British Royal Family in the 1960s. Thomas Hine, sent by his English father to establish a reputation in the Cognac world, founded the house in 1763 in the village of Jarnac. Located on the banks of the river Charente, the house is today run by cellar master Eric Forget, who is a master of his craft. Only working with growers in the region’s Grande and Petit Champagne crus, the resulting house style is fragrant, elegant, and refined. Their top example is ‘H by Hine,’ but we prefer Antique for its silky texture and utterly beguiling fragrance of vanilla, honeysuckle, cinnamon, and white flowers. Magnificent!
The name is legendary, and the Cognac is even better—part of the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy luxury goods empire. An Irish entrepreneur, Richard Hennessy, created Cognac’s largest and most successful brand in 1765 and aptly named their prestige brand after him. It is incredibly expensive but worth every cent: Richard Hennessy astonishes tasters with its complexity and depth of flavor. A Cognac constantly evolves in the glass, with aromas ranging from spice and leather to more robust cigar box and tobacco notes. However, its real hallmark is the smoothness of texture, which has no rivals in the Cognac business. Silky smooth and lacy fine, Richard Hennessy is for sipping, not for drinking.
Remy Martin has been synonymous with premium-grade Cognac for centuries. In 1724, a winegrower named Monsieur Remy Martin decided to venture into Cognac production, leading to the creation of the brand. Over the centuries, the brand’s distribution and reputation increased, adding Remy Cointreau to its portfolio in 1991. Cognac aficionados have long adored X.O., a complex blend of over 400 Eaux-de-vie produced from the finest grapes in the region. Cellar master Andre Giraud created this prestigious Cuvee in 1981, aiming to forge a powerful and distinct expression of the Remy Martin style. Today, the X.O. is spectacular: white flowers, citrus, grilled nuts, and honey merge into a harmonious symphony of exquisite flavors.
The history of this venerable house is as rich and complex as the Cognac. Emmanuel Courvoisier founded Courvoisier, one of the few houses that originated outside the Charentes region, in 1809 on the outskirts of Paris. According to legend, Napoleon Bonaparte visited the house in 1811, demanding Cognac for his army and leaving the house with a few barrels in tow. Whether or not this took place is open to debate, but there is no questioning the quality of Courvoisier’s X.O. Cognac. It’s a superlative and sophisticated blend of the best Eaux-de-vie, aged for over 15 years, to develop its signature profile of candied fruit flavors and patisserie. Delicious upon release, X.O. will age gracefully for decades.
In 1715, Jean Martell founded a small business on the banks of the river Charente that would become one of the most famous names in Cognac production. The British have been fans of Martell’s signature smooth and refined style for decades; in the 19th century, the U.K. was Martell’s biggest export market. So the release of the 250th Anniversary V.S.O.P. caused much excitement among Cognac lovers – Very Special Old Pale has always been a specialty of Martell. The ideal Christmas gift for a budding collector is a blend of incredible subtlety and refinement with the texture of silk.
There is no getting around this – Pierre Ferrand is not as well known as other celebrated Cognac brands. This producer remains resolutely committed to quality, evident in its 1840 Cognac. The extremely amiable Alexandre Gabriel heads up the houses. Gabriel has traveled the world, studying in the U.S. before returning home and purchasing an ailing, family-run Cognac house in 1989. He proudly states that he has breathed new life into the property, which is easy to believe, considering his incredible energy and passion. 1840 is one of the most excellent house blends, with many scents, including chocolate, honeysuckle, burnt toast, and white flowers. The depth, length, and complexity of this fine Cognac are exceptional.
A family-run house deserves much wider recognition. Otard, a boutique and quality-driven producer, deserves much wider recognition for its ownership of one of the most beautiful and impressive Chateaus in Cognac’s oldest part. This Chateau, built in the 11th century as a defense against the English during the Hundred Years’ War, later became the property of the Valois family. In 1975, Jean-Baptiste Antoine Otard founded the Otard brand, maintaining family control to this day, a testament to its enduring legacy and commitment to quality. The grand cellars, protected by thick walls from the Charente, maintain high humidity levels and the perfect temperature for producing smooth, elegant Cognac. Baron Otard is their greatest offering to the world of spirits: incredibly smooth, refined, and potent, with a beguiling palate of buttered toast, vanilla, and cinnamon, with a long, sweet finish. It is arguably the best-value luxury Cognac on the market today.
Remy Martin owns Louis XIII, perhaps the world’s most famous and celebrated prestige Cognac brand. It has beguiled palates for over a century – the brand was named after King Louis XIII of France. He would undoubtedly approve of its iconic status with collectors and Cognac lovers. Louis XIII, known for using only the best grapes for its Eaux-de-vie, is then aged for an exceptionally long period, enhancing its prestige and appeal. The result is magnificent: mixed spice, ginger, rose water, candied fruit, honey, and smoke all vie for attention. Its length is unparalleled, the texture pure velvet. It has few, if any, equals or rivals.
Kelt is a Cognac house that strives to break boundaries and challenge conventions. Its spirits are exclusively made from grapes grown in the Grande Champagne sub-region, giving the Cognac a rich flavor profile and unctuous texture. But more remarkably, the house insists on sending every oak barrel used to mature the Eaux-de-vie on a global voyage – this three-month sea journey is known as the “Tour du Monde.” The firm releases a range of Cognacs from a V.S.O.P. upwards to the Tour Du Monde Grande Champagne, which is the standout. The nose offers a heady blend of spicy, oaky notes interwoven with more floral and fruity elements. The perfect digestif!
One of the top boutique houses, Gautier, was founded in 1755 when Louis VX signed a Royal Warrant allowing the family to produce Cognac at the heart of the Charentes region. They set up a small operation on the site of a former watermill on the Osme River, nicknamed the “Little Venice” of Charente. Today, the entire range continues to win awards, but there is little doubt that their X.O. is particularly special. Everyone is instantly won over – the sweet but balanced flavors, impeccable texture, and finesse tend to do it.
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