Triumph of the spirit

OCT 29, 2015
By any measure, 2015 is a landmark year for cognac. Two of the producers that established the spirit as a luxury tipple have a major anniversary to celebrate, with Martell turning 300 and Hennessy 250.

The biggest of the houses, Hennessy sent its first shipment of XO to Shanghai in 1872, and along with competitors Martell and Rémy Martin, it dominates sales of the spirit in the region. Recent years, however, have seen a growing number of drinkers looking beyond the iconic brands towards smaller, artisanal producers. 

The great houses’ reputations are based on blending eaux de vie from six regions recognised under France’s AOC appellation system: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires. Each contributes in a different way to the smoothness and complexity of the drink. However, connoisseurs who understand the influence of the soil and climate are becoming increasingly interested in “grower cognacs”, which contain grapes from just one region.

They are interested too in vintage-dated eaux de vie. This is an area in which Armagnac has long been the traditional choice, but more independent cognac producers are now also making their spirits available with year-specific ages – something the big houses generally don’t do.

In retail, these relatively rare vintage cognacs are available mostly from specialist wine and spirit shops such as Ponti Wine Cellars in Landmark Alexandra and The Whisky Library in the basement of Landmark Atrium.

“Generally speaking, customers are particularly interested in age,” says Ponti’s corporate communications manager Haze Wong. “There are always people seeking good-quality Armagnac – novices and connoisseurs – and the market is steadily growing.”

Blended or unblended, Armagnac from Gascony contrasts with cognac from Charente, and is generally considered a “more fiery” spirit – sometimes said to be the single-malt drinker’s brandy. Francophiles regard as an endorsement the fact that almost half of Armagnac’s total production is consumed in France, while 97 per cent of Cognac’s is exported. The biggest export markets for Armagnac are Russia and the UK, with China now third.

Ponti’s range of vintage Armagnacs from Castarede extends back to the 1940s, and the store also offers vintage cognacs from Ragnaud-Sabourin and Jean Fillioux. The Whisky Library stocks vintage Armagnacs and cognacs from Jean Grosperrin – a bottler of individual spirits from the different regions within Cognac.

Grande Champagne is known for power, Petite Champagne for elegance, and Borderies for its floral perfume. The other regions, though traditionally less esteemed, can make eaux de vie with real character. The list at Amber at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental includes a selection of good cognacs from smaller houses, including Jean Grosperrin, Tesseron, Delamain, Frapin and Lheraud, as well as Hennessy’s rare and expensive Ellipse, blended from fine eaux de vie dating from 1830.

Spirit lovers who enjoy the salty tang of Islay’s single malts may well find a cognac from one of the larger, family-owned independent houses hits the spot. Camus Ile de Ré comes from Bois Ordinaires and has the aroma and taste of the sea associated with whiskies such as Laphroaig and Caol Ila. It is a balanced, distinctive spirit, unlike any other exported from France.

Hennessy and Martell, though, remain preeminent, and can celebrate their anniversaries safe in the knowledge that the reserves of aged eaux de vie stored in their historic cellars will ensure their blends continue to command the attention of connoisseurs for years to come.

“Our motto for the anniversary is, ‘Crafting the future since 1765’,” says Renaud de Gironde, a member of Hennessy’s six-man tasting committee and the nephew of master blender and taster Yann Fillioux – the seventh generation of his family to hold the position. “We are part of a very long chain,” he adds.

Words by Robin Lynam
Photography by Andrew J. Loiterton