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Small Cognac producers raise the spirit to a new audience

Published:  16 November, 2017

A new generation of Cognac producers has raised the double-distilled spirit to a new audience in the UK, providing the on-trade and independent wine merchants with a fresh alternative to the handful of big brands that dominate the buoyant global cognac market.

The emergence of the new wave cognacs has already been seized upon by UK distributor and importer High Ball Brands in London, which has this year taken on Fanny Fougerat’s entire range of Cognacs.

“I was not looking for Cognac, but decided to take on Fougerat’s whole portfolio after tasting them on a visit to Cognac,” said Fabrice Limon, owner of High Ball Brands.

“It is really exciting as we don’t usually see beyond the big four Cognac brands. The dialogue around these small production Cognacs is bringing them to a new audience and much more effectively than just a hip-hop video. It has been a humbling experience due to the great reception these Cognacs have had so far,” said Limon.

Since April this year, High Ball Brands has distributed Fougerat’s Cognacs to cocktail bars in London and Manchester.

Fougerat is one of the new wave terroir-focused producers which does not use cold filtration, colouring, caramel, sugars or fining to produce their Cognacs.

Interest from the UK comes as new alternative artisanal Cognacs, made with low-intervention practices have been taken on by Cognac’s new Bar Luciole, owned by UK mixologist and author Toni Conigliaro.

The national Cognac bureau, the BNIC, says growth and support from top bartenders is bringing Cognac back to the heart of UK bars. It expects the upward trend – 3.6% growth in the UK in 2016 – to continue in light of the growing interest in artisan spirits.

“There is now a very exciting scene of young Cognac producers doing things differently and with some great results,” said Conigliaro, who insisted Cognac was unfairly represented in the world of mixology.

“I am thinking about Bourgoin and JL Pasquet, who makes a great organic Cognac, and Paul Giraud, who makes a very fresh eau de vie.”

The new generation of producers also includes Philbert Brothers and Cognac Landin who have highlighted new approaches to cognac production with contemporary labels.

Speciality Drinks Ltd distributes Bourgoin’s micro-barrique Bourgoin 1994, aged first in old French oak barrels and then finished (like some whiskies) in a 10-litre charred barrel.

Remi Landier has released a Special Pale Cognac; small-batch producer Philbert Brothers, which uses contemporary labels on its bottles, has made a round and complex, Rare Cask Finish Sherry Oloroso Cognac, as well as a Cognac aged in Sauternes barrels.  

Rouvre or peduncular oak from the Tronçais and Limousin forests is traditional for barrel ageing, but is not compulsory to qualify for Cognac designation.

“Its an exciting new scene, which shows that to be innovative you do not have to break with quality and tradition,” said Grant Murray, a director at Cru Holdings, which owns five bars and restaurants in Scotland.

The new cognacs unearthed on a recent trip to Cognac were a “real eye-opener”, he added.

“Bars are always looking for something new - Cognac is well produced and it has a great story,” Murray said.

Many of the young Cognac producers have blazed a new trail by developing their own brands, instead of continuing a tradition of solely supplying Cognac and or grapes to the bigger houses including Hennessy, which dominates the Cognac market, selling 7 million cases a year."

And they are now taking new approaches to the production and ageing of Cognac.
Bourgoin and Fanny Fougerat, for instance, do not use assemblage in their production of base wines used for the double-distillation of their eaux-de-vie. They are focusing on terroir, to bring a sense of place to their spirits, as well as bringing greater transparency to Cognac production.

 “The new generation is giving importance to terroir of specific plots within Cognac’s six crus, where the wine is made, rather than making Cognac from blends of wines from different parts of the Cognac region, which is what the big Cognac houses do,” said Fougerat, adding the low-intervention Cognacs were fresher and showed more precision and weren’t as heavy or sweet as those made with additives, caramel and sugar.

Fougerat names her Cognacs according to what they actually taste like, rather than using the key traditional classifications of VS (aged for a minimum of two years) VSOP (aged for a minimum of four years) XO (aged for a minimum of six years). This trend was started by Leopold Gourmel as long ago as 1973, but has recently been adopted by the new generation.
Many of these new Cognacs show great vitality. Cognac is known for its wide spectrum of flavours and JL Pasquet’s L’Organic 04 provides an example of how Cognac can break with stereotypes. There is no harsh alcohol on the palate of this golden-lemon Cognac and the fruity nose shows citrus and tropical flavours.

Partly because of grape vine trunk diseases, there are only a few organic producers in Cognac, including organic pioneer Guy Pinard. But Jean Pasquet of JL Pasquet says his adoption of organic production and practices more than 10 years ago has now paid off.

“My father, Jean-Luc, said the citrusy flavours that have appeared in our L’Organic 04, were more powerful, about four or five years after using organic methods,” he said.

“I can’t explain exactly what’s in our terroir, but I am sure [the aromatic profile] comes from our special terroir. It also may be due to the native yeast we use. I try to not have too much oak extraction for the L’Organic 04, to leave more space to the natural flavours of the Cognac. It’s all these factors together which give particular flavours to the Cognac,” said Pasquet.

Contemporary artisanal Cognac producers like to distinguish their spirits, by not using boisé, a liquid wood extract made from barrels, used by brands to add colour, tannin and oak flavour and to modify the aromatic profile of Cognacs, making them fruiter or more savoury. The use of boisé allows Cognacs to be released earlier. But boisé masks the true flavour, taking away finesse and adding greater weight in the mouth, according to producers.

“Cognac left in old barrels for decades does not always take on any colours; flavours are not necessarily very complex,” said one producer. 
“I have tasted a 20-year-old Cognac which tasted like three or four-year-old Cognac, so when a Cognac house buys this kind of Cognac, the only way to improve it is to use boisé. It also helps to release the Cognac earlier in the market, because it’s easier to dose, but it can give too much bitterness and so more sugar is added to balance the taste.”

Cognac producers now hope growing interest from bars will lead to interest from independent wine merchants. Some are already showing keen interest, but are realistic about the challenges of selling Cognac.

“We are selling plenty of artisan gins, and if the Cognac market were to experience the same kind of boom as we’ve seen for gin, we’d certainly consider doing the same there. We have started to go a little off-piste with négociant style supplier, particularly as they provide us with a point of difference from the larger retailers,” said Emily Silva at the Oxford Wine Company.

“These would be of interest, in the same way that whisky with funky packaging is of interest,” said Toby Peirce from Quaff independent wine merchant in Brighton and Hove.

Meanwhile another UK independent wine merchant said: “They could be of interest depending on taste and value for money and most importantly being able to sell at or below the same price as Whiskey exchange or Master of malt. Very important to be competitive,” he said.