France Day 6: To Boisé or not to Boisé

I was never really too clear about Cognac aging, but I knew that there wasn't much new wood involved.  They weren't using old Bourbon or old Sherry casks, yet many of the Cognacs we carried had dark, amber colored hues with rich, supple textures.  Sweetness in brandy, just like whisky, comes from the barrel, as does the color.  Bourbon tastes rich and sweet because it's put directly into new, heavily charred casks immediately after it's distilled where it remains until the day it's bottled.  Cognac goes into lightly charred casks for around five to twelve months before it's transfered into an older barrel.  New in Cognac terms can mean a barrel that's been used zero to four times - the more often it's been used, the longer the first maturation lasts to make up for the weaker wood influence. 

So.....if Cognac producers don't heavily char their casks to release more color and vanilla from the wood, and they don't leave their spirit in the "new" wood for very long, then where the heck is that color coming from?  The answer can be multifacted, but there's usually a creeping suspicion in these cases that something else is being added to the brandy.  In fact, with Cognac, it's perfectly legal to do so.  Besides the addition of caramel coloring to deepen the shade of brown, a substance called boisé is regularly added to intensify color, sweetness, and texture.  Boisé is a mixture of sugar, oak chips, and lower-proof brandy that is left to macerate in a barrel or tank.  The color is extracted from the oak ships and the boisé acts like a concentrated syrup which can make young Cognac both taste and appear older than it is. 

The terms VS, VSOP, and XO are used to help designate maturity on a Cognac bottle, but they're usually quite misleading.  VS simply means at least two years old, VSOP means at least four, and XO at least six.  However, the producers we're looking to buy from aren't releasing VS Cognacs under ten years old.  When tasting at the estates of the distillers, we generally ask which vintages the Cognacs are composed of, say a mix of 1991 with 1994, for example.  When a producer tells us a Cognac is comprised of 2004 with 2006 and the color looks like toffee, then we know what's being done to make it look that way.  There's a big difference between the flavor in pre-boisé and post-boisé CognacDavid and I have done some extensive cask tasting over the last few days and many of the Cognacs do not taste that great straight from the barrel. 

Now, although it may seem like cheating when compared to Bourbon, single malt, and Armagnac, the addition of boisé to one's Cognac doesn't necessarily mean that the brandy isn't good.  The most successful Cognacs in the world are loaded with it.  However, when it's used in younger Cognacs to add richness that wouldn't normally be there, the result can be quite terrible.  The reason producers do it, however, is because aging Grand Champagne Cognac takes FOREVER.  Like I stated in previous posts, we tasted some 60+ year old brandies from Dudognon (a producer that NEVER adds boisé) and they were still babies.  Using more new oak would destroy the delicate flavor from the high-quality grapes, so that's not an option either.  The answer is simply time, something that most producers don't have.

The Cognac market is very strong right now, which is why the price of Grand Champagne fruit is high.  Hennessy, Martel, and Remy are buying whatever they can get their hands on (usually very young Cognacs), adding loads of boisé, and pumping them overseas to awaiting night clubs.  The marketing departments are out there pushing the quality of the big houses, despite the fact that the quality is terrible compared to some of the smaller producers.

Anyway, it's something to think about.  We're obviously trying to go "zero boisé," but we're not going to turn down a fantastic Cognac if there happens to be some in it.  One more stop today and then we're on the road north to Normandie.

Until then....

-David Driscoll


France Day 5: Cognac & Business

Today was the day of reckoning for some of us.  I managed to get about seven hours of sleep, but Charles was up all night with a stomach ache, and Girard couldn't fall asleep until late.  We all missed our alarm clocks and breakfast was a struggle.  Nevertheless, we had an appointment at Dudognon and they're a Cognac we already carry and love.  The weather was cold and rainy, but we rallied to the cause.  Dudognon is run by Claudine Dudognon-Buraud and her husband, working at their small distillery nearby their quirky little home.

We tasted a few things out of the barrel, but quickly learned that Grande Champagne Cognac of this quality isn't really too great out of the cask.  It's too delicate and doesn't really show well at cask strength.

Their still is tiny and has a very long swan neck for a more elegant spirit.  They have chairs nearby to relax while they distill.  While we truly loved everything we tasted, we already knew that we wanted to carry their spirits.  They're some of the best we offer and now we know that great people are behind them. 

We made it over to another few producers, but we didn't see anything too worthwhile.  Now we're back in the hotel room, going over the samples, while Charles breaks down the pricing.  The pricing is looking good right now.  We've decided on about eight different expressions, including the 1900 vintage from Barailllon!  Look forward to some amazing brandies very soon.  Calvados tomorrow!

-David Driscoll


France Day 4: Out in Cognac

There's a huge difference between Cognac and Armagnac, and I'm talking about the regions rather the spirits.  Cognac is like Napa, with large estates, boutique farmers, and vineyards covering every inch of valueable Grand Champagne property.  Armagnac is like West Virginia in comparison - heavy forestation with backwoods country folk dwelling on pig farms, doing distillation if they have some spare time away from the corn field.  There is a big difference between the brandies of Cognac and Armagnac as well.  Here are a few things I learned today:

-Cognac producers like to make high alcohol wines because they can distill them to about 70% after two times through the still.  Remember that Armagnac producers don't like to water down the spirit, so they produce low alcohol wines that come of the still at a drinkable 50% or so.

-Cognac is produced on a pot still, so the heads and tails are cut and only the hearts are kept, much like single malt whisky.

-Terroir plays a huge role in Cognac.  Grand Champagne grapes, as opposed to Petit Champagne or Borderies grapes, produce wines with high acidity that result in spirits with the potential to age due to the chalky soils (Armagnac has very sandy soil).  Like a great Bordeaux, Grand Champagne Cognacs can age gracefully for sixty or seventy years before reaching their true potential.  The only difference is that the brandy must age in the cask.  We tasted a 59 year old at dinner last night that still tasted too austere.  It needed MORE time in the wood!

-Cognac barrels are toasted with a much lower char than Armagnac barrels.  The wood influence is therefore more mild.

-The wine made from ugni blanc in Cognac tastes nothing at all like wine.  I always imagined them distilling some drinkable, crisp white wine, but it's more like a yeasty lambic beer with insanely tart acidity.

-Vintages also play a big role in Cognac.  The more austere the vintage, the more austere the wine, the more austere the spirit, the longer it takes to age and open up.

A Cognac still looks much like an Armagnac alambic still, except that there are no column plates that re-introduce the heavier vapors back into the wine.  Unlike Armagnac, almost every Cognac producer has their own still somewhere on the property.  By producer, I mean a person who actually grows the grapes, makes the wine, and distills the spirit.  Hennessey, Remy Martin, or Martell for example are not producers.  They are houses who buy Cognac from actual producers and blend them into their own brands.  Cognac is much like Champagne in that it's completely controlled by a handful of large companies who dominate the market with heavy advertising.  For that reason, Brandy geeks usually side with Armagnac for more interesting flavors, but we managed to visit a few producers of note today who had some pretty spectacular stuff.

Our first stop of the morning was to Raymond Ragnaud, a producer whose Pineau des Charentes we've been carrying for sometime now.  The original Ragnaud Cognac was produced by the Ragnaud family, but when the two brothers Raymond and Marcel took over they were unable to work together.  The Domaine split and now there are two separate brands under the name of each brother.  Raymond Ragnaud is still produced on the original estate and is now overlooked by his daughter, Mrs. Ragnaud-Bricq pictured above. 

Jean-Marie has been the distiller at the property for the last thirty years.  He took us down into the cellar for some cask tasting and a lesson on barrel aging.  Like Armagnac, the Cognac producers believe in aerating the spirit by changing casks every six months to a year.  We tasted a few out of the cask, but Grand Champagne Cognac doesn't taste all that great in its youth - and by "youth," I mean anytime in the first twenty years of its life.  Usually the blends have more complexity because the young brandy is balanced by an older vintages.  We tasted some very fine blends that we might be bringing back to the states.  Their Reserve Rare was very gentle and tasted of toasted almonds with soft stone fruits.  We also enjoyed the Trés Vieille, which is made entirely of 1948 vintage brandy and has a rich, rancio finish.  Cognac finishes can last for minutes and evolve on the palate long after the spirit has vanished

Our next visit was to François Voyer, a small grower-producer in Grand Champagne not too far from Ragnaud.  They hold about 29 hectares of vineyard and another 15 outside the region from which they make Cognac from Hennessey.  Apparently, now is a good time to be a supplier for the big houses.  With the asian market increasing its demand, there simply isn't enough Cognac to go around.  That has increased prices and profitability for smaller producers like Voyer who can always sell off what they don't sell themselves. 

Cellar master Pierre Vaudon took us on a tour of the estate and took some cask samples for us.  We weren't too blown away by any one expression, but Cognac has never been about the single cask - it's a spirit based in the blend.  However, we still wanted something unique, so we decided to choose our favorite single casks and describe what we liked about them.  After a few hours, we had crafted together four different blends from various vintages and ages that were based on our recommendations and desires.  With any luck, we'll be bringing a few of these in on a larger scale later this summer.  The finesse of these brandies when put together is remarkable.

LUNCH TIME!  When in France....

Pulling up the road into Jaques Esteve's driveway, one would never think that there was Cognac being produced anywhere near the area.  Under the garage, however, there's a full scale operation going on.

Jaques was in the middle of distilling when we arrived and he's thrilled about the market at the moment.  He produces for both Remy and Hennessey and it's easy to see why they're both after his stuff.  Even though he's in Petit Champagne, he's located about one kilometer from the border of Grand Champagne so there's virtually no difference between his brandy and the best of the best.

Being in a bit of a hurry, we went right into the tasting bar to begin sampling his goods.  Boy, does Jaques ever have "the goods."  His Reserve Ancestrale is a blend of 1945, 1949, and 1950 vintages and is absolutely stunning.  The aromas are haunting, drifting between rancio, candied orange peel, and beautiful toffee notes.  The palate has massive flavor and richness.  We'll probably grab a few cases of this.

We asked Jaques if we could sample some casks and he looked at us like we were crazy.  "Why would you want to do that?" he asked.  He complained about getting spiderwebs all over his coat, but he acquiesed and agreed to take us out back and underneath the barn, down into the chai for some serious spelunking.  It was worth the effort.  Down in the dark was a simply awe-inspiring 1979 cask that was the best thing I've yet to taste on this trip.  A powerful, woody Cognac with pencil shavings and sweet fruit on the nose, along side dark chocolate, almonds, earth, and citrus on the palate.  The finish lasted for ten minutes and I almost hit my head on the ceiling as I jumped up with joy.  We'll be taking this one.

The rest of the evening we spent with a negotiant with whom we'll be working on a few special labels just for us.  We all had dinner at a fantastic Michelin starred restaurant in downtown Cognac before calling it a day.  More awaits us tomorrow.  Until then.

-David Driscoll


France Day 3: Jackpot

Once again it's late, there's a lot to talk about, and I need sleep in the most desperate way.  Work first, however.  We hit the jackpot today, finding a number of wonderful Armagnacs that we feel really speak to the character of the region and that should provide perfect crossovers for Bourbon fans.  The first stop of the day was to a small producer called Baraillon.  This father and daughter duo work on a real, bonafide farm in the middle of nowhere.  You would never think that brandy this good was hiding in a small rickhouse behind the main house, but nevertheless there is. 

Not only are there amazing barrels to be had, but incredible older vintages are resting quietly in glass demijohns as not to mature them any further. 

Mr. Baraillon and his daughter Laurens had a serious collection of samples waiting for us on there arrival.  There was little talk about flavor profiles or the nuance of their spirit.  They brought out a small plate of terrine on sliced white bread and just stood there watching us do our thing.  They are people of few words, prefering to let their product speak for itself.  They're humble farmers who understand their craft and know they do it well.

While we won't be bringing back a batch of the 1900, it was part of the tasting menu.  The Baraillon Armagnacs are rich with concentrated fruit on the entry.  We tried some 100% folle blanche specimen from 1988 and 1995 that were brimming with supple textures and spicy new oak, as well as some blends that were drier and hinting of dark fudge with moist earth.  The big winner was a 1985 combo of ugni blanc and baco that we'll probably end up bringing in.  I would compare it to the Glenrothes 1985 in that everyone should be able to enjoy its enticing nose of brown sugar and stewed apricots, as well as it's incredible finish of sticky toffee.  This should be a big hit.

Not too far away in the town of Hontanx is Frederic Blondeau's Domaine de Lassaubatju, a much more modern and streamlined operation than Baraillon.  We were a bit late, but Frederic brought us right into the chai for a look at his incredible stock of wonderful brandies.

Frederic had much to tell us. First off, Lassaubatju does not make any table wine to sell, so 100% of their wine is for distillation.  That means they're always using their top stuff for the Armagnac.  All of their barrels are coopered by a local producer who uses wood from the forest nearby.  That's the ultimate terroir!  We started with a 1989 blend of baco, folle blanche, and ugni blanc that took my breath away. I took one look at David OG and knew this was going to be a great tasting.

More than any producer we've visited so far, I'm positve that Frederic's Armagnac are going to please our whisky enthusiasts.  Four straight vintages (89,88,87, and 81) were reminiscient of Buffalo Trace Single Oak whiskies on the nose with pencil shavings and a nutty aromas.  Some were rich with baking spices, while others were drier with more pepper, but all had a gorgeous almond skin finish.  These are serious spirits and Bourbon fans are going to eat these up.  We might bring in all four barrels.

Our last stop in Armagnac before heading off to Cognac was Domaine d'Ognoas, a government-subsidized distillery that also functions as a farm and distilling school for those looking to enter the trade.  The property has been around since the 1200s and was once focused on teaching the fine art of cow breeding.  They began distilling Armagnac in 1809 and still use a very old still.

This ancient gem of an alambic uses a wood fire on the bottom left as a heat source and distills 400 gallons a day during its seasonal run.

The property has many rooms full of brandies from various cepages and vintages. We really enjoyed a 2000 from folle blanche and ugni blanc that will likely make the rotation of imports this summer.  Loaded with big charred oak flavors, marzipan and dusty cocoa flavors, this should be one of the best values we see on the whole trip.

I really liked their packaging as well.  I hope we can bring it in with this same label.  That's it for today.  I'm in Cognac.  We just had a big dinner at Dudognon.  I think we get to sleep in a bit tomorrow so I'm going to rest up.  That's it for today!

-David Driscoll


France Day 3: Late to Bed, Early to Rise

Whoohoo! Four whole hours of sleep.  I'm up, so I might as well write.  Here's some more food for thought:

There are over 300 producers in the Armagnac region, and by producers I mean people who grow Armagnac grapes (baco, folle blanche, colombard, ugni blanc).  Because there are few actual distilleries, being a producer means you have a farm, you harvest grapes, you make wine, and that wine gets distilled - either by you or someone you hire to do it.  The result goes into barrel and sits in your barn or warehouse until it gets sold to someone like Darroze, or bottled for Armagnac customers.  Because one doesn't need to own a still to be a producer, the number of possible producers is suddenly limited only to the number of farmers growing the necessary grapes.  There are a lot of people growing grapes and making wine in Southwest France, therefore there's a ton of Armagnac out there.  That's a compelling fact and a very exciting idea if you're looking for the new frontier in spirits.

The last day has completely changed everything I thought I understood about distilling.  You always hear that pot stills provide the real flavor because the base liquid being distilled isn't constantly re-introduced back into the mix.  When distilling on a pot still you have to boil the booze and capture the alcohol, keeping the cut of distillate you want and either dumping the rest back in later or using it for disinfectant.  Pot stills are always considered a more pure method because they're not as easily automated.  According to Armagnac producers, however, with brandy, a pot still isn't really the best option for pure flavor.  Of course, they could be just saying that, but let me explain their reasoning.

The left side of the still pictured above in the second photo is where the wine is boiled and vaporized, while the right side is where it is condensed back into a liquid.  Unlike a standard pot still, which has nothing but an open chamber between the liquid and the neck at the top, the alambic Armagnac still has a series of plates, as you can see have been removed in the picture above, through which two mutually beneficial actions occur - one going up and the other going down.  As the vapor rises, the plates help to filter out the heavier alcohols and force them back down into the wine, allowing only the desired ones to pass through.  At the same time, the wine being distilled is pumped in from from above so that it travels down into the boiling pot via these plates.  That means the vapors going up must pass through the wine going down.  As the vapor intermixes with the wine, it grabs more of the inherent flavor before finally making it's way to the top. 

If distilling wine in Armagnac is ultimately about grabbing the inherent flavor of the wine, then as a farmer you've got four choices as far as varietals.  Baco used to be the grape of choice, but we quickly learned this was only because baco was resistant to phylloxera.  The grape itself doesn't have a load of personality, which makes it a pour choice for normal table wine, as well as a blank canvas for new oak.  However, it does produce brandies that can age very well in the 30+ year old range.  Therefore, if you're interested in creating rich, supple, and extra mature Armagnac, then baco isn't a bad choice.  However, you won't be able to sell any baco wine to supplement your Armagnac income and the younger brandies will be less interesting.  Most producers who are serious have switched over to the other three grapes, with folle blanche being the crown jewel.  Because of its tempermental ways, folle blanche is difficult to grow and tough to mature, but because distilling wines need high acidity, the farmers can pick earlier than vintners looking to bottle something drinkable.

Then you've got the whole cooperage aspect to think about! New oak? First fill?  If so, then for how long before you transfer it to an older barrel so the the wood maturation slows down?  Mr. Darroze told us that new oak sets the foundation for an Armagnac and, "like a house," a brandy needs a solid foundation before anything else can be done.  When we were walking through the warehouses of Scotland, we saw things like 1993 Bladnoch or 2000 Bruichladdich written on the side of the cask, however, single malts are so much easier to understand!!  You can tell what type of barrel the whisky has been aged in by looking at, how old it is from the date, and who made it from the name.  When we see an Armagnac barrel that says 1978 only know the age and where it's from based on who we're visiting.  What varietals were used to make it, however?  Baco?  Folle blanche?  A blend of both or perhaps ugni blanc as well?  How long did it spend in new oak?  What fill was the barrel it was then transfered too?  What was the vintage like that year? For that particular varietal?  Maybe good for baco, but bad for folle blanche.  How long should it be aged based upon the quality of the vintage?  All of these aspects affect the flavor and for that reason there are many different flavors of Armagnac.

We tasted Armagnacs yesterday that bourbon lovers would die for.  Rich, woody, spicy and powerful.  Lot's of barrel character.  Some are bold at a cask strength high proof, some are more mellow, but few are dilluted with alcohol.  If the brandy is at 45% it's because it naturally evaporated to that point over time.  Almost everything we tasted was completely uncut, from a single barrel, and totally drinkable without water.  These are important factors for spirits geeks like us.  Even though Armagnac has been produced for over 700 years, no one here is blindly stuck in tradtion.  The producers are adapting and they're giving passionate drinkers what they want.  There is so much variety and potential here.  Plus, unlike whisky makers, the producers have to do the viticultural side as well.  We're celebrating master distillers in Whiskyland, meanwhile the Armagnac producers laugh at that idea.  For them, distilled spirits begin in the field.  It's a lot to take in, but I think Armagnac is going to be a big player for K&L in 2012. 

Wait until you taste some of the bottles we plan to bring in.  You'll see what I mean.

-David Driscoll