France – Day 6: Yackety Gnac
Cognac – the rich, successful, older brother to Armagnac who drives a Mercedes, wears a fancy suit, and travels the world in search of new export markets. I kid Cognac, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a hint of truth to the above statement. Over the past few decades, financial success has turned the brandies of the Charentes into mass-produced, overly-sweetened, highly-adulterated, and far less interesting spirits than those of the Gascogne. That doesn't mean we've given up on Cognac, however. It just means we have to look harder to find producers with integrity. We began our morning far outside the Grand Champagne region, in the outer zones of the Bon Bois. Andre Petit was first on a long list of new producers we wanted to visit.
"Are you talking about my Cognac? I don't see anyone else here."
If you've ever wondered where Robert DeNiro has been lately, the answer is: he's in the Cognac region distilling brandy. This isn't the best photo of Andre, but he looks so much like DeNiro circa The Deer Hunter that we couldn't really focus on his brandies. I thought his selections were fine, but you can really taste the difference in the fruit compared to Grand and Petit Champagne expressions. They were rich, but they didn't pop in the right places. We thought maybe the terror in Cognac was overrated, but we left strongly believing in everything we'd previously been told.
Next on the list was Michel Forgeron – a Grand Champagne producer who has been using single malt whisky as an inspiration for innovation. That was music to our ears. We've been telling producers for years that they should take a page from Scotland and try new concepts like single barrel, cask strength, vintage-dated releases, or single vineyard expressions. Michel has all four currently for sale in his gift shop.
I can safely say right now that you'll be seeing the Cognacs of Forgeron on K&L shelves very soon. Most of his expressions were proofed from 45% to 50% and were clearly marked with dates and maturity levels. The brandies were spicy, rich, fruity, and completely balanced with the alcohol. We asked him why other producers weren't following his lead, looking to bring Cognac into the next generation.
"Most of these producers don't even drink Cognac," he answered. "They do it because they were born into it. They don't even like Cognac, most of them."
Wow. What an indictment!
Whereas Forgeron is going to excite the dedicated spirits geeks with raw power, Claude Thorin is going to wow you with nuance. His Grand Champagne expressions are incredibly pure and they're insanely inexpensive. Not only are they delicious and value-priced, they're also a bit outside the norm. Claude has also been toying around with single vintage, single varietal, and unsweetened expressions. We tasted a 2002 100% folle blanche expression that was so delicate it brought a tear to our eye.
I think the most exciting part for us was his standard line-up of VS, VSOP, and XO. We should be able to get these on the shelf for $30, $40, and $50 a bottle. And did I mention they're great?
We were dragging a bit by the afternoon, but we put our game faces on and powered ahead to the Borderies and Fin Bois regions where Francois Giboin creates rustic, old school brandies with earth, power, and panache.
The soil in the Borderies region is much different than the chalky terrain of Grand Champagne. It's mostly gypsum – a calcium-based mineral that spawns a more rugged, yet fruity distillate. We were captivated by some of the single barrel selections we sampled and very interested in his standard Fin Bois vintage expressions.
Every producer we visited today was daring to branch out from the standard VS, VSOP, and XO handcuffs. Each of them was forward-thinking and open-minded, and all were scaling back on the boise. This made us very optimistic for the future of the spirit. There is room for the purity-minded spirits geek in Cognac, we believe.
Of course, we had to visit our old friend Jacques Esteve – the gentle giant behind our top-selling K&L exclusive releases. His Petit Champagne selections have been wonderful additions to our spirit shelves and customers have come back again and again to reload. He's one of the nicest guys in the business and we want to possibly expand on the business we've already done. Kyle was very impressed with the new expressions we sampled.
"That guy is so nice and his Cognacs are good!" he exclaimed on the way to the car.
"It's nice doing business with people you like, isn't it?" I asked rhetorically.