Innovation in Cognac

Innovation in Cognac
Ferrand’s No2 bottling in its Renegade Barrel range, aged first in oak then in a chestnut wood barrel

Cognac today is the culmination of centuries of history and generations of accumulated expertise. The world’s pre-eminent brandy (although the Cognac?ais don’t care for the b-word), it has conquered the planet from San Francisco to Shanghai, with many millions of bottles of Hennessy, Martell, Re?my Martin and Courvoisier consumed every year. Change? Innovate? Why on earth would anyone want to do that?

And yet they are. Some of this new thinking is rooted in the way Cognac is made – the grapes used, the oak in which it ages – and some of it is a less-tangible leap of the imagination, lifting the veil on one of the world’s more mysterious spirits and unlocking the stories that lurk in vineyard and cellar.

Alexandre Gabriel, owner and master blender at Maison Ferrand, is the closest Cognac gets to a rebel. Not content with maturing Cognac only in oak barrels, he’d also like to use chestnut, acacia or mulberry wood. ‘The know-how of making these barrels is still alive in Cognac,’ he says. ‘I know quite a lot of people who believe in reactivating some of that heritage. Why should it be sidelined?’

Alexandre Gabriel, Ferrand Cognac. Credit: Bruno Delessard

There are ways around the rules, as long as you’re not fussy about what you put on the label. Ferrand’s Renegade Barrel project has seen Gabriel part-mature Grande Champagne eau-de-vie in chestnut wood and, in the third and latest release, prohibited Jamaican rum casks. The catch is that they’re not technically Cognac – which the regulations stipulate must be matured in barrels made of oak, sourced from within France or elsewhere, as long as they have not previously held anything other than wine or fortified wine. Instead, they’re labelled as ‘eau de vie de vin’. But whether the Ferrand fans who snap up these limited releases care is a moot point.

Gabriel would love the regulations to change – he wryly acknowledges that it might happen ‘by the time I’m 75’ – but others are not so sure. Courvoisier’s recent Mizunara release stays within the rules because it was part-matured in a virgin Japanese mizunara oak cask. Had that cask previously contained Japanese whisky, it would have been outlawed.

‘It’s really important for us to have rules,’ says Courvoisier mai?tre de chai Thibaut Hontanx. ‘That’s what makes us Cognac, and there’s still plenty of room for innovation. Mizunara is just one of them, but there are lots of others. If you want, you can create something new.’

Talking out loud

Charles Braastad, Delamain

Sometimes true innovation comes not in the way that something is made, but the way it is talked about. Historically, Cognac has been notoriously shy about many aspects of its creation, instead content to surf the fame of its big names, and the catch-all age designations of VS, VSOP, XO et al. That’s changing now. The front labels for Delamain’s Ple?iade Cognacs are teeming with frankly geeky information, from cask number to details of filtration and reduction techniques – and, according to Delamain managing director Charles Braastad, that’s no accident. ‘There is so much to say about Cognac, so much to explain,’ he says. ‘We have thousands of casks in our cellars and they are all different. We want to bring more transparency.’

The third annual tranche of Ple?iade releases includes a £184 single-cask expression of La Rambaudie, the Grande Champagne vineyard now managed by Delamain. Beyond terroir, the range also serves to highlight the human element – the people who toil, with very little publicity, to craft the Cognacs the world loves. Delamain’s Te?moignage de M Dauge (‘Mr Dauge’s Testimony’) is a remarkable Cognac with a remarkable story. Distilled by an octogenarian grower using a tiny, ancient, copper pot still in 1969, just before it was taken out of commission, it matured for…

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Innovation in Cognac  
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