Food/Drink

Cognac 103 :: Who’s Who of Houses

by Megan Bedford
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Sep 27, 2006

So you know Courvoisier, Remy, and Hennessey, but what about Otard, Camus, or Paul Giraud? Americans may be the number one consumers of Cognac, but our knowledge of the spirit continues to lag far behind our ability to drink it. To be fair, most bars and restaurants are behind the times when it comes to Cognac, with rarely an option beyond two to choose from. The number one producers are, of course, the names we know (you, me, and the rappers, anyway): Remy Martin, Courvoisier, Hennessey, and Martell. While these big houses have a handle on the market, they are not only distinct from the smaller Cognac producers, but also from each other. I spent a grueling four days trying to uncover what makes each house unique--so whether you are planning a visit to Cognac, France or just a trip down the street to your local watering hole, this brand breakdown will help decide the perfect Cognac for you.


Remy Martin

I began my Cognac pilgrimage at Remy Martin, a house whose name is undeniably cuter when pronounced with a French accent I’ve yet to master. The first thing to note about Remy is that they only use grapes from the Grande and Petite Champagne growing areas in the heart of the Cognac region (this accounts for the label "Fine Champagne Cognac" found on every Remy bottle). While only 17% of the Cognac shipped from the region is legally recognized as Fine Champagne Cognac, Remy Martin accounts for 80% of it. The house dates back to 1724, and as the top choice among French consumers, a visit to Remy reveals their strong roots and impressive history.

The house of Remy Martin offers a variety of packages for visitors; I took the two-hour tour (available year round for up to 8 people at a time) that includes a walk around the cellars, visit to the bottle room, and tasting for 20 Euro. Remy Martin is one tour not to miss in Cognac, and is distinct for two reasons. First, the bottle room (or museum) offers a fascinating display of hundreds of Remy Martin bottles from antique to modern. The room also holds historic documents, including a letter from King Louis XV dating to 1738 when Remy Martin was granted special permission to plant new vineyards despite a general ban at the time.

Another reason to visit Remy Martin is their tasting, which is focused on pairing house Cognacs with French food. Unlike other houses, Remy Martin offers visitors a way to further understand the complexities of Cognac as a complement to other French fineries such as Roquefort cheese, foie gras, and dark chocolate. A glass of 1738 Accord Royal with a bite of Valrhona Guanaja chocolate melting and mingling in the taster’s mouth is sure to make a Cognac drinker of anyone. For Remy fans with a bit more time and money to spend, even more elaborate tasting packages are available, some of which include residence at the Remy Martin Guest House, located in the heart of Cognac. To those who are looking for an introduction to Remy Martin at home, I recommend the 1738. A harmonious Cognac, 1738 is smooth and mellow and yet still powerfully intense. Spicy notes include chocolate, cinnamon, and ginger, with fruity notes of candied orange, and floral hints of lily-of-the-valley. Remy Martin is surely the go-to house for classy French Cognac tradition.


Camus

Most people will tell you that there are four big Cognac houses in the area, but at Camus you’ll hear five. That’s because Camus is the number five producer of Cognac, and as the only major house that remains independently family owned, they are proud to be holding strong. In the spirit of independence, Camus has recently broken tradition by offering an XO using grapes strictly from Ile de Re, an island located within the Bois Ordinaires growing region. The result is a masculine Cognac (that is to say less floral) slightly akin to whiskey, with salty notes giving a hint of the sea. Camus’ Ile de Re XO is a fresh take on Cognac, and reason to believe that the number five house is ready and willing to run with the big dogs even if conforming isn’t part of the plan.

A visit to the Camus house in Cognac offers a glimpse into a house that is somewhat quieter than the big four, but decidedly larger than the smaller producers. A tour of the newly renovated visitor center costs just six Euro, including tasting. Other workshops are also available, including a blending workshop for 150 Euro that culminates in a bottle of self-blended Cognac to bring home. The best part? Camus stores your blending notes so that your own personal Cognac can be reordered and shipped to you at any time.


Hennessey

Hennessey draws gobs of tourists, all waiting for a tour of the house that screams luxury in its partnership with Louis Vuitton. Located in town on the scenic Charente River, Hennessey owns boats that transport visitors from the main welcoming center, across the river to their cellar and educational center. But don’t get too comfy on the boat; the cellars are literally located directly a very small river, opposite the visitor center. If Hennessey is the first stop on your Cognac pilgrimage, the information about growing areas, soils, and distillation process will be thorough and interesting. Hennessey offers a tutorial similar to that of other large houses, and save for the brief boat ride, there are no real advantages of doing the tour at Hennessey as opposed to another house (like the house of Otard which offers the same information, but with the perk of being in a creepy medieval castle).

That isn’t to say that Hennessey is one of the finest Cognacs around; one sip of their XO quickly explains their top position in the industry (and you won’t catch me mix-and-masking my Henny with Coke). My suggestion is to skip the Hennessey tour (unless you’re a diehard fan) and go straight to their visitor center for a tasting and, um, maybe pick up a Vuitton bag to carry around your new bottle of XO.


Otard

I really don’t think any visitor to Cognac should miss a trip to Otard, located in a fabulous old castle. By old I mean that it was first renovated (and has been renovated many times since) in 1450, and probably dates back to 950. Although the castle was purchased in 1796 by Baron Otard (one year after the Cognac house’s conception), it was once home to the Valois family, making it the birthplace of the future king of France, Francois I (Valois, of course). It’s fair to say that there are one or two spider webs kicking around the place.

I am always up for a good ghost story, so I was thrilled when my tour of Otard coincided with a nasty afternoon thunderstorm. To my delight, my cute tour guide worried that we wouldn’t lose power while we were in the dungeonesque bowels of the castle’s cellars (it never happened). However, equally chilling are the names carved into the stone walls of the majestic State Banquet Hall. Despite the grandeur of the Hall (which still hosts concert performances today), the names date back to the 18th century when the chateau was used as a prison-and the way the prisoners made their mark was with the teeth of their rather less fortunate cellmates.

But back to the Cognac, Otard offers a fine selection, and if you can stand a few more minutes among staff members dressed in medieval garb (did I forget to mention that guides and an occasional dummy display are costumed?) it is definitely worth trying the Otard Cognacs. My preference is the Otard XO Gold. It comes in a regal bottle, and with a balance of plum, hazelnut, and honey that is met by a masculine, woody finish, it’s clearly a drink meant for a king (or queen). Tours may cost six Euro per person, but a tour through a medieval cellar by a French girl in a velvet bodice is priceless.


Bache-Gabrielsen and Dupuy

Another one of my favorite visits was at the partnered house of Bache-Gabrielsen and Dupuy (these are two separate lines that share a cellar master and management). A decided change of pace from the big houses I had been to, I was welcomed warmly at the intimate office of this small house (although they are a small house with no bit "tours" to offer, they happily host visitors who will receive a great deal of individual attention). Visitors to the region shouldn’t miss out on the Cognacs of Bache-Gabrielsen, especially their "Pure and Rustic" line with fabulous packaging and, as the name implies, no additives. Not only will the experience be worthwhile, as guests have the unique opportunity to meet in a one-on-one setting with the cellar master and members of the Bache-Gabrielsen family, but also because, sadly, their Cognacs are not available for sale in the States.

Visiting the house of Bache-Gabrielsen captures the charm of being a tourist in the Cognac region by inviting guests to get close to the people involved in production. Cellar master, Jean-Philippe Bergier is a true pleasure to meet. For a man with a world-class sniffer, Bergier humbly says of his profession, "It’s really fantastic to be a cellar master in a small company. I can make my own blend. I can make the style I like." And it’s a style that Norwegians like, too-Bache-Gabrielsen is the number one supplier of Cognac to Scandinavian countries. Bergier further touted small-house benefits by explaining that they are able to produce smaller blends than the big houses, giving greater license to produce Cognacs that are fresher and more adventurous.

I went woozy over most of the "Pure and Rustic" line, but two to note are the wonderfully light and fresh VSOP, and the vintage 1990 Grande Champagne. In my heart is a soft spot for the Dupuy Very Old Pineau, a sweeter dessert spirit that is a blend of Cognac (25%) and regional grape juice (75%). For those of us who live close to the border (Canadian, that is) obtaining a bottle of Bache-Gabrielsen could be a reality; but unless you’re planning a trip to Cognac soon, keep your fingers crossed that the blessed blue label finds its way to the States one day soon.


Courvoisier

Courvoisier could be the King of Cognac, though I hesitate to use such a reference for fear of calling to mind Budweiser and Michael Jackson. What I mean to say is that Courvoisier is not only the number one selling Cognac in the U.S., but also one that consistently wins prestigious awards and worldwide accolade. I would not hesitate to add that Courvoisier wins the best logo award, hands down. If you’ve ever stared hard at a bottle of Courvoisier, you may have noticed the image of a cloaked figure reaching inside his jacket. This isn’t meant to represent just any Cognac drinking fellow, but Napoleon, the first big-name supporter of Courvoisier (he used to order it for his troops, in fact).

Courvoisier is not only a Cognac to drink while stateside, but also a house to visit when in France. Located in the nearby town of Jarnac, Courvoisier is located in a beautifully renovated chateau on the Charente River, just across from a lovely park that is perfectly suited for a picnic lunch. The Courvoisier Cognac museum, located in the visitor center, is home to several Napoleon artifacts, as well as some of the classiest Cognac bottles around, including a line specially created by Art Deco designer, Erte.

Courvoisier leads the industry with a dedication to updating the image of Cognac; and though they may be the trendsetters with many snazzy Cognac cocktails, their products are also tempting to drink neat (like their XO Imperial, which I’m head over heels for). The innovative minds at Courvoisier have hosted renowned bartenders to their chateau in Jarnac for mixing sessions-the result of which is a list of cocktails perfectly suited for Cognac (find many of these in the upcoming EDGE article, "Cognac 104 :: Not Just for Snifters Anymore"). Representative Jennifer Szersnovicz explained Courvoisier’s logic: Cognac actually used to have a strong cocktail image which the industry revoked during the 1950’s for one of a luxury, after-dinner drink. The goal at Courvoisier is to reclaim that once-accessible image of Cognac without, of course, sacrificing its status as a luxury spirit. With one foot firmly planted in tradition, and the other testing the waters of innovation, Courvoisier is well positioned to move successfully into the future of Cognac.


Martell

A visit to the house of Martell is a lot like finding the country of Cognac at Epcot Center, so Disney-esque are their displays (including a replica of a 19th century Cognac shipping barge which rocks and sways in a faux Charente River). While much of the information of a Martell tour does not differ in presentation from the other big houses, there are many notable differences in their style of production.

Dating back to 1715, Martell is distinct from other houses in that they distill without leis, and age their Cognac in barrels using only Troncais oak. Leis are the natural sediments of the ugni blanc grapes; these sediments lend the Cognac an earthy flavor when incorporated in the distillation process. Remy Martin distills all of their Cognacs with leis; on the other hand Martell filters all of their leis out. The result is a lighter, fruitier Martell Cognac that is better suited to the Troncais barrels. Troncais oak is more finely grained, softer, and offers smoother tannins. As you might guess, Remy Martin uses Limousin oak, which is harder and more porous, with a stronger tannic quality.

Martell’s signature Cognac, Cordon Bleu (no chicken, ham, or cheese involved), captures the qualities of their non-leis, Troncais practices, by using Borderies grapes (these tend to display floral and fruity characteristics). Martell is the number one choice in the U.K., and for drinkers who lean toward more feminine Cognac, they are certainly the label to look to.


Cognac Ferrand

In contrast to the house of Bache-Gabrielsen, Cognac Ferrand does not host visitors, but does export to the United States. So this label is one for those of you planning a trip to the region via your local liquor store. While they are the producers of the major label Landy, there is also a line of Cognac simply labeled "Cognac Pierre Ferrand." What I like most about this line is that it is available in the States in small, 200 ml bottle, sampler packs. This is a great way to get to know Cognac, and become comfortable tasting and testing. While Cognac Pierre Ferrand uses grapes only of the Grand Champagne region, the four bottles in my sampler pack displayed distinct qualities. Ranging from light and floral to strong and spicy, I was a sucker for the Cigare Riserve, with its tobacco, cinnamon, and allspice flavors, though the full-bodied, fruity Reserve also gave a good tug at my heart.


Paul Giraud

The house of Paul Giraud was my final stop before I said goodbye to Cognac and caught my flight back to America. While many of the houses I visited captured the spirit of Cognac, Paul Giraud had a serious advantage on the others: Located in Grand Champagne, Giraud is entirely independent. That means he grows and harvests his own grapes, distills his eau de vie, ages, blends, and bottles all his own Cognacs himself. While the farmhouse that is the house of Paul Giraud has been in the family since sometime in the 1600’s, it has been been used to harvest ugni blanc grapes for Cognac since 1835. Although his grandfather and father both sold their eau de vie to Remy Martin, Paul Giraud realized a possibility to bottle and sell their own Cognac. After all, they did hold the most sought-after product in the region: Grand Champagne ugni blanc grapes.

Giraud is a kind and well-spoken man, and a pleasure to meet. About the transition from a farm supplying major houses to becoming their own house, Giraud says, "I am here because of the work-long work-of my father. It was not a dream; it was my way." Giraud describes himself as a young man returned from college with the utter conviction that their family-made Cognacs were good enough to create a brand. As it turns out, they were. Giraud works with seven others to produce between 25,000 and 30,000 bottles every year, 85% of which sell abroad, mainly in Japan and America. And although Paul Giraud was the one with a mind toward innovation, he credits his father for having given him the material to start; if not for the family history (including the wealth of aged Cognacs), becoming an independent house would have been impossible. Giraud is exceptionally humble in this respect, "I think it is like a train," he explains. "When it is going fast you don’t need a lot of energy to continue. My job is to continue the work of my father."

With a focus on quality and tradition, Paul Giraud Cognacs are exceptional. Unlike other producers, Giraud uses a minimal amount of chemicals, and insists on picking grapes by hand, rather than using the harvesting machine like most farmers in the area. A natural spring gives their cellar a natural balance of humidity-all the surroundings of which visitors are welcome to tour upon appointment or even just stopping by. If you happen to be in the area, a quick excursion to the village called Bouteville, where Paul Giraud is located, is certainly warranted. For those of you in the states who want a true taste of pure Cognac countryside, a careful search for Paul Giraud Cognac online is well worth the effort-while it is certainly more difficult to find then say, Hennessey, I guarantee you’ll be glad you did.


Whew-as you can see I did a lot of tasting, and smuggled an obscene amount of Cognac back in my suitcase. The one similarity I was able to find between the houses is that they all have their own distinctions: from small houses to big houses, with leis or without, castles to farms, experiencing Cognac comes in all shapes and sizes. Whether you find them in Cognac or at your hometown liquor store, realizing the diversity between brands is part of what makes discovering Cognac so enjoyable. So now that you know a bit about the area, how the Cognac is made, and what makes each house unique, all that’s left is how to drink it. Stay tuned on EDGE for "Cognac 104 :: Not Just for Snifters Anymore."

Find Houses online at:

www.remy.com

www.camus.fr

www.hennessey.com

www.otard.com

www.cognac-dupuy.com

www.bache-gabrielsen.com

www.courvoisier.com

www.martell.com

www.cognacferrand.com

www.swfrance.com/giraud.htm

Megan Bedford is a freelance food, drink, and travel writer. At a young age her mother told her, "food is love," and she took it to heart. She invites your comments at: mbedford@edgepublications.com.


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