There has been a kind of coup in the brandy world. The apparently impregnable walls of superiority surrounding Cognac, the king of brandy, have been breached, and Armagnac has taken a lump out of its hitherto unchallenged territory. I know this isn't a very new phenomenon; in fact it has taken quite a while. I am still a little bewildered, however, by why it should have happened. I suppose it is just part of the overall trend in the booze business towards more accessible flavours and easier drinking styles. Armagnac has a sweetness about it that certainly makes it less challenging to drink but I am, at least for the moment, unconvinced by the plaudits it has gained.
Back in the early 1970s, long before the bureaucrats, may they rot in hell, took over our lives and put a stop to anyone having fun, the English wine trade used to bottle what we called 'Old Landed Cognac.' We sat on a milking stool in front of an enormous old sherry cask, filled with cognac, probably of indeterminate but considerable age, with a small tap at the bottom, and filled clear Bordeaux shaped bottles with the staggeringly delicious liquid within. Despite the fact that the fumes from the brandy made us plastered within only a few minutes, we developed the skill of flicking the over-fill from one bottle into the next with extraordinary accuracy. After weeks of this I was totally hooked on the wonderful complex aromas and flavours of Cognac, and I have yet to recover.
A couple of years later I went on my first trip to the beautiful town of Cognac to visit the ancient establishment of Otard. Not one of the massive brands of Cognac, they are, however, one of the oldest and they own Château de Cognac, right on the Charente River. It was an extraordinary trip. We flew in a private plane from Biggin Hill, heading for Cognac aerodrome; a military base and apparently the busiest runway in Europe. It seems the French air-force train their pilots well. I was sitting in the co-pilot's seat as the rest of the plane was filled with rather more senior people than I, and I heard the pilot, around forty miles north of Cognac, call up flight control and ask for clearance to land. Nervous, on my first trip in a mini plane, I was somewhat horrified to hear them tell him that owing to a surprise canvassing visit by the French president the aerodrome was closed. I was even more horrified when he brought out a fold-up map of the area, the kind you have in the car in case you get lost, and started to look for an alternative place to land. Maybe I am just a wimp, but this looked to me decidedly Heath Robinson and we were still several thousand feet up. "Oh look" he said, "there's a landing strip over here" pointing at a spot fifty odd miles west of where we wanted to be. "That will do fine." The plane banked sharply to the right and we headed towards the Atlantic Ocean.
We spotted the landing strip several miles away and I started to breathe again. We landed gently and called our hosts to come and collect us. There wasn't a soul around, not even a sheep; just a small shed and a flock of gliders sitting silently in the sun. We weren't thrilled at the idea of waiting here for several hours as we were hungry and our supply of wine had run dry. We hadn't reckoned on the wonderful French understanding that food is the most important thing in life. We walked into the shed and discovered that the gliding club we had invaded had a restaurant where we were soon tucking in to perfect Steak Frites and copious quantities of local wine and Cognac. They treated us as if we were the first visitors they had had for weeks. Perhaps we were!
Odd adventure aside, we did finally arrive, a little the worse for wear, in the beautiful town of Cognac, sitting astride the river Charente. The first mention of Eau de Vie in the region goes back as far as 1549, but it was in the 18th century that many foreign merchants came to the area and set up the companies we now know so well. The Martells came from Jersey, the Hardys and the Hennessys from Ireland and the Otards, our hosts for this occasion, from Scotland. The third largest vineyard area in France the soil in Cognac is largely chalk and produces the ideal wine for distillation; high in acidity and low in alcohol; somewhere between 8 and 10 percent. Eight different grape varieties are used, the main ones being Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Colombard.
The wine is distilled in distinctive and beautiful copper Charentais pot stills from the November following the vintage until March of the following year. The spirit is matured in casks of Limousin or Troncais oak for a minimum of two years and usually substantially more. It is during this period that the spirit reduces in strength and mellows and softens, taking on the colour and flavours of the wood. What evaporates, known as la part des anges, or the angel's share, causes an extraordinary black fungus to form on the buildings, sometimes several inches thick, giving them a kind of smoked look.
The great art of blending these spirits gives the cognac brands their constancy of style. It is a process requiring years of experience and expertise. It was because the cellars are fairly warm in Cognac and that the sprit tended to mature rather quickly, that we in England used to ship the casks quite young and finish the maturation in the UK. Hence the pleasurable job for a young trainee wine merchant in the late 1960s.
This magical spirit has a kind of edge to it that is not found in its southern neighbour of Armagnac and it is why I, for one, find cognac so much more complex a drink. Having said that I really think it is time to give Armagnac another look so I will take my prejudices in both hands and visit the Gers for the next issue and report back.