The Cognac Masters 2014 results

12th September, 2014 by Becky Paskin

Standards are far from declining in the world of Cognac, as underpinned by this year’s Cognac Masters.

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The Cognac Masters 2014 revealed a wide selection of exceptional eaux-de-vie, although some continue to overdo the caramel

Volumes may have dived in the past 18 months as the Chinese reel away from luxury spending, but Cognac’s quality has not faltered.

The expressions entered into The Cognac Masters 2014 uncovered more than several exceptional examples of the traditional French brandy across a variety of categories.

Joining me in the enviable task of tasting them all at One Canada Square in London’s Canary Wharf were Tobias Gorn of The Whisky Shop; Matt Armitage, owner of new bar Craft Cocktail Company; and Guillaume Mahaut, group sommelier, ETM Group.

First on our plates for the day were the entry-level VS Cognacs, which despite their relative youthfulness, presented good structure and complexity which made for an interesting and generally impressive selection. “Although they weren’t as floral as I expected, I was getting a lot of candied fruit and depth from the VSs,” said Armitage. “Overall the standard was particularly high, much higher than I expected it to be.”

One of the smaller categories of the competition, the VS entries gained themselves three medals: two Golds for Louis Royer and Bisquit VS, and a Silver for Camus VS Elegance.

Taking one step up into VSOP territory – the busiest of the competition – our judges noted an obvious leap in quality, from decent entry-level liquid designed for newcomers to the category and for mixing in cocktails, to some fine examples of exquisite sipping Cognacs.

“This was a good flight with a selection of fantastic examples of the VSOP category,” exclaimed Mahaut. “Compared to VS I felt there was a lot more complexity, which mostly comes with the extra ageing.”

There were 10 medals awarded here, with two Masters going to Bisquit Prestige and Courvoisier VSOP, which surprisingly turned out to be my personal favourite of the competition for its vibrant nose and palate full of green apples and conference pears and exceptional length.

A special mention has to be made within this category for François Voyer VSOP Grande Champagne, which with its earthy, barnyard notes stood out as being somewhat unique.

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Judges were looking for a full nose that carried through onto the palate

Before continuing up an age statement into the XO category, we stopped to consider a handful of remarkable single cru VSOPs, all from Grande Champagne.

Among them were two exceptional expressions: J. Dupont Cognac VSOP Art Nouveau and Hermitage Provenance 10 Grand Champagne, both of which were awarded a Master. The judges remarked that both spirits were “really expressive” and “very complex”, making them fantastic examples of the type of flavours and depth VSOP can achieve.

Personally, I approached the XO category with a dose of caution. In previous years the age bracket has been criticised for its overuse of caramel to achieve a consistent colour and flavour, and in The Cognac Masters 2014, the trend continued albeit to a lesser degree. Some entries here took caramel addition to the extreme, masking a poor quality spirit with sugar in both appearance and taste, although a handful used the benefit of extra ageing to deliver complexity and a smooth mouthfeel.

Nine medals were awarded to the XOs, including three Masters for Bacardi’s D’Ussé XO, Bache Gabrielsen XO and François Voyer XO Gold Grande Champagne, the older sister of the farmyard standout VSOP.

“These Cognacs showed an amazing, diverse range of flavours, including biscuits, cinnamon and citrus, and proved that Cognac is sometimes worth the price tag,”

Armitage noted, although his sentiments on caramel colouring are a point to be heeded by Cognac houses. “There were one or two disappointments to do with caramel, although there were fewer examples than I expected,” he added. “People expect to see rich, dark colour in an XO and houses are meeting those expectations by adding so much caramel to the detriment of flavour. Its fine for consistency, but some have gone too far.”

The age statement categories concluded, we turned our attention to a small selection of single vintages, which can often give drinkers an opportunity to sample a slice of history. Despite the prestige associated with single vintages however, only one medal was awarded here, albeit a Master, to Frapin 1991 Grande Champagne Cognac. The expression delighted the judges with its “rainbow of flavours”, including tobacco, cedar wood and butter caramel, as well as baked apples.

As can often be the case with single vintages, a particular date in time does not necessarily mirror the quality of the liquid in the bottle. While this 1991 vintage shone, other entries in this category, including one distilled during the First World War, missed the mark.

“This flight shows Cognac can deliver fantastic quality, but not necessarily that the older vintages are better,” said The Whisky Shop’s Gorn. “Like any category, Cognac producers can over-age; they need to watch their cask selection.”

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The judges left to right: Guillaume Mahaut, ETM Group; Matt Armitage, Craft Cocktail Company; Toby Gorn, The Whisky Shop; and Becky Paskin, The Spirits Business.

With just two flights remaining, the judges journeyed into the upper echelons of luxury Cognac, where prices often leave the average consumer behind. Here, the elevated price tags were considered when marking the liquid in the glass, with the judges asked to question whether what they were tasting was worth paying half a month’s salary or more for a bottle. And it seems the general consensus was a resounding “yes”, with six medals awarded to the Superior set, including two Masters for Hermitage Provenance 30 and Hermitage Provenance 25. “There were some unbelievable flavours in there that I’d never tasted before in spirits, with tropical fruit combinations like passionfruit and melon,” exclaimed Armitage, while Mahaut noted there was “more complexity than in other rounds”.

The final round of the day contained just one entry. Sitting solo in the Prestige category was Courvoisier L’Essence, which would set you back an eye-watering £1,500 a bottle. Noting that our samples in front of us would be worth around £100 if ordered in a bar, we took the price tag extremely seriously. Nevertheless, the prestigious Cognac from Beam Suntory’s Courvoisier was judged to be worth it, delivering a nice level of tannins that rounded off a complex flavour profile that earned a Gold medal.

Although some lingering issues of wood and caramel overuse remained, by the end of the session, the judges’ view of Cognac as a wonderful and diverse spirit was certainly reaffirmed.

Click through the following pages to discover the medal-winning Cognac Masters 2014.

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