The Cognac Masters 2018 results

8th May, 2018 by Melita Kiely

This year’s Cognac Masters competition had a strong showing across the board, with expressions netting plenty of Masters and Golds, reflecting the skills and talent in this thriving category. The Spirits Business raises a glass to the winners.

Global Cognac sales soared to new­found heights in 2017, hitting their highest level in both volume and value, according to figures from the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC). Turnover topped an impressive €3.15 billion (US$3.85bn), as volume and value jumped up by 11% and 14% respectively. All over the world the signs show that Cognac is in demand, from its biggest market, the US, to the Baltics, Africa and Europe – and even China, where sales are rebounding after the crippling effects of 2012’s government austerity measures.

But enough about quantity – what about the quality? Assembling to put the Cognac category through its paces was an esteemed set of judges, who were split into two panels. Forming the first team were: Phil Duffy, head of spirits at Amathus; Nicola Thomson, director of Fifteen71; Matt Chambers, co­founder of Whisky for Everyone; and Amy Hopkins, editor of The Spirits Business, who chaired the group.

The second panel comprised: Domenico Doronzo, spirits buyer; Matthew Neal, cocktail bartender and consultant; Antony Moss, director of strategic planning at WSET; and me, Melita Kiely, deputy editor of The Spirits Business and chair of the second team. As the judges took their seats in the James Cochran pop­up in Angel, London, it was time to get the day’s competition under way.

Hopkins’ judges were first presented with a No Age Statement flight, which delivered a Gold medal for De Luze Extra Delight Fine Champagne, with its notes of “gingerbread” and “almond”. “The alcohol was quite nice and gentle,” said Duffy. “It evolved in the glass.”

It was then on to the price-­point categories – which can be an issue of contention in Cognac because of the high price tags brands can command. My panel tackled the No Age Statement – Premium flight and awarded two medals – one Silver and one Gold, the latter given to Camus Ile de Ré Fine Island. Judges highlighted notes of “eucalyptus” and “orange peel” on the nose, as well as “toffee” and “toast” on the palate. Moss said: “It captured the grape­-raisin element; that fresh element that makes Cognac unique. It was nicely aged and the oak was very well integrated. Overall, a very good Gold.”

A LOT OF COMPLEXITY

The medals were now coming thick and fast, with Hopkins’ panel awarding two Golds and two Silvers in the next flight: No Age Statement – Super Premium. Gold medallist Hardy’s Legend 1863 showed flavours of “baked prunes”, “milk chocolate” and “treacle” on the palate. Fellow Gold­-medal winner Ferrand Cognac 1840 Original Formula was praised for its “rancio and dried apricot” on the nose, with more “earthy, coffee” notes on the palate to create a “very pleasant all­rounder”. “There’s a menthol, almost medicinal fruitiness to it,” said Duffy about the Maison Ferrand entry. “It’s remarkably different. There’s a lot of complexity.”

Moving up a price bracket to No Age Statement – Ultra Premium, and the competition discovered its first Master of the day: Camus Extra Dark and Intense. My panel lapped up aromas of “medjool dates” and “wood polish” combined with flavours of “toffee”, “raisins” and “nutmeg”. “That depth of flavour and wood ageing, that’s what you pay for,” enthused Moss. “It was a very elegant Cognac. The underlying aromatic spirit was still there, it had just developed new characteristics from the influence of the wood during ageing.”

The No Age Statement – Single Cru flight was short but sweet, delivering a Gold medal for Louis Royer Extra, with “tobacco, earthy” notes on the nose and a “very long finish”.

Meanwhile, the Single Vintage flight garnered one Gold and two Silvers, with Hermitage 1958 Borderies Cognac scooping the higher accolade. Judges particularly enjoyed the “toffee, tobacco, toast” aromas present on the nose, which led to “bread, peach and butterscotch” on the palate. Neal said: “They were all so different. It’s nice that Cognac is doing what other categories are doing and trying to experiment to grow. This sort of stuff will capture imaginations and keep people drinking.”

Hopkins’ panel uncovered a second Master in the Vintage – Single Estate round, a pleasant finding, given the growing popularity surrounding single­-estate spirits. The winner, Hermitage Cognac Marie Louise Crystal Decanter, offered “hints of sulphur, burnt peach/almond” on the nose, leading to “vanilla, ginger, orange” sweetness on the palate. Duffy said: “When Cognac is done well, it is exceptionally good at ageing.” Chambers also had high praise for the expression, and added: “It had a vibrancy but a nice richness on the palate.” A Gold medal was also awarded to Hermitage Segonzac 45 Year Old Grande Champagne Cognac.

The flights then reverted to focusing on price point as the groups entered the VS age range. Within the VS Premium flight, Courcel by La Martiniquaise and Prince Hubert de Polignac VS were both awarded Silvers.

Progressing to the VS – Super Premium round, judges found two entrants worthy of Gold medals: “light, pleasant” Honor VS and “sweet but spicy” Naud Cognac VS. Duffy said of the Super Premium flight: “I was impressed by these two in particular because they were well balanced and nice to sip on their own.”

Meanwhile, a small VS – Single Cru heat delivered a Silver for Cognac Frapin 1270, praised for its mixing ability. A Silver was also awarded to Camus Borderies VSOP in the VSOP – Single Estate flight.

VSOP – Premium presented a throng of medals, with two Golds given to J. Dupont Art Nouveau VSOP Grande Champagne and D’Ussé. “The flavours have evolved in this category,” Moss said. “There were aromas like coffee, and a different nuttiness compared with VS. You can feel the step up from VS with the wider range of flavours.” Two Silvers were also given to Louis Royer VSOP and Naud Cognac VSOP.

In the VSOP – Super Premium Cognacs round, Honor VSOP walked away with a Silver for its flavoursome palate of “white chocolate and blueberry panna cotta”.

The next age bracket up, the XO flights, generated even greater intrigue among our panel members, in light of the news that broke earlier this year regarding updated regulations for the XO category. As of April, all XO Cognac must be aged for a minimum of 10 years, compared with the previous six. The BNIC has given all XO Cognacs aged for six, seven, eight or nine years and packaged before 31 March 2018 permission to be sold as XO until 31 March 2019. It will certainly be interesting to see how the new rules affect the quality and production of the XO segment in next year’s competition.

But for now, there was great excitement and an abundance of medal winners to be found in the XO entries. The XO – Super Premium flight welcomed yet another Master, this time from De Luze XO Fine Champagne, praised for its “delicate but complex” nose, “baked apples and a hint of burnt toast” on the palate. “This is really gorgeous,” praised Moss. “This is what I would expect from an XO. Lovely ‘grapiness’ and high quality spirit that’s shown it can go through extended ageing and come out beautiful at the other end. This is magical.”

(L­R): Domenico Doronzo, Antony Moss, Phil Duffy, Amy Hopkins, Matthew Neal, Melita Kiely, Nicola Thomson and Matt Chambers

(L­R): Domenico Doronzo, Antony Moss, Phil Duffy, Amy Hopkins, Matthew Neal, Melita Kiely, Nicola Thomson and Matt Chambers

MAKE YOUR MARK

A Gold was also given to Pierre Ferrand Reserve Double Cask, while Renault Cognac Carte Noire Extra Old bagged Silver. “I loved this flight,” said Neal. “This is what happens when you’ve got older casks to play with. You can define your house style and make your mark on the spirit.”

Stepping up a notch in terms of price point, and it was on to the XO – Ultra Premium entries, the biggest flight of the day. Quality was evident across the board, and yet another Master medal was brought to light – Martell Cordon Bleu Extra. Thomson was hugely impressed: “There’s beautiful passion fruit and coconut on the nose, quince, elderflower, honey, baked carrots – there’s so much going on.” Chambers agreed: “It was incredibly elegant, with lots of depth on all levels, with warming earthy spices.”

A plethora of Gold recipients were judged in this flight as well: Courvoisier Cognac XO, J. Dupont Art Déco XO Grande Champagne, D’Ussé XO, Martell XO, Pierre Ferrand Sélection des Anges, Larsen Cognac Extra Or and Naud Cognac Extra. Louis Royer XO and Martell Cordon Bleu were awarded Silver medals. Chambers said of the flight: “There’s a reputation for XO to be potentially over-sweetened, but these weren’t.” Duffy agreed, and added: “The sickly­-sweet thing has been an ongoing issue and it’s nice to see really good Cognacs. Any one of them I could have sat and sipped. They all warranted revisits.”

You’d think that would be a tough round to follow, given the sheer number of medals earned in the previous flight, but surpassing expectations were the XO – Single Cru Cognacs, which yielded two Master medals. The first was given to Cognac Frapin Cigar Blend XO, described by Moss as “compelling and sublime”. The second was awarded to Cognac Frapin Château Fontpinot XO, which you can “relax into like a comfortable armchair”. Doronzo was particularly enamoured with the second Master winner: “The texture there is fantastic, really great. It was oily, mouth­-coating, something you want to pick up. Every time you taste it, you find new flavours.”

However, that was not the end of the Masters. The final flight, XO – Single Estate, delivered the last Master of the day: Camus Borderies XO Family Reserve, with its “completely seamless integration between spirit and wood”. Neal said: “Once you get past that sugary red wine, it drops off and is hot, unapologetically flavourful, beautifully rich.

It’s a rarity to finish a Masters competition with such a strong list of entries deemed worthy of the highest accolade. As Neal concluded: “This Masters, which I haven’t seen in others, was a very solid, consistent category, where we saw a certain standard presented across every flight.”

It’s testament to the soaring quality of Cognac brands and the skill and craftsmanship of the houses behind them.

Click through to the following page for the complete list of medal winners from The Cognac Masters 2018.

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