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Producers consider changes to Cognac AOC

Leading names in Cognac are discussing potential changes to the category’s appellation, as more producers experiment with wood and grape varieties.

Image credit: BNIC / Stéphane Charbeau

Cognac’s long-standing Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) stipulates the spirit’s delimited region of production, grape varieties, distillation, ageing, and blending processes.

Some brands are experimenting outside of the regulations and label such innovations as ‘eau­-de-­vie de vin’. Others are innovating within the AOC’s boundaries.

Last year, Courvoisier became one of the first major Cognac houses to move into barrel finishing with the launch of Courvoisier Sherry Cask Finish. Cognac’s appellation permits finishing as long and the cask previously contained wine or wine distillate.

Speaking to The Spirits Business, Patrice Pinet, master blender for Beam Suntory-owned Courvoisier, said there is “space for innovation” within the appellation.

However, he added: “If we have to open the specification up a little bit more, I would say why not? We are looking at this, but always in the mindset that if we do we have to preserve the tradition and quality of Cognac.

“If we are not strict, people could think we are losing our quality levels. That’s why a long discussion and strong evaluation is needed.”

Courvoisier is striking up industry debate about cask finishing and is also in discussion with trade association the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC) about the prospect of introducing new grape varieties to the Cognac region.

According to Pinet, new grape varieties could be more resistant to disease in the face of global warming.

“If after the trials we think there is a good new grape variety for this region, then the regulation will have to be amended for it to be used.”

‘Waiting to be reinvigorated’

Alexandre Gabriel, president of Cognac Ferrand, said he would “definitely” support changes to the AOC. The house is inspired by “ancient techniques” in Cognac that Gabriel believes are “waiting to be reinvigorated”.

He discovered that Cognac was once aged in a variety of woods – including chestnut, acacia, mulberry and wild cherry – and so conducted his own experiments in wood finishing and released ‘eau-­de-­vie de vin’ expressions under Ferrand’s Renegade Barrel range.

However, Gabriel warned against an “innovation race” and stressed that Cognac must not “mimic or imitate other spirits”.

He added: “Forty years ago, whisky started to successfully push a certain idea of terroir with different single malt expressions. It has been done with great success as we all know. Yet Cognac has had terroir and provenance at the core of its DNA. For some reason, most producers chose to not mention it. Are we going to let these new findings of the different types of woods pass by? I really hope not.”

Jérôme Durand, managing director of Altia-owned Renault and Larsen, said BNIC members are “very focused” on “the role of innovation”.

Earlier this year, Renault unveiled a new expression specifically designed to pair with coffee, inspired by the Nordic culture of enjoying both beverages together. For the cocktail market, Larsen unveiled its Winter Blend and Summer Blend, an eau-­de­-vie de vin, in 2016.

“My personal point of view is that in a world that accelerates very quickly, we need to need to be open more than ever,” said Durand. “But an important point for Cognac more than anywhere else is we must not overreact.

“Sometimes we feel like we are a bit in the past, but I guess that’s one of the strengths of the appellation. So definitely we need long-term management of the GI.”

For a more in-depth look at innovation in Cognac, see the May edition of The Spirits Business, out now.

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