Do Cognac regulations stifle innovation?
A rich tapestry of history is woven into the very soul of Cognac. The Spirits Business assesses a category that is starting to shake off the shackles of the past while respecting the traditions that have contributed so meaningfully to its success.
*This feature was first published in the May 2018 issue of The Spirits Business
When compared with quirky gins, cutting-edge whiskies and outlandish vodkas, Cognac, on the surface at least, doesn’t look like a hotbed of innovation. The category is subject to some of the strictest spirits regulations in the world, with each stage of production dictated by its longstanding Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC).
These rules that outline Cognac’s delimited region, grape varieties, distillation, ageing, and blending processes have undoubtedly enabled the industry to secure a reputation for quality and integrity – but has this been at the expense of experimentation?
Discussions over the appellation and whether it should evolve are ongoing, particularly as cross-category competition ramps up and as brands seek to recruit new consumers through creative products. In the meantime, a number of châteaux have proven that experimentation is possible within the confines of the AOC, while some have been happy to stray outside.
Rather than challenge the specificity of Cognac, Hine has created a line of expressions that celebrates it. In 2014, the Jarnac-based producer unveiled its Domaines Hine Bonneuil range, which, while highlighting Cognac’s terroir, rebels against the category’s tradition of blending with a single-estate, single-vintage, single-harvest offering. The series, made exclusively using grapes grown in the Grande Champagne enclave of Bonneuil, aims to “show what the vineyard does in any year”.
“Our ambition is to preserve and reveal the aroma#c essence of the ini#al white wine, evolving with each vintage, therefore not ageing over 10 years to prevent strong wood influence,” explains MarieEmmanuelle Febvret, Hine’s marketing manager. “We only release Bonneuil in outstanding vintages, as we step out of the blending process. Therefore we made the decision not to bottle 2007.” A 2008 vintage, however, will be released in the autumn.
Febvret says that while Cognac’s regulations “can feel a bit restrictive when considering product development in a dynamic spirits industry, they are paramount to preserve the identity of Cognac”. She continues: “We tend to seek innovation within our terroir, whether it is with our bicentennial tradition of single vintages, our approach to acute provenance with Bonneuil or with a specific collection of single casks available on demand.”
The big Cognac houses are also touting their provenance as a way to offer consumers something new – but o&en at the lower end of the price spectrum. Martell VS Single Distillery (RRP US$34.99) is, as its name suggests, a Cognac made using eau-de-vie distilled at one site. The brand has not disclosed precisely which distillery, but the resulting product is described as a “richer” expression of Martell’s signature style with an “elegant, fruitier profile”.
Cognac Ferrand, meanwhile, is researching the spirit’s past to find inspiration for the future. The Cognac house’s president, Alexandre Gabriel, believes that there are “ancient techniques” in Cognac that have been forgotten and 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. Since, according to law, Cognac can only be aged in oak, such products are labelled as ‘eau-de-vie de vin’ under Ferrand’s Renegade Barrel range. “While we think this is too bad, we do respect it,” Gabriel says.
However, barrel-finished Cognac is permitted by the appellation if the casks once contained wine or wine distillate. As such, Ferrand has released, in limited quantities, a Cognac finished in an ex-Sauternes wine barrel. “The idea is not to give the Cognac a Sauternes taste, but to underline certain floral and honey-like notes that are already present in this beautiful Cognac,” explains Gabriel.
Last year, Courvoisier became one of the first major Cognac houses to move into barrel finishing, with the launch of Courvoisier Sherry Cask Finish. The expression was released to “shake up the Cognac category” and “celebrate the magic of maturing”. Its initial blend is aged for two to eight years. This liquid is then matured for a further two and a half years in French limousin oak casks before moving to PX Sherry casks for at least four months.
According to master blender Patrice Pinet, the provenance of wood is a central aspect of Courvoisier’s innovation strategy. Rather than use a third-party supplier, the brand controls the purchase of wood from particular forests in France, which it then splits at its own facilities before creating staves.
Pinet notes that finding the right type of barrels for finishing is a process of trial and error. “You have to make sure you don’t get any bad effects from the wine, because in wine there are some preservatives that we don’t use in Cognac,” he says. “So sometimes you have to reburn the barrels to only get the good effects – it’s complicated.” In particular, Pinet found that using casks that once contained wine preserved with a lot of sulphur dioxide produced a subpar Cognac.
Courvoisier has recently extended its barrel-finished offering with the launch of an expression partially matured in Fontainebleau casks – made using wood sourced from the namesake town near Paris. The Cognac is a limited edition and exclusively available through Amazon in the UK.
“It’s always interesting to capture the attention of new consumers by speaking about new propositions for Cognac,” adds Pinet. “And sometimes innovation is important to retain your consumers, who might be looking at other products.”
A number of Cognac houses are experimenting with new flavour profiles to suit the spirit’s growing use as a cocktail ingredient. The Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC) sees that some new products “are often subtler” in flavour “with notes that can be brought out with different mixers and pairings”.
“Cognac has been used in cocktails dating back to the first printed cocktail books in the 1800s, and its flavour profiles continue to excite and inspire mixologists globally,” a spokesperson for the association claims. “Bartenders are beginning to experiment more with Cognac, beyond the classics, discovering new pairings – including simple serves such as Cognac and tonic or Cognac and ginger ale – which ensure the spirit is accessible across all seasons.”
The spirit’s reputation in the cocktail world received a significant boost when London’s Tony Conigliaro, of 69 Colebrook Row fame, opened his first international outpost on the banks of the river Charente last year. The bar, called Luciole, offers an “all-encompassing Cognac experience”, featuring a vast wall packed with Cognac bottles and an exploratory menu.
To capitalise on Cognac’s unfulfilled potential in the mixing world, some brands are moving away from traditional tropes, such as age, to present a more flavour-forward offering. Renault and Larsen, owned by Finnish drinks group Al#a, are two examples, and cater their innovations for the markets they are available in.
Earlier this year, Renault unveiled a new expression specifically designed to pair with coffee, inspired by the Nordic culture of enjoying both beverages together. Renault Avec targets a “new generation” of coffee houses that have alcohol licences and attract younger legal drinking-age consumers. “This is a totally new take on Cognac,” Jérôme Durand, managing director of Renault and Larsen, enthused at the #me. “We wanted to simplify the labelling and get away from the traditional strictures of age designation, which are o&en lost on the consumer, and even some professionals.”
Cellar master David Croizet and his team achieved the “mocha notes” present in Avec by plunging oak barrels into tanks containing hot water before they were brasero toasted. This process is repeated three times, which Renault says is a first for the Cognac industry.
Stablemate Larsen has targeted Asia with its VSOP Reserve and XO Reserve bottlings. According to Durand, both Cognacs have “more balance to fit more with gastronomy, which is very important in Asia”. He adds: “They have a typical Larsen character based on fruit, purity and elegance but the average age of the blends has been adapted.”
Specifically for the cocktail market, Larsen unveiled its Winter Blend and Summer Blend expressions in 2016. Larsen Summer Blend is bo%led as an eau-de-vie de vin, since it is only aged for six months, allowing the brand to “impress the purity of the fruit”. Larsen Winter Blend is labelled as a Cognac, but is similarly reluctant to focus on age. “We have had success with these two blends in Russia, Canada and Europe,” says Durand.
Single-estate producer Frapin also moved away from age with the launch of 1270, which replaced its VS expression. The Cognac is made from grapes grown on Frapin’s 240-hectare vineyard in Grande Champagne. It has been aged in humid cellars – first in new oak barrels for six months before moving to older casks for an extended period of matura#on. The Cognac has also been designed to suit summer cocktail serves. Bertrand Verduzier, international business director for Frapin, says of the role of age in Cognac: “It is important and recognised by most consumers, but it is definitely not the only thing to bear in mind. Authenticity, origin and rarity are also key features to retain consumers’ interest in the long run.”
Experimentation has also moved out of the cellars and into the vineyards as a number of producers test new or little known grape varieties. More than 90% of all Cognac is created by distilling Ugni Blanc wine, but Colombard, Folle Blanche, Jurançon Blanc, Meslier Saint-François, Mon#ls and Sémillon are all permitted under the AOC.
Ferrand has been “planting as much French Colombard as possible” in recent years. The variety is not native to Cognac and so makes up less than 1% of grapes grown in the region. “It is different, floral and exciting, and works wonderfully in a great blend,” enthuses Alexandre Gabriel. The distiller also believes that grape experimentation will be necessary for Cognac to evolve in the face of climate change. “We have to keep a very open mind in order to make sure that Cognac remains a one-of-a-kind spirit,” he says.
Courvoisier’s Pinet claims that his brand and the broader Cognac industry are working with the BNIC to trial new grape varieties that are resistant to disease in warmer climates. But to use these robust plants in production would require a change in the long-standing appellation, which may prove controversial.
Some brands are more vocal than others when it comes to the prospect of altering the appellation. Gabriel leaves little room for ambiguity and believes the regulation should “definitely” be amended.
However, he warns that Cognac should not look to enter an “innovation race” with other spirits. “At Ferrand, we are adamant about the fact that it is not for Cognac to mimic or imitate other spirits,” he stresses. “It already has so much to exploit from its rich past. It’s like a goldmine that longs to be reopened.”
Similarly, Renault and Larsen’s Durand believes that “there’s only one way to innovate in Cognac, and that’s by focusing on the long term”. He adds: “My personal point of view is that in a world that accelerates very quickly, we need to be more open than ever. But an important point for Cognac more than anywhere else is that we must not overreact.” Indeed – change too much and the industry’s carefully curated image could be tarnished.
According to Ruslan Grigoryev, export director of Ladoga Group, owner of Roullet Cognac, Cognac connoisseurs are o&en conservative in their tastes, so any proposed changes to the regulations to enable greater experimentation could be a moot point.
“It is not known how consumers will react to the introduction of innovation in this category,” he says.
For some players, the AOC offers enough scope to innovate as it stands. Frapin’s Bertrand Verduzier claims: “The regulation enables [brands] to maintain the best quality of the product. Does it prevent them from innovating? Every year new Cognacs are launched in the market.” He notes that moves such as increasing the minimum age of an XO Cognac from six to 10 years is a step “in the right direction to benefit of the consumer”. However, the change took seven years to implement, so any further alteration to the AOC is unlikely to be enacted swiftly.
Throughout the industry, players large and small agree that if the regulations are amended, then the change should not be too drastic, and should respect the image Cognac has worked so hard to curate. “We have to make sure that innovation is in line with tradition,” says Courvoisier’s Pinet. “If innovation is of high quality, it will be received well by history.”