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Koya XO comes top in blind taste-test

Chinese brandy Koya came top in a blind taste-test against the world’s best-known XO Cognacs, smashing the expectations of an expert panel of judges.

Koya XO impressed a panel of judges with its complex taste profile

The time is ripe for high-end brandies from around the world to take on Cognac as consumer interest in handcrafted products with heritage and provenance evolves. Many of today’s top-rated brandies hail from non-traditional regions, and show that excellent grape-based spirits are not the preserve of France. According to a new report from trade show Vinexpo and the IWSR, premium-plus brandy is a trend to watch in the future as both microdistilleries and established players enhance the category’s premium credentials. Analysts claim that as Cognac supplies dwindle and prices soar, there’s a space for brandy to gain a new-found respect from connoisseurs.

But do brandies have what it takes to compete with Cognac when it comes to quality and style? Can they win on taste alone? One such brand that believes it has the ability to hold its own against luxury Cognac is Chinese brandy Koya. During the recent ProWein show in Düsseldorf, The Spirits Business and sister title the drinks business gathered together a panel of industry experts to put this belief to the test in a blind-tasting competition.

Patrick Schmitt MW, editor-in-chief of the drinks business, and Amy Hopkins, editor of The Spirits Business, chaired the panel, which also included: Lucy Shaw, editor of db; Jude Mullins, managing director for WSET Asia Pacific; Roslyn Frame, PR manager for Atom Brands; Victoria Stephen-Clarkson MW, director of The Little Fine Wine Company; Bob Davidson, sales manager for Imbibe; Bertrand Rocher, US business-development manager for Lucien Bernard; Lisa Breidthardt, of PR-Integra; and Frank Kämmer, a master sommelier.

Cognac comparison

The judges were told that the spirits included Cognacs and Chinese brandy, but were given no other information. Koya XO was tasted alongside some of the world’s most famous and highly regarded XO Cognacs: Hennessy XO, Courvoisier XO, Martell XO, Frapin Chateaux Fontpinot XO and Rémy Martin XO.

The panel tasted each expression, making notes on their profile and quality, then shared their scores with the chairs, who also took part in the judging process. The tasters were pleasantly surprised to discover that Koya XO was the most highly rated spirit of the competition, and claimed that it was indistinguishable from a luxury Cognac. Koya XO secured the most consistent high marks across the panel, whereas there was significant variation for most other spirits tasted.

Made in the Yantai region by famous Chinese winemaker Changyu, Koya draws a number of parallels to its Cognac cousins. Its terroir is similar to that of Cognac, with high-calcium soil weathered by gneiss – ideal for growing aromatic grapes. Yantai also has a moderate coastal climate and a frost-free season that lasts 216 days. Koya itself is distilled from Ugni Blanc grapes – the most common grape variety used in Cognac.

Hopkins said: “This is an incredibly characterful spirit, with a distinctive and interesting personality. It’s natural and is not overly sweet or oaky – it’s a balanced spirit with a range of interesting flavours that play together harmoniously.”

Judges felt the style of some of the other spirits was quite commercial, whereas Koya XO offered a unique profile they hadn’t encountered before. On the whole, they agreed that Koya offered an excellent opportunity for Cognac fans to branch out and try something different, without having to compromise on quality.

Judges tasted Koya against XO Cognacs completely blind

Surprise result

“This exercise was completely objective, and has yielded some fascinating insight,” Hopkins said. “Judges were surprised to discover that the most highly rated spirit of the tasting was an XO Chinese brandy. As Cognac seeks to appeal to the masses, and as brandy aims to establish itself in the luxury spirits sphere – at the same time as consumers become more experimental – it’s certainly worth comparing top examples from both categories. If Koya is anything to go by, high-end brandy is an exciting category to watch out for, and China has proved to be an emerging brandy region that is using creativity and skill to blow expectations out of the water.”

If the Judgment of Paris in 1976 marked the rise of New World wine, then the Düsseldorf Tasting in 2019 was similarly a key moment for brandy and the rise of its New World expressions. Koya’s top place in the XO brandy blind-tasting competition shows that Chinese brandy is more than fit to rival Cognac and Armagnac, and could even be seen as the third pole on the world brandy map.

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