Smooth But Not Too Smooth

What $3,500 cognac tastes like.

(Courtesy Courvoisier)

The nose of a good Cognac should match its taste. So unlike their counterparts in the wine industry, members of the tasting committee at Courvoisier don’t actually get to taste their product much.

“We are working every day, testing a lot of Cognac,” Patrice Pinet, Courvoisier’s master blender, says. “But we are only smelling. We don’t need to have it in the mouth, apart from very old Cognac. When we reach around 40 years, we have to check.”

He’s leading a tasting in an upstairs dining room at 25 Lusk, where chef Matthew Dolan has created a small menu to pair with three of the label’s top offerings, VSOP, XO, and L’Essence. Pinet usually travels to the U.S. only once a year, and this time, it’s to act as the brand ambassador for L’Essence, a limited-edition blend of rare Courvoisier vintages chosen for their advanced age. Not a drop of what this flat, impossibly heavy decanter contains was distilled less than 30 years ago, and the oldest components come from 1909. While the distiller can’t legally set the price — as the product technically belongs to the distributor — the suggested retail is $3,500 a bottle. For this, you get a case with LED lights, a protective bag for the bottle itself, and a crystal stopper embossed with a crown that’s meant to evoke a ring Napoleon I gave to his bravest soldiers. Only 70 or 80 bottles sold in the U.S. in 2015. Overall, though, Courvoisier expects a record volume of sales this year. It relaunched the brand with a party in the Eiffel Tower that re-created the menu from the Tower’s 1889 opening, at which fin-de-siècle Parisians toasted the tallest structure ever built with Courvoisier.

The blend combines distilled wine from six growth regions, or crus, two of which are named Grande-Champagne and Petit-Champagne even though the part of France famed for its sparkling white wine is far to the northeast of the town of Cognac. Confusing, yes, but it makes sense: The name comes from the chalky earth common to both regions, in which viticulture flourishes. Being porous limestone, such soil retains water, and because the roots of the grapes can penetrate as deep as 20 meters, they can withstand dry summers based only on spring rain — as was the case in 2016.

Four companies sell 85 percent of the world’s Cognac, but only 20 percent of Courvoisier’s total base originates at the label’s own distillery. The remaining 80 percent comes from farms throughout the region, many of them small operations that may have only one pot still, or none at all. Some of these wine-growers work on contracts going back to the 19th century, making them highly specialized. (The oldest Courvoisier in existence dates to 1789. Only two bottles remain, one of which was on sale at Harrod’s in London for £100,000 and neither of which is likely ever to be opened.) Now that it’s been made for centuries, “99 percent of people are doing a good job,” Pinet says. “The bad growers are not continuing.”

Most people think of Cognac as an after-dinner drink to be enjoyed neat, but times change, and it’s getting incorporated into contemporary cocktail culture in the form of the French 75 and the Old Fashioned. (There’s an added wrinkle to this: Originally, the term “Old Fashioned” referred to bourbon served “in an old-fashioned style” of brandy or Cognac, plus sugar and bitters.) And if you substitute it for vodka in a Cosmopolitan, make sure to use Grand Marnier instead of grocery-store triple sec. In a nice harmonic resonance, Grand Marnier is an orange liqueur made with Cognac.

We start with VSOP and drink it neat. The classification stands for “Very Superior Old Pale,” a name that British merchants applied more than 100 years ago to distinguish it from the lower tier, VS (or Very Special), and the higher tier, XO (or Extra Old) — and quite likely from ordinary brandy, which can be distilled from any fruit.

Of VSOP, Pinet says, “In terms of quality and price, it’s the perfect Cognac.”

Aged a minimum of four years in a barrel, it carries a lot of floral and fruity aromas, like jasmine, peach, and almond. When paired with a smoked Muscovy duck over roasted pineapple with marcona almonds, the salt brings out the spirit’s inherent salinity, as the grapes grow in an oceanic climate not far from the Atlantic.

The XO, by contrast, has aged between 10 and 30 years in a barrel. Pinet points out the violet notes, as well as the candied orange and dried fruit, emphasizing that it’s oxidation that has lent these characteristics.

“If you only use 10-year-old Cognac, you will not notice a difference between VSOP” and XO, he says.

Age is important, of course. But apart from the skills of the wine-grower, it’s the moisture in the air of the cellar in which Courvoisier ages that imparts the most character to the Cognac. To manage the ratio of alcohol to water as the product gradually evaporates, the label moves its barrels from dry to humid cellars, typically finishing in the latter.

A dry cellar would seem to be the enemy of a spirit that ages for decades; angel share is inevitable, but why give more to the gods than absolutely necessary? Because if you only have a humid cellar, Pinet says, the Cognac will be “too smooth.”

“There is no attack, no character,” he says. “You need to have some dry to get more aromas.”

Then it’s time for L’Essence, some of its components dating to the Fourth Republic and even to La Belle Époque. Would Pinet add a drop or two of water to express it, the way one might with single-malt scotch? Yes, he says, noting that it’s popular to drink that way in Asia, where most L’Essence is sold. (“I was surprised the first time, but it’s good.”)

L’Essence’s aroma changes as its various esters diffuse into the air at different rates, step by step. To move from cigar boxes to marzipan, with a little toffee and honey, is a bewitching effect. This “mystical minute” is the flip side of Courvoisier’s epochal time scale.

“The pleasure is to smell, to let it breathe, and then to smell it again,” Pinet says. “Always, you discover something else.”

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