August 25, 2011
The event: A presentation and tasting of three Courvoisier Cognacs, including a new release of Courvoisier 12, a blend of Cognac whose components have a minimum age of twelve years.
Background: Courvoisier has just released two age-identified Cognacs (12 and 21) for the North American market. The traditional age identification system of Cognac, which will be maintained for other products, classifies cognacs by minimum age in cask. The minimum age in cask for any component of VS is 2 years; the minimum age for any component of VSOP is 4 years, and the minimum age for any component of XO is 6 years.
It's fair to say that the traditional classification system is a little arcane, although it's not that difficult to understand. But the marketing issue behind this new release is the desire to identify age clearly on the label, as with premium Scotch, in order to attract the attention of the uneducated rich North American consumer. Premium cognacs can be much older than the classification minimums, and the XO we tasted is composed of 20- to 35-year-old unblended eaux-de-vie. Tradition aside, why not tout this on the front label directly? It will be interesting to see if this approach will ever be taken back to the European market.
Some observations: The presentation and tasting was led by Pierre Szersnovicz, Courvoisier's Global Brand Ambassador, who is also a member of the spirit blending team and the Director of Spirits Quality Control. While I have some familiarity with Cognac production, it was very enjoyable to hear an expert discuss his process and answer questions in some detail.
I was particularly interested in the some aspects of the process of making the wine that is distilled to become Cognac. Almost all of the wine is made from Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano), which is picked at low levels of ripeness to produce an acidic, fresh and fragrant wine with low alcohol. Courvoisier and the other Cognac houses generally contract with growers to purchase their fermented wine rather than the grapes themselves, so wine production is distributed widely across the region and is in the hands of the growers. Along the way the Cognac houses "advise" growers about aspects of production, including when to harvest, and they pay based on the quality of the wine received. There is very little room for the romance of the vineyard here! My impression is that it is a serious quality control endeavour, the first step in a very long, exacting and costly production process.
My inclination is to believe that the distillation process should remove almost all of the character of the base wine, and that most of the aromas and flavours will come from the distillation process itself, along with character imparted by oak barrels, aging and oxidation. But one of the interesting tenets of Cognac production is that the different areas of Cognac, with different soils and terroirs, produce eaux-de-vie with distinctly different characteristics. After describing the terroirs of six growing areas or Crus, one of my Spirits textbooks says that
"The Champagnes [Grande and Petite] produces eaux-de-vie with aromas akin to jasmine and lime blossom and which are best suited to long aging; Borderies has more weight and a hint of violet; Fine Bois has a grapey fruitiness and in general matures more quickly."(1)
Cognac experts can often identify the source of the base wine, even after years of aging.
The tasting: These are presented in the reverse order, largely because of focus and interest.
Courvoisier 12, $89.95 at selected LCBO's: This is a blend of eaux-de-vie largely sourced from the Borderies. The minimum age in cask is 12 years, which we were told is an ideal age for eaux-de-vie from this source. The alcohol was soft and subdued on the nose, with delicate floral notes, dried apricots, and to me an obvious honey and beeswax tone. Add hints of chocolate and almond to the smooth integrated palate, and a long finish. At $89.95, compared with my VS (roughly $55.00) that I'm sipping as I write this, it's a real bargain. There is lots of complexity, but the softness and integration of the alcohol makes this an easy entry to higher quality Cognac.
Courvoisier XO, $219.95, widely available across the LCBO: Pierre told us that the components of this XO are between 20 and 35 years in cask. The sources for the eaux-de-vie are from Grande and Petite Champagne and the Borderies. While I found the alcohol quite noticeable on the nose, the oak-derived aromas of toffee and vanilla were nestled behind the floral, orange and apricot notes. This is big, powerful and complex, with a very long finish. If you're on a budget as I am, remember that you can get 25 servings out of this!
Courvoisier Exclusif VSOP, 69.95 at selected LCBO's: The Exclusif was unabashedly presented as an attempt to capture the younger consumer who wants a premium label in a mixed drink. The eaux-de-vie are 7-12 years, from both Grande and Petite Champagne, as well as the Borderies and Fine Bois. I found the oak aromas and flavours very forward, with caramel and floral high notes and obvious alcohol, along with a slightly vegetal or medicinal aroma. Relative to the other samples I found this to be a little strident in tone, but perhaps this is what makes Exclusif appropriate as a mixer.
I would have liked to compare Exclusive to the traditional VSOP, and perhaps the VS as well. Oh well, maybe next time. But I have found a nearby store that stocks the Courvoisier 12!
(1) Dave Broom, Distilling Knowledge: a Professional Guide to Spirits and Liqueurs, Wine and Spirits Education Trust, London, 2006 p. 16.