Cognac: Only the Nose Knows

Cognac bottles in the laboratory of Bache-Gabrielsen.

Cognac smells. Yes, it's true. But it's not a bad thing. In fact, when it comes to cognac, "smelling" is crucial. And it is the key to the magic of the beverage.

Revered the world over as an elegant and expensive end to a gastronomic meal. Sipped from expensive crystal. Drunk while smoking $200 Havanas. The Queen's favorite tipple. How many people know that this drink originates in dank, moldy cellars with black fungus on the ceilings, draped with spider webs and thick with the smells of centuries of evaporated alcohol mixed with stone, chalk and gravel? Welcome to the world of cognac!

Cobwebs in a cognac aging cellar.Cobwebs in a cognac aging cellar.

How does this happen? How does the world's most elegant (and in, some cases, the most expensive) drink originate in such humble or, some might say, squalid circumstances?

It all has to do with noses. The noses of winemakers, distillers and, most importantly, "maîtres de chai" (cellar masters) who make the French quaff. The winemaker grows the grapes and makes the wine; the distiller (usually the same person as the winemaker) takes the new wine and distills it into eau de vie; and the maître de chai decides which eau de vie, very often made by many different distillers, is, first of all, used for aging and, second of all, blended into the final product. And each of these guys (or gals) relies on his/her nose to make the right decisions.

The mold “torula compniacensis,” which is found on the walls, ceilings and roofs of all cognac aging cellars.The mold “torula compniacensis,” which is found on the walls, ceilings and roofs of all cognac aging cellars.

How and why is this? First of all the wine: most of the wine used to make cognac is made from the ugni blanc (tebbiano) grape. It is a highly acidic, low alcohol (9%) white wine. The wine made from the grape produces an "eau de vie" (pure spirit) that can be both fruity and floral, depending on the exact area (or "terroir," as the French call it) where the grapes are grown. The area in the Cognac region of France considered to produce the highest quality wine for cognac is called "Grande Champagne" (the word champagne having its roots in the old French word for chalk because of the high chalk content of the soil). Wines made in Grande Champagne tend to produce light cognacs with a predominantly floral bouquet. Wines made from the other areas tend to turn into cognac that has more fruit in its aromas. A good wine from a good winemaker in a good year is essential for a truly great cognac – but creating the wine is just the beginning of a very long process.

The next step in making cognac is distillation. Cognac was invented in the sixteenth century, when Dutch and British traders were importing salt and wine from the Charente river region, in which Cognac is the largest town. Demand for the wine was so great that winemakers increased production to the point where the quality deteriorated, and by the time it reached its markets after weeks at sea, the wine was spoiled. To solve this problem they distilled or "burned" it into what they called "brandwijn" – burnt wine – hence the name "brandy." The seamen (mostly Norwegian – more about that later) found it to be an excellent substitute for the rancid water aboard ship. And what was left at the destination ports in northern Europe and England was diluted with water in an attempt to recreate the original wine.

A cognac still owned by Hennessy.A cognac still owned by Hennessy.

The winemakers in the Cognac area decided that this kind of wine needed some further refinement. So they came up with a new distillation process called double distillation. According to legend, double distillation was invented by the Chevalier Jacques de la Croix de Segonzac Maron, a very pious man born around 1558, who was an army captain during various religious civil wars in the Charente area. After retiring from military service he became a winemaker. One night he had a dream that Satan was trying to take his soul. In the dream, Satan threw him into a "cauldron of evil," but his faith was so strong that his soul survived a first "cooking." So Satan had to do a second "firing" – and at that point the Chevalier woke up.

Always brooding about ways to improve his wines, the Chevalier thought his dream was a message from God that he should apply this system to Charente wine. The process, now known as Charentais distilling and by law the only method of producing cognac, yields a fragrant but complex eau-de-vie that the distiller, following his nose and know-how, creates by separating the "heads" (first condensate), "tails" (last condensate) and the "heart," a highly alcoholic (68 to 72%) clear eau-de-vie that will become cognac.

But the "master smeller" and person most responsible for creating great cognac is the maître de chai. He is the person who selects the new eau-de-vie from both the house's own production (if they produce any) and the production of some of the thousands of distillers in the region. He is the person who keeps track of the cognac that is aging in the barrels in the cellar, many of which have been there for 70 or more years. He is the main person who chooses which cognacs, from which vintages, should be blended each year, in order to produce products that keep the high quality and the house's style consistent over the decades.

Jean-Philippe Bergier, the maître de chai at cognac house Bache-Gabrielsen is what we might call a "nose professor." Born into a family that boasts generations of maîtres de chai, he is at once a master smeller, a master organizer and a master professor. And perhaps even something more, for like many maîtres de chai, he considers himself to be like an orchestra conductor, who has to blend the smells of different "instruments" into a harmonious product. Jean-Philippe looks like a history professor. He can spend hours lecturing about the particular smells of an eau-de-vie that he just got from a distiller. More importantly, he can patiently and painstakingly explain the process of selecting and then blending the aged cognacs which will make up one of the many blends made by the house.

Jean-Philippe Bergier, the maître de chai at cognac house Bache-Gabrielsen.Jean-Philippe Bergier, the maître de chai at cognac house Bache-Gabrielsen.

Delemain is one of the oldest cognac houses and one of the few that are still owned and run by its founding family. The Delemain house is, according to Kyle Jarrad, senior editor of the International Herald Tribune and author of "Cognac: The Seductive Saga of the World's Most Coveted Spirit," "the world's best cognac." And indeed, you are certain to find their products on the menus of most of the top restaurants in the world. The key to the quality at Delemain is that little has changed in production since the company was founded in 1824 by Irish immigrant James Delemain. Their eau-de-vie only comes from the Grande Champagne area. And the cognac itself is aged for at least 25 years in old oak barrels in the firm's ancient cellars next to the Charente River in the town of Jarnac.

Charles Brastaad-Delemain, the current managing director of the company, explains that smelling is the key to enjoyment of the drink. He says, "nosing is 80 percent of the pleasure of cognac." And a tour of the modest Delemain cellars in the town of Jarnac is in itself a "voyage for the nose." The minute one walks into one of its cellars, Charles points out that each one of them has a different smell. And the cellars' smells, together with the smells of the eau-de-vie, the old oak, the mold and the humid river air create the unique personalities of the Delemain cognacs. Charles sees the art of blending and aging cognac to be similar to the skills of a perfume maker. The object is to create a mix of smells that will entice and seduce.

Dominique Touteau, the maître de chai at cognac house Delamain.Dominique Touteau, the maître de chai at cognac house Delamain.

Chateau de Montifaud is a rural family-run operation, just as it was when it was founded in the mid-nineteenth century. The Vallet family has been making cognac at their Chateau de Montifaud since 1866. Six generations of the family have passed on, from father to son, traditions of winemaking, distilling, aging and blending aged eau-de-vie. And, unlike most of their competitors, they still own and control all steps of the process.

The Vallets believe strongly in their family tradition. "When a son joins his father, it is a precious moment that must be reflected in the cognac," says Michel Vallet, the current patriarch, who is now slowly transferring his experience, wisdom and, most importantly, olfactory skills to his 35-year-old son Laurent. Laurent has worked at Montifaud since 2000. In that year he put aside a reserve of his vintage as part of the family's tradition of keeping some of the cognac distilled by each generation so that only future generations will be able to sell it as well as to understand the tastes and aromas of the family's products.

Michel and Laurent are the skillful winemakers, distillers and blenders at Montifaud today. They own 90 hectares in the two top-tier regions, "Petite Champagne" and "Grande Champagne." The blending process, however, must involve the whole family. So, when the time is right, Michel and Laurent invite Michel's retired father, Louis, and Michel's wife, Catherine, to join the process.

Catherine explains how they do it. "The Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne regions each have distinct characteristics. And, unlike many other cognac houses, we make separate products from each. We strive for fine and elegant tastes, but also make sure we preserve the 'montant,' which is persistence of aromas. Nuances of aromas can be classified into two groups. The first is fruity and floral, which produces a smell that is very similar to the vineyard flower, the lime blossom as well as shades of pear and apricot aromas. The second is the 'bouquet,' which is where we get our powerful full-bodied, complex aromas."

She adds, "Chateau de Montifaud makes a variety of younger VS and VSOP grade [10-12 months aging] cognacs as well as older cognacs such as Napoléon and XO [minimum 6 years aging]." The older ones, she says, "contain rich aromas that are achieved by cooking the fruit – and the result is bouquets of prunes, nuts, spices, dried fruit and leather." The men like to call the Heritage Maurice Vallet, the house's top product, "the 'cigar box' for its powerful aroma," Catherine adds with a wink and smile (and, of course, a nod to her nose!).

Hennessy is the largest cognac producer. They make many types of cognacs targeted at the tastes of their primary markets. But the process of creating their many brands still goes back to the same slow and meticulous process of smells, mixing, blending and living history as it does at the smaller producers. When it comes to enjoying cognac, Maurice Hennessy of the seventh generation of the Hennessy Cognac dynasty explains, "Tasting cognac does not simply smell. Tasting cognac is also feeling it, balancing it, giving it some substance, some history, hopefully enjoying it. Seven generations of the same family have been tasting and blending at Hennessy. It is more than a smell, it is reading history."

Maurice Hennessy, the seventh generation of Hennessy cognac producers.Maurice Hennessy, the seventh generation of Hennessy cognac producers.

Unlike wine cellars, cognac cellars tend to be at or near ground level and close to the Charente River, meaning that they are dank and humid and subject to climatic changes and even floods over the years. A byproduct of the humidity in all cognac cellars is fungus. The walls and ceilings are black with the mold "torula compniacensis," a fungus created by the mixture of humidity and the 2 to 3 percent alcohol that evaporates from the cognac barrels each year, which cognac producers call the "Angel's Share." It is the equivalent of more than 20 million bottles per year that disappears into the atmosphere – a high price that cognac producers do not hesitate to pay in their quest for perfection. Tax agents in the Cognac region also find the fungus to be their friend. They fly helicopters through the region and make a note of all roofs with this distinct black fungus. They then compare their finding with the tax records and determine if anybody is aging cognac and not paying taxes!

Cognac barrels aging in the Hine cellars.Cognac barrels aging in the Hine cellars.

In his elegant but dank cellars, Bernard Hine, of the sixth generation to head the Hine cognac house, which is the exclusive cognac purveyor to the Queen of England, proudly shows the flood marks from various times the Hine cellars have been inundated. "Each flood improved our product." And the Hine house knows about how cellars influence the taste of cognac. Each year, a small number of barrels is sent to Bristol, England, where they age for at least twenty years. They are known as "Early Landed Cognacs," which Hine claims are more adapted to British tastes, due to the familiar smells of the English air. Mr. Hine, now the senior spirit of the Cognac region, is proud to show off the firm's refined and also vintage cognacs, a trend that he started in the region. "Our quality comes from the superior Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne wines and the unique smells of our ancient cellars."

Photos courtesy Jesse Nash and Barney Lehrer.