You can’t talk about Cognac without mentioning Hennessy. It is the big daddy of Cognac, making up 43% of Cognac production. As a comparison, the next largest producer is Remy Martin at 17 percent.
Hennessy dominates the market, but also makes it possible for the smaller producers to exist. Hennessy buys a large portion of its grapes and eau de vie from other growers and producers in the region, who are then able to sustain their own Cognac production.
Hennessy is located within the town of Cognac, along both sides of the Charente River. A visit begins with a boat ride.
Our guide was Marc Boissonnet, Ambassadeur de la Maison. He did what would seem to be impossible – make Hennessy, the giant of Cognac, feel intimate and special.
Marc was particularly knowledgeable and engaging, and had some of the best analogies for Cognac production.
“Keep the spirit, dispose of the body,” is how he described the process of making Cognac. It’s a pretty good simplification of the distillation process, which reduces the liquid to approximately one tenth of its volume while retaining the essence of the grapes and wine.
As Marc explained, just like with children, the character of eau de vie must be shaped when it is young. Early on the potential of the eau de vie is assessed, and then the proper oak barrel is selected for aging.
After aging in oak the eau de vie is blended, a process that Marc described as similar to a marriage. You need to be mature when you get married, and eau de vie needs to mature before it is blended. It is up to the cellar master and blender to determine when an eau de vie has spent the ideal amount of time in barrels. With seven generations of blenders, Hennessy uses the memories of experience to determine the potential of and future course for the eau de vie.
Marc continued with a statement that sounds good whether you’re talking about Cognac or people. “Aging is good,” he said. “Because aging means living.”
The highlight of the tour was stepping into “Le Paradis.” Meaning paradise in English, this is the cellar where the rare and precious eau de vie and Cognac are stored.
Barrels in Le Paradis contained eau de vie that had been aging for 50 plus years. I found eau de vie from the birth year of my parents, then just steps away found eau de vie from the birth years of my grandparents and great-grandparents. Beyond the barrels were shelves of demijohn bottles that contained Cognac from the 1800s.
Hennessy’s goal is to produce Cognac that is perfectly balanced, rich and complex. It also strives for consistency; fifty year-old Cognacs from Hennessy should be identical, no matter the year they were bottled or where they were purchased.
At a tasting following our tour we had a chance to sample a variety of Cognac from Hennessy.
The first glass had perfectly clear eau de vie that hadn’t been aged in oak barrels. With 70% alcohol, this was not something you would want to drink. However after a sniff and placing a drop on the tongue, it was possible to make out the fruit and floral essence necessary for producing a high quality Cognac.
With the next two glasses we were able to compare the use of barrels. Both were Cognacs that were approximately five years old. The first, lighter in color, was Cognac that had been aged in previously used barrels. The second Cognac was darker in color because it was aged in new barrels. Newer barrels impart more color and flavor to the eau de vie.
Our fourth glass took us back in time to 1983. This Cognac was darker than the previous two because of the longer time in oak. It had flavors of dry fruit, spice and “rancio,” a French term that means a desirable earthy, nutty or musty characteristic.
Going back to 1956 with our next glass, we had a chance to see how Cognac softens and becomes more complex as it ages. This Cognac had lovely floral aromas with flavors of vanilla, nougat, almond and honeysuckle.
Our final Cognac was the Hennessy XO, a blend of Cognacs. Darkest of the group, this Cognac was refined, polished and elegant, with flavors of hazelnut, black pepper and dark chocolate.
Even with the focus on age, history and tradition, Hennessy keeps Cognac modern and fresh. One look at the limited edition Hennessy VS (pictured at left) and you can see this isn’t your grandfather’s Cognac. At a party later that evening inside the Cognac Blues Passions music festival, Hennessy cocktails were all the rage. Mixed with apple juice, muddled fresh berries or (my favorite) ginger ale, Hennessy Cognac is ever evolving, long after it leaves the barrel.