Tag Archives: Ugni Blanc

Champagne and Beyond: Celebrate 2014 with French Sparkling Wine

France is king when it comes to bubbly. Whether you’re looking for Champagne or a great value Crémant, there’s a French sparkling wine to match your taste and your budget. Ring in the New Year with one of these bottles.

Ruinart Brut Rosé

Ruinart Brut Rose

Ruinart is the oldest Champagne house, founded in 1729. Their elegant and aromatic rosé is truly a pleasure to sip. The Champagne is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (approximately 45% and 55% respectively). Around 18% of the Pinot Noir is vinified, which adds color and flavor to the final Champagne. The Brut Rosé is a lovely pink-orange color, and has notes of cherry, raspberry, wild strawberry and a hint of rose petal.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve

Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve

Everything you look for in a high quality Champagne, you’ll find it in the Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve. It is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier that spent three years aging in Gallo-Roman chalk cellars. It is deep gold in color, with aromas of freshly baked brioche and complex flavors of white apricot, mango, ripe lemon, plum, praline and almond.

Billecart-Salmon Brut Sous Bois

Billecart-Salmon Brut Sous Bois

This Champagne is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and vinified entirely in oak (‘sous bois’ means ‘under oak’). It has an intriguing mix of fresh and dried fruit aromas and flavors. Lemon, orange peel, dried yellow fig and dried apricot are layered with grilled brioche, almond and toffee, and the mouthfeel is rich and creamy.

Domaine de la Louvetrie, “Atmosphères” Jo Landron
Vin Mousseux de Qualite

Atmospheres Jo Landron

This sparkling wine from the Loire Valley is made in the traditional method from 80% Folle Blanche and 20% Pinot Noir. The vineyard is located in the Muscadet region and is certified organic and biodynamic. Crisp flavors of Meyer lemon and white grapefruit are complemented by a chalky minerality.

Léon Palais Blanc de Blancs Brut
Crémant de Jura

Leon Palais Brut

This dry sparkling wine made in the traditional method comes from the Jura region in eastern France. It is made from Chardonnay, Folle Blanche and Ugni Blanc grapes. Flavors of pear and granny smith apple culminate in a soft citrus finish.

Helfrich Brut
Crémant d’Alsace

Helfrich Cremant d'Alsace

This sparkling wine comes from Alsace, located east of Champagne near the border with Germany. It is made entirely from the Pinot Blanc grape in the traditional method. Straw yellow in color, this Crémant has flavors of fresh lemon, grapefruit, white flowers and toast that culminate in a crisp finish.

>> Related Articles:
Crémant: France’s Alternative to Champagne
A Guide to Sparkling Wine

pineau des charentes

Pineau des Charentes: Aperitif of Cognac

Pineau des Charentes is a sweet fortified wine produced in the Charente and Charente-Maritime departments in France. It is a blend of Cognac and grape juice that is most often enjoyed as an aperitif.

The juice comes from grapes that are used to make wine. For white Pineau, grapes including Ugni Blanc, Colombard or Folle Blanche may be used; for red Pineau it may be Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. The high alcohol content of the Cognac prevents the grape juice from fermenting.

In its most basic form, Pineau is made by combining approximately 25% Cognac (eau de vie that has aged for at least one year in oak barrels), and 75% grape juice. The blend is then aged for at least 12 months. From the Comité National du Pineau des Charentes:

“Pineau des Charentes is exclusively aged in oak barrels. White Pineau ages for at least 18 months, including 12 in barrel. Red and rosé Pineau are aged for 12 months, including eight in oak. This ageing is a very important part of the winemaking process, and gives Pineau des Charentes its characteristic vanilla and nutty flavour.”

From there, Pineau can vary greatly among producers. Some may blend an older Cognac with the grape juice, and some may let the Pineau age in oak barrels for five or more years.

The taste of Pineau is sweeter than wine, with a pleasant and full mouthfeel. The acidity and alcohol prevent it from being too syrupy. Pineau that has spent more time aging in barrels tends to be more complex in flavor.

Pineau ranges in alcohol from 16 to 22 percent.

Pineau should be served chilled and in a tulip-shaped glass. It is commonly served as an aperitif, though it can complement a range of foods and desserts. Pineau may also be used in cocktails.

For more information on Pineau des Charentes including serving suggestions visit the website for the Comité National du Pineau des Charentes.


ABK6: Cognac for a New Generation

Flashy labels. A name derived from typing. A blend specially created for sipping on the rocks.

This isn’t your grandfather’s Cognac.

With a mix of tradition and modernity, ABK6 is bringing the French spirit to a new generation.

It starts with the name — ABK6 is one of those internet short-hands, like OMG or LOL. When pronounced in French it sounds like Abécassis, the last name of the family who bought the estates in 2003. Francis Abécassis oversees ABK6 with his daughter Elodie, who at 24 years of age brings a unique perspective to the brand.

The packaging of ABK6 Cognac immediately catches your eye. The bottles have square shoulders and the bright labels beckon you to take a closer look. These Cognacs demand to be displayed among the premium liquors at trendy bars and restaurants, not stashed away in a dusty liquor cabinet.

Still, tradition is very important in the production of ABK6 Cognac. Each part of the process, from distillation to aging and blending the eaux de vie, is monitored closely by cellar master Simon Palmer to ensure quality.

All Cognacs produced by ABK6 are single estate Cognacs made from Ugni Blanc grapes. The wine is distilled in small Charentais stills, and the “heart” of the second distillation is aged in French Limousin oak barrels. Once the eau de vie has reached maturity it is blended with other eaux de vie from the same estate.

Click here for a detailed description on how Cognac is made

ABK6’s Cognacs are aromatic with complex flavors that unfold with each sip. The VS Premium has notes of apricots and spice; the VSOP Super Premium has notes of baked apple, vanilla and brioche; the XO Grand Cru is extremely smooth with notes of dried fruits and toasted almonds.

ABK6’s newest venture is ICE Cognac. Coming soon to the United States, ICE Cognac is the first Cognac that is meant to be served on ice. With its shimmering white bottle ICE Cognac has a look that will appeal to younger Cognac drinkers, as well as those who enjoy drinking spirits like Scotch on the rocks.

The blend of eaux de vie in ICE Cognac was specifically selected because of how its flavors progress as it comes into contact with ice and water.  At first you taste almond and vanilla; as the ice melts you taste white peach and orange blossom, then lemon sorbet and mint.

Cognac purists need not fear – ABK6 produces a number of single estate Cognacs for those who may not embrace such a modern design.  Cognac Leyrat is produced with grapes from an estate in the Fins Bois region.  It’s here, among the rolling hills that are blanketed with grapevines, that ABK6 has its tasting room.  ABK6’s other Cognac is Le Reviseur, which is made with grapes from an estate in the heart of the Petite Champagne region.

Modernity and tradition – ABK6 successfully blends both with a range of Cognacs for either taste.

For more information on the Cognacs of ABK6 visit www.abk6-cognac.com.

bottle images from ABK6’s website

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A Visit to Hennessy

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.

Kids, adults and relationships played roles in other parts of the Cognac story.

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.

Enjoying a wine from your birth year (if even possible) is a rare and special treat. But enjoying a Cognac from your birth year, well, that might not yet be ready to drink.

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.

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cognac stills

Grape to Glass: How Cognac is Made

It begins each spring with bud break, and goes well beyond the fall harvest. So much goes into producing Cognac that within each glass you can taste the essence of the grape, the history of aged eaux de vie and the talents of a master blender.

Here is an overview of how Cognac is made:

The Region

Cognac, named after the city of Cognac, is produced in the Charente and Charente-Maritime departments in southwest France.  The region is just north of Bordeaux and has the Atlantic Ocean to its west.

The region is divided into six zones: Grande Champagne (thought to produce the best Cognac, with a soil similar to the Champagne region in northeast France), Petite Champagne, Borderies (which is where the city of Cognac is located), Fins Bois (meaning fine wood), Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaire.

Click here to see a map of the region.

The Grape

Ugni Blanc (known as Trebbiano in Italy) is the main grape used to produce Cognac, though a number of grapes like Folle Blanche and Colombard may be used.  Ugni Blanc is a hearty and high-yielding variety that produces wines of high acidity, qualities that make it ideal for Cognac.

The grapes are harvested by machine, typically at the end of September or beginning of October.

The Wine

Once the grapes are harvested and pressed, the juice undergoes fermentation.  The resulting wine is dry, high in acidity and 9% to 10% alcohol.  This helps to preserve the desirable fruit and floral tastes of the grapes in the final Cognac.

The Distillation

The wine goes through two distillations, a process that runs from November to March.  By French law, distillation must stop at midnight on March 31st.

Using large copper stills, the wine is heated to the temperature at which alcohol vaporizes.  The alcohol in gas form travels through the neck, turning back into liquid when it reaches the cooling tank.  The resulting liquid is called “le brouillis,” and is between 25% and 30% alcohol.

The second distillation is called “la bonne chauffe,” which translates to the good heating.  The distillation process is repeated with the brouillis.  The resulting liquid is separated into three parts: the head, the heart and the tails.  The head is the first liquid that collects in the cooling tank and it is set aside.  The heart comes next, and is the eau de vie that will be blended and aged for Cognac.  The tails come last, and are often mixed with the head and distilled again.

The heart is clear in color and approximately 70% alcohol.  At this point in the process the liquid is called eau de vie, meaning water of life.  Though the liquid is not drinkable, it is possible to determine that the eau de vie retains the fruit and floral essence of the grapes.

The Blending and Aging

Before an eau de vie becomes a Cognac, it is blended and aged.  French oak barrels are used to impart color and flavor.  Over time the eau de vie goes from clear, to golden yellow, to amber, to brown.  Varying levels of toast on the barrels influence the flavors.

Large barrels called “foudresare used for blending the eau de vie.  These barrels can last for 100 years.  Smaller barrels are used for aging the eau de vie.  The maître de chai or cellar master oversees all steps of the blending and aging process, ensuring quality and consistency.

A portion of the liquid (called “the Angels’ share”) is lost due to evaporation; more eau de vie or water is added to maintain the volume within the barrel.

Over time the alcohol level of the aging eau de vie must be brought down from 70% to 40%, the lowest legal limit for Cognac.  This occurs naturally over the span of 40 to 50 years, or it may be sped up with the gradual addition of water to the barrels.

Eau de vie may be aged in dry cellars or humid cellars, which affect the rate of alcohol and water evaporation as well as the resulting Cognac’s taste.  Dry cellars are said impart finesse to the Cognac, while humid cellars impart sweetness.

Barrel aging cellars are dark and covered in cobwebs – and no, it’s not just for visual effect.  The walls and ceilings are covered by a black fungus that thrives on the evaporating alcohol.  Spiders are encouraged in the cellars because they eat the bugs that could damage the oak barrels.

After the cellar master determines that the eau de vie has reached its ideal amount of aging, the spirit may be blended again and then bottled.  At this point it may be called Cognac.

When the eau de vie is removed from the barrels for bottling, the aging process has ended.  Cognac does not age in the bottle, so a 10 year-old Cognac does not become a 12 year-old Cognac after sitting in your liquor cabinet for two years.

An important task for the cellar master is to ensure consistency of the Cognac.  For example, a 50 year-old Cognac from Hennessy that you bought today at a liquor store in New York should taste exactly like a 50 year-old Cognac from Hennessy that you buy in ten years in Hong Kong.

The Classifications of Cognac

Cognacs are classified based on the age of the blend.  The age indicated on the label is the youngest vintage in the blend, so a 10 year-old Cognac may be a blend of much older eau de vie.

The classifications are:

VS – A Cognac that has aged for at least two years.
VSOP – A Cognac that has aged for at least four years.
XO – A Cognac that has aged for at least six years; some Cognac houses use this classification for Cognac that has been aged 20 or more years.

If the Cognac comes from a specific region (Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, etc), it may be indicated on the label.

Serving and Enjoying

Cognac should be served room temperature in a tulip-shaped glass, to better concentrate the aromas.

Like wine, Cognac develops as it is exposed to the air, so you may want to let your glass sit for up to 15 minutes before you take your first sip.

Younger Cognacs may be enjoyed in cocktails. Click here for cocktail recipes.

Click here for more articles about Cognac


Cognac: Region, City, Spirit, Passion

It started in April, with an article about Cognac. Now I’m back from the city that gave the French spirit its name, following a trip organized by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac.

Cognac is so much more than just a drink — and in the articles and videos below you’ll see why. Join me for a look inside some of the top Cognac houses, learn about the distillation process, see how oak barrels are made for aging the eau de vie and discover just how versatile Cognac can be.

Robin Alix Austin

Music: “Footsteps” by VIA
Available to download free on VIA’s Facebook page

Articles and Videos:

From Grape to Glass: How Cognac is Made
Years of work go into each glass of Cognac. From the harvest of grapes and the double distillation, to blending and aging, learn how Cognac is produced.

Cognac Cocktails
If you only drink Cognac neat, you are missing out. Cognac is an extremely versatile spirit, mixing well with juice, soda and more. Read on for Cognac cocktail recipes.

A Visit to Hennessy
Hennessy is the largest Cognac producer in the region. A tour begins with a boat ride along the Charente, followed by a look inside the cellar where rare and old Cognacs are stored.

ABK6: Cognac for a New Generation
With its eye-catching labels, an unusual name and the recent debut of a blend meant to be sipped on the rocks, ABK6 isn’t your grandfather’s Cognac.

Pineau des CharentesPineau des Charentes: Aperitif of Cognac
Another way to enjoy Cognac is to sip Pineau des Charentes, a sweet fortified wine made from blending Cognac and grape juice. It is served chilled, most often as an aperitif.

Chateau de BeaulonA Visit to Château de Beaulon
Surrounded by stunning vineyards and gardens, Château de Beaulon produces Cognac and Pineau des Charentes in the Charente-Maritime department in France.

oak barrelsHow Oak Barrels are Made
Oak barrels play an important role in the production of wine and eau de vie. Go inside Vicard Cooperage in Cognac, France for a look at how barrels are made.

Click here to view photographs from Cognac

cognac cocktails

Cognac Cocktails

Forget your preconceived notions on how Cognac can be enjoyed. Certainly a glass goes well after dinner, with chocolate or with cigars. But if you only drink Cognac neat, you are missing out.

In the pre-Prohibition United States, Cognac was often used as an ingredient in cocktails like the Sidecar or Mint Julep. While other spirits like Vodka, Rum and Tequila have come to dominate the bar scene, in France Cognac is still popular in cocktails.

Cognac is an extremely versatile spirit, mixing well with anything from apple and orange juice to tonic water or ginger ale. Start with one part Cognac to four parts mixer, add ice if desired, then alter the ratio to your tastes.

One drink that’s sure to make you a fan of Cognac cocktails is the Summit. Created by master mixologists in honor of the 2008 International Cognac Summit, the drink is light, refreshing and delicious.

When making a Cognac cocktail, use a younger Cognac like a VS or VSOP. Older or more prized Cognacs are best enjoyed on their own so that you can appreciate their complex flavors.

Here are some Cognac cocktails:

Cognac Summit

1 lime peel
4 slices of fresh ginger
1½ oz Cognac
2 oz traditional (carbonated) lemonade
1 long piece of cucumber peel
ice cubes

Place the lime and ginger in a rocks glass. Pour in ¾ oz of Cognac. Lightly press the lime and ginger 2 to 3 times using a muddler. Half fill the glass with ice. Stir well for 5 seconds using a bar spoon. Pour in ¾ oz of Cognac. Add the lemonade and cucumber peel. Stir well for 5 seconds using a bar spoon.


¾ oz Cognac
¼ oz lemon juice
¼ oz Triple Sec
1 orange peel
ice cubes

Place ice cubes in a shaker, then add Cognac, lemon juice and Triple Sec. Close the shaker and shake until frosted. Strain into a martini glass using a cocktail strainer. Press the orange peel over the drink.

Champagne Cocktail

¾ oz Cognac
3¼ oz Champagne
2 or 3 dashes of Angostura Bitters
1 cube brown sugar
1 lemon peel

In a Champagne flute, soak the cube of brown sugar with 2 or 3 dashes of Angostura Bitters and place it at the bottom of the glass. Pour the Cognac and the Champagne. Garnish with lemon.

Cognac Campari

Master mixologist Mauro Mahjoub (pictured above) mixes this drink at his bar, Mauro’s Negroni Club in Munich, Germany.

1½ oz Cognac
¾ oz Cassis
¼ oz red Vermouth
lime, raspberry and apple slice for garnish

In a rocks glass, mix the ingredients and stir. Finish with a splash of soda and add fruit garnishes.

For more cocktail recipes visit cognacsummit.com.

Click here for more articles about Cognac

Recipes and photos of the Summit, Sidecar and Champagne Cocktail from the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac