250 Years of the Finest Cognac
By Margaret Swaine
The world’s most popular cognac house is celebrating its 250 anniversary this year. Expect to see a lot of deserved hoopla around Hennessy over the next months as the maison embarks on “The Hennessy 250 Tour” around the world following the footsteps of the Grand Tours the family has made through the centuries. Along with the travelling exhibit comes the launch of a new collector’s blend.
The patriarch and founder, Richard Hennessy, an Irish man of minor nobility, after fighting in the army of King Louis XV settled in Cognac and created the Hennessy trading company in 1765. Jean Fillioux joined forces with the Hennessy family becoming chief cooper in 1806. His son Christophe later became master blender for the Hennessy brand.
The connection of the Hennessy and Fillioux families has remarkably continued to present day. Eight generation Maurice Richard Hennessy is brand Ambassador for Hennessy (the cognac house is part of LVMH – Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy – today) and Yann Fillioux is Master Blender.
Yann is responsible for the creation of Richard Hennessy, Paradis Impérial and now Hennessy 250 Collector Blend. Not yet in Canada, shipping across the globe is expected to begin in April. I had a sneak preview at Château de Bagnolet, a magnificent 1810 house on the banks of the Charente.
Fillioux and his team have been working on this special blend since 2010. In the spirit of the 250 anniversary, 250 barrels each holding 250 litres have been produced, from which the house will release 60,000 bottles for around 450 Euros each.
At Château de Bagnolet the cognac was paired with appetizers that brought out its notes of saffron, nutmeg, bitter orange, salted caramel and florals (e.g. scallops with saffron sauce or maki roll with cilantro). I don’t have ‘pro’ tasting notes as it was a stand up cocktail situation, but I can tell you that the spirit was so appealing that most of us kept wanting more.
“For the 250 birthday, we’re spending energy saying we are like trees,” said Maurice Hennessy. “We have 250 year old roots but want to grow to the sky. We have the stock to do much; warehouses full of aged cognacs.”
Hennessy creates its cognacs from the four “premier grand cru” winegrowing areas of Cognac; namely the Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies and Fins Bois. (The grape ugni blanc accounts for 95% of the AOC Cognac.) The company works with some 1,500 independent grape growers, 560 bouilleur de cru (growers who distill their own product) and 20 distillers in the region and has three distilleries that they own.
Fillioux and his tasting committee meet every workday morning to taste through cognac eaux-de-vie to decide which samples to accept or reject and the potential of the spirit – therefore which barrels to put it into – older or new.
Their cognac is always matured in Limousin type barrels made at their own cooperage, La Sarrazine, where barrels are hand assembled on location. Because wood is such an important part of the flavour of cognac (think of the long ageing in barrel) Hennessy tightly controls their wood supply, using only oak from sustainably managed forests in the Limousin region from 100 to 150 year old trees. The cut wood is aged outdoors for several years before use.
About 15,000 to 20,000 new barrels go into use each year. The rest of the cognac slumbers in older barrels.
Of the approximately 200 cognac producers, four dominate and of those Hennessy is the biggest in sales and value worldwide. Hennessy VS Cognac, the America’s best-selling cognac is aged from two up to eight years in oak and is a blend of up to 40 different batches.
Hennessy Black contrary to its name is one of the lightest coloured cognacs in the range aged entirely in seasoned barrels (no new oak ones). Hennessy VSOP first created in 1817 by Jean Fillioux, is a blend of eaux-de-vie that’s four to 15 years old that’s sweet and gentle on the palate.
I have a true fondness for Hennessy X.O. as the cognac I purchased whenever I wanted to really treat myself even when I was a struggling student. Hennessy X.O. created in 1870 was the only XO on the market for its first 100 years. The company has always insisted on a minimum age of 10 years for their XO and has pushed the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC) to make this the case for all. In 2018 the ten year minimum age rule will be in force.
Paradis was created in 1979 by Maurice Fillioux when Hennessy was asked for an “ultra-prestige” cognac higher in quality than XO. This bliss in a bottle has been sold in Canada but I haven’t found any lately. (Check with Agent Charton Hobbs for availability in BC & Saskatchewan)
Paradis Impérial which I consider the most sophisticated and elegant (can I say feminine?) of all can be found in several provinces. It’s a blend created by Yann Fillioux in 2010 out of 35 to 130 year old cognacs matured in seasoned old barrels. Only one out of 1000 is good enough to get in these bottles. The original blend was created at the request of the Imperial Court of Russia in 1818 by the Empress. Fillioux pays tribute to this first commission, nearly 200 years later.
Wonderfully masculine Richard Hennessy created in 1996 to honour the founder is on the other end of the spectrum: robust, full and bold. Both are ultimate taste experiences well worth the price should you be flush enough to afford a bottle or an ounce.
For those of us with more modest wallets, the Hennessy VS and Meukow VS fit the bill. Meukow VS Cognac in an attractive black panther decorated bottle, is rich and full bodied with powerful depth. So too do two exceptionally value-priced products made by women cellar masters at other producers.
Gautier VS Cognac from one of the oldest Cognac houses established in 1755, is gently oaky, harmonious and mellow (created by cellar master Isabelle Couprie).
The latest creation of cellar master Mrs. Martine Pain at St-Rémy is St-Rémy Small Batch Reserve, which while not a Cognac (the wines come from other regions) is a mighty fine brandy. Aged for more than six years in small oak barrels, it’s flavourful and fleshy with caramel apple sweetness.
Here’s to putting a little celebration into your glass.
To find these and other picks at stores near you, click on: Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits
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