Like Champagne or Roquefort, Cognac gets the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) designation, meaning that it earns its name by meeting a very specific set of standards. If it doesn’t, it might still be delicious, but it’s not called Cognac: it’s called brandy.
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Though it’s not an AOC requirement, the majority of distillers today blend their Cognacs. The results, those distillers say, form something greater than the sum of the individual spirits. To hear the process described by Remy Martin, one of the world’s best known producers of Cognac, evokes imagery of an aged artisan: “The Cellar Master begins his art. He fills his glass one-third full, leaving room for the aromas to develop. Then he uses his nose to test its vintage and bouquet. He takes a little in his mouth to try its body and mellowness. His senses awaken one by one as he continues the ritual. Unconsciously, he closes his eyes as he sniffs. As his eyes open, he focuses on the color of the Cognac. This is the moment when the Cellar Master decides what will be used in the final blend.”
In order for Cognac to be called Cognac, it must first be produced in one of six zones in France that surround the eponymous town, an area that comprises around 200,000 acres. Second, it must only be made from a certain type of grapes, of which Ugni Blanc is the most popular. Third, the grapes (with their pips removed) must be pressed using horizontal plate presses or pneumatic presses. Fourth, the juice must be allowed to ferment naturally: the Decree of May 15, 1936, forbids chaptalization, where distillers add sugar to unfermented grapes in order to increase the wine’s alcohol content. Perhaps most importantly, the juice must be double distilled using a Charentais pot — a.k.a., the alembic — the design and size of which are legally controlled. The resulting liquid — eau-de-vie — must then be aged in Limousin or Troncais oak casks. The result is Cognac. Easy.
Evan Yurman, Chief Design Director of his father’s eponymous jewelry empire, and Nicolas Palazzi, owner of PM Spirits, disagree. For them, the greatest Cognac pleasure comes from an unadulterated spirit. The idea behind their brand, L’Artisan, is to source pure Cognacs from French farmers, many of whom have had the spirit in their cellars since their fathers or grandfathers distilled it decades ago. Because of the history associated with each barrel, many farmers regard selling with mixed emotions. As Yurman told us, he once watched an eighty-six-year old man tell his sixty-year-old son, who was trying to prevent him from selling, to shut up.
All of the 485 bottles in L’Artisan’s first release, L’Artisan No. 50 ($1,500), come from the same single barrel. Though Yurman and Nicolas don’t have the paperwork necessary to legally put an age statement on the bottle (it’s been sitting in some Frenchman’s cellar for the past half-century), the age is easy to guess, as a blended Cognac’s age corresponds to the youngest spirit in the blend — and only one Cognac went into the No. 50 (hint, hint). It arrives in a container that reflects Yurman and Palazzi’s desire to pay homage to the craftsmanship of the French farmers that originally distilled and barreled the spirit: the bottle, sealant and stopper are all crafted by hand, as is the bottling process, which requires experts to siphon the spirit straight from the barrel.
Before we go further, let’s address the elephant in the room: L’Artisan No. 50 costs $1,500. That’s an outrageous price for anyone, though it might be worth it for the true (and wealthy) connoisseur who appreciates that fewer than one percent of all Cognacs on the market are unblended. Even still, at that price point, one expects the Cognac to be beyond exquisite, and L’Artisan No. 50 doesn’t disappoint. The nose is spicy but light. In the mouth, there are flavors like apricot, leather and tobacco. Rancio, a rare, desirable quality that results from advanced oxidation of alcohol and can only be described as earthy — it’s nebulous in the same way as the Japanese term “umame” — is also present. While the No. 50 warms the sinuses, it lacks the alcoholic punch of other Cognacs, despite its powerful 43.6 percent ABV. The smooth finish lasts long after the swallow, and even when the flavor dissipates, the memory of the finish lingers.
At present, L’Artisan No. 50 is sold exclusively through Soutirage, a California-based wine and spirits merchant. Currently, it’s L’Artisan’s only offering, though Cognac connoisseurs should keep their eyes open: Yurman hinted that two more barrels exist.