Cognac Hits The Singles Scene

Who could fault the producers of cognac for feeling left behind as single-malt scotch whiskeys grew in popularity? So the French distillers joined the trend. As a cognac fan who also appreciates single-malt scotches, I was eager to sip the latest batch of cognacs from a single distillery or district. The ones I tried were quite tasty, and some of the higher-priced bottles were on a par with the best traditional brands I've sampled.

All cognac comes from around the town of Cognac in southwestern France. The region is divided into a half-dozen vineyard districts, or crus, whose climate, soil, and grape quality vary. Almost all cognacs are a blend of twice-distilled spirits from different distilleries, vintages, and crus. Generally, the finest of this brandy is produced, in order of quality, in the Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, and Borderies crus, followed by Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires. On single-district cognacs, the label will give you this information.

The single-district trend began in 1996, when Alexandre Gabriel and Jean-Dominique Andreu introduced four single-district cognacs, each reflecting the character of a specific cru and estate. Take their eight-year-old Gabriel & Andreu Fins Bois ($25). Made from grapes grown in subsoil composed of crumbly chalk under a thick layer of clay, the cognacs evoke orange, licorice, and carnation aromas. For superior flavor, however, try Gabriel & Andreu's slow-aging Grande Champagne ($100). It's redolent of plums, honey, walnuts, and spices.

In September, Louis Royer introduced a collection that includes single-distillery entries from five of the six crus, ranging from a light, fruity Bons Bois, aged for two to three years ($27), to a 15-year-old, full-bodied Grande Champagne, for about $69. During a taste test at BUSINESS WEEK, one tester objected to the sharp caramel bite of Royer's 12-year old Petite Champagne ($59), but loved the finish on the smoky Borderies ($49).

Hennessy, meanwhile, brought out a trio of single-distillery cognacs this summer. Marketed under the names Le Peu, Izambard, and Camp Romain, these are blends that cross district lines but are made in one distillery. The lightly perfumed and smooth Le Peu ($49) was a favorite among many of my colleagues. I preferred the more assertive Camp Romain ($48). So did spirits writer Gary Regan, who notes that Camp Romain's complex characteristics take a while to unfold in your mouth. Izambard ($47) had, as one BW taster put it, an "almond scent and a smooth, arching trajectory." None of the single-label cognacs we tried carry "VSOP," (for "very superior old pale"), "XO" ("extra old"), or the other letter designations seen on traditional cognac, which denote minimum aging requirements.

WOODSY. Among the best cognacs we tasted were a pair from Remy Martin that doesn't reflect the singles theme. That they scored well is little surprise; cognac blenders "take the best varieties from the many they have at their disposal and mix them together in a most complementary way," says F. Paul Pacult, author of Kindred Spirits (Hyperion, $16.95). The woodsy Remy Martin 1738 Accord Royal Fine Champagne Cognac ($70) is blended with spirits that are at least 12 years old, including some that are 25. Remy Martin Extra Fine Champagne Cognac ($350), 90% of which comes from Grande Champagne grapes, boasted a taste that had complex jasmine, walnut, and butter overtones. You also can't miss the eye-catching design of its thin, perfume-bottle shaped decanter. This bottle would stand out at any party.

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