Spirits Review: Hennessy V.S. Cognac

15 06 2018

By Dan Steeves

There is something about sipping on an exquisite fine spirit that provides a sense of sophistication and high class. It wasn’t always like that for me though. What was once an exercise of trying to stomach such liquids in the presence of my older and wiser siblings, a rite of passage you might say, eventually grew into an appreciation of their flavours and aromas once I was finally able to see past that burning sensation in my throat. I slowly gained a preference for whisky, single malt scotch, aged tequila and brandy, and these have been staples in my liquor cabinet ever since. When I was recently sent a sample bottle of Hennessy Cognac for review, I was pleasantly surprised and excited at the opportunity to taste and write up a spirit, instead of a wine, especially a bottle from one of the most iconic and best known Cognac producers (a place on the podium it has rightfully earned).

The unmistakable bottle shape of the Hennessy Very Special Cognac

Cognac is a type of brandy, a spirit made from grapes and the distillation of wine, that is produced is the Cognac region of France, just a short drive North from the famous Bordeaux wine region. The art of distilling the traditionally neutral and low-alcohol wines from the region has been practiced for hundreds of years and was originally done by Dutch merchants as a means of prolonging the life of the wines for transport to other markets. By law, Cognac must be produced using a specific copper pot still (the Charentais pot still, which is named after the Charente river that passes through the region). The base wine used for the production of Cognac can be made from up to eight different grape varieties, with the most popular being Ugni Blanc (more broadly known as Trebbiano). Grapes are grown at high yields which produce rather simple and, frankly, boring base wines with high acidity and low alcohol. The low alcohol levels in the initial wine mean that the finished spirit must be heavily concentrated through the distillation process to meet the legally required minimum alcohol levels for the spirit, which in turn also means a significant concentration of the aromas and flavours as well.

No additives (chaptalisation, sulphur dioxide, etc.) or other shortcuts are allowed in the production of the base wine so as to keep it as pure as possible and prevent any potential off flavours and aromas being emphasized in the final spirit. After distillation, the spirit (also known as the “eau-de-vie”, or “water of life”) is then placed into oak barrels for maturation for a minimum of two years before it can be called Cognac. Similar to the large Champagne houses, Cognac producers each have a signature style and character that is dutifully replicated every year through masterful blending of various aged eaux-de-vie, such that finished Cognacs are non-vintage (or, more accurately, multi-vintage) creatures, each classified according the age of the youngest spirit in the blend. The three main designations are V.S. (Very Special, 2 year minimum aging), V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale, 4 year minimum aging), and X.O. (Extra Old, 6 year minimum aging).  If only all legal alcohol designations had such cool acronyms. Although these minimum aging requirements are relatively low, it is very common for the blends to have eaux-de-vie with an average age far exceeding the minimum.

A five star label on the Hennessy V.S. (originally called the three star)

Cognac is dominated by a small handful of large producers that account for over 90% of the production in the region. Although all of these top producers are well known (Remy Martin, Courvoisier, Camus, etc.), Hennessy is the most well known and popular producer, especially in North America, where it has been exported for over 225 years and is the #1 market for the brand. Hennessy has also been at the forefront of Cognac innovation,  being one of the first spirits producers to offer its product in bottles rather than shipping oak barrels and also being the creator of the amazingly named Very Special, V.S.O.P and X.O. designations. Hennessy sets a benchmark with all their Cognac, be it the Very Special or Extra Old,  and thanks in part to the largest collection of eaux-de-vie in the world has created some of the most premium Cognac in the world. It’s no wonder it is part of LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy) group representing all of life’s luxuries. Read the rest of this entry »

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Spirits of Calgary: Buffalo Trace Tasting @ One18 Empire

1 06 2018

By Tyler Derksen

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Drew Mayville of Buffalo Trace.

It’s not every Wednesday that I get to leave work in the middle of the day to try nine whiskeys (if you’re being pedantic, actually eight whiskeys and one whisky, as the spelling of the spirit varies with its location of production), but this past Wednesday was one of those days.  I had the absolute pleasure to attend a tasting of Sazerac offerings chaired by Buffalo Trace’s Master Blender, Drew Mayville.  Buffalo Trace is part of the larger Sazerac company, whose myriad of other brands we also got to enjoy.  While the whiskey was the star of the show, it was Drew’s presentation and engagement with the subject matter and with all of us that really made the tasting special.  Drew is a Canadian who began his career in spirits at the Seagram’s plant in Waterloo, Ont. in 1980, eventually becoming the company’s fourth ever Master Blender.  After Seagram ceased to be, Drew then took his talents to Buffalo Trace, which at the time he joined was a relative unknown in the whiskey world, a fact that is hard to believe now that it has earned over 500 awards nationally and internationally over the last decade.

Drew’s passion for whiskey was readily apparent.  As Buffalo Trace’s current Master Blender, it is his job to take the aged spirits created by the Master Distiller and weave them into both established product lines and new and exciting projects.  Drew’s favourite whiskey is “the one he hasn’t made yet”.  In answer to the follow-up question “how do you make a better whiskey?”, Drew immediately said, “I don’t know”, reflecting his continuous stretch for further improvement.  Perhaps my biggest takeaway was Drew’s love of experimentation, embraced by both Buffalo Trace and Sazerac, which has created at least 50 different bottling “experiments” since 2006.  He freely acknowledges that not all of the experiments are successful and lead to new product lines, but this adventurous spirit is part of the fabric of Sazerac.  This is all the more impressive when one considers the extended aging process in the creation of whiskey.  Sazerac has even built a warehouse, Warehouse X, solely for the purpose of manipulating the many variables that go into the creation of whiskey (including light, temperature, air flow, wood grain, and others) to better understand the impact of those variables on the finished product and to use that knowledge to create that elusive “better whiskey”.

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Drew’s other point of emphasis was the recipe for the whiskey, which he came back to with each successive whiskey we tried.  Buffalo Trace’s bourbons are made of a combination of 6 main ingredients (Drew would never tell us exactly how much of each).  First, any bourbon must legally be made from at least 51% corn, which gives the spirit its sweet and fruity characteristics.  Next is rye, which adds spice, pepper and herbaceous notes.  Third is barley malt, which doesn’t add flavour so much as enzymes vital to the fermentation process.  As an alternative to rye, wheat can also be used, but this is far less common and wheat bourbons make up less than 5% of the overall spirit created.  Add limestone-filtered water and yeast and you’re almost finished.  The one ingredient that is not often talked about with bourbon, but that has a profound impact on its character, is time.  As was made clear when we started sampling, Buffalo Trace ages its whiskey longer than many of its competitors.  Speaking of sampling, now would be a good time to shine a spotlight on the fantastic whiskeys we tried. Read the rest of this entry »





PnP Panel Tasting: The Hatch – Library Release

28 05 2018

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

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(Re)Entering The Hatch.  In stereo.

It had been far too long since we last held a panel tasting, and we were missing it – there’s something about tasting outside of the echo chamber of your own brain that is gloriously refreshing and invigorating.  Plus multiple wines and multiple friends is generally a guaranteed recipe for a proper time.  One of us (Ray) wondered about reaching out to his friends at the Okanagan’s weirdest and most interesting winery, The Hatch, for inspiration.  We naturally assumed that we would get some intriguing and tasty wines from this divergent, artistic, even edgy winery (the latter word is drastically overused but still rather works in this case).  The common approach would have been to send a set of current releases, bottles that the reading public could come scoop if they were so inclined.  Well, The Hatch is not common.  PnP’s second ever Panel Tasting turned into a library release celebration, focused on a trio of bottles with a few years on them, from the mysterious and mildly depraved depths of the winery’s cellars.  It not only allowed us to get a sneak peek at what the future might hold for some more recent bottles that we were holding, but it also gave us a chance to answer a question that nags at a number of people in our home and native land just getting into wine:  can Canadian wine age?  Does it improve?

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The answers, in order, are “yes” and “it depends”; in the upper echelons of our national wine industry are scores of producers who are creating layered, complex, long-term wines that easily stand the test of time.  The eye-opening part of this tasting wasn’t so much that ageworthy BC wine was possible, but that it was starting to be accessible even at lower price points, another sign of the province’s rapid progression into a globally competitive wine power.  After this, there will be far more local bottles that spend more cellar time before seeing the light of day.  It made sense for us to each choose a bottle to write up, but rest assured there was much group analysis of everything we were tasting, making the below report a true joint effort. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: Famille Sichel Bordeaux Tiers

15 04 2018

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

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What a Bordeaux progression looks like.

Bordeaux is one of those regions that any aspiring wine geek finds out about roughly 15 seconds after beginning their vinous adventure.  It leads off many textbooks, is (rightly) touted as the spiritual homeland of red grape overlord Cabernet Sauvignon and its consigliere Merlot and is held up as a must-try area both so that new oenophiles can get a sense of the classics and because top-flight Bordeaux can be so memorable that its first-chapter place in all future textbooks is likely assured.  Of course, all of that comes at a price, one that seems to be increasing by the year, as wines from the top chateaux become more luxury commodity and less agricultural product and as international demand in new markets shoots through the roof.  So what are the non-obscenely wealthy wine-curious to do?  Here’s one way to start:  find a reputable producer and taste your way up their lineup, through the quality tiers and nesting-doll classifications layered throughout the Bordeaux appellation.  Even if you don’t make it all the way up to the grand vin flagship of the chateau, you will end up with a really good sense of what makes this rarefied region tick and also start to understand why those tiers exist in the first place.

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I was fortunate enough to test this tasting theory with the wines of Famille Sichel, a producer with whom I didn’t initially think I was familiar until discovering that they are the owners of one of Bordeaux’s hidden gem producers, Margaux’s Chateau d’Angludet.  While the winery is centuries old and the Sichel family’s history in Bordeaux is almost equally entrenched (they have been established in the region as a negociant since 1883 and are on their sixth generation of family ownership), their two paths didn’t cross until the 1960s, when d’Angludet was in a state of extreme disrepair and was bought and revived by Peter Sichel thanks to an extensive replanting and restoration program.  Current proprietor Benjamin Sichel continues both the negociant business (under the Maison Sichel banner) and the Chateau’s estate bottlings with a heavier focus in the vineyard and a defter touch in the cellar.  I have previously enjoyed Chateau d’Angludet on numerous occasions and now got to experience the trail of bottles that leads up to it. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: Stag’s Hollow Renaissance Reds

5 04 2018

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

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The big guns.

As I have mentioned in reviews past, my first thought of Okanagan Falls’ Stag’s Hollow Winery is always as a forward-thinking, try-everything trailblazer, the continual vanguard of varietal suitability and experimentation in British Columbia, constantly checking in on whether the next potential star grape of the province (be it Albarino, Grenache, Dolcetto, or any number of others in its viticultural Rolodex) might be one that few had previously considered.  So it’s a fun change of pace tonight to sit down and see how they handle the classics, those big red varietal stars so often seen across the Old World and New World alike, the first grapes you expect to see on any wine store shelf.  This review set is a particular treat, because all three of the bottles below hail from Stag’s Hollow Renaissance line, the winery’s premium flagship tier of offerings, produced only in vintages when the wines can live up to the bottle’s special black label.  I have heard rumblings that the 2015 Renaissance set breaks new ground in terms of quality and longevity; I had not previously had the opportunity to test this theory for myself, but it would not surprise me out of a winery that always seems to be improving. Read the rest of this entry »





Cellar Direct: Underdog Whites

27 03 2018

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

IMG_7833Close-following Pop & Pour adherents (if such things exist) will have been waiting for this moment for a couple of months.  In my last write-up about the tremendous Euro-tacular wine offerings of Cellar Direct, I teased that the two Italian reds going head-to-head in that review were not the only bottles (or colours) from that country that Cellar Direct had sent my way, but I opted to hold back the indigenous Italian white wine from that set so that it could shine in an all-white duet in a later post.  Well, here we are, and tonight’s 100% Arneis lead-off hitter is joined in the batting order by a rather mysterious and off-grid white Burgundy (to the extent that anything Burgundy can be considered off-grid), each bottle a tantalizing find that proves both that even famous regions have hidden values and that you often need some expert assistance to find that value needle in the prestige haystack.  If Cellar Direct is anything, they are that Old World value sherpa, leading you to consistent quality at credible price points over and over again.  Their streak of never sending me a bad bottle lives on. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Veuve Clicquot Release Tasting @ Yellow Door Bistro

23 03 2018

By Peter Vetsch and Raymond Lamontagne

Sometimes the best times to celebrate are the times when there is nothing obvious to celebrate.  It’s a dreary weekday in late March in still-snowy Calgary, but Champagne lifts all spirits and makes all occasions special, and this was no exception.  The eponymous yellow door of the Yellow Door Bistro at Hotel Arts perfectly foreshadowed the array of yellow labels awaiting us inside, including the brand new release from Champagne’s powerhouse (and power-house) Veuve Clicquot.  Winemaker Bertrand Varoquier expertly guided us through a series of Veuve releases, not least of which was the winery’s latest concoction, the Extra Brut Extra Old NV, soon to be available on retail shelves across Calgary.

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Veuve Clicquot is one of the oldest houses in Champagne, founded in 1772 by banker Philippe Clicquot-Muiron, who was then proceeded at the winery by his son Francois.  When Francois suddenly died young in 1805, his widow Barbe-Nicole Clicquot-Ponsardin stepped forward to take over the reins and run the business, a daring decision for a 27 year-old woman in early 19th century France.  The young widow (or veuve, in French) persevered, and her strong vision and fierce entrepreneurial spirit took the winery to new heights, leading to some significant innovations in tradition-laden Champagne.  Madame Clicquot was the first to create a rosé Champagne made from 100% wine (previous renditions of pink Champagne were created by mixing white wine with elderberry juice).  She is also credited with creating the riddling process that allows the dead yeast cells from Champagne’s in-bottle secondary fermentation to slip down into the neck of the bottle so that they can be frozen and disgorged, to keep the finished wine from being cloudy; before this, Champagne was served hazy and decanted to let the leesy sludge settle before pouring.  Clicquot-Ponsardin contributed so much to the region over her lifetime that she was nicknamed “La Grande Dame” of Champagne, a name that since 1872 has also been used for the house’s prestige cuvée.  Her impact on the winery was so significant that the entire brand was renamed in her honour.

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Bertrand Varoquier is a native son of Champagne, born in the heart of the region in the town of Reims; as he puts it, “my blood is bubbly”.  For the past six years of his extensive 18-year wine career, he has been at Veuve Clicquot, where he is currently responsible for all red wine vinification.  Due to the house’s production size, and in order to ensure that its winemaking happens as close as possible to the vineyards where the grapes are harvested, the red grapes that go into Veuve’s cuvées (primarily Pinot Noir, which is at the core of Veuve Clicquot’s identity) are processed and vinified in their own standalone facility in Buzy.  Each discrete parcel of each red vineyard is vinified separately, and after alcoholic fermentation is complete and scores of still wines are created (some with very limited colour due to restricted skin contact, some fully red for use in rosé Champagne creation, all produced solely for future blending), the lots are sent to Veuve HQ in Reims for malolactic fermentation and blending.

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Bertrand Varoquier, winemaker at Veuve Clicquot

Unlike almost any other top wine region in the world, which tends to glorify single-vineyard and single-vintage expressions of time and place, Champagne’s focus is on achieving and maintaining each house’s unique signature style with precision and consistency, year in and year out.  The mammoth challenge of this task is almost unquantifiable, but this will give you a sense of it.  In addition to his winemaking duties, Bertrand is on the Veuve Clicquot tasting committee along with Cellar Master Dominique Demarville and others.  Every year, from the start of November until the start of March, the committee tastes 24 different sample lots of still wines PER DAY out of the roughly 1,200 (!!!) already-vinified non-bubbly base wines aging in full stainless steel tanks in Veuve’s cellars in order to determine which wines will be used to populate each of the house’s different Champagne releases.  These base wines are from the present year’s harvest plus nearly twenty prior vintages, and all are ultimately rolled into a multi-vintage, multi-source patchwork tapestry that the Cellar Master weaves into the emblem of Veuve Clicquot, so that the buying public gets the taste experience they expect out of every single Veuve Champagne, regardless of the year in which they buy it. Read the rest of this entry »








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