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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Cellar Direct: Summer Vibes, Part 3

7 09 2017

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

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So different, yet so marvellous.

Well, the leaves in my backyard are starting to turn yellow and fall, and my kids just started a new year of school, so it’s probably a good time to wrap up my multi-part summer saga featuring the always-impressive old school wines of Cellar Direct, an online purveyor of European treasures that it offers up to a list of eager email subscribers and then ships nationwide when weather permits.  I recently had the chance to meet Ron van Schilt, one of the founders and owners of the business and the man in charge of sourcing all of the wines offered up across Canada, and his love and passion for his producers and their creations is physically palpable in every word he speaks.  Serious Wines all, and wondrous finds.

Cellar Direct sent me a six-pack sampler of their prior 2017 offerings at the start of the summer that I have been devouring in twos over the past couple months; to see how Wines #1, 2, 3 and 4 showed, click here then here for the recap (hint:  well, well, well and well).  Time to see if the last duo of bottles follow suit.  Like everything else in this offer set, they hailed from France and were the product of hand-worked soils and low-intervention winemaking, but they had basically nothing else in common.  I started off with a familiar face, and a blast from the past. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2009 Jeannine Boutin Crozes-Hermitage “Les Hauts Granites”

22 08 2011

Just ignore the Baby Rainforest Bouncer in the background.

After pounding out 1500+ words about five German Rieslings in my last post, I’m going to try to be a little (OK, a lot) more concise tonight.  While Riesling has always been my favourite white grape, my current favourite red has got to be Syrah, a full-bodied, powerful grape capable of many different expressions and often melding fruity and savoury notes in a way that no other varietal can.  Most of the Syrahs that have found their way onto PnP so far have been New World examples, mainly from Washington State or California with the occasional Aussie Shiraz (same grape, different name) thrown in.  Tonight, however, I’m going back to the grape’s roots in the northern Rhone Valley in France, Syrah’s ancestral homeland and (maybe moreso 20 years ago than now, but still) home to its most famous and expensive bottlings.  Some of the most lauded and pricy Syrah in the world is grown in a small appellation called Hermitage, a single hill hovering over the Rhone River containing barely over 300 acres of vines.  If I worked five of my current jobs, I could drink Hermitage every now and then.  Instead, I’m settling for its little brother, Crozes-Hermitage, a much larger region spanning the flatlands surrounding Hermitage Hill on the Rhone’s east bank.  A Crozes may not light your world on fire like an Hermitage can, but it won’t cost you $400 either…this one was a shade over $30. Read the rest of this entry »








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