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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Calgary Wine Life: Moet & Chandon Winemaker Tasting @ Ruth’s Chris

24 03 2017

As it turns out, there is no inopportune time for Champagne.  Although the bubbly beverage has built its brand on being the drink of choice for special occasions and other times of celebration, it turns out that it’s equally nice to kick back with a glass of fine bubbles on an otherwise-normal Thursday afternoon.  It’s even better to kick back with six of them, which is what I was fortunate enough to do when Moet & Chandon winemaker Amine Ghanem came to town to lead an attentive and appreciative group through a good portion of the Champagne powerhouse’s portfolio.

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Amine Ghanem, Moet & Chandon.

Ghanem is one of 10 winemakers employed by Moet & Chandon in addition to their cellarmaster, or chef de cave, who directs and decides on the ultimate blend for each of the house’s Champagnes.  Moet has been doing its thing for centuries (since 1743, to be exact – Ghanem informed us that the very first bottle of Moet & Chandon Champagne arrived in Canada in 1839, before we were even a country!), and as such has honed its house style to a fine point, with very clear goals as to the characteristics it seeks to draw out in its Champagnes and specific strategies in place to reach them.  The three pillars of the Moet & Chandon style are, in Ghanem’s words:  (1) “bright fruitiness”, which is attained in part by careful non-oxidative winemaking techniques, even to the point where the house has developed a technique for “jetting” oxygen out of the neck of the bottle after disgorgment to avoid degradation during the maturation process; (2) “seductive palate”, with a welcoming, easy-to-drink texture aided by full malolactic fermentation; and (3) “elegant maturity”, achieved largely through extended lees contact pre-disgorgment, for much longer periods than required by law.  These foundational principles must be working, as we were told that there is currently a bottle of Moet being popped somewhere around the world every second.

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In case the ten full-time winemakers on staff wasn’t a tip-off, Moet & Chandon is a massive undertaking.  It is the biggest house in Champagne and the owner of its largest vineyard holdings, amounting to almost 10% of the entire area under vine in the region.  Since 1962, it has even had its own brand of proprietary yeast, which helps accentuate the characteristics that reflect the house style.  Moet’s primary brand is Imperial, so named in recognition of founder Claude Moet’s 18th century friendship with a certain French emperor, none other than Napoleon Bonaparte.  Napoleon visited the winery many times and was a steadfast consumer of Moet Champagnes, and in 1869 the Imperial brand was christened in recognition of the 100th anniversary of his birth.  The Imperial NV blend starts out as 800 different base wines, which are gradually combined into 3 proposed blends (each featuring solid proportions of all three of Champagne’s grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay) before one is selected.  The blending is as much of the artistry as the winemaking itself, and the efforts show in the bottle, which led off our tour-of-Moet tasting. Read the rest of this entry »





KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 10

10 12 2016

Day 10 of Advent calls for a 10 Year whisky, and the KWM calendar delivers, albeit an in on-the-nose-obvious sort of way.  Yes, like a reformed indie band, we’re going mainstream tonight with the almost-ubiquitous Glenmorangie 10 Year, one of the first of the widely produced “Glen” whiskies (Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Glenfarclas, Glenrothes, etc.) to hit the Whisky Advent Calendar since I’ve been buying it.  However, even larger brands provide an opportunity for learning and appreciation, and the Glenmorangie is no different.  Case in point:  (1) Learning – I have been pronouncing “Glenmorangie” wrong all these years.  The emphasis is on the second syllable, not the third:  Glen-MOR-an-gie, rhyming with “orangey”, as opposed to Glen-mor-AN-gie.  Oops.  (2) Appreciation – The GlenMORangie 10 Year has one of the most artful, and without question the tallest, mini-bottle I’ve ever seen come out of the calendar, with its height perhaps an echo of Glenmorangie’s stills, which are the tallest in Scotland.  The bottle is also an exact replica of its normal-scale bottle, an act of mimicry with which many distilleries don’t even bother but which shows an impressive attention to detail.  Packaging matters!!

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Like every distillery that’s been around for over 150 years, Glenmorangie has gone through its ups and downs.  Even it was not exempt from the 20th century suffering experienced by scotch distilleries, ending up mothballed once in the 1930s and again in the 1940s.  But you may not be surprised to learn that it came through it all OK, upping its means of production from two stills to 12, becoming the top selling single malt in all of Scotland, being purchased by global luxury giant Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH) and eventually capturing over 5% of the entire world market share in single malt whisky.  I would call that a success story.  The 10 Year, also known as the Glenmorangie Original, is the entry into the brand’s core line and is a remarkable bargain at $68.  It is somewhat reticent at first with its apple cinnamon Cheerios, lemon peel, celery stalk and spice aromas, but oh so smooth and lithe on the tongue, weightlessly coating every single tastebud and lingering on an extended finish.  Vanilla bean, lemon meringue pie (curd, meringue and crust), poached pear and brown sugar reflect the whisky’s ex-Bourbon maturation treatment and result in a scotch that’s easily approachable for a wide audience.  Like an ex-cool veteran chart-topper, it’s a mainstay for a reason.





Calgary Wine Life: Cloudy Bay Winemaker Tasting at Alloy

26 09 2013

If you’re into New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, you’ve heard of Cloudy Bay.  When I bought my first book about wine a few years ago, the first couple pages of the chapter on New Zealand were the story of this winery:  one of very few producers scattered across the Marlborough region of New Zealand in the mid-1980s, when nobody was paying any attention to NZ wine and nobody on the northern half of the globe was buying it, without any vineyards of its own, making Sauvignon Blanc in a style that has since become synonymous with the nation and the grape (crisp, aromatic, intense, herbaceous), exploding onto the international scene, and shining the spotlight of the wine world on this scenic region on the northern tip of the country’s South Island.  This isn’t ancient history:  New Zealand was an afterthought of a wine nation with only a small handful of producers at a point during my lifetime (I’m 33).  Now it has turned into a thriving and exciting contributor to the world of wine that is home to over 700 wineries, and in large part Cloudy Bay is to thank for this surge of success.  One of the main reasons that “New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc” possesses the same instant and tangible sense of identity in the psyche of wine drinkers as “Australian Shiraz” (or “Cali Cab”, or “German Riesling”, or “Argentinian Malbec”) is the work of this trendsetting producer that started small and turned itself into a national icon with a world-renowned style.

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In 2003, Cloudy Bay was purchased by luxury brand supergroup LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy), which was charged with maintaining the legacy of New Zealand’s most famous liquid export.  This responsibility is now in the capable hands of lead winemaker Tim Heath, who has spent the past 9 years at the winery trying to ensure that Cloudy Bay’s historic voice is as strong as ever within its wines while simultaneously helping them evolve and grow.  Heath recently made his inaugural journey to Canada to showcase his latest creations and discuss the impending release of Cloudy Bay’s 2013 Sauvignon Blanc (just put in bottle in August!), which should be out on the shelves in a matter of weeks.  I was fortunate enough to join him and a few others for a stellar lunch at Alloy, my favourite restaurant in town, to talk and taste New Zealand wine. Read the rest of this entry »








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