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Cognac should chase terroir over fashion

“Are too many Cognac houses simply trying to ape the region’s biggest brands, rather than look to what their own terroir can offer?”, asks one category expert.

Photo credit: BNIC/Jean-Yves Boyer

Speaking at a tasting in London this week, freelance Cognac educator Ed Bates highlighted the stylistic and commercial stranglehold that the four biggest producers – Rémy Martin, Courvoisier, Martell and Hennessy – hold on the this category.

“They’re 80% of the entire market,” he remarked. “If you’re a small house you have two options: do your own thing so drastic that the world takes notice, or copy the big boys and hope to steal some of their sales.”

At the moment, suggested Bates, “Most houses are trying to copy Hennessy XO because the world, or Asia, thinks that Cognac tastes like Hennessy XO. They use the maximum wood extraction and try to get as much rancio into the glass as possible. They’re following fashion and completely ignoring terroir.”

With some houses, Bates indicated a distinct internal split between these two approaches. Pointing to Camus, he highlighted a “very sweet, heavy” XO style “appealing to the Asian market”, but noted: “They also do XOs made on the Ile de Ré which are completely different, light, fresh and salty.”

Following the severe downturn in Cognac sales to the Far East, where BNIC figures for 2013 show a -20.9% volume slide on the previous year, Bates suggested that this challenge could prove beneficial for the category in the long term.

“The downturn in the Chinese market is a good thing,” he maintained. “They [the houses] can react by selling better quality Cognac elsewhere or lower the price. And they’re not going to lower the price.”

For Bates, the terroir story should represent an important aspect of this quality-focused strategy. “Selling Cognac on any of those terroir elements has real validity,” he remarked, including factors such as the influence of the distiller, stills and cask within these parameters.

“If as a house you have the ability to make terroir part of something that sets you apart from everyone else then you should make a big fuss about it,” Bates insisted.

Looking at developments within the category today, he observed: “Some houses are starting to generate this sense of terroir,” citing Léopold Gourmel, whose vineyards lie in the Fins Bois region, as a prime example of this terroir-led.

“They make a real play of the fact that their Cognacs don’t conform to the norm,” remarked Bates, noting that in place of the official VS, VSOP and XO classifications the house uses its own “carat” system to measure the age of its various single vintage expressions.

Above all, Bates warned: “When the most important person in charge of style is the marketing director rather than the maître de chai there’s a problem.”

In response to his comments, the Bureau Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC) released a statement saying: “The BNIC wish to clarify that the views expressed in this article are Edward’s own and not those of the BNIC.”


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