The Wheel Deal: Cognac’s on a Roll

Everybody talks about reinventing the wheel like it’s a bad thing.  What if you tossed in a tot of Hennessey XO mid-spoke?

That’s what the cognac cognoscenti did during the Second International Cognac Summit, which sounds a lot more fun than any other string of words that has ‘Summit’ at the end of it.

According to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac, after four days of intensive tasting and discussion by 50 top international sommeliers, cellar masters, spirits specialists and spirits writers, the result is not, as you might guess, the mother of all headaches and a liver that looks like a spaghetti colander, but the Cognac Aroma Wheel.

Drum roll sil vous plait?  On second thought, pull down the shades and be really, really quiet.  If it’s not the wheel spinning, it must be the room.

Jean Lenoir, creator of ‘Le Nez du Vin’—the world’s ultimate wine education kit—led daily workshops during theSummit, which were designed to research and describe the aromatic make-up ofCognac.  Over 100 Cognacs were tasted and nearly five thousand tasting notes compiled and analyzed—the final list revealed 63 separate Cognac aromas.

Of these, the five principle aromas that characterize Cognac were found to be vanilla, prune, caramel, orange and apricot.

Considering that by law, the only fruit allowed in Cognac is grapes, there was some pretty creative consumption going on back in those brandy bunkers.

Frazzled by Science

Ah, but there’s method behind the insufferability; isolating and recording aromatics is a good way of identifying and remembering what’s been tasted, whether you’re dealing with Cognac, gewürztraminer or Hawaiian Kona.

The science is as pure as the spirit.  For instance, in Cognac (a compact area in southwestern France subdivided into six regions, each yielding spirits with different textures and aging capabilities) consider that soil type, grape varietal and additive proportions each contribute to the overall sensations in the final product.  Most Cognac novices don’t realize how the styles of this legendary tipple differ from distiller to distiller, ranging from fresh and light to rich and deep.

Flavors counteract and modify each other, so each Cognac house is responsible for duplicating its own recognizable and unique profile with every bottle it releases.  It’s part of the brand loyalty mystique, and one of the reason that the Cognac Wheel can be a useful tool for a consumer actually interested in learning something beyond how many Nuprin it takes to cure a hangover.  Unlike wine, which may change markedly in each vintage,Cognac distillers strive for an identical product year after year.  When you detect almonds, orange peel and cedarwood in a ten-year-old Chateau Montifaud Cognac V.S.O.P. in 2009, in a perfect (and immortal) world, you should be able to pick up the identical volatile phenols in a space age snifter of the same brandy in 2099.

V.S.O.P. incidentally, stands for Very Special Old Pale—not, as erroneously reported in an earlier column, Very Shamelessly Over Priced.

Now a Note on Tasting Notes

Tasting, which is 80% smelling, does not exist independently of the taster.  It’s not a quantifiable phenomenon like musical sound waves, where a C sharp is always a C friggin sharp whether your name is Mozart or Madonna.  A ‘tasting note’ is merely a comparative yardstick where the key factor is subjectivity, and inevitably tied in with the taster’s preconceptions and personality.

Or is it?

In fact, floral, nut, fruit and spice scents, saturated flavors—even  mouthfeel—are the cumulative result of chemical compounds, and if you have more cash and equipment than tasting talent, you can isolate the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’.  Of the previously listed ‘top five’ scent characteristics of Cognac, the vanilla likely comes from oak barrels or a permitted additive called boisé (essentially, boiled wood chip juice); apricot and orange scents are familiar to tasters who’ve evaluated wines from the key grapes that make up Cognac—ugni blanc, folle blanche and colombard.  Prune qualities are common in Cognac, probably an offshoot of the ‘Maillard Reaction’ which darkens dried fruit and is also an integral part of the barrel-making process. The caramel bouquet is more controversial: although caramel itself is an allowable additive in Cognac, consummate connoisseurs will tell you it is added strictly for color and does not affect the taste.  To me, if something that contains caramel smells like caramel and tastes like caramel, I’m going to figure it’s a done deal before I go looking for maltol, cyclotene or dihydromaltol in barrel-toasting by-products.

Then again, not being a consummate connoisseur of anything but painful puns and awful alliterations, I’d probably be wrong.

Of course, the above gobbledygook pivots on an individual taster’s talent for picking up the most subtle phenols rising from the liquor glass and not confusing or prejudging them, so after all that, we’re back in Subjectivity-ville.

Incidentally, I, your unesteemed and undecorated columnist, was conspicuously not invited to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac’s Second International Cognac Summit, nor asked to lend my cute, almost Bambi-esque nose to the Cognac Aroma Wheel decision-making process.

Note that my Xanax-level good nature allows me to report on it nonetheless.

I will, however, be even more magnanimous in covering the First International Wild Irish Rose Summit, which I have just been asked to chair.


The Cognac Aroma Wheel can be downloaded at: http://bit.lycognacwheel

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