Is there really a world beyond Cognac?

Legend has it that a group of Dutch exporters and French vintners thought to maximize shipping (and profit) by distilling their wines.  At the final destination they would reconstitute the product, approximating the original.

They were mistaken.  Shipped in oak barrels, the wine’s flavour was irrevocably altered.

However, they had quite by accident discovered a new spirit.  Deriving its name from the Dutch word brandewijn, or burnt wine, it was immortalized as brandy.

Today, two French regions are considered the unequivocal masters of this spirit—Cognac and the slightly lesser known Armagnac.

Of the two, Cognac remains king but connoisseurs contend that Armagnac is a superior quaff.

Eager to learn what all the fuss was about, I headed for the MLCC flagship store at Grant Park…and disappointment.

At the time, they offered a meager selection.  A trinity of Cognacs-Courvoissier, Remy Martin and Hennesey- stood shoulder to shoulder with one lonely Armagnac-Samalens.  (They have since added Otard).

But an amendment to Manitoba’s Liquor Control Act promised to change all that.  Under the new law, boutique wine stores would be allowed to carry spirits derived specifically from grapes.

Within days of the amendment, Mo Razik boarded a plane for Europe armed with his chequebook and a consuming passion for the best brandy.

One year later his store, Fenton’s Fine Wines, brims with the fruits of his labour.  Hanging like the firmament above his first floor wine boutique at Winnipeg’s Forks Market, he has amassed a second to none inventory of grappa, marc, liqueurs, cognac and a stunning array of vintage Arrmagnac from every year back to 1953. A shrewd business owner who recognizes that good sales pre-suppose greater demand, he offers a number of appreciation courses and tastings.

I promptly signed up.  I assumed it would be an opportunity to sample a great variety of Cognacs beyond the three offered at the LC.  And maybe a few Armagnacs. I had a number of preconceptions going in.  I admit I am a bit of a snob.  I hold firm to the belief that Cognac is the unequivocal king of post-prandials.

Narrow minded?  Yes.  But in my defense I’m limited by geography.  I’ve partaken only of the three locally avaialble.  As for Armagnacs, the aforementioned Samalens and a one-off whose name I can’t recall, impulsively snagged at an airport gift shop when I visited Paris.

The evening began with a discussion of the craft—from ingredients to distillation methods, growing regions to regulations, aging and blending to distribution and pricing.

Then, at long last, it was time to taste.

The blogger embarks on some serious blow-harding and know-it-alling in the following section. Taste is a subjective thing. Don’t take my word for it. Try them yourself.

We began with a grappa, a three-year-old Bottega Cellini Grappa Oro (more on this later). Next a sampler of two German brandies. Of these I preferred the cheaper Wilthener (VS) at $28.95 over the Riesling based Scholss (VSOP) at 45.95 per bottle.

Heading to Spain we sampled a $26.95 Perez Barquero Brigadier. And hello Spain! Maple hued, the colour announced its bouquet beautifully.  Subtle caramel and chocolate flavours ushered in a pleasant hazelnut espresso finish.  I enjoyed it so much, I couldn’t help but feel like I was cheating considering my longstanding love affair with Cognac.

Not a moment too late, the French saved the day.  A Prunier VSOP Cognac ($52.95) followed by a Delord VS Armagnac ($39.95).  Finally, back to back I had the benefit of immediate comparison.

Both had a copper colour.  The Cognac greeted me with aromas of apricots and a whiff of spice.  The fruity bouquet carried through the tasting with apricot marmalade yielding to a subtle sweet chipotle finish.  The Armagnac offended my nose with vinegar and ammonia scents which someone described as prune.  Take your word for it.  Thankfully its taste was a departure from its aroma, suggesting a marriage of almonds and bruleed figs with a chocolate finish.

I suspected the order was carefully chosen because the Armagnac segued deliciously into the liqueurs—a coffee Cognac and peach grappa.

The coffee cognac liqueur by F. Gacon featured bold burnt cherry aromas and cloying demerara sugar and mocha flavours.  I found it sickly and overwhelming.  And at $43.95, I’ll stick with straight Cognac.

And the Grappa.  Whereas my first grappa of the evening, with its treated leather bouquets and a typically obnoxious anise finish, had reinforced everything I believed of that spirit, its peachy cousin was…well, just peachy.

It seduced me immediately with lavender and honey perfumes and lulled me into a love affair with buttery lychee syrup flavours.  And at only $24.95 it’s a bargain addition to your liquor cabinet.

Tasting over, horizons broadened, comparisons made.  So what about those preconceptions?  Cognac still reigns supreme in my book.  But my belief that it stood unparalleled in the world of brandies? Like the Dutch and French, I had made a mistake.  And as a result I have discovered a beautiful new world of spirits. I have discovered that there is indeed, a world beyond Cognac.

Fenton’s Fine Wines
106 The Forks Market
Winnipeg, Manitoba. R3C 4A7
(204) 956-4613
Fax: (204)947-9089

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