Cognac Is All in the Family
Small, indie producers are where energy and value is to be found.
When Michel Laurichesse died last year, it left the future of Cognac Paul Beau, one of the legendary producers in Grand Champagne, very unclear. For years, Michel had run the 100-hectare estate in Segonzac with his brother and then his nephew, but by the time of his passing, the family was in conflict about how (and by whom) the company would be run. In all likelihood, we will never again see a new bottle produced and labeled as Paul Beau. Though it dates to 1895, the brand will cease to exist. Olivier, Michel’s nephew, has started his own label and is selling single cask selections. As a company, Paul Beau had already been selling most of its young eaux de vie to Rémy Martin, saving select barrels for its own label. What will happen to the rest of the family’s older stocks?
Cognac is complicated, and this scenario isn’t uncommon. It’s a region of 4,300 growers, more than a hundred distillers, and 270 shippers, but in reality it’s controlled by four brands — Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin, and Courvoisier — which sell the majority of all Cognac consumed. In the US, the Big Four sell about 90 percent of the Cognac consumed, with Hennessy alone accounting for 60 percent. Wholesale prices are effectively set by these Big Four. Add to that the fact that 97 percent of all Cognac is exported and sold outside France — meaning anyone selling Cognac needs to have global reach. (You can read my Cognac Primter for more background).
In this ecosystem, how do smaller family producers survive?
“It’s always complicated to be seen, because we’re pretty tiny,” says Amy Pasquet, who runs the 15-hectare Jean-Luc Pasquet with her husband, Jean. Located in Eraville in Grand Champagne, the Pasquets are among a handful of producers who don’t sell to the bigger houses. They’re also one of the few organic growers in Cognac. “We have to do all of it ourselves,” says Jean. “You have to know how to drive a tractor, how to be a cellar master and distiller, how to do marketing, how to speak to clients.”
Then there are the strict regulations from Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC). “You have to account for every centiliter,” says Amy. “Seriously, they’ve called us about one centiliter.”
Regulations can be especially burdensome to smaller family producers. “Some guidelines have a noble goal. For example, to be environmentally friendly,” says Nicolas Palazzi, of PM Spirits, who has imported Paul Beau. “Others are created with purposes that could be seen as helping the largest businesses assert even more control over the smaller guys, while putting the weight and cost of conforming to said new requirements on the small guys’ shoulders. On the ground, adapting is often costly — new machines, construction or certifications. And this is an extra burden for small makers who already don’t know what a ‘weekend’ feels like.”
Whatever the case may be, sometimes there’s a breaking point. “There’s a moment when one feels one hasn’t signed up for this,” Palazzi says. “Because the nature of the thing has been changed. It leads to small guys asking themselves questions: Why am I doing this? For what? Is there any sort of legacy? Is the daily pain worth it?”
This recently happened with another legendary producer in Grand Champagne, Guillon-Painturaud (also imported by PM Spirits). Though the estate dates to 1610, Line Guillon-Painturaud recently decided to change careers and sold her family’s 19-hectare property and its stocks to an investor who owns several other estates. Just as with Paul Beau, it remains to be seen what happens next.
Still, despite the challenges and difficulties, there is still a lot of deep satisfaction in operating an independent family-run Cognac house. For me, labels like Jean-Luc Pasquet, Navarre, Brard-Blanchard, Jean Fillioux, Bertrand, and numerous others are where the dynamic energy in Cognac comes from. These guys are making the exciting bottles that enthusiasts and collectors should be seeking out. “When the market is mature enough, people look for smaller brands,” says Amy Pasquet. She sees a maturing, evolving market in the US, Germany, Norway, and elsewhere.
While the Pasquets don’t sell to the larger houses, plenty of family producers do. For instance, Bertrand, with 85 hectares in Petite Champagne, sells 85 to 90 percent of its production to Hennessy, keeping select barrels for their own label. “It’s accurate to describe Hennessy as an 800-pound gorilla,” says Seph Hall, who runs Bertrand with his wife Thérèse and brother-in-law Samuel. “But they’re not nasty. They’re not a distempered 800-pound gorilla.”
When I was in Cognac a few weeks ago, I stopped by Paul Beau’s modest tasting room in downtown Segonzac to inquire about Lignee de Samuel, their top bottling. I was told they only had three bottles left in house. But I couldn’t buy any because I didn’t have enough cash on me, and they didn’t have a working credit card machine on site.
As I drove away, it made me think about how fragile this all is, the life and work of the independent family Cognac maker. That’s what we’re celebrating this week.
Focus on Family
Some of these bottlings from Guillon-Painturaud and Paul Beau will quite soon be simply impossible to find.
A brilliant young expression that proves age isn’t everything in Cognac. A minimum of four years, all from the estate in Grande Champagne. Deep gold, with an exuberant, expressive nose offering aromas of violets, acacia, pear blossom and cocoa. The fresh, swirling, expansive palate features grapefruit, spice, tobacco and chocolate. Impressive and versatile, it’s even nice on the rocks as a pre-dinner pairing with oysters. (40% abv)
Rather than the traditional XO, the new generation at Pasquet has chosen to put numeric age statements on the labels of its younger bottlings. This one is a minimum of 10 years old, all from their estate in Grande Champagne. The intense nose offers alluring jasmine, smoked herbs, toffee, and an underlying aroma of Earl Grey tea. Full of juicy citrus in the mouth, balanced with notes of ginger and green tobacco. Pretty and powerful, and complex for its age. (40% abv)
An early pioneer of organic winegrowing, Brard-Blanchard made the switch in 1972. Now the 20-hectare Fin Bois estate is 100% certified organic. For centuries, Fin Bois has been seen as a “lesser” appellation, but just a sip or two of this remarkable organic Fin Bois expression should make anyone reconsider that old idea. Aged 12 to 20 years, this unique blend includes Colombard and Folle Blanche along with the usual Ugni Blanc. Deep amber, with an extraordinary nose of fresh cut flower stem, licorice and even exotic spices like saffron and curry. The rich palate has everything: bright and full of stone fruit at first, then creamy and expansive, with attractive cocoa notes at the midpalate, followed by a dry, mineral finish. Exceptional value. (40% abv)
With an average of 30-year-old Grand Champagne in the blend, this hors d’age is shy at first, but as it opens there’s a complex nose of beeswax, plum tart, and a hint of antique furniture varnish. The palate is incredibly complex, delivering lots of bright plum, an almost slivovitz-like plum brandy note, then mature rancio notes of overripe papaya, and a spicy finish of anise, cardamom and ginger. (40% abv)
Navarre Vieille Réserve, ($203)
Prized Grande Champagne expression by Jacky Navarre. Aged 35 to 50 years, yet light amber in color. The incredibly complex nose is at first warm and affable, presenting pretty dried flowers, rose petals and roasted walnuts, but as you return to the glass, the aromas open up with a tropical explosion of pineapple, mango and guava. Wows the palate with so much going on at once, both profound and hedonistic. Lots of fiery spice and pepper at first, which is then balanced and rounded out by more opulent tropical fruit, some forest floor notes and a unique chalky finish. This is an incredible value for one of my highest-rated Cognacs. (45% abv)
A limited edition, cask-strength, made from a single lot found in the cellar by a Norwegian collector. Aged 50+ years, deep, rich, smoky, with a swirl bright warm fruit, membrillo, honey, and surprising light on the palate, with attractive rancio on the finish. Wonderful expression of Petite Champagne. (49.2% abv)
Paul Beau Lignee de Samuel ($480)
Precious few bottles remain of this, one of the noteworthy, classic Grande Champagne expressions. Aged more than 50 years and dark mahogany in color. The nose is quiet first, but as it opens, you get all kinds of rancio notes — soy, antique varnish, sandalwood, roasted walnut — and then comes the fruit: candied orange, baked pear, dried prune. On the palate, it’s very dry and nutty, with attractive notes of old exotic wood, clove and cedar. But there’s also something ineffable and ancient that’s hard to place on the soft, attractive, profound finish. (43% abv)
Like the Hors d’Age, this is shy at first, but opens up into an incredible Cognac. At more than 40 years of age, and brilliant copper in color, it first offers toffee and nutty aromas, and then deeper, earthy, autumnal notes of fallen leaves and campfire. In the mouth, it’s rich, with lots of nutty, serious rancio, but it’s nimble and balanced throughout with flavors of fleshy plum that carry into the fresh finish. A superb example of classic aged Grande Champagne. (40% abv)