On the Trail

The Thrill of Grower/Producer Cognac

David Driscoll

While we continue to offer big brand expressions alongside a nice smattering of K&L exclusive selections in all of our main spirits categories, we've completely gutted most of the familiar faces from our Cognac department. Why? Because we've found that traveling directly to Cognac has not only opened the door to more quality-oriented producers, it's given us the opportunity to buy directly from the source, providing far more bang for your buck than what the general market tends to provide. The only caveat is that you the customer have to take our word for it. Since we're the only store in the United States featuring most of these smaller Cognac houses, it's up to us to make the case for these producers. Not to worry, however, because the quality of these brandies speaks for itself. As time as gone by, more and more curious Cognac customers have come to depend on some of these unfamiliar faces-both for their supreme flavor and incredible value. A new shipment of French spirits recently hit the docks in Oakland and new batches of directly-purchased Cognac has made its way to our shelves. 

The vineyards of Ragnaud-Sabourin (see the first photo above) stretch far over the hills in Grand Champagne-33 hectares of Ugni Blanc with a bit of Folle Blanche as far as the eye can see. This estate is known throughout France for having the goods and we couldn't have been more impressed after visiting the property years ago. Today the estate is run by Annie Sabourin, who is the daughter of the late Marcel Ragnaud, and she makes sure every drop lives up to the property's reputation. The collection of Ragnaud-Sabourin selections we tasted were spellbinding, easily one of the most polished portfolios we've ever come across. The brandies have richness, purity of fruit, and length on the finish. If you ask the residents of Cognac who the best brandy producer in the region is, they'll tell you Ragnaud-Sabourin. We know this because we asked. That's exactly what led us to their doorstep. The Reserve Speciale #20 is a twenty year old marriage of the purest Grand Champagne quality distillates. The flavors are fruit-forward and lush without ever coming off as sweet or syrupy. It's sheer elegance all the way. The Fontevieille #35 is a thirty-five year old blend that might be the best Cognac we carry in the store. It's a dark, decadent, and brooding Cognac; thick and rich on the palate with a five minute finish of caramel and spice.

Francois Bouju is the man running the show these days at Daniel Bouju. He's incredibly nice, knows a lot about distillation, and taught us a great deal about the region and its wines when we visited his Cognac estate. He impressed us beyond any expectation we had going in. His vines are planted in the best soils-rich limestone which helps to preserve acidity in the fruit-and he is a stickler for detail. The reason the Grand Champagne region makes what is considered the best Cognac is because the soil creates grapes that are fully ripe with high acidity levels and low alcohol. This is important because distillation is about concentrating the flavor of a base substance. If you've got a wine sitting in a tank oxidizing, you're going to have an oxidized flavor in the Cognac. High acidity levels help prevent oxidation while distillation is taking place and prevent the need for stabilizing sulfur. At the same time, you need wine with a low alcohol level as to not overpower the flavor of the fruit. Full ripeness is also necessary to have any flavor at all. You can't simply pick early to preserve acidity because your wine will taste terrible. Bouju's high-acidity grapes allow for a pure and clean-flavored Cognac, free of any impurities. His entry level Fines Saveurs Cognac is a light, fruity, and clean-tasting brandy that offers big Grand Champagne quality for an affordable price.

And when you can get pure Grand Champagne fruit, grown and distilled by the producer, directly from the source at prices that are below standard market value, why would you ever go back to big brands?

-David Driscoll