Dinner in Grande Champagne
One of the most common questions I get asked about Cognac is why the labels often say "Grande Champagne" under the name of the producer. This brandy doesn't have bubbles in it, right? What the term "Champagne" refers to with Cognac is no different than the meaning behind the name of the famed wine-producing region itself: it's a classification derived from the amount of chalk in the vineyard soils. It’s believed that some of the world’s longest-lived wines draw their preservative powers from the terrain—that limestone, clay, or other specific soils help to preserve acidity and promote more concentrated flavors within the grape. In Champagne, most of the best vineyards are planted into chalk, marl, and limestone, the remnants of shelled sea creatures from an ancient ocean that once swept over what is now France. That very special soil produces wines with incredible acidity and minerality; it's the reason Champagne is Champagne and everything else is just sparkling wine. Cognac is broken down into a number of different grape-growing regions, the most prestigious of which is Grande Champagne—a section of the Charentes that by no coincidence has the chalkiest soil content. When white wine grapes grow in limestone-rich soils the berries maintain their acidity, which ultimately creates a finer distillate and a more delicately-flavored Cognac. I stopped in this week to visit our friends Claudine, Gerald, and Pierre at Dudognon, one of our favorite Grande Champagne producers.
Located in the town of Lignieres-Sonneville, Dudognon—in my humble opinion—makes some of the best brandies in the entire world, which taste even more impressive when you learn they’re 100% natural with no caramel coloring and no artificial sweeteners. Boisé, as the sugary substance is referred to colloquially, is an agent used to round out any of the potential harshness of a Cognac before bottling. It also helps to maintain consistency of color and allows the liquid to appear older in the bottle. It’s not necessarily a bad thing—most rums follow the same practice—but, like plastic surgery, no one wants to admit they’ve had work done. The thing that grabs you instantly upon the first sip is the freshness of the spirit. There’s a fresh, clean, and piercingly crystalline flavor to the Dudognon Cognacs which is even bolder and more intense in the younger brandies. Finding Cognac without additives is not easy, so when you taste something as pure as Dudognon it can catch even experienced brandy sophisticates off guard.
The last time that I visited Dudognon in December of 2015, Pierre and I made a blend for K&L using two brandies that we married together, one distilled from ugni blanc and the other from a rarely-seen grape called montils. We brought it in the following year and by the end of that holiday season it was sold out. Since then, however, the remainder of that blend has been sitting in a cask, marrying slowly and gaining complexity from the additional oak maturation. We tasted it against the original blend (they still had a bottle on hand) and there was no question: it had evolved into something very special, so I told him to bottle it up and ship it over as soon as possible.
Where as most VS level Cognacs clock in between two to three years of age (again, the dark color is often due to the caramel rather than the maturity), I don’t think you can even approach most of the Dudognon brandies until seven to ten years after they’ve been in cask. It seems crazy to say, but you can almost taste the minerality in the young Cognacs, almost like the stoniness of a Sancerre or the chalkiness of a top level Champagne. To use yet another wine analogy, it’s a lot easier to make something taste soft and smooth than it is to express the finesse of terroir. Sugar and oak can mask a lot of impurities, but they can’t manufacture complexity. It’s innate. Give the incredibly concentrated Cognacs of Dudognon fifty years and they’ll blossom into something absolutely unworldly—like the finest vintages of Haut-Brion or Domaine de la Romanée-Contí. We finished the evening with a 20+ year old Vieille Réserve expression that paired quite wonderfully with dessert, even without the extra sugar.