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Cognac is back in trend. Asian customers are snapping it up and U.S. rap stars have embraced it enthusiastically – generating healthy sales along the way. Three French women have been a driving force behind this evolution
Once considered a slightly stuffy digestive consumed by gents of a certain age, Cognac has recently been given a massive style boost thanks to the endorsement of U.S. rappers like Snoop Dogg, P. Diddy and Busta Rhymes. Along with legions of others from the hip-hop scene, they brought the brandy from southwestern France back in from the cold and gave it a sexy image. Their enjoyment of the aristocratic tipple comes with a sub-layer of meaning: “Look, we’ve climbed the social ladder!” – even though they tend to mix the fine spirit with Coke. The hip-hop scene has built an altar to Cognac, and there is even a hymn singing its praises (“Pass the Courvoisier”). Whether you sip it at the end of a glamorous dinner or as a hip cocktail at a cool party – Cognac is definitely back with a bang.
Annie Ragnaud-Sabourin, Managing Director of Ragnaud-Sabourin
What do the Chinese like? She’s not interested. Nor do the tastes of the Russian, Americans, Germans or Brits interest her particularly. Annie Ragnaud-Sabourin is not in the business to create ordinary Cognac. She knows what she likes, and that is her sole benchmark. In her cropped white pants and blue-and-green checked woolen jacket, surrounded by wooden barrels and the cobweb-draped walls of her wine cellar, you would be forgiven for thinking that the petite lady with the bright red lipstick had popped by for a visit. Ambleville is a small village surrounded by lush fields of grapes. Ivy tumbles over the ancient walls, and tractors rumble down the narrow streets. The former lawyer has been familiar with the estate, the old manor house and the outbuildings where her liquid treasures are stored ever since she was a child. Cognac has been distilled here for generations, and the company’s skilled blenders have created the finest compositions. This is her house.
Cognac-Ragnaud is small but very exclusive: only 50 - 60,000 bottles are produced here annually. The family company in southwestern France, which Madame took over after the death of her father, Marcel Ragnaud, and a career as a professor of law in Paris, is considered one of the best Cognac makers in Charente-Maritime. “We have 33 hectares of our own vineyards in the best location in the Grande Champagne!” says the 80-year-old proudly. This is a rarity; most Cognac producers have to buy the wine from one or several of the 5,200 winegrowers in the region. Shortly before picking starts, Ragnaud-Sabourin tests the fructose and acid content of the grapes daily and then decides exactly when they should be picked. All she needs to do is step out of her front door and she is surrounded by vines. “And if I go downstairs into the cellar I have a magnificent selection of very good, very old Cognacs which date back to my grandfather!” Aided by her cellar master, Pascal, she blends these and the eau de vie produced in the alembics purchased by her grandfather to create fine Cognacs. The products of the house of Ragnaud-Sabourin are praised by connoisseurs as liquid masterpieces. Those lucky enough to sample them are treated to an explosion of flavors, with apricot, figs, cinnamon, chocolate, butter nutmeg or coffee cascading over the palette. The world of Cognac knows more than 250 different flavors, and many of them can be discovered in the Cognacs produced by Madame and her team.
Isabelle Couprie, cellar master at Cognac Gautier
A few years ago, the idea that women would one day control the fortunes of Cognac, determine how it tastes and even be responsible for the blends would have been utterly unthinkable in what was once a male-dominated world. “Women, with their special instincts for fragrances and flavors, have always been predestined for making Cognac – but for a long time they simply didn’t dare,” says Isabelle Couprie. The 43-year-old is Maître de Chai, cellar master of Cognac Gautier, one of the oldest Cognac houses in Charente, and one of the few women in such a position.
Isabelle Couprie comes from a family that has been growing grapes for Cognac for centuries. “As a baby, I was surrounded by the scent of Cognac!” Now, she works in a former 18th century watermill in the village of Aigre, where the Cognac Gautier headquarters are. The biochemist and oenologist who opted for the wine cellar rather than the lab, juggles terroirs, vintages, flavors and colors here – using them to create highly distinctive Cognacs. So are they particularly feminine? “No, I don’t make feminine Cognac; I only make especially good Cognac!” says Madame.
Élodie Abécassis, CEO of ABK6 Cognac
The “Angels’ Share” imparts a black patina to the walls of the venerable distilleries in the Cognac region. This color is the result of a fungus that feeds on the spirit which evaporates out of the barrels filled with brandy. Once a year in September, the “Angels’ Share” is celebrated in a special event, during which the Haute Volée of Cognac producers gather in a sumptuous setting. The attendees bring along a selection of their most valuable treasures – high-carat brandies in extravagantly designed bottles – which are auctioned for a good cause.
Élodie Abécassis of Domaines ABK6 (the modern abbreviation of Abécassis) has also come. The 29-year-old is one of the youngest producers in the Cognac region. Many years ago, her family owned fields in southern France, which they were forced to sell. Francis, her father, was unhappy about giving up his wine-growing ambitions and 14 years ago purchased 240 hectares in the very best locations in Cognac: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne and Fins Bois. He has been producing Cognac ever since, and recently promoted his second-youngest daughter to CEO of the company. It was an excellent choice: Élodie, who has long, dark hair and degrees from the prestigious business schools HEC in Paris and Wharton in Boston, is the ideal embodiment of the new Cognac generation. Smart, agile and very eloquent, the young woman (re)presents the five ABK6 Cognacs on the global markets, and has already conquered 30 countries with her charm. Now she has her sights set on the twenty-somethings. Abécassis’ latest creation is Ice Cognac by ABK6, a Cognac that is drunk with ice and which has been an incredible success. Her future looks golden, just like that of the old, new cult drink.
The exclusive French spirit in facts and figures
Cognac is a product with a strong regional identity: only wine that has been grown in the Cognac area in southwestern France and that has been twice distilled and has an alcohol content of at least 42 percent is permitted to bear this name. Most Cognac houses grow their own grapes, but a substantial proportion is supplied by the more than 5,000 local winegrowers. The distillate is stored for decades in Limousin oak barrels until the brandies are “married” in a complex blending process. In 2015, 169 million bottles of Cognac were sold globally, representing a value of more than two billion euros. Sales have been rising steadily: In 2000, 116 million bottles were sold, compared with a scant 52 million bottles forty years ago. This growth in sales has been fuelled largely by Asian consumers – and particularly the demand on the Chinese market. In this vast nation the amber French tipple is considered très chic – as it is in Russia: the former Tsarist and Soviet empire are undergoing a Cognac rush. German consumption has also risen steeply, with the country ordering nearly five million bottles from the region around the Charente River last year. This happy state of affairs has had the 386 brandy merchants in Cognac rushing to replenish their stocks of roughly one billion bottles. In production, a key focus is on creating “universal favorites” which please British consumers as much as they do connoisseurs in India, China, Russia, the U.S. and France – because even the Grande Nation has been resparking its love affair with Cognac.
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