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Old Wine From New Companies


Great brandy is created slowly. The raw distillate is aged in oaken casks for decades so that fire is converted to finesse and sear becomes silk.

Given the time it takes, you would think it would be economically ridiculous to start a new Cognac house. But four years ago Alain Royer did just that, founding the firm of A. de Fussigny Cognac. Today he offers some of the finest 50-year-old Cognac I have ever tasted.

Many of the major Cognac producers distill only a portion of their Cognac, buying the rest as unaged brandy from small growers, and then aging them in their cellars. "The major houses don't own their own vineyards," Royer says. "They are truly negociants-eleveurs who have established contracts with distillers from whom they buy stocks."

He says of the 35,000 growers in the Cognac region, 3,000 own their own stills. "The distillers sell between 80% and 90% of what they make and keep 10% to 20%, which they sell discreetly," he says. That last word explains how Royer could begin Fussigny.

These privately held casks of ancient distillate are rarely sold to large companies. The small distillers usually hold them as investments for their children, who sell them, usually decades later, to people they know and trust.

These old casks are like children, nurtured for decades and not lightly cast out. Prices for these aged Cognacs are high, but sometimes the seller won't take the highest price: The buyer is more important. "It's very emotional," Royer says.

Royer is a son of the Cognac house of Jules Duret, which was founded in 1853. But when the family sold the company to Suntory of Japan in 1988, Royer found himself excited about Cognac and without a connection to the industry. So he and his wife, Anne-Marie, nee Pantin de Fussigny, founded the new firm and began calling on old friends with barns filled with old Cognac barrels. The firm would focus not on modestly priced Cognac, but on products of ultimate quality.

An example is a newly released Cognac called Tres Vielle Grande Champagne. It sells for $160 a bottle. This Cognac was distilled after the grape harvest of 1937. Some of the best barrels from that vintage were kept by a tiny distiller (no names, please; sources are valuable, Royer says).

"The distiller, this was his first harvest, his first distillation, and then he went off to fight in World War II," Royer says. "But before he left for the war, he hid the barrels so the Germans wouldn't find them, and they remained there through the war and for many years after."

In 1990, 53 years after the clear distillate was placed in barrels, Royer discovered them. He negotiated a price, then bottled the Cognac without blending, which is rare for Cognac. Royer himself admits, "Cognac almost always is at its best when it is a blend."

The result is a dark amber liquid now fully mature, very complex with scents of orange peel and roasted almonds, caramel and honey. The taste is smooth, amazingly unctuous and not at all harsh. There are just a few hundred cases.

Though this Cognac was all from the 1937 vintage, it was hidden in a barn and could not be certified as vintage Cognac. Official certification in France requires that a government seal be embedded in the paraffin that seals the bung of the cask. Only Cognac that remains "in bond" until bottling may be vintage-dated.

But of all Royer's Cognacs, I preferred the Heritage Lot 102 ($110). This is a traditional blend of Cognacs, 70% from the Petite Champagne region, the remainder from two different areas of Grande Champagne. The aroma was most intriguing, blending cooked peach, a decadent cedary note and burnt vanilla and almond aromas.

The Royers also bought enough older Cognac to blend into a fine, light, elegant Cognac they call Selection. It is equal in quality to a VSOP-level Cognac from a major producer, but priced reasonably at $28. I found it an excellent value, with an apple-and-pear fruitiness and an elegant and crisp finish, not unlike Hine in style.

Royer is banking on the fact that there's been so much consolidation in Cognac in recent years, as smaller brands are bought up by major houses, that Americans' natural curiosity about high-quality "unknowns" will draw them to Fussigny.

"In 1970," Royer says, "there were perhaps 35 small Cognac houses and all of them exported their Cognac to the United States. Today there are probably only five small producers who export to the United States." (Of these, the best known are Delamain, Ragnaud and Leyrat.)

Style is what primarily distinguishes the smaller producers of Cognac from the larger ones. Many of the big producers make Cognac that is uniform in style and lacks the distinction I see in many of the smaller producers. For instance, I love the delicate style of Cognac made by Delamain. When I can't find Delamain, I prefer Hine as a close approximation.

Royer also makes a splendid Pineau des Charentes, a mistelle (a blend of unfermented grape juice and Cognac) that is wonderful as an aperitif.

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