Atomic science is now a factor in the Cognac market.
More on that story later. But first, an important point: Although both wine and brandy begin their lives as grape juice, the length of time they spend in the bottle is critical in the case of one and immaterial to the other.
With wine, it's essential to know the vintage year, because almost all wine is bottled within two years of its harvest. From that moment on it ages, either gracefully or fitfully, right up until the cork is pulled.
But brandy, even that special brandy made in the French village of Cognac, ages and develops only while it is in wooden casks; for all practical purposes its growth comes to a complete stop once it's bottled. If you were to sip a brandy made in 1849 and bottled in 1854, it would taste no more than 5 years old, even though the stuff was physically made before the Civil War.
That's one reason you don't see vintage years on Cognac bottles. Another is that most Cognac houses prefer to blend their vintages to make a product with a consistent house style. However, exceptional years do come along that can stand on their own, without blending. They offer the opportunity of tasting the unique character of a single vintage.
Soon we'll actually have that option, because vintage-dated Cognac is appearing once again in the United States. A few weeks ago the famous Cognac house Hine announced the release of a vintage-dated 1953 Cognac, noting that 1953, in addition to being an excellent year for the red wines of Bordeaux, was a great year in Cognac. It is selling for $690 a bottle. The bottling also commemorates the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the firm says, which is important because Hine is holder of the royal warrant as Cognac supplier to the British Crown.
"We have always been very keen on vintage (Cognac)," says Bernard Hine, proprietor of the house of Hine. "We put 20 or 30 casks of each vintage aside. Of course, we don't know until it's 10 years old whether it's good or it's bad." Hine says the 1953 Cognac spent 34 years in cask, was bottled unblended in 1987 and has spent the last seven years in bottle--"marrying," as they say.
Now, the very existence of vintage-dated Cognac is largely unsuspected in this country. If you ask a merchant for it, likely as not you'll be told there is no such thing, except maybe in England.
Until recently, that would have been correct. Some Cognac producers (including Hine) bottled vintages 50 or 75 years ago, but in 1961 the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), the French agency that regulates Cognac, prohibited the vintage-dating of Cognacs.
Bernard Hine explains the BNIC felt that it was best to terminate the vintage category because there had been some irregularities in dating. "It was outlawed for many reasons," says Hine, "but one of them was that some people overdid it. And also, since most of the Cognac (area's) philosophy was blending, there were few reasons to vintage-date."
However, the BNIC ruling only prohibited bottling of vintage-dated Cognac by the Cognac producers themselves. It didn't stop the long-established practice of sending vintage-dated barrels of Cognac to England, where it was known as "early landed" Cognac. After varying periods of barrel-aging, English wine merchants would bottle this Cognac with a vintage year.
In 1988, the BNIC changed its mind and ruled that Cognac producers could bottle vintages once more. However, Hine says, aging the barrels at the producer's cellar remained a dicey proposition for the authorities, since they weren't able to ensure there was no fraud.
The guesswork has ended with the advent of carbon-14 dating. (That's the atomic science angle to this story.) Now a sample of Cognac can be sent to a lab and carbon-14 dating methods will determine its precise age.
Meanwhile, all vintage Cognacs being held in cask must be placed in a special cellar under the eye of the authorities. It has two locks; one key is held by the producer, the other key by the government. Neither party can enter the aging cellar without the other.
Darrell Corti, the Sacramento wine merchant who may know more about Cognac than any other American, says, "The vintage on a bottle of Cognac always was a date that was sort of taken cum grano salis. The British didn't concern themselves with the fact that some of the product was not from that vintage."
He says pressure to issue vintaged Cognac came from Armagnac, Cognac's great rival among French premium brandy regions. Armagnac producers, he says, had less stringent regulations about the use of vintages--"provided you stated that the product was aged at least seven years (in barrel)." These dated Armagnacs particularly appealed, Corti observes, to people who wanted a beverage from their birth year but were born in bad vintages for red wine.
Moreover, Corti says, Cognac producers got tired of watching the British buy early-landed Cognac in barrels and sell vintaged products that they, the Cognac producers themselves, were forbidden to sell.
Corti, who long has imported early-landed Cognac in barrel, is now selling early landed Hine 1972 for $175 per bottle; next year he will have Hennessey 1972 "Domaine de la Bataille." It is not yet bottled or priced.