This year’s opening stanza of spirits and beer tasting notes begins with a lovely group of Cognacs, which hail from a trio of distinguished producers: A. Hardy, François Voyer and Polignac. Of particular note are two of the Hardy offerings, the Noces de Diamant 60 Year Old and the Perfection. Both are Grande Champagne-designated Cognacs, meaning that the grapes that constitute these exquisite brandies were cultivated in vineyards that lie in the district demarcated as Grande Champagne within the Cognac region.
Grande Champagne is the premier cru, the Bentley of Cognac districts. Boasting approximately 32,000 acres of vineyard, mostly planted to Ugni Blanc, the district’s hub is the town of Segonzac. The soil around Segonzac is rich in calcium carbonate, ideal for producing light, delicate, flowery wines for the distillation process. Yet the resulting Grande Champagne Cognacs are beloved for their depth and multilayered character. Many require long aging periods in French oak. Others take on that rare and coveted mystical quality, called rancio. Grande Champagne Cognacs are supreme brandies that easily rank with the world’s finest spirits.
CLASSIC (96-100)/Highest Recommendation
A. Hardy Noces de Diamant 60 Year Old Grande Champagne Cognac (France; A. Hardy USA, Rosemont, IL); 40% abv, $500 (includes crystal decanter). Topaz color. Opening bouquet is compelling as biscuity, spicy, botanical waves of black pepper, milk chocolate and oaky vanilla vie for dominance; bouquet turns fruity, ripe, mildly spirity and leathery later on. Palate entry is firmly structured, candied, grapy and appropriately woody-resiny; midpalate is rich, grapy, honeyed, marzipan-like and nougaty. Aftertaste is ripely sweet. Loved it from start to finish.
A. Hardy Perfection Grande Champagne Cognac (France; A. Hardy USA, Rosemont, IL); 41% abv, $6,000. Blended in part from prephylloxera (pre-1870s) Cognacs. Very deep amber color. Initial nosings detect stately aromas, including tea leaves, cigar tobacco and delicate touches of oaky rancio; aeration releases leathery and spicy notes. Palate entry is nougaty sweet, luscious, honeyed and deep; by midpalate the flavor phase reaches a zenith, offering richly sweet tastes of rancio, sap, honey, brown sugar, sugar biscuits and cocoa. Finishes voluptuously honeyed, almost like Pedro Ximenez Sherry. If this Cognac were art, it would be a Rembrandt.
SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended
A. Hardy Noces de Perle 30 Year Old Grande Champagne Cognac (France; A. Hardy USA, Rosemont, IL); 40% abv, $500 (includes crystal decanter). Amber honey hue. Initial nosing pass detects a mildly spicy bouquet that’s ready to fly; aeration doesn’t deepen this nose as much as it sweetens it, blending in comely notes of toffee, brown sugar, leather and vanilla extract. Palate entry is sap-like, sugary and oaky; midpalate shows generous flavors of pineapple, guava, mint, caramel and oak resin. Aftertaste is firm, semisweet and more fruity than woody.
A. Hardy Noces d’Or 50 Year Old Grande Champagne Cognac (France; A. Hardy USA, Rosemont, IL); 40% abv, $150. Deep amber-bronze in color. Opening nosings pick up distant, delicately fruity and viny aromas; time in the glass allows for more expressive aromas such as pine, honeysuckle and oak to come alive. In the mouth, the sweet flavors of dark caramel, honey, oloroso Sherry, candied walnuts and spiced pears make for intriguing and beguiling tasting from palate entry through midpalate. Closes beautifully, as rich, warming tastes of tea, cedar, tobacco and honey excite the taste buds.
François Voyer XO 25 Year Old Grande Champagne Cognac (France; 1er Cru Collection, Alto, MI); 40% abv, $125. Attractive bronze hue. Opening nosing passes detect traces of butterscotch and dark caramel; further time expands the bouquet to include scents of honey, bark, ripe grapes and leather. Palate entry is pointed, tart, semisweet and moderately honeyed; at midpalate, mature, fully evolved, dessert-like flavors of brown sugar, old oak and cocoa take charge. Finishes with spirity heat that warms the tongue. Intriguing and piquant.
François Voyer Extra 40 Year Old Grande Champagne Cognac (France; 1er Cru Collection, Alto, MI); 42% abv, $275. Brilliant, new-copper-penny color. This bouquet is biscuity, fruity and off-dry, but distant; aeration works miracles, as the aroma opens up with scents of nuts, hard candy, honey, cinnamon and oak. Palate entry is polite, intensely fruity, off-dry and lip-smacking; midpalate features delicious flavors of baked pear, nectarine, white raisins and oaky vanilla. Aftertaste is long, smoldering hot, biscuity again and semisweet. A luscious Cognac that takes time to evolve.
VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended
François Voyer Napoleon 15 Year Old Grande Champagne Cognac (France; 1er Cru Collection, Alto, MI); 40% abv, $75. Amber-topaz color. Bouquet rushes up in zesty, compelling waves of spice (nutmeg, coriander) and black raisins; more exposure to air stimulates deeper, more profound scents of marzipan, nougat, dark honey and oak resin. Palate entry is so dry as to be austere; midpalate displays more fleshiness but it’s the dominating presence of oaky resin that lasts on and singes the tongue. Aftertaste is long, mineral dry, resiny and not the least bit generous. Atypical Grande Champagne Cognac, which usually is rich and concentrated. Austere.
Prince Hubert De Polignac Premier Grand Cru Grande Champagne Cognac (France; Gourmet International Food & Beverage, Las Vegas, NV); 40% abv, $35. Pretty copper-henna color. Opening bouquet offers scents of cocoa butter, oak and ripe grapes; eight more minutes in the glass finds the bouquet deepening as aromas of bell pepper, palm oil, citrus rind and butter show genuine substance. Palate entry is sweet, candied and almost honeyed; the honey quality turns more brown sugar-like and sappy at midpalate. Finish is zesty, oaky and sweet.
Prince Hubert De Polignac V.S.O.P. Cognac (France; Gourmet International Food & Beverage, Las Vegas, NV); 40% abv, $25. Burnished orange. First nosing passes pick up raisins and prunes; aeration expands the bouquet profile by adding zesty scents of black pepper, leather and pear. Starts smoothly at palate entry, then turns a bit hot at midpalate as off-dry flavors of dried red fruit, ripe grapes and candied almonds seem baked, minerally and overly spiced. Rounds out in the steely, slate-like finish.
Prince Hubert De Polignac X.O. Cognac (France; Gourmet International Food & Beverage, Las Vegas, NV); 40% abv, $50. Orange hue. The nose after the pour shows no typical aromatic traces of grape brandy; several more minutes in the glass help by releasing friendlier, more appropriate off-dry aromas that include oak and ripe grapes. Texture at palate entry is surprisingly thin for what’s supposed to be an X.O.; midpalate displays more flavor, mostly in the forms of mild oaky vanilla, candied nuts and brown sugar. Aftertaste is lean, dry and a touch hot.