Mention Cognac and what names come to mind? Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell, Remy, are the obvious choices since they produce 90 percent of the world’s cognac. But how about Prunier? Bet you never heard of it. Neither did I — until last week, when I had the good fortune to attend an in-store tasting at Post Wines in Syosset, Long Island, conducted by Gerald Cogen, president of Prunier Cognac’s distributer, Select Brands International Inc.
The tasting, gratis and open to all, was sparsely attended, but the few there, including myself, were richly rewarded. I was dazzled by the Prunier samples, poured with a gracious hand by the soft-spoken, knowledgeable Mr. Cogen. All told, over the course of 90 minutes I tasted six Cognacs, an Armagnacs (brandy from the Armagnac region in southwest France) and two Calvados, brandies distilled from apples.
Cognac (pronounced kon-yak) is a brandy named for the French wine growing region and town of Cognac in the French Departments of Charente and Charente-Martime. For a distilled brandy to be called cognac, which is a AOC, or appellation d’origine contrôlée, it must be made from the Ugni Blanc gape, twice distilled in copper pot tills and aged at least two years in French oak barrels from Limousin or Tronçais.
Cognac matures in a similar manner to whiskies and wine when aged in barrels, and most cognacs are aged considerably longer than the minimum legal requirement. Cognac, raw from the still is colorless and gains its hues, from deep gold to russet, from the casks in which it ages. The raw spirit — Mr. Cogen provided a sample of this, too — resembled a fruity eau de vie, but harsh and fiery, not unlike some Italian grappas.
But the stuff that’s been aged in barrels, well, that’s quite a different story.
Starting at the low end of the brand portfolio there’s the VS ($23). Aged four to six years, it’s soft and fruity, but hardly complex.
Next, the 10-year-old Axel Gay ($40), named for Prunier’s cellar master, and a soon-to-be discontinued label we were told, is smooth and soft with hints of fruit as well as fire.
The Prunier Family Reserve ($63) was among my favorites. Russet hued from a stay of 15 to 40 years in oak and blended together, it offered up a complex array of flavors, fruit, oak and hazelnut, heat and a touch of what I perceived as sweetness.
Prunier 20 Years Old Cognac ($80), is a single vintage spirit aged for 20 years. It’s golden color pales next to the Family Reserve, but while soft, it lacks the complexity of its blended brethren.
XO, or extra old Cognac, by French law must be aged for at least six years. Prunier’s XO ($105) includes in its blend spirits aged for more than 80 years. Russet hued, its has an exuberant nose and a full body. It’s silky on the palate and its finish is lengthy.
Mr. Cogen hadn’t planned on opening the XO Litz ($200), bottled in a handcrafted glass decanter, but he relented with a nod from Post Wine’s co-owner Mike Douglas. It’s blend, Mr. Cogen explained ,includes brandies from the 1937, 1939, 1947 vintages. Amazingly soft, well-balanced and russet colored and with a finish that won’t quit it’s a fine as you’ll get.
Onto the Armgnac Sauval ($NA), a more rustic, coarser tasting brandy than the cognacs, it offers prune notes on the palate. It’s aged 18 to 30 months.
Finally, we move on to Menorval Calvados Prestige AOC ($NA). Aged for four years its comes across as bitter and harsh. The Menorval Calvados XO Tres Vieux ($NA), aged for 17 years, is sweeter and smoother.
Maison Prunier S.A. has been produced Cognac since the 17th Century and began exporting a century later. The company remains family owned today.