Master blender Patrice Pinet has been with Courvoisier since 1989. He came to San Francisco this week to pour Cognac for sommeliers who aren't selling as much of it as in the past, and made time to talk with me about how global warming and the cocktail revolution are affecting the spirit.
Unlike most distilled spirits, Cognac is a brandy made from wine, which means its source ingredient is sensitive to global warming.
In the 1800s, Cognac was made mostly from Folle Blanche grapes, which are high-acid and aromatic, but these were mostly replaced after phylloxera by more dependable but less interesting Ugni Blanc, an import from Italy (where it's called Trebbiano.)
Now, however, the Ugni Blanc is ripening too quickly. Pinet said average grape harvests are three weeks earlier than 30 years ago. This presents a problem California wine fans will understand: too often the sugars develop ahead of the flavors.
It seems ironic to talk about too much alcohol in wine that will be used to make a 40% ABV spirit, but that's exactly the problem.
"For Cognac, we don't like to have too much alcohol in the wine," Pinet said. "We want 9 or 10 percent, not more. If you have too much alcohol in the wine, you get less aromas in the distillation process. In order to have a strength of alcohol not too high, we advance the harvest."
The Cognac region isn't interested in moving back to Folle Blanche en masse, even though it ripens later, because it's not very resistant to disease and mildew is still a nearly annual threat. Courvoisier is working with some growers who are experimenting with a grape called Monbadon, a cross between Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche, in hopes that it will also ripen later.
As for the impact of cocktail culture, Pinet says that has changed the flavor profile of Courvoisier's entry level VSOP Cognac.
"Before, VSOP was drunk neat. Now we use more and more in cocktails," Pinet said. "We change a little bit VSOP to be more fruity and more floral. Five or six years ago we had more dried fruit notes. Courvoisier's style is to not have too much wood. We don't want to have the floral notes covered by the wood."
I tasted Courvoisier VSOP for the first time in years and found it smoother than I remembered. Despite the change in profile Pinet mentioned, I found it quite fruity up front, with peach and orange notes, and I can see it working well in cocktails.
However, there is an interesting newish production technique for the XO.
"For the XO, we transfer from a dry cellar to a humid cellar (during the barrel aging process)," Pinet said. "When you are in a dry cellar, you have more evaporation of water. The Cognac is a little more rude. In a humid cellar, you have more evaporation of alcohol. It's interesting for the smoothness."
In fact, Courvoisier XO is rich and smooth, with strong caramel and orange notes and a hint of dark chocolate. It's delicious.
Just last week I spoke to a bunch of college students who wondered how much money I make blogging. Well, the answer is not much, but I do get to taste $3500 Cognacs now and then. That experience will make my next glass of XO more satisfying.