Thursday, May 2, 2013

Visiting Jas Hennessy and Co. - or more simply: Hennessy - in Cognac, France

Pictures: Christian G.E. Schiller at Hennessey in Cognac

Cognac is a brandy named after the town of Cognac. For a brandy to bear the name Cognac - an AOC - it must meet a number of requirements, as is the case for all AOCs.

The Cognac area extends along the banks of the Charente all the way to the Atlantic coast. The entire Cognac vineyard covers around 80.000 hectares.

Jas Hennessy and Co. - or more simply Hennessy - sells about 50 million bottles of Cognac a year worldwide or more than 40 percent of the world’s Cognac, making it the world's largest Cognac producer. While there are close to 200 cognac producers, a large percentage of Cognac—90% according to one 2008 estimate —is produced by only 4 companies:  Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell, and Rémy Martin.

I had the opportunity recently to tour the Hennessy facilities at the banks of the Charente in Cognac.

Ombiasy Wine Tours: Bordeaux Trip Coming up in September 2013
Bordeaux Trip September 2012, France

History of Cognac

The history of Cognac is related to trade. The town of Cognac has always been linked to important international trade routes through the river Charente, which gave the small town easy access to the Atlantic Ocean. During the 16th century, the Dutch merchants used to ship salt and wine from the Southwestern parts of France to northern European countries. However, they often encountered a problem: the wine would often spoil during the long voyage. To protect the wine, the merchants began to distill it, and they named it Brandewijn or ‘burnt wine.’ This became the forerunner of Brandy.

Cognac – An Introduction, France

History of Hennessy

The Hennessy cognac distillery was founded by Irishman Richard Hennessy in 1765. During the 1970s, Kilian Hennessy, a fifth generation direct descendent of Hennessy, spearheaded the company's 1971 merger with Moët et Chandon, which created Moët Hennessy. Moët Hennessy became part of Louis Vuitton in 1987, creating one of the world's largest luxury brand conglomerates, Moët-Hennessy • Louis Vuitton or LVMH.

Moët et Chandon produces champagne, while Hennessy is into cognac. The two companies became partners in 1971 to form Moët Hennessy. In 1987, Moët Hennessy joined the Louis Vuitton group of Bernard Arnault  to become part of LVMH, the world’s biggest grouping of luxury brands.

Hennessy on the Banks of the Charente River

Like most Cognac houses, Hennessy sits on the bank of the Charente River, which before trains and trucks was both a source of water for distillation and a means of transporting bottles of Cognac to the market.

Pictures: Hennessey

The Base Wine

The first step in the production of Hennessy – and of any Cognac – is to make still wine. Charente wines typically have from 7 to 8% alcohol. This wine is quite thin and acid, but good for distillation. Chaptalization is forbidden.

Cognac may be made only from a strict list of grape varieties. If it is to carry the name of one of the crus (see below) then it must be at least 90% Ugni Blanc (known in Italy as Trebbiano), Folle Blanche and Colombard. For other Cognacs, the rules are less restrictive.

There are 6 crus: (1) Grande Champagne - The most prestigious of the crus. (2) Petite Champagne - Cognacs made from a mixture of Grande and Petite Champagne (with at least 50% Grande Champagne) may be marketed as Fine Champagne. (3) Borderies - The smallest cru. Cordon Bleu by Martell is from Borderies. (4) Fins Bois. (5) Bons Bois. (6) Bois Ordinaires - Further out from the four central growth areas are the Bons Bois and the Bois Ordinaires grown regions. Generally used for high-volume production.

Hennessy produces its cognacs from the top four sub-regions of the Cognac district: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, and Fins Bois.


Once the base wine is made, the wine is distilled. Distillation in Cognac takes place in traditionally shaped Charentais copper stills. Two distillations must be carried out; the resulting eau-de-vie is a colorless spirit of about 70% alcohol.

In the first stage, the first distillate is obtained, known as the “brouillis”. During the second stage, known as the “la bonne chauffe” the spirit is finally extracted from the liquid. Here, the distiller performs a delicate process called “cutting” by separating the “heart” from the “heads” (alcohol content is too high) and the “tails” (alcohol content is too low).

Picture: Traditionally Shaped Charentais Copper Still

Apart from its three distillers, Hennessy has 19 contracted distillers that own and operate similar equipment. A good number of the 1,400 growers distill their own production.


That task achieved, the aging process begins and continues somewhat endlessly. I say that because, although each eau de vie batch will be used, a bit at a time, for creating the various final cognac blends destined for the market, the remainder continues to age and evolve until it is all used up.

Some of the oldest batches we got to see at the cellar dated as far back as the mid 1800′s, and all have been used to some extent in the production of Hennessy’s line of cognacs.

Cognac must be aged in oak for at least two years before it can be sold to the public. As the Cognac interacts with the oak barrel and the air, it evaporates at the rate of about three percent each year, slowly losing both alcohol and water. Because the alcohol dissipates faster than the water, Cognac reaches the target 40% alcohol by volume in about four or five years.

Pictures: Aging

It takes nine liters of wine to obtain only one liter of eau de vie after 24 hours of double distillation. What’s more, because of evaporation, only 2/3 of that liter of eau de vie is left after 25 years of maturation time. After 50 years, only one-half is left.


The last step in the process is blending. Cognac is not really the product of a single distillation and aging, but a skillful blend of many carefully selected eau de vie batches of various vintages.

Down through the years since 1765, behind its closely guarded doors, the Hennessy Comité de Dégustation (tasting committee), unparalleled in the world of cognac, has been creating most unique and elegant blends, thanks to its priceless heritage: the largest and most diverse reserve of eaux-de-vie in the world. Also very special, for 7 generations now, the Comité de Dégustation has been run by the Fillioux family.


The official quality grades of Cognac are the following. The names of the grades are in English because the British market was long the primary market for cognac.

VS ("very special"), Very Special, or ✯✯✯ (three stars) designates a blend in which the youngest brandy has been stored for at least two years in cask.

VSOP ("very superior old pale") designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least four years in a cask.

XO ("extra old") designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least six years but on average for upwards of 20 years.

In addition the following can be mentioned:

Napoleon is a grade equal to XO in terms of minimum age, but it is generally marketed in-between VSOP and XO.

Extra designates a minimum of 6 years of age; this grade is usually older than a Napoleon or an XO.

Vieux is another grade between the official grades of VSOP and XO.

Vieille Réserve is, like the Hors d´Âge, a grade beyond XO.

Hors d'âge ("beyond age") is a designation equal to XO, but in practice the term is used by producers to market a high quality product beyond the official age scale.


From the more affordable VS, XO and VSOP, to the top of the line Paradis and Paradis Imperial, Hennessy has a very broad portfolio.

Picture: In the Hennessey Tasting Room

Hennessy V.S

A benchmark in the art of blending, Hennessy V.S is quintessentially Hennessy. It is the world’s most popular cognac of globally recognized quality. V.S is a blend of more than 40 eaux-de-vie.

Hennessy Black

Distinctively smooth.

Hennessy Privilege

The complex and delicate blend of around sixty eaux-de-vie is made distinctive through the subtle presence of several from Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne. Aged in barrels, which are free from powerful tannins, these eaux-de-vies provide Hennessy Privilege V.S.O.P with its delicate sophistication.

Hennessy X.O

X.O was created in 1870 for the personal consumption of Monsieur Maurice Hennessy, his family and friends.

At Hennessy, X.O is composed of over a hundred old eaux-de-vie, comprised of aged cognacs - some of which are over 30 years old. A long ageing in young Limousin oak barrels helps create a rich and powerful cognac thanks to the tannins in the wood.

Hennessy Paradis

In 1979, Maurice Fillioux created an outstanding blend composed of eaux-de-vie laid down by his grandfather, bringing Hennessy Paradis to life.

Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne form the basis of the Paradis blend. Some of these eaux-de-vie are preserved in the Founder's Cellar. The oldest cognacs date back to the 19th century.

Richard Hennessy

Richard Hennessy represents the soul of the company, a combined work by time and Hennessy expertise. Richard Hennessy was created by Yann Fillioux in 1996 for enlightened connoisseurs.

Richard Hennessy cognac is a blend of over a hundred eaux-de-vie, some drawn from the Founder's Cellar, created in 1774.

Its rarity and quality find full expression through the eaux-de-vie from the 1st part of the 19th century which mainly originate from Folle Blanche, a grape variety replaced by Ugni Blanc following the phylloxera crisis.

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1 comment:

  1. Loss of cognac due to the fact that the cork got split while trying to pull out the cork of a 1 lit ennessy Very Special Cognc