History tells that a Chinese man was the first person to make brandy. In the Compendium of Medical Herbs of 1596, the great pharmacologist Li Shizhen wrote: “There are two types of grape, one that gradually turns into wine and the Shaojiu wine grape.” And when the French accidentally discovered the effect of curing this wine in oak barrels, they hit upon the final process that would produce brandy.
Shaojiu wine is the earliest form of brandy and western scientists broadly agree that the distilling process was first invented in China. One thousand years ago, during the Tang dynasty, grapes were fermented and distilled into brandy. Those techniques travelled west via the Silk Road and were refined and improved by the French throughout the 17th century. Today's top quality brandies, such as XO and VSOP, are the result of more than 1000 years of history and bring together the best of the Chinese and French traditions. Cognac is generally considered to be the finest brandy in the world. As emperor of France, the company provided Napoleon with their finest brandy and when banished to exile in Saint Helena, he took several barrels with him, hence the old Chinese name for it, "Napoleon Cognac" (the Courvoisier logo is a silhouette of Napoleon – supposedly reaching into his jacket for a bottle of Cognac). In 1869, Courvoisier became one of three official suppliers of wine to the Chinese imperial family.
I went to visit the historic Courvoisier château in Jarnac, a pretty town in western France where the Cognac has been produced since 1828.
A few interesting facts: Cognac brandy can only come from the Cognac region of France or one of 36 surrounding towns and villages. Under French law only these areas are allowed to use the Cognac name. Cognac brandy is distilled twice in a copper still and then sealed in French oak barrels to age for two years, to add colour and flavour (only two kinds of wood can be used to make these barrels). Once it has been through this process it can be described as Cognac brandy. There is an old saying: All Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac.
The Courvoisier château in the Charente region was built in the 1830s and it still has an elegant style, with a beautiful garden in the courtyard that is a riot of flowers.
The interior resonates with history: antique furniture, a magnificent staircase, colourful wallpapers, elaborate lamps and oil paintings of it’s most famous client, Napoleon. As trade with Asia was fashionable from the 15th to the 18th centuries, and Eastern culture began to permeate Europe and this château has a few Asian-style pieces of furniture from the period. Looking out from the château over Jarnac Park and the Charente river, there is a wonderful panoramic view. Immersed in the atmosphere of this small town scene, I was filled with a deep sense of peace and serenity.
Apart from grapes, the most important raw material – and another major source of flavour – is the oak barrels. When the brandy is first distilled, it is a clear colour, with a strong taste but not such a strong aroma. After this clear brandy is stored in oak barrels, a series of magical changes take place: elements from the wooden barrels gradually seep into the brandy, so after two years, five years, 10 years or even longer, it slowly turns a golden colour, then from deep gold to dark brown. In the barrels, it acquires an oak fragrance from the wood, changing the colour and taste of the brandy, and combined with the taste of oxidation of its own tannins, the unique aroma and flavour of brandy is created.
Cognac can be drunk in many different ways, as an aperitif, with a meal and as a digestif. The powerful taste lingers on your palate long after the first sip. We enjoyed a sumptuous dinner in the great hall of the château. Before the meal, we sipped a Courvoisier VSOP, to accompany the starter of Atlantic croaker fish fried in argan oil. The fresh, young drink brought out the delicate taste of the tender fish without overwhelming it, while also whetting our appetite. After dinner we had a small sip of Courvoisier XO and it perfectly matched the dessert of homemade crepes flavoured with vanilla and orange. The concentrated sweetness of the dessert mixed with the sweet aromatic taste of the alcohol was a delight.
I think maybe orange and vanilla with Cognac is the perfect taste combination. In the château tasting room we did a little test. Wearing blindfolds, we smelled the aroma of caramel pudding before taking a sip of cognac. Amazingly, the cognac tasted of caramel pudding! Then we did the same test with the smell of orange, with the same result. The original taste of Cognac forms a perfect fusion with these two flavours and the input from our sense of smell mingles with our taste buds.
A few interesting facts: VS (Very Superior) is the youngest brandy produced in the Cognac region, although it must still be cured for at least two years. VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) is a medium-aged Cognac brandy, which must be cured for at least four years. XO (Extra Old) is the best quality Cognac. According to French government regulations, this Cognac brandy must have been aged for more than six and a half years.
Of course, as well as an aperitif and a digestif, the purest of Cognacs can be drunk on the rocks, with mineral water, in tea or as part of a cocktail. At the château we tried the Midnight in Paris cocktail, a light refreshing drink that's perfect for a summer evening. Courvoisier’s wine waiter shared his personal recipe with us, so why not give it a try?
Take one brandy glass
Add 2 ounces of Courvoisier VSOP
Some ginger ale
Some orange slices
And voila!, your Midnight in Paris cocktail is ready!
At the Courvoisier château, as well as trying all kinds of Cognac and delicious food, you can learn how to appreciate the true flavour of the drink and visit the museum, which has historic bottles dating from 1789. Better still, you could have your wedding banquet here!
For more information on Courvoisier
For Paris tours
For an experience at the château
Pictures: Brandie Raasch, Story: Xinxian Su