Cognac – the female spirit

Cognac has made a comeback: Chinese consumers go wild for it, US rappers have made it a cult drink – the sales figures are soaring. And three French women have been the driving force behind this phenomenon.

Cognac is on the rise

Once considered a slightly stuffy digestif consumed by gentlemen of a certain age, cognac has recently been given a massive boost thanks to the endorsement of US rappers like Snoop Dogg, P. Diddy and Busta Rhymes. They have brought the brandy from south-western France back in from the cold and given it a sexy image. Their enjoyment of this aristocratic tipple comes with an exclamation mark: “Look, we’ve climbed the social ladder!” – even though they tend to mix the noble spirit with Coca-Cola. The hip-hop scene has built an altar to cognac, and there is even a hymn singing its praises. Whether you sip it at the end of a splendid dinner or as a hip cocktail at a trendy party – cognac is cool again.

Liquid masterpieces from the very best terroirs

Annie Ragnaud-Sabourin, Managing Director of Ragnaud-Sabourin

What do the Chinese like? She’s not interested in the slightest! Nor do the tastes of the Russians, Americans, Germans or British interest her particularly. Annie Ragnaud-Sabourin is not in the business of creating ordinary cognac. She knows what she likes, and that’s enough for her. In her cropped white trousers and blue-and-green checked woollen jacket, surrounded by wooden barrels and the cobweb-draped walls of her wine cellar, you would be forgiven for thinking that the petite lady with the bright red lipstick had popped by for a visit. Ambleville is a small village surrounded by lush vineyards. Ivy tumbles over the courtyard walls, and tractors rumble down the narrow village streets. This former lawyer has been familiar with the estate, the old manor house and the outbuildings where her liquid treasures are stored, ever since she was a child. Cognac has been distilled here for generations and the finest compositions created. This is her home.

Cognac-Ragnaud is small, but very exclusive: only 50,000–60,000 bottles are produced here annually. The family business in south-western France, which Madame took over after the death of her father, Marcel Ragnaud, and a career as a professor of law in Paris, is considered one of the best cognac makers in Charente-Maritime. The 80-year-old says proudly: “We have 33 hectares of our own vineyards here in the best location, the Grande Champagne!” That is particularly unusual. Most cognac producers have to buy the wine from one or several of the 5,200 winegrowers in the region. Shortly before picking starts, Ragnaud-Sabourin tests the fructose and acid content of the grapes daily and then decides exactly when they should be harvested. All she needs to do is step out of her front door and she is surrounded by vines. “And if I go down into the cellar, I have a magnificent selection of very good, very old cognacs, which date back to my grandfather’s time!” Aided by her cellar master, Pascal, she blends these and the eau de vie distilled in the alembics purchased way back when by her grandfather to create fine cognacs. The cognacs of the house of Ragnaud-Sabourin are praised by connoisseurs as liquid masterpieces. Those lucky enough to sample them are treated to an explosion of flavours, with apricot, figs, cinnamon, chocolate, butter, nutmeg and coffee cascading over the palette. The world of cognac boasts more than 250 different flavours, and many of them can be discovered in the fine cognacs produced by Madame and her team.

A man’s world in the hands of a woman

Isabelle Couprie, cellar master at Cognac Gautier

The idea that women would one day control the fortunes of cognac, determine how it tastes and even be responsible for the blends was unthinkable not that long ago in what was once a male-dominated domain. “That’s strange, since women, with their particular sense of fragrance and flavour, have always been predestined for making cognac – but for a long time they simply didn’t have the courage to try”, says Isabelle Couprie. The 43-year-old is “Maître de Chai”, the cellar master at Cognac Gautier, one of the oldest cognac houses in Charente, and one of the few women in such a position.

Isabelle Couprie comes from a family that has been growing grapes for cognac for centuries: “As a baby, I was surrounded by the scent of cognac!” Now, she works in a former 18th-century watermill in the village of Aigre, where the Cognac Gautier headquarters are located. The biochemist and oenologist who opted for the wine cellar rather than the lab, juggles terroirs, vintages, flavours and colours here – using them to create highly distinctive cognacs. So are they particularly feminine? “No, I don’t make feminine cognac; I only make particularly good cognac!” says Madame.

An old, yet new cult drink

Élodie Abécassis, CEO of ABK6 Cognac

The ‘Angels’ Share’ imparts a black patina to the walls of the venerable distilleries in the Cognac region. It is the result of a fungus that feeds on the spirit that evaporates out of the barrels filled with brandy. Once a year in September, this ‘Angels’ Share’ is celebrated with a special event, during which the ‘haute volée’ of cognac producers gather in a sumptuous setting. They all bring along a selection of their most valuable treasures – usually high-carat brandies in extravagantly designed bottles – which are auctioned off for a good cause.

Élodie Abécassis of Domaines ABK6 (the modern abbreviation of Abécassis) also attends. The 29-year-old is one of the youngest producers in the Cognac region. Many years ago, her family owned vineyards in the South of France, which they were forced to sell. Francis, her father, was unhappy about giving up his wine-growing ambitions, and 14 years ago he purchased 240 hectares of vineyards in the very best locations in Cognac: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne and Fins Bois. He has been producing Cognac ever since and recently promoted his second-youngest daughter to CEO of the company.

It was an excellent choice: this young French woman, with her long, dark brown hair and degrees from the prestigious business schools of HEC in Paris and Wharton in Boston, is the ideal embodiment of the new cognac generation. Smart, bubbly and very eloquent, she confidently (re)presents the five ABK6 cognacs on the global markets and has already conquered 30 countries with her charm. Now she has her sights set on the twenty-somethings. Abécassis’ latest creation, the “Ice Cognac by ABK6”, is a cognac that you drink on the rocks. It has been an incredible success. Her future looks golden, just like that of the old, new cult drink.

The numbers, please!

The exclusive French spirit in facts and figures

Cognac is a product with a strong regional identity: only those spirits made from grapes grown in the Cognac area in south-western France that have been twice distilled and have an alcohol content of at least 42 per cent are permitted to bear this name. For this reason, most cognac houses grow their own grapes, although a substantial proportion is supplied by the more than 5,000 local winegrowers. The distillate is then stored for decades in Limousin oak barrels until the brandies are “married” in a complex blending process. In 2015, 169 million bottles were sold all over the world, at a value of over two billion euros. In 2000, sales were merely 116 million bottles, and 40 years previously just 52 million bottles. This growth in sales has been fuelled largely by Asian consumers – and particularly the demand from the Chinese market. In this vast nation, the amber French tipple is considered “très chic” – just as it is in the tarnished shine of the former Tsarist and Soviet empire. German consumption has also risen steeply, with the country ordering nearly five million bottles last year from the region around the Charente River. This happy state of affairs has had the 386 brandy merchants in Cognac rushing to replenish their stocks of roughly one billion bottles. In production, a key focus is on creating “universal favourites” which please British consumers as much as they do connoisseurs in India, China, Russia, the US and France – because even “la Grande Nation” has been resuming its love affair with Cognac.