Whether professionally or for pleasure, wine tasting is always a special experience. Yet once one knows a Chardonnay from a Beaujolais, and can discern whether a bottle is oak-barrelled – or corked – where to from there?
The elegant and sophisticated world of cognac just might be the perfect place to apply one’s wine-tasting knowledge and skills, no matter how rudimentary or advanced.
Produced from grapes in the Cognac region, France’s famous amber spirit has much in common with wine. And that extends to the best practices for how to taste cognac too.
What is so special about cognac, is that it is a versatile drink, enjoyed an endless number of ways. If ever asked ‘How do you properly drink cognac?’ or ‘How are you supposed to drink cognac?’, Martell-lovers will know there is only one correct answer: ‘Your Martell, your way’.
That said, there are some fundamental steps to consider that will heighten any tasting experience – whether for cognac, wine, or another drink altogether.
It starts with the glass. In traditional cognac tasting sessions the spirit is tasted neat, meaning without ice (‘cognac on the rocks’), water, or any other mixer.
Experts will typically reach for a tulip cognac glass, named for its shape. Narrower at the top than the bottom, the tulip glass serves to concentrate and circulate the spirit’s aromas, making them easier to appreciate.
Cognac is also often served in a balloon glass, readily identifiable for its rounded shape. A balloon glass will still allow one to appreciate the cognac’s aromas. Pay attention though to limit its contact with one’s hands, as this will warm the cognac and heighten the sensation of alcohol. The ideal serving temperature for cognac for tasting is 18-20°C.
Hold the glass by the stem, and lift it to the light. What does the colour tell you? Is the colour a light amber, or darker? A darker hue will generally (though not always) indicate the cognac is more aged, the barrel having imparted more of its characteristics to the eaux-de-vie over time.
What else can you discern from the clarity? The eaux-de-vie in Martell cognac is produced from clear wines from which all lees have been removed, for a purer, more authentic expression of the vintage and terroir.
The process of double-distillation in the famous alambic charentais copper pot still further improves the clarity of the spirit. By comparison, other brandies such as armagnac are distilled in column stills, resulting in a murkier spirit.
Time now to engage the olfactory senses. Lift the glass to the nose and gauge the initial aromas. This is called the first nose. If primarily floral or fruity, the cognac may be younger in nature. Older cognacs by contrast develop in intensity.
Swirl the glass to aerate the cognac and release the secondary aromas, then bring to the nose once more. What new aromas can be identified?
Certain cognacs blend hundreds of different eaux-de-vie, some of which may take longer for aromas to emerge. Martell Chanteloup XXO, for example, combines 450 very old eaux-de-vie, offering connoisseurs a complete expression of the very best of Cognac’s terroir.
The moment for tasting is upon us. By now, having appreciated the look and aromas of the cognac, the tastebuds will have an inkling of what to expect on the palate.
Sip the cognac and swish it over the tongue and around the palate. Inhale some air while the cognac is in the mouth to unleash the spirit’s full nature. Its flavours will stimulate the receptive palate, conveying the cognac’s unique combination of sweetness, saltiness, acidity and bitterness.
For a true degustatory tasting experience, consider pairing cognac with chocolate. A simple square of fine and crunchy dark chocolate, or bitter chocolate with candied orange peel, works particularly well, especially with an XO cognac. (Learn more about how to pair cognac with chocolate by consulting our ‘How to cognac’ video tutorials.)
If tasting multiple cognacs in one sitting, start from youngest to oldest, so as not to overwhelm the palate prematurely.
It is also advisable to discharge the cognac after each mouthful. Contrary to some popular opinion, while swallowing the cognac does not increase your ability to appreciate the cognac, staying sober invariably will!
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