Credit: John Short

The gentleman’s guide to cognac, by Martell’s cellar master

From the history of the spirit to the glassware you should be pouring your latest bottle into, we turn to Christophe Valtaud to educate us in everything cognac

In the world of brandy, there are few names as storied as Martell. The oldest of the great cognac houses, the brand dates back to 1715, when Englishman Jean Martell founded his eponymous company on the banks of the Charente.

Today, the spirited producers of spirit are headed up by cellar master Christophe Valtaud. The 40-year-old, who was himself born in the Cognac region and is the latest in a long line of winegrowers, is the safest pair of hands for the company; with the secrets in his head and cognac in his blood.

So what better man to teach us the importance of cognac, what makes a good spirit, and how to enjoy the finest French bottles?

What makes a brandy a cognac?

“Cognac is a type of brandy, but earns its name following very strict unique production methods,” says Valtaud, “and its own distillation methods, know as the Charentais alambic. And cognac is exclusively made in the wine growing regions of Charente and Charente-Maritime.”

Cognac, the cellar master explains, is made from distilling white wine to create eau-de-vie, ageing it in French oak barrels for a minimum of two years, and then blending different eaux-de-vie to create a specific flavour.

The gentleman’s guide to cognac, by Martell’s cellar master

“And the Cognac region is divided into six zones,” he adds, “called ‘crus’. Borderies, Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Fins Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaire are the six to look out for.”

Does the age of a cognac make much of a difference?

“VS, VSOP and XO refer to the age and quality of the cognac,” explains Valtaud. “And each of these terms corresponds to how long the cognac has been aged in oak barrels.”

VS, the cellar master explains, stands for “Very Special”. Only eaux-de-vie that has been aged for at least can be used to make a VS cognac. VSOP stands for “Very Superior Old Pale”, signifying a cognac that has been created from eaux-de-vie aged for at least four years. And XO, which stands for “Extra Old”, uses eaux-de-vie of at least ten years old.

“In terms of taste and aromas for each type of these cognacs,” says the man from Martell, “you’ll find more fresh fruit flavours in the VS category. VSOP cognacs will deliver more aromas of stewed fruits or jam, and XO will express the flowery, spicy aromas especially.”

What is the best way to enjoy cognac?

“The days of the cliché cognac drinker, a cigar smoker curling up next to a roaring fire while casually swirling a snifter of the amber-colored liquor, are long gone,” says Valtaud.

"The days of the cliché cognac drinker are long gone..."

Instead, the cellar master recommends mixology as a very good way to introduce this spirit to younger generations. Just some of the mixers he suggests are tonic, ginger ale, or even green tea.

“Cognac can also be enjoyed neat, over ice or diluted with a little water,” he adds. “At Martell, we do not recommend warming cognac as it brings out the alcohol too strongly and releases the aromas too quickly. To savour it in the best way, the glass should be chilled before adding the cognac.”

The gentleman’s guide to cognac, by Martell’s cellar master

And what glass is best? The classic bulb?

“When consumed for a tasting,” says Valtaud, “a tulip glass, rather than a balloon glass, is recommended since it assures a much better appreciation of the entire aromatic range of the cognac. But you can also enjoy a Martell cognac as a long drink in cocktail glasses.”

Cocktails, as well as simple mixers, are a key way to enjoy cognac. Valtaud recommends Martell VS, VSOP or Noblige — a exceptional, caramelised VSOP — as the perfect bottles for creating these drinks.

“For very exciting, refined cocktails, when we create a cocktail or a long drink, we always try to ensure that the true essence of Martell always shines through. At Martell we suggest mixing it with pomegranate, lime, grapefruit juice or lemon peel to make interesting cocktails. A perfect summer recipe is preparing a punch with mint leaves!”

The gentleman’s guide to cognac, by Martell’s cellar master

Martell Blue Swift


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The gentleman’s guide to cognac, by Martell’s cellar master

Martell Non-Chill Filtered


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The gentleman’s guide to cognac, by Martell’s cellar master

Martell VS Cognac


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Cognac is revered as a drink for special occasions. Which bottle is best for this?

“Martell Cordon Bleu is the House’s most emblematic cognac,” says Valtaud. “Martell Cordon Bleu is perfect for special occasions, either drunk neat, on the rocks, or diluted with a little water.

It took two years for Edouard Martell, great grandson of Jean Martell, founder of the House of Martell, to craft and perfect Martell Cordon Bleu, Valtaud tells us. An extraordinarily complex blend of over one hundred eaux-de-vie, marked by the influence of the very rare Borderies grapes, it is a highly disruptive cognac, and one of the most impressive bottles to buy. Time to raise a glass, gentlemen.

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