Waiting to inhale – Cognac and thou for Valentine’s Day

Well, it’s February again. The air is cold, snow is on the ground, Valentine’s Day is on people’s minds and all the wine stories in all the publications talk about wooing her or him with roses, Champagne and Belgian chocolates. This is a great starting point, but let’s take the next step. Aprés dîner, present your honey with a fine bottle of Cognac and appropriate glassware to amplify and express the flavors. With the first swirl, the first sniff and the first taste you will both feel the warmth and the glow of this lovely spirit that beckons you to get close, to inhale – and to touch each other.

Cognac is a brandy made in a specially designated region just north of Bordeaux on the Charente River, which was the starting point for transporting this spirit around the globe. The base fruit is the grape, usually Ugni Blanc, which makes an uninteresting white wine of little flavor. This wine is then distilled, usually more than once, to create a high alcohol spirit known as Eau de Vie, which is then oak barrel-aged and bottled.

There are several qualitative designations on the label, which usually correspond to the amount of time spent in oak and, roughly speaking, reflect the price. VS, VSOP, XO and Extra represent Very Special, Very Superior Old Pale, Extra Old and Extra. The XO designation jumps out at me for Valentine’s Day for obvious reasons – kisses and hugs. Expect to pay somewhere north of $120, possibly considerably more, for one of these bottles. It should last a long time, because fine Cognac is a contemplative drink to sip and savor. Unlike wine, its flavor remains true in the opened bottle. I like to use a brandy snifter or a large stemless glass. Stems on wine glasses are there to prevent hand warmth from changing the temperature of the wine from its optimal serving temperature. But with Cognac, holding the glass bowl with both hands and swirling will raise the temperature a bit, helping to release its essence and its flavor.

Since college, I have always had several bottles of Cognac for my home bar. Each bottle can last years unless my very large family, traveling with spouses, is here for a visit. Each Cognac house has its own maître de chai, or cellar master, responsible for blending the different eaux de vie to present the chosen house style consistently. It’s interesting and fun to taste and discuss different styles and to find which flavors are present with the first taste and which emerge in the glass.  Google and print out “Cognac aroma wheel,” and you will find several types of charts with flavors you can expect to find in Cognac. These range across almond, orange, pear, mango, dried fig or apricot, cinnamon, tobacco, coffee, walnut and honeysuckle, to name a few. It’s sometimes easier to recognize flavors when you have options to pick from, as in a multiple-choice exam. Each house style and price point will offer different flavors.

Perfumes and colognes tend to interfere and stomp on wine aromas. But deftly applied (think minimal), perfume scents can have a symbiotic effect on experiencing Cognac. The heady aromas of the swirled Cognac draw you in, move you closer to your partner. Perfumes are inhaled and absorbed and swirl around your head. The scent of the one and the flavor of the other can be playfully intoxicating.

Happy February! Happy Valentine’s Day! XOXOXO!

Write me at doug@dougpaulding.com.

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