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10 November 2017updated 30 Jun 2021 11:52am

What is the miraculous drink that will age without changing?

The most valuable cognacs are stored in a cellar called a Paradis.

By Nina Caplan

A cynic I know once described marriage as a state that women enter into hoping men will change, while men hope women will not. Both, he added (he was, of course, a he), are disappointed.

There are many ways to read this adage, none liable to inspire joy unless you’re a sexist pig or a divorce lawyer. In any case, I disagree. Most of us want our partners to change and stay the same simultaneously. We want this from ourselves, too. When I get the chance for a little childish behaviour, I cross my fingers and wish for unlined skin and wisdom, career advancement and endless leisure, the ability to stay up drinking all night – and the sense not to. Perhaps the most eternally unchanging aspect of the human personality, to say nothing of the most infantile, is this wish to have it all, right now.

The 17th-century Dutch who came to Cognac to trade in salt, the ultimate preservative, had practical reasons for fighting change: food or wine that spoiled during shipping would be impossible to sell at the journey’s end. Transporting products whose nature was to rot, they sought to ensure they survived unaltered – in itself an alteration.

To this end, they began to distil the local wine. This brandewijn or “burned wine” differed radically from the more fragile wine that was its base, but the superiority of cognac over other brandies came from its capacity to retain the flavours of the original fruit: that is, to stay in some way the same.

Frapin is the company with the largest vineyard holdings in Grande Champagne (the finest area of cognac production, so named because its chalky soils resemble those further north). Beneath roofs blackened not by time but by a distinctive fungus that lives by inhaling the evaporating alcohol fumes, the twice-distilled cognac ages in a two-tier system. In damper ground-floor cellars, alcohol evaporates from the dusty oak barrels faster than water; above, in hotter, drier rooms, the reverse occurs. You can smell, and later taste, the difference. Most cognac is blended, the system of letters (VS, VSOP, XO, in ascending order of age and expense) indicating the youngest wine included, but barrels of vintage cognacs are sealed in wax that can only be broken and resealed by an external official, presumably to prevent adulteration. I’m sure there’s a marriage parallel here, too.

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Changing without changing is a centuries-old issue for the Frapin family, now on their 23rd generation, as they try to move with the times without losing a drop of ancient prestige. After all, if an ancestor had not tried the new-fangled distillation process, the Frapins would still be producing wine – which, from these Ugni Blanc grapes (better known as Trebbiano), would likely mean they were no longer here at all. They have lately taken to cocktail-making with their cheaper cognacs, and at the other end of the scale they craft beautiful limited editions of venerable cognacs in elegant packaging, which sell for thousands.

So beloved of mixologists is this spirit that one famous cocktail maestro, Salvatore Calabrese, wrote a book about it while another, Tony Conigliaro, has opened a bar in Cognac itself. Those blackening fungi can now vary their diet with Sidecars, Smugglers and Cognac Gimlets. They’ll be in heaven, although arguably, they already are: the most valuable cognacs are stored in a cellar called a Paradis. There, they age without changing, and evolve without degrading – a vision of paradise indeed.  

This article appears in the 08 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship