For any Kenyan cognac lover, a tasting tour to learn the traditions of the vineyards and grapes, the eaux-de-vie in the oak barrels and the distilleries, would be the epitome of appreciating fine alcohol.
Hennessy, the world’s largest maker of cognac, says now that travel is back for many countries, they will start hosting over 30,000 fans each year, to Cognac in South West France.
The ideal time to visit?
“When harvest happens, traditionally from September to October,” says Alexandre Helaine, the Moët Hennessy, market manager, Eastern Africa.
Hennessy has over 500,000 barrels housed in 95 cellars. In the barrels, there are eaux-de-vie in different stages of ageing.
On a tour to Rémy Martin or Hennessy cellars in Cognac region in France, you may get an opportunity to stick your nose into the barrel, to smell the sweet, deep honey and cigars vapours that makes your mouth water.
“The eaux-de-vie ageing in over 500,000 barrels is the largest and most valuable inventory in the world. They include precious eaux-de-vie, some over a century old,” Mr Helaine said.
These enable the cognac makers to craft a broad collection of alcohol, from the youngest aged at least two years in oak to some aged for up to 14 years.
For cognac to age well, that its colour becomes a deep amber, it must mature in a French oak barrel for a minimum of two years.
“The wood’s porosity enables the spirit to be in contact with air and extract substances from the wood, to gain its colour and develop its bouquet. At the same time, there is natural evaporation known as the ‘angel’s share’.
Once eaux-de-vie has reached maturity, they are either used directly in a cognac blend or transferred into glass containers (“demijohns”) to stop the aging process and kept for future cognacs,” Mr Helaine said.
Cognacs are usually a blend of eaux-de-vie, selected for their aroma, age and character. The role of the Master Blender is to mix eaux-de-vie of different ages and from different crus, yet create harmonies in the drink.
A tour would also involve visiting the vineyards. There are around 185,000 acres of vineyards in the Cognac region, representing roughly one percent of the world’s vineyards.
Hennessy owns 457 acres and sources a majority of its grapes from over 1,500 winegrower partners. Almost all cognac is made from the Ugni Blanc grape variety.
This variety, whose origins come from Italy, creates a wine that is acidic and has a low alcohol content, making it excellent for distillation and ageing.
Ugni Blanc is also a more resistant grape than other varieties. Climate change has affected many vineyards. Is cognac likely to start tasting differently? Are cognac makers looking at newer varieties of grapes that can withstand climate change?
Hennessy says it is positive its taste will not change. “We are focused on Ugni Blanc grapes, which is a very resilient variety,” he says, adding that it is also the Tasting Committee’s job “to ensure that whenever you open a bottle of Hennessy, no matter the country, no matter the time, that the taste remains consistent.”They harvest earlier in September before the warmer temperatures, and mostly pick the grapes at night.
Just like winemakers, they have also been experimenting with new techniques and grape varieties just in case conditions change. The African alcohol drinker has become important and the big cognac houses —Rémy Martin, Hennessy, and Martell are chasing new markets in Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria, among others to grow their sales.
Part of their strategy is wooing young influential Africans, including musician Octopizzo (Henry Ohanga), a hip-hop artist who recently toured their vineyards and cellars, so that millennials can relate to the cognac.
“The African consumer’s love for Hennessy has never been stronger, and we will continue to invest in Africa,” Mr Helaine said, adding they have been fortunate to have experienced high-value growth in all key African boost markets.