High spirit: How cognac takes food pairing to new levels

Words by
Fiona Sims
Photography by
Rémy Martin

12th January 2021

With its rich aromas and delicate notes, cognac is complex yet surprisingly versatile. Rémy Martin’s UK brand ambassador, Jack Charlton, also offers top tasting tips

Ah, cognac. Is there anything more satisfying than a postprandial sip taken on a squishy sofa by a roaring fire
on a chilly evening? Well yes, actually. There’s cognac as an aperitif, splashed into an ice-filled glass or served with tonic; cocktail-loving cognac, starring in a smart bar near you, where different mixers, citrus fruits and herbs serve to highlight the flavours of cognac; even food-pairing cognac — and the older they are, the better they pair with chocolate, mushrooms, even game, as many sommeliers will confirm. It has many faces, has cognac.

So, what is it exactly? In short, it’s a grape-based brandy aged in wood barrels from the Cognac region in southwestern France. “What sets cognac apart is where it’s produced, the intricacies of how it is made and the people who craft it,” says Jack Charlton, UK brand ambassador for Rémy Martin, a premium cognac house awarded a French Royal Seal in 1738 by King Louis XV. “Brandies can be made anywhere in the world; cognac can only be made in a particular part of France, under strict guidance and regulation. When you compare brandies and cognacs, it’s just like comparing sparkling wines to champagne.” 

High spirit: How cognac takes food pairing to new levels
Cognac can be enjoyed in a variety of glasses

“At Rémy Martin, we take this one step further by only making cognacs from the heart of the region, Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, called Cognac Fine Champagne. It’s la crème de la crème,” says Charlton. 

The soil in Cognac is indeed super-chalky, resulting in wine that is thin and acidic — which is a good thing for brandy, particularly so in Cognac, where the area’s enterprising vintners discovered a few centuries back that by distilling the wine it made splendid brandy. 

High spirit: How cognac takes food pairing to new levels
Vineyards in the Cognac region
How is cognac made?

An onion-shaped pot still is key to the production of cognac, where the character of the grape and its soil survive through the distillation process. It is an old-fashioned still, usually made of copper, with a “swan’s neck” that carries the vapour to the condenser and then into a holding tank to become cognac.

The process of ageing cognac is rather more complicated. The spirit extracts tannins, colour and flavouring from the French oak barrels it is stored in, while also slowly oxidising. In time, the barrel begins to endow the spirit with other components, making it richer, sweeter and more complex — the quality of the wood is key here. Even the warehouse cellars where the barrels are stored have their part to play in the maturation process — relatively humid conditions are needed, which allow a steady, gentle ageing. 

Some barrels can continue to give this slow, steady exchange for up to 40 years. These ancient cognacs are decanted into glass demijohns and stored in the master blender’s inner sanctum.

High spirit: How cognac takes food pairing to new levels
Cognac can be paired to delicious effect with a wide range of foods
How to read a cognac label

In Cognac, there are three commonly used terms for categorising cognac, ranked by age, expense and quality — VS (a minimum of two years’ ageing), VSOP (at least four years’ ageing) and XO (Extra Old — a minimum of 10 years’ ageing). With VS, no one will blink if you splash a mixer in it. But by the time you get to XO, we’re talking huge price tags and, well, drinking it neat. 

And no, cognac doesn’t need to be sipped in a brandy balloon (and certainly not a heated one, which kills the complex aromas and delicate floral notes, shudders Charlton). A wine glass will do just fine, so too a sherry copita, concentrating the nose further; even a simple tumbler will suffice — although maybe not for the good stuff. 

Do you need to lay a bottle of cognac down? Like other brandies, cognac does not age in the bottle. Leave the ageing to the master blenders who might juggle different types of wood and even different coopers (the people that make the barrels).

Cognac is not just for sipping neat, it also makes a splendid cocktail. So what’s Charlton’s particular favourite? “There are so many to choose from, but I think the Rémy Sidecar is a strong contender for me. Super simple, but very enjoyable, it’s a blend of Rémy Martin, Cointreau and fresh lemon juice — a French cousin to Margaritas and Daiquiris,” he says. “And a refreshing champagne cocktail such as a Rémy French 75 is a wonderful aperitif and, as a post-dinner libation, a good Old Fashioned made properly with XO just can’t be beaten.”  

Cognac is the rare spirit inherently built for culinary pairings, offering a unique range of flavour profiles

And here’s another thing — cognac also works with a meal. Many spirits are too aggressive to pair with most foods and are better suited for enjoying alone. Not so cognac. It’s the rare spirit inherently built for culinary pairings, offering a unique range of flavour profiles that enable it to be enjoyed with a variety of foods.

Cognac and oysters? Absolutely, especially when chilled — it brings out the briny freshness. Mushrooms (think risotto) are a match made in heaven for cognac, their umami flavours enhanced by the nuttiness of aged cognac. Younger cognacs with their fruit-forward notes pair brilliantly with creamy cheeses and soft blues, while XO, with its complex flavours of grilled nuts, figs and dried fruits, make the perfect match for powerful cheeses such as Roquefort and Parmesan. Yes, pâtés, terrines and cured meats are also a winner with cognac, but so too is game, as its intense flavours balance out beautifully with a sip of neat cognac. 

Top chefs are already aware of cognac’s ability to shine with food. One particular fan is two-Michelin-starred French chef Jean-François Piège, who regularly pairs dishes with cognac at his venerable Paris eatery, Le Grand Restaurant. A passionate collector of rare wines, Piège has even worked with Rémy Martin directly, singling out its XO and 1738 Accord to partner his food. “My saffron risotto goes particularly well with Rémy Martin XO because saffron matches extremely well with the aromatic palette of Rémy Martin XO,” he says.

“I’m a firm believer that pairing cognac with food can help to fully reveal its aromatic intensities,” says Charlton. “By pairing with complementary flavours or offsetting with contrasting flavours, new sensations are created and due to the complex nature of Rémy Martin cognacs, the spectrum is very wide. From salty to sweet and bitter to sour, there are many new flavour combinations. My favourites are neat Rémy Martin XO paired with Parmesan (the older, the better), and neat Rémy Martin 1738 with 70%-plus dark chocolate.

“In terms of cocktails, I would think more like a chef,” Charlton says. “For example, pairing a pear and walnut Old Fashioned with some blue cheese, or a Rémy Sidecar with some fritto misto. It’s all about balance.

Rémy Martin is available at Waitrose, waitrose.com

Rémy Martin is also one of the official partners of Sphere's 2020 winter issue. remymartin.com