21th November 2023
Spirits: Coutanseaux aîné cognacs launch their reconquest of the French market from Aix-en-Provence
LA PROVENCE - Guénaël LEMOUÉE
On Monday 20 November, the small and very exclusive Cognac trading house organised a promotional evening in the no less exclusive hotel, restaurant and wine estate in Aix of the Château de la Gaude.
Cognac is not a prophet in his country. It is for export that 97% of the production of this high-end French brandy is sold. Producers are trying to reinvest the domestic market. The small house Coutanseaux senior led a promotion evening Monday, November 20 in Aix-en-Provence, in the setting of the vineyard and luxury hotel and restaurant complex of the Château de la Gaude. A national premiere for the brand, which should be followed by other events in France.
For decades, there has been a French paradox in the kingdom of eaux-de-vie. While France is known for being one of the best distillers in the world and producing very fine grape spirits, it is always the spirits of grains, whisky in the lead, that dictate their law, Just challenged for ten years by the rum fashion.
What does the business of Scottish houses, or even West Indian and Reunionese cousins for sugar cane brandies, does not really suit the producers of Charentes for cognac or Gers and Landes for armagnac. If the latter spirits struggle even more to find its market, cognac has, since the late 1990s, bypassed the problem by turning massively to export.
97% of production is exported
Russia (with the obvious repercussions of the conflict in Ukraine), China (a highly volatile market) and especially the United States, where rap stars have become infatuated with the brandy French wines and have played a major role in its notoriety, and have since ensured the lifestyle of cognac.
"97 or 98% of production goes abroad, confirms François de la Giraudière, director of a small trading house in the midst of a revival, Elder Coutanseaux. In 2021, we even became the leading French export business, ahead of aeronautics (which has regained its leading position today, with cognac remaining 2nd)."Every year, around 200 million bottles of the precious eau-de-vie leave France to reach some 150 countries around the world.
In addition to the US rap-style fads, this Cognac internationalism has deep historical roots, François de la Giraudière reminds us: The Charente was "A Huguenot land. When the Edict of Nantes was revoked (by Louis XIV, who reaffirmed that France was only Catholic, editor's note), many Protestants fled abroad, especially to England. But the links with their homeland remained and the cognac market then became internationalised via England".
Abroad or in France, the important thing is, of course, always to sell. But turning one's back so much on the land of one's birth presents, in addition to a paradoxical aspect, possible fragilities, as soon as a trade war begins or new protectionist regulations are put in place.
Cognac producers have understood this but are struggling to regain domestic market share. However, they are increasingly working on it. And things finally seem to be moving. The French market is now the 5th largest outlet for the sector, with 5 million bottles sold, far behind the 113 million bottles sold in the United States (source: National Interprofessional Bureau of Cognac).
Food and cognac pairings at La Gaude
On Monday 20 November, the Coutanseaux aîné house invited a small panel of restaurateurs, sommeliers and specialised journalists to discover its three vintages, the XO (a blend of eaux-de-vie from 15 years old for the youngest to 25 years old for the oldest), the XXO (25 to 40 years old) and the hors d'âge (from 40 to 120 years old). A type of appointment inaugurated for the first time Monday evening in La Gaude but which could be renewed regularly elsewhere in France.
Coutenseaux has a particular profile in the world of Cognac trade. Much smaller than the giants of the sector (Hennessy, Courvoisier, Otard, Camus, etc.), old (1767) but dormant for a very long time, it has been reborn from its ashes (and from pieces of cognac preciously preserved by the family) for a few months, under the impetus of its new boss Rodolphe Frèrejean-Taittinger, a name that is also famous in Champagne wines.
The elder Coutanseaux only works with eaux-de-vie from Grande Champagne (nothing to do with the homonymous Reims region), the heart of the Charente terroir from which the most prestigious cognacs are made. And, what's more, in just three ageing sessions, presented in bold bottles with a very elaborate and original design. €230 for the XO, €510 for the XXO, €10,000 for the hors d'âge, only sold in five-liter mini-demijohns (the equivalent of €1400 a bottle): "Given our size, we are forced to stand out from what is done to exist and to bet on exclusivity", explains François de la Giraudière.
At Château de la Gaude, the house offered a dinner on the theme of food and cognac pairings, an unusual exercise in which three chefs from the region took part: Julien Diaz from the Michelin-starred Marseille restaurant Saisons, Giovanni Facchinetti from the restaurant Insitio in Vaugines (Vaucluse) and the second from Matthieu Dupuis Baumal at the Michelin-starred restaurant La Gaude, Le Art.
"Pairing cooking with brandy is an exciting but complicated trick. Julien Diaz acknowledges. We are used to drinking it as a digestive, not during a meal, and the strength of the alcohol can mask the dish. But if you just soak the mouth, the complexity of the cognac (he worked around the XO, which he married with a saffron risotto), editor's note) offers you incredible perspectives."
It is probably not in the course of the meal that cognac will anchor its French reconquest and many producers who have younger alcohols (VS and VSOP) are betting rather on the return to grace of the cocktail and mixology in France to push their cognacs.
But whatever the angle of attack, this very beautiful eau-de-vie, obtained by a double distillation of white wine, intends to make a name for itself in its own country. And that's great news for all spirits lovers.