Dust-covered Cognac passion (part 2)
This is the second part of the story, Dust-covered passion, which goes about the collecting and selling of the greatest Cognac Collection.
I know quite a lot of collectors, but I fail to see how you start collecting bottles of liquor. “My father and grandfather, everyone in the family drank cognac”, he muses. “If you smoked cigars, you drank cognac. My grandfather had hundreds of bottles in his cellar which he had been given by his father. He gave them to my father and my father gave them to me, so this is something I have grown up with.
Collecting eventually became a real passion 30 or 40 years ago. It starts with family and friends knowing you’re interested, telling you they have some bottles, or know someone who does. Well, 9 out of 10 times it may not be anything interesting, but once in a while they gave me something special.
Then I started going to auctions all over the world.” How is it possible there are still so many old bottles around? “People die, their children come in and clean out the house but the cellar gets forgotten. Eventually, after a hundred years, it does get cleaned out, but no one knows what to do with the bottles.
Sometimes they take them to an uncle who puts them in his cellar, or they get taken to an auction house. That’s how Sotheby’s and Christie’s became involved in old liquors in the forties and fifties. That’s where they were bought by lovers of old liquors, but also by restaurateurs. I used to buy bottles for my collection, but my competitors did so for business purposes. So whenever I bought a 100 bottles, I could sell 95 and was perfectly happy with the 5 I could keep for myself.”
You drink it purely for its taste when you’re already relaxed, not to become relaxed or drunk.” Even now, when he tells the story of the unsuspecting cleaning lady who dusted two of his bottles years ago, he can still get angry; especially when I joke that it still tasted the same, didn’t it? “You shouldn’t say that! Cleaning a bottle is a horror to a collector! When you remove the dust you remove part of the emotion.” It’s probably best not to repeat the punishment he thinks the perpetrator should have received…
“It’s out of the question that I would ever open a rare bottle”, he exclaims when I ask him how he decides which bottle to open and which one to leave closed. “A friend of mine had a restaurant that sold more than a hundred cognacs and armagnacs by the glass.
One glass could cost as much as a thousand Euros. When he sold his restaurant, which was well known to cognac lovers from all over the world, he sold these 100 to a 150 bottles that were already open for a very reasonable price. I still drink from those.”
This means he even has an opened bottle from 1789. “Isn’t it wonderful that I can taste cognac from 1811 as well as 1789? And I have chartreuse, port, armagnac and other liquors as well. I can taste them all. That’s what makes this collection so unique for a potential buyer.” Why, is he selling then? “I’ve been considering it for about five years now.”
The history of port, a fortified wine which takes its name from the city of Oporto, begins in the 17th century. It is typically a sweet red wine, often served as a dessert wine, and comes in dry, semi-dry, and white varieties.
True Port wine only comes from the Douro Valley in Portugal. “My grandfather gave me 12 bottles of port from 1840, still in their original boxes, which makes them extra special. I also have 2 boxes of white Russian port from 1936.
They belonged to an old Russian family that had been making the best quality port for decades. In ‘36 they were arrested by Stalin’s troops and their belongings were confiscated. Their children were able to flee, but the parents were taken to a camp and were never heard of again. If these bottles didn’t have such a terrible history the port would taste even better.”
Like cognac, armagnac is a brandy, but the difference – apart from the fact that it is produced in the Armagnac region of France – is that it is distilled only once. “It is not a cheap cognac, as is sometimes thought”, the collector says.
“The average consumer values Armagnac lower than cognac, but that is a false belief and certainly not fact.
Cognac has become more of an export product in the last 75 years and is therefore better known. You can’t get a good bottle of Armagnac however below 150 euro’s. It has to be at least 15 years old to get that special taste. This is what makes it so expensive. You could say Armagnac suffers from an image problem and that’s a shame; it deserves far more respects than it gets.”
The collector points out an A.E. Dor of 1805. “My favourite brand”, he beams. In the cognac houses’ cellars the spirit in the casks slowly turns into cognac by evaporation.
The part that disappears into thin air is called ‘the angels’ share’. “I was in A.E. Dor’s ‘Paradis’ in 1980,” he reminisces. ‘Le Paradis’, or paradise, is what the cognac houses call the part of their cellars where they store their oldest and rarest cognacs.
Here they rest, bottled in large wax-sealed glass containers called ‘Dame Jeanne’. In A.E. Dor’s paradise nothing has changed since the 19th century. “They had a wicker basket with a Dame Jeanne of 3.5 liters of cognac down there. At one point one of us asked the owner why he didn’t bottle it.
So he did. I bought one bottle, the other 2 relations bought one, the owner kept one and the rest went to the French president. There are now only 3 bottles of Soleil d’Austerlitz 1805 left, one of which is mine. That is so unique – something that is never coming back!”
I wonder if you can taste from what year cognac is, like wine.
“No, you can’t. Cognac is made from a blend of cognacs from different years”, he explains. “The age of the youngest liquid in the blend – which has to be at least 2 years old – determines the age of the cognac. Once cognac is bottled the ageing stops, so you buy a particular bottle because of its curiosity or rarity.
What you can taste, however, is that cognac from before the late 19th century, when the phylloxera epidemic destroyed most of the vineyards for wine grapes in France, tastes fundamentally different from the ones after that.“
The Phylloxera is a root louse that attacks the roots of grape vines and eventually kills the plant. Phylloxera appears to have been accidentally imported from North America. To get rid of the pest completely all vinestocks were destroyed, but the cognac houses could survive thanks to their enormous stocks of already distilled cognac. The pre-phylloxera cognac has a unique quality, not found in modern cognacs. The original cognac vineyards were chiefly planted with Folle Blanche. After phylloxera, the cognac growers replanted with grafted Ugni Blanche. The unique character and depth of the 50 to 60 year old Folle Blanche vines was lost forever. Today, less than 5 percent of the total cognac vineyard is Folle Blanche, the rest is all Ugni Blanche.
The Comet Vintage
The Great Comet of 1811 was one of the largest comets in history and visible to the naked eye for around 260 days. It was thought to be responsible for the long, hot summer and dry autumn and the following abundant harvest that year.
Winemakers have always attributed successful vintages and ideal weather conditions like those of 1811 to comets, hence the name ‘comet vintages’. The year on the label, or a picture of the comet on the bottle, became synonymous for outstanding quality. That is why, by the end of the nineteenth century there were a lot of 1811 cognacs that were – granted – very fine, but not really from 1811 at all.
Producers simply used the year on the bottle to signify this was their best blend, regardless of the actual years used. In the 20th century in America ordinary brandies were rebottled under fake 1811 labels, but these are apparently easy to recognize by the connoisseur. “I have about 30 bottles from 1811”, the collector says, so how can he tell they are the real thing? “You can conclude that a bottle has to originate from that period by the age of the bottle, the glass, the cork, the seal, the house and its origin”, he explains.
“But you can’t see if a bottle is from 1811 or 1870. You have to assume, use your expertise. I know where I bought each and every bottle, but Christie’s and Sotheby’s are known to sell forgeries now and then as well. You can’t know that, but it’s not so important. I don’t say it doesn’t happen, or I don’t have a few forgeries, but…”
I remember what he said earlier; how this collection would certainly appeal to a buyer.
So, is he selling? “I have a tendency to keep everything. My father always said that you had to keep what you found beautiful, because you would never be able to get it back. But I can’t keep it all. I’m not getting any younger, but now I still have the energy to sell it; I probably can’t do that anymore in 5 to 10 years’ time.
Also, my wife and I don’t have any children or potential heirs who would be able to take care of the collection.”
The editor looks at all the shelves and wonders if he won’t mind the empty spaces when it’s all gone. “It won’t be gone tomorrow; there’s still a lot to do first. It can take another 10 to 15 years before everything is sold.
Let’s say I’m contemplating the moment of selling. I went from love to passion and now I have reached a point where there is nothing left to collect. There are no more unique objects to buy. No one will be able to collect what I have in one lifetime; it would take another 2 to 3 generations.
But yes, I’m going to sell my collection – although I’ve been saying that for the last 5 years. It’s easy to split it up in several parts without taking anything away from its exclusiveness, although the advantage of having duplicates is of course being able to trade them for others.”
All this talk about liquors has made me long for a drink when I get home and I ask him what cognac he can recommend. “Don’t bother”, he says. “Any cognac under 200 or 300 Euros is just not worth drinking.” Pity; apparently he knows how much I’m willing to spend.
Oldliquors is an exclusive and private Old Liquors Collection of 250 years old cognac, armagnac and other old liquors. The whole Liquor Collection is currently for sale!