When it comes to aged spirits and their labelling process, cognacs have always gotten the short end of the stick. While the whisky industry enjoys the perceived prestige that comes with impressively old age statements, cognacs are stuck with vague grades that don’t really mean anything to anyone who hasn’t done the research.
Here’s a quick primer: VS (Very Special), VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) and XO (Extra Old) are labels for blends in which the youngest brandy has been aged at least two, four and 10 years in casks, respectively. The Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac that came up with these grades also threw in the Hors d’Age (Beyond Age) category for producers to market a product that surpasses the three basic age scales.
But these grades simply don’t do cognacs in the prestige category any justice. The “Big Four” cognac houses — Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell and Remy Martin — all make XOs that far outpace the defining time bracket, with eauxde-vie typically between 10 and 30 years old. Take note that XO’s minimum age was only updated from six years to 10 years last April.
So we have Hennessy and its parent company LVMH to thank for the new XXO (Extra Extra Old – points for consistency) classification, which requires a minimum ageing of 14 years. The cognac house, backed by fellow producers, challenged the National Institute of Origin and Quality after it was denied the right to launch its “Hennessy XXO Hors ‘dAge” in 2017. Long story short, the regulators finally gave in and the bottle was launched last December.
This isn’t just good news for Hennessy, because this classification is now available for all producers of cognac, which brings us to the newest XXO to hit the market: the Martell Chanteloup XXO.
It seems astonishing that Martell could come up with a new recipe for an XXO barely a year after the grade was made official, but Martell cellar master Christophe Valtaud had actually been working on this for the last three years, and the man just seems to have a knack for knowing what the market needs.
As the successor to previous cellar master Benoit Fils, Valtaud has only been in this role since 2016. But in this time he has replaced the Martell VSOP Medallion with the smoother, more candied fruit-forward Martell VSOP Aged in Red Barrels, had the curious idea (and some say audacity) to finish a VSOP in bourbon casks to make the cocktail-friendly Martell Blue Swift, and fiddled with the legendary Cordon Bleu recipe to give us the Cordon Bleu Extra — a similar blend that uses much older eaux-de-vie aged between 30 and close to 60 years.
Because of Valtaud’s willingness to challenge tradition with his own twists, Martell’s recent products have been helping to rehabilitate cognac’s dowdy image into one associated with innovation, renewed refinement and luxury. This last point rings especially true for the Chanteloup XXO. Valtaud and his team couldn’t just wing it with any 14-year-old eaux-de-vie. After countless rounds of tasting and experimentation, they decided that it would take 450 different eaux-de-vie (the oldest being more than 70 years old) to create the Chanteloup XXO’s unique flavour profile. And yes, the process was as tedious as it sounds.
“If you tell a chef to make something using 450 ingredients, don’t you agree he will need time? It’s why we share these figures – to let people know that cognac is not easy to create,” says Valtaud. All this effort was for the sake of giving consumers a chance to appreciate cognac’s many possible expressions, because some may remember that Martell already has similar products in this prestige category, the closest cousin being the Chanteloup Perspective.
Many cognac producers favour grapes from the Grande Champagne region when it comes to ageing their oldest and most premium blends because, according to Valtaud, they’re much easier to age. The Chanteloup Perspective however, uses eaux-de-vie not only from Grande Champagne but also Petite Champagne, Fins Bois and Borderies, as a testament to their blending prowess. Valtaud’s task was to keep that tradition in the Chanteloup XXO while making sure it still had its own character.
“The Chanteloup Perspective was very smooth so the challenge was to keep that while adding more intensity. It’s hard to enhance a recipe that is already perfect,” he reveals. “But I was born in the Grande Champagne area so I used a bit more eaux-de-vie from that cru. I wanted to create something with a good balance between softness and elegance, something that will elevate and excite you. So the Chanteloup XXO is a blend of my story and the Martell story. This is my touch.”
The resultant spirit is a rich amber and fills the nose with honey, peaches and apricots with hints of figs, almonds and walnuts. The complexity from those hundreds of carefully selected eaux-de-vie is revealed through intense fruitiness on the palate that builds to a long, satisfying finish. This expression may be one of the earliest representatives of the XXO category, but it’s already setting the bar high for the rest that will inevitably follow.