MAY 2015 – With a history stretching back eight generations, acclaimed cognac maison Hennessy celebrates its 250-year anniversary with a breath-taking new blend and remarkable world tour.
The vineyard roots run deep in the hills of the Charente valley in south-western France. Spreading their tendrils far down into the chalky soils, the vines here know a thing or two about ancestry; their gnarled and woody stems an innate connection to the rolling hills that tumble down to the Charente River. This is a place defined by both history and terroir, that unique combination of geography, geology and climate.
The vineyard rows that stretch across this landscape like lines of bright green corduroy are, by and large, of a grape known as ugni blanc. It’s a grape long associated with the Charente valley, the ancestral home of cognac and the village that bears its name. And yet ugni blanc is a foreigner. A traveller from distant lands that arrived here in centuries past and over the years has become indelibly associated with this most regal of French departements. From these humble white wine grapes springs forth the fabled eaux-de-vie, the raw spirit that is the very genesis of any great cognac, that golden-hued barrel-aged spirit acclaimed worldwide.
And, like the vines, local families have deep roots here too. Long histories immortalised by the grand châteaux that line the banks of the Charente as it flows through Cognac. And of all the families that call this elegant village home, perhaps none is more famous than the name of Hennessy.
The world was a very different place in the year 1757, when Richard Hennessy hung up his soldier’s boots. Born into an aristocratic Irish family it was war in Europe that first brought Hennessy to the continent, one of the so-called ‘Wild Geese’ fighting in the armies of King Louis XV. When peace arrived, he stayed on the continent, first setting himself up as a trader of cognac eaux-de-vie in Flanders, then establishing himself in Cognac, where he started his company in 1765. Decades passed and the lure of America beckoned, but Hennessy stayed, putting down roots in the French village.
From humble beginnings come great things, and little could Hennessy have known that his successful business would form the beginning of one of the greatest dynasties in the world of cognac. Fast-forward 250 years and in the plush surrounds of Château de Bagnolet, the Hennessy’s ancestral home in Cognac, a portrait of the original patriarch gazes down on the eighth generation of Hennessy to lead the grand marque.
Maurice Richard Hennessy is a dapper, debonair man. A quiet presence in a finely tailored woollen suit, he’s affectionately dubbed ‘Le Grand Voyageur’ as he travels the globe preaching the golden gospel of Hennessy.
Through the generations the ideals of travel and exploration, in both discovering new markets and breaking new ground in the production of fine cognac, has been in the DNA of the Hennessy brand.
As far back as 1794 clipper ships were carrying precious barrels of Hennessy across the Atlantic to New York. By the end of the century the acclaimed cognac had made its mark south in the sultry islands of the Caribbean.
In Europe, the brand was the choice of royalty. In 1817 the Prince of Wales, who would become King George IV of Great Britain, was a connoisseur of cognac and asked Hennessy to create a “very superior old pale cognac”. Today, the acronym VSOP – Very Superior Old Pale – has become a benchmark for the entire cognac industry.
Looking east, Russia’s Tsar Alexander I sipped on the amber liquid as far back
as 1818, the year before Hennessy travelled to India for the first time in a bid to keep the English colonists of Calcutta in fine fettle.
The 1800s were a crucial time for Hennessy. As global trade expanded thanks to far-flung colonies and ever-faster sailing ships, the marque was being enjoyed across the globe. By the close of the century, Hennessy could be found from Peru to China, New Zealand to Hong Kong. The first shipment of Hennessy XO landed in Shanghai in 1872, and the People’s Republic of China continues to be a driving force behind the global boom in cognac sales.
Yet it wasn’t just a surge in demand that defined the 19th century as a golden age of cognac.
Maurice Hennessy – great-grandson of the founder Richard – was an innovator who applied enormous energy into ensuring the maison moved with the times. And with the era of Maurice, another great house of the Charente stepped onto the cognac stage.
For it is all but impossible to mention the name of Hennessy without including Fillioux. Over seven generations the Fillioux family has been the Master Blenders for Hennessy, charged with tasting the thousands of barrels of eaux-de-vie to select and blend the perfect cognac. While father Christophe and grandfather Jean laid the foundations for the Fillioux tradition, it was Emile Fillioux – who shared a vision of continuity with Maurice Hennessy – who revolutionised the brand with the creation, in 1870, of Hennessy XO.
This was a watershed moment for both Hennessy and the world of cognac. It marked the arrival of an entirely new style, a cognac rich and robust with an elegance and purity matched only by the deep amber hue delivered by years spent in carefully selected barrels. On the palate, spice and black pepper are balanced by the nuanced hint of candied fruit. XO was also a feather in the cap of the Master Blender, combining the disparate traits of a hundred individual eaux-de-vie into a singular, superlative whole. With XO, the sum is truly greater than the parts.
Together with Maurice, Emile also created the star classification that allocated a varying numbers of stars to indicate the quality of a bottled cognac, an innovation that was soon adopted by the entire industry. Perhaps the most famous example is the Hennessy ‘three star’ cognac, today known as VS (Very Special).
Emile was also the first to formalise the art of blending, adding structure and formality to this delicate dance between art and science. For while crafting the raw spirit and ageing it in oak barrels requires enormous skill, the defining character of a cognac comes down to the blending. Consistency from one assemblage to the next is crucial, and the Herculean task of blending millions of bottles together to create a singular product falls on the shoulders of the Master Blender.
Since 1991 those shoulders have belonged to Yann Fillioux, the seventh generation of the family to hold the esteemed office.
“Consistency is not a dream. It’s a procedural, rigorous approach,” explained Yann in a recent interview with the Sunday Times. “Blending cognac is a science more than it is an art… the art is in the selection of the eaux-de-vie.”
But Yann won’t work alone. Hennessy is unique for its Comité de Dégustation, a formal tasting committee of experts that was first established by Raymond Fillioux. The committee will sniff and sample up to 40 vials of prized eaux-de-vie, deciding where and how they should be blended, or whether they require yet more years maturing in the cool, dark cellars of Cognac. Ensuring both quality and consistency, these men hold the keys that unlock Hennessy’s memory. Perhaps no surprise then that the youngest members of the committee may not express an opinion until they have 10 years of experience in tasting.
That apprenticeship may seem arduous, but “you can’t play a melody as complex as the composition of a cognac if you don’t master all the notes,” explained Maurice Fillioux, Master Blender from 1958 to 1991.
That melody begins its performance in the ugni blanc vineyards that surround the village of Cognac, where over 75 000 hectares of vines carpet the hills of the Charente valley. At the end of summer the grapes are picked and fermented into a wine low in tannin and free of sulphur. It’s a white wine that would, politely, be termed unpalatable. However, its subtle qualities make it perfect for the concentrating effect of distillation, and it is here that the art of crafting cognac begins.
To eventually embrace the name cognac, the wine must be distilled twice using a copper Charentais pot still, a shape specific to the region. The master distiller applies his skill here, too, using a combination of taste, smell and intuition to separate the harsh alcohols of the ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ of the distillation, sending only the aromatic ‘hearts’ into barrel.
In this clear eaux-de-vie is the blank canvas of Fillioux’s art, the building blocks of what could one day become an acclaimed VSOP, or perhaps a prized XO.
But there’s a long road ahead. According to the strict rules of the Cognac Appellation d’origine controlee the aged spirit may only be called cognac if it is aged for a minimum of 30 months in barrels of French oak. Not any oak, mind you. The wood must be sourced from the Limousin or Tronçais forests, then crafted by a local cooper into barrels. It is the character of the wood that imparts the tannin and colour to the eaux-de-vie, and eventually delivers – after 30 months or perhaps even a 150 years – a cognac worthy of the name.
The XO wasn’t the only blend to make its mark on the world of cognac. In 1979 Maurice Fillioux, an ardent music-lover, created the masterpiece known as Paradis, named for the Hennessy cellar in Cognac where only the most prized eaux-de-vie are matured. While XO was bold and forward, “Paradis is defined by its finesse, its delicacy,” explains Yann of his uncle’s creation. “Paradis takes us into the realms of emotion.”
In 2011 Yann took that emotion a step further with the introduction of Paradis Impérial, a tribute to the cognac crafted for the Russian Imperial Court of Tsar Alexander I nearly two centuries before. Aged for between 30 and 130 years, with some eaux-de-vie dating back to the middle of the 19th century, it’s a dramatic cognac fit for modern-day royalty.
And, in 2015 Yann has created a landmark blend marking the 250th anniversary of Hennessy to complement a wealth of celebratory events throughout the year. In April two barrels of the Hennessy 250 Collector Blend set sail aboard Hermione, an exact replica of the sailing frigate that delivered French General La Fayette to the United States and played a crucial role in the American War of Independence. On arrival the barrels will be auctioned off for the benefit of cultural and charitable associations.
Hennessy has always embraced both heritage and modernity, and it is fitting that the highlight of the celebrations will see the Hennessy 250 Tour showcase the brand’s heritage through a travelling exhibition of contemporary artists. The exhibition, curated by world-renowned international curator Hervé Mikaeloff, features a six-chapter journey through the world of Hennessy.
The tour takes in Guangzhou’s Zaha Hadid Opera House, Moscow’s New Manege and New York’s Lincoln Centre, before being installed in Johannesburg’s acclaimed Circa Gallery in August 2015.
“Hennessy embodies a blend of global and local, urban and rural, modern and traditional, and nowhere is this spirit more wholeheartedly expressed than here in South Africa,” comments Patrick Madendjian, Moët Hennessy Market Manager. “We are incredibly excited and proud to be only one of five host countries for this travelling exhibition.”
In September it will travel to a yet-to-be-revealed location in Paris for the grand finale, having encircled the globe before returning to its French roots.
It’s an apt metaphor for the 250-year journey of Hennessy itself. Created by a man setting off into the great unknown, this iconic brand has traversed the globe while becoming an indelible part of both the French landscape and the world of global luxury. Pushing boundaries yet remembering heritage. Embracing modernity while respecting tradition. Deep roots will do that for you.