Last night, I had the opportunity to join 20 other people at a "wine" pairing dinner at the Lake Arrowhead Resort. We had the private "Magnum Room", at Bin 189 (thanks Dayna Czermak). This was a five course meal paired with three Remy Martin Cognacs and two sparkling wines. I'll go into the menu and my thoughts on the pairing in due time, but I thought it might be worthwhile to take a very basic look at what makes Cognac...Cognac.

The saying goes, "All Cognac is Brandy, but not all Brandy is Cognac". So what is Cognac, and what makes it special? Cognac is a vine growing region in France, just north of Bordeaux. Cognac is a brandy, that is to say, it is a distilled spirit made from wine. Within the Cognac region, there are six growing districts. The two best are Grande Champagne, and Petite Champagne. These districts have nothing to do with the Champagne region known for sparkling wines, other than they share the same light chalky soil (Santonian and Campanian chalks). The grapes used to make wine are Ugni Blanc (probably better known to Italian wine drinkers as Trebbiano), a small amount of Colombard, and an even smaller amount of Folle Blanche.

Once the high acid, generally undrinkable still wine is made, it is then distilled in pot stills, known as Cherentais. Distillation basically boils the wine, and separates the alcohol, water and volatile substances. In the case of Cognac, it is distilled twice, to get a purer product. Next, the distilled brandy is stored in oak barrels for a minimum of 30 months. When the brandy is ready, it is blended with other brandies from different vintages, to create the house brand. Just before bottling, the alcohol strength is cut down with distilled water to bring the total alcohol level to 40%. Cognac brandy is measured based on the youngest spirit in the blend. VS (Very Special) is a minimum of  3 years old; VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) is a minimum of  4 years old; and XO is a minimum of 6 years old.

Remy Martin Cognac shows "Fine Champagne" on the label which indicates that the grapes used were from a blend of grapes from the two best regions. Remy Martin was founded in 1724, and is one of the oldest Cognac producers. Their labels feature a Centaur. I have tried to determine the significance of this symbol, and the best explanation I have heard is that it represents the cross between man and nature (and also the founder might have been a Sagittarius). The 1738 is a proprietary blend for Remy Martin, and honors King Henry XV and his decree, allowing Remy Martin to expand their vineyards in 1738.
Josh Olson (Vino 100) sampling the Cognacs

1st Course - Baked brie w/ apple butter, prosciutto and caramelized pear - matched with Piper Heidsick Cuvee Sublime. I found this Champagne to have nice toast and pear characteristics, and some good acidity. It was a demi-sec (having some residual sugar). The acidity worked with the creaminess of the brie, and the little bit of sweetness went with the salty prosciutto.

2nd Course - Roast duckling w/ sweet & sour shallot sauce atop baby green - matched with Remy Martin VSOP on ice. The VSOP on ice was an interesting approach. I wouldn't normally put Cognac on ice, but it did mellow the "heat" from the 40% alcohol. The Cognac had characteristics of nuts, citrus and vanilla, which kind of worked with this dish. By mellowing the Cognac with ice, it did pair up with the sauce on the duck, but not my favorite pairing. Both were nice on their own however.

3rd Course - Parmesan potato croquette w/ champagne sage and mushroom ragu - matched with Domaine Carneros La Reve Blanc de Blanc. My favorite pairing of the night...this one really worked! The sparkling wine from Carnernos (La Reve means "the dream"), had notes of yogurt, pear and yeast. The creaminess of this dish worked with the acidity of the wine. The earthiness of the mushrooms and saltiness of the Parmesan were a wonderful pairing.

4th Course - Pork tenderloin w/ a glazed honey sauce and sweet cous cous - matched with Remy Martin 1738. This Cognac seemed a bit "hot" to me, even though it had the same alcohol level as the other Cognacs of the night. Once again, strong vanilla, nut, and citrus characteristics, with a hint of butterscotch and dried fruit. I found myself cutting the Cognac with a bit of water to reduce the affects of alcohol. The sauce reminded me of kumquats, but there wasn't any in there. We were told it was a blend of honey, orange juice, and soy sauce. Whatever it worked. The cous cous had stewed raisins, but was a little too sweet.

5th Course - Vanilla Creme Brulee w/ caramelized apricot glaze and whit chocolate Grand Marnier Truffle - matched with Remy Martin XO. To me, this was the smoothest of the three Cognacs. The same characteristics of the others, but with this dish, the vanilla just popped out. I could have done without the white chocolate truffle, as the Grand Marnier had faded to nothing by the time it was plated.
Three Remy Martin Cognacs - 3 different glasses

All in all, and very nice evening to explore Cognac with a main course. I have now found some new pairing ideas for future meals, and learned a little more about the uniqueness of Cognac, and Remy Martin. I'd love to hear your pairing ideas!

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