Monday, November 10, 2014

Book Review: Cognac - by Nicholas Faith

This book is part of the Mitchell Beazley Classic Wine Library, an encyclopedic series.

Published in 2004, it presents both the history of cognac and its then present state, as the spirit slowly began to struggle out of one of its nadirs. The author is a British financial journalist who frequently writes about wine as well and has published a number of other books on the subject.

The first section of the book provides a fairly comprehensive and detailed description of the elements that go into making cognac - the land, the grapes, the fermentation, the distillation, and the aging process (with an extended discussion of the sources of wood for casks). It was interesting to compare and contrast these processes with the spirits I know better - scotch and bourbon.

The bulk of the book is taken up with a history of cognac - the people and events who have shaped its creation over the centuries. There is a significant focus on the shifting relationships between the different levels of production - the growers, small producers, middlemen, and large houses that have more recently come to dominate the market. A lot comes down to the tension between what is good for individuals - growers or the heads of cognac houses - and what is good for the industry as a whole. The last portion - what was recent history at the time of writing - is interesting as it was a low point for cognac. The government was encouraging growers to pull up their vines and plant different crops, as the ebbing demand for cognac in the 1980s and 1990s had produced a major glut of wine, only a small portion of which was actually necessary to fulfill projected demand for cognac. Contrasting that with the present situation where demand has gone in the opposite direction, far outstripping supply, goes to show how difficult trends are to predict.

There is a period of unintentional levity when the British author attempts to speak about African American culture, specifically hip-hop, and its growing ties with cognac. He clearly does not quite understand his subject and reveals it with awkward phrasing such as 'rapsters'.

Finally, there is a section about how to enjoy cognac. While covering some well-worn territory, this also speaks to both the author's own biases and the trends of the time when he devotes a significant number of words to promoting cognac in long drinks as the solution to producers' woes. This is slightly funny from the perspective of a decade on, when the appreciation of neat spirits is enjoying a renewed appreciation. Again, trends are difficult to predict.

Overall, if you would like to gain a better understanding of cognac, both its production and history, this is a book I would recommend. The writing is generally engaging, providing enough depth without getting completely lost in the weeds. The simple black & white printing also ensure that it is a relatively cheap book, unlike many of the glossy coffee table books that are currently being published about spirits.

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