Okay, so it’s generally accepted that the longer a Cognac ages, the darker the colour becomes. And this happens as the tannins and colouring from the oak barrel gradually changes the colour of the eaux-de-vie within as time goes by. Read an article about Cognac ageing.
However, it seems that you can’t always go by the colour alone to determine the age of a Cognac. And this is all down to a seemingly innocent little product known as a ‘caramelisation promoter.’ Let’s talk about Caramel.
So, what is this Caramel, exactly?
Well, when this question is put to the top Cognac producers, they say the following: “Caramel colour is the dark brown material resulting from the carefully controlled heat treatment of food-grade carbohydrates. It is the world’s most widely used food colour additive.”
So that’s as clear as mud, then… during our research into the subject we stumbled upon Sethness-Roquette, who proclaim themselves as…
The information on their website tells us that caramel colours are divided into four separate classes:
- E150a Class I
- E150b Class II
- E150c Class III
- E150d Class IV
Now, when it comes to using these for the colouring of Cognac, it’s only the first – the E150a Class I – that’s utilized in the process (and, we hasten to add, not in all cases of Cognac. Most often it’s used in younger Cognacs to give them a deeper hue).
It appears that the colour of this additive is a golden brown in tone, and contains no sulphite compounds or ammoniacal compounds. What it does contains is ‘acids and alkalis.’ When used in a product it’s proclaimed on the label as “colour: plain caramel” or simply, “E150a.”
Not only is it used in Cognac and brandies, but in confectionary, pet food, casing and bakery products.
According to Wikipedia, caramel colour is one of the oldest know food colourings, as well as one of the most widely used. However, whilst it’s approved on a global scale, each individual country has it’s own varying restrictions as to it’s use.
How it works – in layman’s terms…
Now, we’re not chemists. But as far as we can gather, the caramel colouring is manufactured by heating various naturally occurring sweet products. These include dextrose, fructose, molasses, sucrose and malt syrup. The resulting caramel molecules then carry either a positive or negative charge, depending on the methods used in the creation of the colouring.
So what does this means in terms of the Cognac I drink?
Well, it all depends on your point of view. Caramel colouring is mainly added to younger, paler Cognacs to give them a darker colour. Of course, the longer a Cognac ages, the darker it naturally becomes, so there’s not usually any reason to add colour to an older eaux-de-vie. However, when a young Cognac is mixed with many others to create a blend, the addition of colouring can counteract the paling effect this might have.
So, for the true Cognac connoisseur, the knowledge that there’s artificial colouring in your favourite tipple might well be something you’re not prepared to put up with. Some Cognac houses will specify when their products are free from any caramel colouring – and there are some Cognacs that do not contain these.
But in general, most producers adds caramel to some (or all) of their products. It’s very common to take a young VS Cognac, sweeten it up some and add caramel to enhance the colour. Then, by selling it in a prestigious decanter with some gilded elements it becomes a far more viable product…
Sources: en.wikipedia.org, www.sethness-roquette.com