Interview with an Italian Cognac Lover about Cognac Culture in Italy
Our Italian blogger friend is a “greedy pharmacist” living in the countryside 1 hour away from Milano, and a cognac lover since his youth: more than 25 years of tastings formed his palate, and many good readings from the most important sources on this subject gave him a knowledge of how this eau-de-vie is made. The only regret he has, is not having been to the Charentes yet.Cognac-Expert.com: What’s the cognac situation in Italy? How did cognac sales develop recently?
Cognac & Cotognata: Well, cognac in Italy is not as popular as it was once. Consider that now the cognac sales are around 1 million bottles/year (source: BNIC) and in 1980 this figure was more than double. There is a general lack of interest towards cognac here, and a lack of supply too, since for many minor houses Italy is no more an interesting market, due to the weak sales. I think that there is confusion among people because many websites in Italian offer inaccurate when not misleading information about this brandy.
Ask someone in my country what cognac is, and most will reply it is a spirit, but actually many don’t know what this spirit is made of. One of the problems of cognac in the country is its distribution: only the Big Four have a ubiquitous diffusion, and only for the lower qualities (VS/VSOP). This applies to supermarkets and to restaurants as well. It is almost impossible to find restaurants with a broad offer of cognacs, even if they are starred. Bars have the same limited offer too, and wine shops generally sell only the few brands provided by their suppliers or importers; out of the bigger houses, the commonest brands to be found are Delamain, Gourmel, and Frapin. The upper market is dominated by the pricey Prestige packagings for business gifts, so it is really challenging to get a premium cognac, say a Hors d’Age or an Extra, in a standard bottle; vintage cognacs are a very rare offering too.
Cognac-Expert.com: How does the cognac culture look like in Italy, which occasions.. who drinks it?
Cognac & Cotognata: A cognac culture? Are you joking? The way to drink cognac in Italy is neat as a digestive, the good tipple to have after a heavy sunday meal, or after a dinner at the restaurant. Anyway, it is a drink for the cold season. Cognac here still suffers of an old cliché, of the rich old men sitting in his leather armchair in front of a burning fireplace, with a cognac ballon in his hand. In fact, no one drinks cognac more in that way, but in the consumer’s opinion this is still the commonest image which comes to mind.
The reasons of this low consumption are mainly these: the higher price of the bottle, in comparison to all other spirits, the scarce diffusion of information about cognac, and the past advertising focused on the exclusiveness of the drink. Cognac in Italy has little importance in cocktails too. To the young people cognac is mostly unknown; the profile of the drinker in Italy is: man, over 35, higher education & income, likely a foodie or a gourmand.
Cognac-Expert.com: The people who drink cognac in Italy, what do they normally drink else – what is cognac‘s main competitor in Italy?
Cognac & Cotognata: The two drinks which are more popular in Italy are whisky and more recently, but with increasing success, rum. This interest is supported by a large offer of bottles in bars and shops, and by many dedicated websites and forums on the internet, either commercial or run by passionate people. Whisky has many fans here: some of the world’s leading experts. selectors, and collectors are Italians. Rum is the rising star of the spirits, and it is often the most requested drink by younger people, into cocktails or neat.
Coming to brandies, Armagnac is a serious competitor of cognac, especially for people new to wine spirits. It attracts more the consumer for its clear age statement than for its qualities, which are not really well understood. It is often preferred to a cognac for this reason, to make a prestigious gift.
Spanish brandies are chosen by people who want to drink a powerful eau-de-vie, at a cheaper price than French ones.
Cognac-Expert.com: Is there any well known brandy in Italy, produced in Italy? We know about Grappa of course, but it’s usually not aged, is it?
Cognac & Cotognata: Of course Italy produces brandies too; the best known is named “Vecchia Romagna”, made of trebbiano grapes (same as ugni blanc), and aged like a VS cognac.
It is mostly put into espresso coffee to strengthen it. Sometimes it is served neat. The founder of the business in 1800 was a man coming from the Charente, Jean Buton. There are other similar brandies, but all they are mass market products, column distilled. Not worth sipping them!
Some small distillers, among other spirits, produce fine brandies too, aged rather long time, with pot still alembics, which may be of some interest. Anyway in comparison to the French ones they are lighter and shorter in taste.
There’s one remarkable exception: a producer located near Bologna, which makes an exquisite fine brandy employing the charentais method to distil and age. His brandies are aged from 10 to 20 years, but, alas, they are more expensive than a cognac of same age. They could remind a Fins Bois cognac.
Anyway he shows that Italy may compete with France with a very good brandy production, if only made with care.
Grappa is getting year after year more interesting. Today many skilled distillers make superb spirits, with great care and refinement. It is no more the drink of the countryman or of the inhabitant of our Alps, but indeed the real Italian best spirit.
Grappa is usually divided into two categories, the young one, and the aged one, usually between 1 and 10 years in oak or chestnut, or other woods. A great world to discover!
Cognac-Expert.com: When have you started blogging and why?
Cognac & Cotognata: Cognac & Cotognata (Cognac & quince jam) started at Christmas 2011, under pressure of a dear friend, who pushed me in the blogosphere. It is a blog devoted mainly to cognac and other liquors, with occasional detours towards Italian regional gastronomy, and beers. The aim of this blog is to give the Italian reader a reference source on the theme cognac, as the information commonly found on the internet in our language is sometimes misleading, or confused, and often inaccurate. This applies to professional and commercial sites as well, and shows how much this noble spirit is poorly understood, or in the best case, underrated in the consumer’s mind.
Cognac-Expert.com: Which are your favourite cognacs and producers? do you have a list?
Cognac & Cotognata: Well, this list could be endless, providing that the cognacs are of high quality, regardless of their age.
But let’s make some names, in a random order:
I apologize for the many others i did not mention, but as good as these.
Cognac-Expert.com: Thank you for the time. And for all you Italian cognac lovers, go to cognacecotognata.wordpress.com
Interview made by Max