On a cool evening in September the proverbially great and good of the cognac industry gathered in the magnificent grounds of the 17th century Château Chesnel, a few kilometres from the city of Cognac in west central France, which gives its name to the most prestigious brandy-producing region in the world.
They were there to dine and participate in an annual charity auction, known as La Part des Anges – the angels’ share – which raises money for The Order of Malta. All the principal cognac houses vie with each other to provide exclusive and even unique bottlings to go under the auctioneer’s gavel.
This year, a record sum of E136,000 was raised, helped in no small part by a bottle of Martell Cordon Bleu Centenary Edition, which was estimated to fetch around E3,500 but was finally sold for an eye-watering E21,000. The successful bidder was a Chinese national.
Although the amount of money in question was a surprise to all involved, the nationality of the successful bidder was not. Just as scotch whisky sales have soared in Asia during recent years, so cognac’s popularity in the continent has enjoyed dramatic growth.
Figures from the cognac trade body, The Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac (BNIC), show that overall volumes of cognac sold grew by 4.3% during 2011/12, with shipments standing at 471,678hl of alcohol, the equivalent of 168.5 million bottles. Of perhaps greater significance was a 13% rise in value of sales over the same period, with China’s thirst for cognac increasing by more than 20% to 25.3 million bottles.
Of the various categories of cognac, the most prestigious, XO (aged for a minimum of six years), showed a 22.9% value rise during 2011/12, which reflects the Asian markets’ fondness for older and rarer cognacs.
Inevitably, the four major cognac houses of Hennessy, Martell, Courvoisier and Remy Martin, which between them enjoy some 80% of global cognac sales, have the highest profiles in Asia, as they have greater financial resources to deploy there and often boast existing distribution networks.
Hennessy XO was introduced way back in 1872 and was actually shipped to Asia before it was sold in Paris. “Hennessy XO is the best-selling XO in Asia,” declares Jean-Michel Cochet, ambassadeur de la maison at Hennessy’s Cognac headquarters. “Asia is our biggest market in terms of value, though the US leads on a volume basis. Authenticity and the Hennessy name are vital in Asia.”
Last year Hennessy – part of LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) – introduced Classivm exclusively in China, with a non-traditional bottle design and modern advertising campaign. “It is aimed at 25 to 35-year-olds,” says Cochet. “We are speaking to younger Chinese professionals. For them, Hennessy is probably their father’s drink, but they will eventually mature to variants such as XO.”
Meanwhile, the house of Delamain is a low-key, family-run operation with pre-revolutionary origins and a focus on upmarket cognacs. Indeed, this traditional establishment does not deign to produce anything with less than XO status and is located in Jarnac, at the heart of the designated Grande Champagne region of Cognac, which produces the finest examples of the genre.