Thursday, June 26, 2008

With friends and spirits, choose wisely

Outside, it was a hot, muggy June afternoon in Houston. But inside the air-conditioned Sullivan's Steakhouse in Houston, a low-lit, intimate gathering of about 20 tasters gathered to sample vintage cognac, led by one of France's most respected authorities on the subject.

Pierre Szersnovicz, brand ambassador of Courvoisier, which bills itself as "The Cognac of Napoleon," explained to the tasters what goes into making a vintage product as they sipped from four Courvoisier brands ranging from around $45 to $400 a bottle. Szersnovicz, a tall, bearded man who cuts a striking figure in a navy suit and Ivy League rep tie, gives careful attention to the guests who swirl and sniff before the different cognacs encounter their palates.

The descriptive reactions flowed generously. "Very friendly," said one of the tasters. " I like the XO. I like the cinnamon."

As individual tasters developed their sense of entertaining style through hushed discussion among themselves, Szersnovicz also talked about how to maintain the shelf life of cognac after the bottle has been opened.

"If you keep it half full, in direct sunlight, it will taste different," Szersnovicz cautioned. Cognac should keep its flavor intact when stored in an enclosed place at room temperature. Unlike a bottle of wine, which is stored on its side to interact with the cork plug, a bottle of cognac is stored upright.

He should know. Szersnovicz, who has been with Courvoisier for 30 years, grew up with a father who owned a distillery in France.

As the tasting session progressed, the journey from dilettante to connoisseur was an enjoyable experience for the participants.

For Hanq Neal of Houston, the Courvoisier XO Imperial struck him as a cognac suitable for a festive occasions. "XO is great for holiday weeks," Neal said, alluding to the seven-day span between Christmas and New Year's.

In addition to the XO, Courvoisier's Exclusif, Napoleon Fine Champagne, and Initiale Extra were all sampled by the tasters. But Szersnovicz saved the best for last: A bottle of Courvoisier Esprit with four glasses encased in a wooden box with a replica Napoleon key, valued at $3,000. This bottle, however, was just for show.

After a few oohs and ahhs, the tasters engaged in a Q&A session, absorbing the knowledge from the master.

For more information on cognac, check out these stories in Driven and Business Week.

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