Could Courvoisiers introduction of age statements on Cognac be the way forward for the category?

Could Courvoisier's introduction of age statements on Cognac be the way forward for the category?

The launch of two age-statemented Cognacs by Courvoisier late last month has turned the spotlight on to the sector's classification groupings. Confusing, sure, but, is knowledge really power? Richard Woodard isn't so sure.

This may be a tiny bit far-fetched, but just imagine for a moment trying to explain the rules of Cognac quality classification to a curious alien (I know, I know – believing in life on other planets is one thing, but expecting them to aspire to a detailed knowledge of brown spirits regulations is pushing it a bit. But stay with me for a moment). 

How might the conversation go? “Well, we decided to call the most youthful Cognacs 'VS', or 'Very Special', because frankly most of them are way too young to be allowed out on their own and there’s nothing remotely special about them. 

“Next up is 'VSOP', and of course that means 'Very Superior Old Pale', because these Cognacs aren’t very superior to anything except VS and certainly aren’t pale, particularly when you add loads of caramel to make them look like they’ve spent several generations in a barrel. 

“And then you have 'XO', which clearly stands for 'Extra Old' – or at least it does if you spell ‘Extra’ wrong – because these venerable spirits can legally be roughly half the age of your average single malt.

“Oh, and I nearly forgot. We don’t actually communicate any of this on the label, except for the acronyms, so the consumer doesn’t have a clue what the hell it all means. And did I mention that 'VS' can also be called 'three star'? Or that 'VSOP' is the same as 'Reserve'? And, of course, 'XO' can also be substituted for 'Hors d’Age' ... ."

As marketing strategies go, it’s not one likely to get the guys in red braces high-fiving each other in a hurry. And yet – and I say this as a lover of Cognac – it’s taken the industry a ridiculously long time to realise the inherent lunacy of attempting to signpost your products with something that looks like an early draft of The Da Vinci Code.

It started a few years ago with a slew of “new generation” Cognacs marketed on mixability, smoothness and (for the most part) packaging that for once didn’t look like a outsized 1990s perfume bottle. Courvoisier Exclusif, Rémy Martin Coeur de Cognac, H by Hine – many were officially VSOP, but it wasn’t something they liked to talk about.

And now, it appears, we have reached the next stage in this painfully slow evolution, with the launch, initially in the US, of Courvoisier’s Connoisseur Collection – a new two-product range consisting of a 12-year-old and a 21-year-old.

The logic is clear enough: Use easy-to-understand age statements familiar to whisky drinkers to sell your product to a new bunch of consumers deterred and intimidated in the past by all those confusing letters and abbreviations.

A wider international roll-out for the range depends on the success of the US trial, but you can be sure of one thing: if it works and if the other houses can source the right stocks in the right quantities, Courvoisier won’t be the last of the Cognac big boys to play this particular marketing card.

The Connoisseur Collection is currently being run parallel to - and partly above - the “traditional” Courvoisier range, but what happens if it’s a huge success? Could it lead to a gradual replacement of that traditional range with a purely age-stated portfolio? Say, a six-year-old in place of a VSOP or a ten-year-old to replace XO?

I don’t think so. The marketing logic may appear compelling, but it’s just not that simple. First of all, consumers in the US will “do the math”. If you’re charging US$50 for a 12-year-old Cognac, and $250 for a 21-year-old, how does that stack up in price terms against the opposition whose marketing language you’re borrowing? Against, in other words, Scotch whisky blends and single malts? Not that well.

Others have trodden this path before. Armagnac producers, while embracing their own version of the quasi-hieroglyphic VS/VSOP/XO pecking order, routinely use age statements for their blends.

But – to generalise – age-stated Armagnac tends to be more price-competitive than Cognac is ever likely to be and, in any case, I don’t think Armagnac producers have always got it right. A few recently-launched products ape the imagery and packaging cues of Scotch whisky so slavishly that they risk sacrificing their origins and heritage entirely.

To be fair to Courvoisier, I don’t think this is an accusation you can level at the Connoisseur Collection. The packaging doesn’t obviously call whisky to mind, and brand owner Beam Global Spirits & Wine has been savvy enough to work in a distinctive message about the dominant crus in the blends – Borderies for the 12-year-old, Grande Champagne for the 21. This Cognac provenance may not be the prime message for the consumer to fasten onto, but at least it’s there.

And that’s the point. Cognac producers may sometimes crave a different, less unwieldy way of communicating their category to the modern consumer, but, in trying to achieve this, they should be very wary indeed of sacrificing what is unique and distinctive about their product. Their method of classifying their products through obscure acronyms may look like a rather dodgy Scrabble hand, but at least it belongs to them and just about nobody else.

Clear communication is all very laudable and logical, but sometimes, when you want to attract aspirational consumers, you can’t put a price on a little bit of mystery.