The House of Prunier is releasing eight guaranteed age statements from 10 to 80 years old - a first in the world of cognac - exclusively reserved for the travelling connoisseur. This is a rare opportunity to discover an alternative approach to cognac, compared to the traditional commercial appellations such as VS, VSOP, XO and Extra.
Vintage cognacs are another rarity. Commercial appellations are blended to produce a consistent product flavour over time, meaning that most bottles will contain a blend of dozens, if not hundreds of different ages and origins. With vintages however, we showcase the individual characteristics of exceptional single eaux-de-vie.
The first member of the family to work in the cognac trade was Jean Prunier (1665-1732), a “freeman” of La Rochelle and renowned cognac expert, who began shipping wine and cognac across the world from around 1700.
For a century and a half the family remained in La Rochelle where Jean was succeeded in the business by his son Gabriel and grandson Jean.
François, the fourth generation, began to acquire vineyards in the Cognac district around St-Jean-d’Angély and envisaged moving the family and business to the town of Cognac itself, a move finalised in 1850 by his son Jean, who built the premises where the Firm still stands today.
Jean had three sons : Alphonse became head of the family and general manager of the company in Cognac. Marcel acted for Prunier in Central Europe, moving between Vienna and Moscow, while Gaston moved to Australia, establishing a branch of the company in Melbourne.
Alphonse died in 1918 leaving no direct descendants. His widow, Camille, therefore called upon her nephew Jean Burnez, who took over the management of the company. His son Claude became the next head, before handing management to his wife Susan in 1987.
Since 2009, Claude’s son Stéphane Burnez has ensured family continuity, joined in 2016 by his daughter Alice.
A happy coincidence or a twist of fate? The tale of two ‘Vieilles Maisons’
With a history that can be traced back to Jean Prunier, who was shipping his wines and eaux-de-vie across the world as early as 1701, Prunier is one of the oldest cognac houses, earning the affectionate nickname of ‘La Vieille Maison’ (The Old House) in the town of Cognac.
Prunier is also the proprietor of the oldest residence in Cognac, La Maison de la Lieutenance, built around 1490 in the rue Grande at the heart of the old town and also known locally as ‘La Vieille Maison’. This historic building - the only half-timbered house in Cognac still in its original condition - has been the symbol of the Prunier brand for over a century.
The House we see today was originally built as the private residence of a wealthy merchant in the wine and salt trade, the mainstay of the town in the 15th century, for the spirit we know as 'Cognac' would not come into existence for at least another 100 years.
In 1603 Pierre de Lacombe, the new Lieutenant-General of Cognac appointed by the King, decided to make the House his residence and thus the seat of government, giving the house the official name it still bears of ‘Maison de la Lieutenance’.
Situated on the main street of Cognac at the time, the House allowed de Lacombe to observe the movements of the inhabitants and tax the goods arriving for sale in the nearby market. He embellished the House with fine decorations, including the painted wooden ceiling and the colourful murals in the rooms, tangible signs of his high office and power.
After his departure, the House was for over 250 years a coaching inn, offering food, drink and accommodation to travellers and also their horses, as evidenced by the large drinking trough in the courtyard.
In the late 19th century the House reverted to being a private residence, whose owners were known by the Prunier family. An agreement was struck allowing Prunier to use the ‘Vieille Maison’ motif on bottle labels and in advertising for the brand.
Finally in 1971 the House was sold to Prunier by the owner - a cobbler by trade, who worked downstairs and lived above - on his retirement.
The House is now open to the public and a major attraction for the many tourists in Cognac.
No two cellars are quite alike - which makes for better cognac
The main Prunier ageing warehouse is in the commune of Gimeux, just outside Cognac, in the heart of the Grande Champagne. An old Charentais farm property surrounding a large internal courtyard, it has numerous low-roofed, stone outbuildings with beaten earth floors and lies near a small underground stream.
Inside these buildings lie thousands of barrels in an atmosphere that is both cool and damp, perfect conditions for long, slow ageing. Here you will find cognacs ranging from the most recent harvest to some several decades old. One special building is permanently under lock and key, except in the presence of a bailiff, and houses a large number of Prunier's precious vintageable barrels.
The Prunier Paradise lies deep below the main buildings in Cognac. Here lie the numerous demi-johns and bonbonnes of old vintage cognacs, as well as carefully assembled blends of old cognac, all of which are judged to be at the peak of their maturation and therefore placed in glass to preserve their exceptional qualities.
The Paradise also holds precious barrels of old vintages, still evolving and gaining in bouquet and flavour, benefitting from the slightly warmer conditions and lower humidity, which prevent the oldest cognacs from becoming 'flabby' and 'tired' during their final years in wood.
Take a look inside with our 'Paradise Cam'.
A note on reduction, cask strength, chill-filtering and additives
Most spirits are presented at 'standard drinking strength' - in the case of cognac 40% alcohol by volume. But depending on the barrel used and the type of cellar it can take almost 100 years for a cognac to reach 40% naturally in wood, so reduction to standard strength is usually made wih distilled water. This makes younger cognacs more palatable for most drinkers, who will otherwise have their taste buds overwhelmed or anaesthetised by the strength of the alcohol.
However the finest cognacs can become rich and mellow while remaining well above 40% and experienced palates prefer not to dilute the flavours and aromas by reducing them.
For our Age Statements we therefore present the younger expressions - 10 and 20 years old - at 40% to make them accessible to the widest possible audience. From 30 years upwards we have let Nature prevail and offer them at 'cask strength' - unreduced. We hope you will enjoy the full power and intensity of these great cognacs 'straight from the barrel'.
For vintages, all except the youngest are offered at cask strength. Where necessary, reduction will be made only to whatever degree the Master Blender considers the optimum strength at which to enjoy the cognac to the full.
Chill-filtering is a technique which stabilises the appearance of a spirit by removing any fine particles coming from the distillation or ageing processes, which could precipitate and render the product cloudy or leave a sediment, especially if the spirit is exposed to low temperatures.
However, since chill-filtering also removes some of the complex chemical compounds formed during distillation - compounds which contribute to the unique flavours, aromas and mouth-feel of the spirit - the process can change the texture and taste in subtle ways.
As with reduction, we have therefore chosen to chill-filter our younger expressions - the 10 and 20 year old Age Statements - but leave the 30 to 80 year old cognacs untouched. It is therefore possible that under certain conditions these cognacs may become slightly cloudy, but this in no way affects the quality or taste of the cognac.
In the case of our vintage cognacs, as a matter of principle we chill-filter none of them, including the youngest expressions, thereby preserving for each eau-de-vie its unique, original qualities.
Finally, because we believe that a fine eau-de-vie can stand on its own without cosmetic help or additives, we guarantee that both our Age Statement and vintage cognacs are free of colouring (caramel), sugar and le boisé (added wood extract), although all are permitted in limited quantities. In this way the spirit can be enjoyed exactly as it left the barrel, without artifice.
In the case of the 10, 20 and 30 year old Age Statements, this means they are somewhat lighter in colour than most of the normally available commercial blends, their only colouring being the tannin naturally absorbed by the cognac from the barrel during ageing.