Smoked cheese – a wonderful smoked Gouda from Holland. Applewood smoked cheddar from the UK.  And a spreadable Brie from France.  This is the supporting cast to the leading player of the day: Cortel XO.

Cortel XO is a French brandy from the Cognac region of France – but this burned wine doesn’t bear the word Cognac on the packaging.  Perhaps a technical production detail keeps Gemaco, Cortel XO’s producer, from using that coveted designation. It doesn’t really matter, it is a burned wine and therefore falls within my exploration.   Cognac or not, the Cortel XO is a French brandy and carries off some of that superficial cache. My bottle is a lovely round 700ml vessel topped by a satisfying cork-lid combination; It snaps home after I’ve poured a sample of the Cortel.  The elegant bottle suggests the term “Napoleon”, though Cortel does not use it here.   Cortel uses the Napoleon appellation on another product that I may eventually try.

While conducting requisite internet-sleuthing of Cortel/Gemaco,  a few nuggets of information found their way to my attention.  From www.proof66.com, I found that

The Cortel Brandy brand began in 1912, noted for a richness in wine grape character. The XO is their older expression bottled in an elegant presentation and presumably aged 5 years or better.  Founded in 1920, Gemaco is a company that specializes in distilling, aging, blending, and bottling different styles of brandy.

Proof66.com also indicates Gemaco’s

claim that their cellars have unusually high humidity that encourages aging and quality in their product. Along with their own brands, they also create brandy for private label contracts. 
This is an interesting commercial production tidbit to consider.  Not being an expert in distillation procedures and techniques, I have no way of directly knowing whether ambient humidity affects aging or quality.  It certainly sounds like a factor that might affect the overall process. Tuck it away for another day’s education, I suppose.
On Gemaco’s website, further corporate production history is available:
 GEMACO is the result of several Houses joining forces, all of these Houses about a hundred years old, in France´s Cognac region.Since it was established in 1920, GEMACO has been situated in Aigre, right in the heart of the Charente vineyards, where its traditions and expertise originate
My bottle of Cortel XO carries a flashy silver sticker proclaiming  “2015 Silver Medal, San Francisco World Spirit Competition”.  That sounds distinctive and impressive, doesn’t it? Winning an award must mean I’m in for a bit of a treat with this product!  Maybe  or maybe not quite.  According to Wikipedia 

The San Francisco World Spirits Competition was founded in 2000 by Anthony Dias Blue.[1] Blue is the current director of both the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition. It assesses hundreds of entrants annually (1407 in 2013 from 63 countries)[2] with tastings involving panels of expert judges selected each year from the spirits industry including world-renowned mixologists, spirits buyers, and media from across the United States. Producers must submit their product for the competition and pay a fee ($475 for 2013) for its evaluation. Not all entries are given awards (those not judged of sufficient quality are not given an award) but most receive a bronze, silver, or gold award from the tasting panel. The fact that most entrants receive an award likely involves some degree of self-selection, as the spirits producers choose whether to enter each of their brands in the competition and pay to receive a rating.[citation needed] Those entrants that are given a unanimous gold medal by the panel are given the distinction of a “double-gold” medal. Additionally, a “best in show” designation is awarded in each main category of spirits.

Self-selection or not, when a corporate entity pays for evaluation, they typically expect to receive a ranking they can talk about.  From my experience of accreditation processes, they are a purchased experience and a company would need to actively try to fail to escape the distinction of some kind of plaque to hang in the office.  Oh, and some fancy stickers to promote the product.  Perhaps flashy stickers are just the kind of thing one needs to avoid to qualify for genuine distinction?

So much for “competition” as an indicator of anything beyond basic competence. If all of this unfairly characterize the process (and the related sentiment that we live in an age when “everyone gets a sticker”), then I don’t mind providing a link to the SF Spirit competition and their own information regarding their standards and awards. Let them defend themselves.

Regarding the product itself,  Gemaco claims that Cortel XO is

perfectly balanced, with subtle, fruity aromas which will delight the palate.Amber in colour. Rich, intense bouquet. Souple, silky palate, spicy aromas. A delicate, harmonious blend.

I don’t find anything to dispute regarding the amber colour.  It is very inviting.  On my  first sampling,  I disagreed with the claim of a rich intense bouquet claim.  On later samplings, I was more impressed; perhaps I expected too much after all the fanfare!  Fancy bottles, nice stickers.  That kind of thing.  I learn in this moment that, as with new acquaintances or information,  deeper knowledge is built over time.

While there is a powerful alcohol burn to the nose,  I found that the Ukrainian Borysfen and the American EJ Gallo XO were both more powerfully inviting at first impression.  Perhaps the scent is a typically  French preference – I found that the Cortel compares to the St-Remy VSOP on this ground.

I sampled the Cortel in four different ways over as many days.  Hand-warmed in a brandy snifter, I was left with an impression of smokiness.  I was very aware of the oak.  Cut with ice and ginger ale, I found the brandy was quickly overpowered .  Ditto mixed with coffee on the first attempt.  On my second attempt, I seemed to have achieved a nice mix with a single shot of Cortel XO in a teacup of coffee rather than the larger mug I normally use.  Mixed with hot water and a bit of Lyles golden syrup, the flavour came alive.  In each case, I was left with a heaviness at the back of my throat.  As a French brandy, it fulfills its mission better than St-Remy.

And now I return to where I started in this summary and an companion of smoky cheeses and, of course,  a bit of poetry.  Today, I want to recall Wilfred Owen – a British poet who died in 1918 at only 25 yeas of age.  He was a poet of the First World War. Owen captured the previously unknown horror of modern warfare before becoming a victim of it. I was struck by the fact that Dulce et Decorum (below) was first published in 1920, the year that Gemaco was founded.  In Blueprint for Armageddon, a miniseries within  his Hardcore History podcast, Dan Carlin does a terrific job conveying the magnitude of WWI destruction..and the events which led up to it.  Today, some hundred years since that war, we’ve grown immature in our estimation of what it was.

Today, in marked contrast, we enjoy a world where (nearly) everyone gets a sticker. Of course, that is a gross characterization that criticizes the west in particular (perhaps I feel this only because that is my home).

In 1918 a 25-year old man had cause to write poetry that swirls around on the palate with some smoky heaviness and it seems entirely fitting and eminently worthwhile to think upon the history and lessons of WWI with Cortel XO as a companion.

Anthem For Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Photo: Detail from a brick fireplace. Circa 2016, taken with an iPad mini

Revision History Notes: All content on this website is subject to edit and revision. Whenever possible, dates of revisions will be noted.  Original post 26/12/2016.  Updated 20/12/2017.