Wine, both red and white, is increasingly becoming the focus of scientific research. Studies have centred on the polyphenols in red wine, powerful antioxidants which can help stave off heart diseases, and, more recently, on the positive effects white wine seems to have on lung health.
But while wine has had all the plaudits - and indeed has benefited from a significant increase in sales in some markets such as Japan where the public has rapidly taken on board the potential health benefits - other grape-based or wine-based drinks such as Cognac or Armagnac have failed to capitalise on the science.
But one Cognac company, Pierre Boullmer Estates, has decided to redress this balance and has dedicated a section of its to Cognac and health in a bid to drive sales of the product.
"Cognac has been around such a long time that people take it for granted. They know it tastes good but do not always know why. Yet Cognac has to be one of, if not the, healthiest spirit on the market," said Peter Bulmer, head of the company.
"We feel it is not enough to just sell our Pierre Boullmer brand of Cognac; we also have to help sell the whole concept of Cognac worldwide. But there is no point in us saying that Cognac is the best thing since sliced bread without being able to back it up with scientific studies, so that is why we created the health page on the website."
Cognac is made exclusively from white grapes and is double distilled to create the smooth spirit so often enjoyed as a post-prandial drink. These stipulations are set down in French law, as are two others that help make Cognac a healthy drink, Bulmer said.
"Cognac is rich in polyphenols - which occur naturally in grapes - but the concentrations are helped by the fact that Cognac undergoes a very long ageing process in oak barrels," he claimed, citing research which showed that some of the constituents found in oak wood, in particular ellagic acid, can have a significant antioxidant effect.
"The ageing periods, and the stipulation that the barrels must be made from oak, are also enshrined in French law, which means that these claims can always be substantiated. If this combination of factors works to make one type of Cognac rich in polyphenols, it will work for all, because Cognac is essentially always made in exactly the same way."
He continued: "At the same time, there is no point in publicising that we have a product that is rich in polyphenols if we are dumping a whole lot of other additives like sulphates and additional quantities of sugar in to the product. These are banned in Cognac under French law and this is one of the reasons why Cognac is such a pure product. It is low in natural sugar content and free from other additives, as the studies we have posted on our website show."
Bulmer said that as far as he knew, this was the first time that a Cognac maker had stressed the health benefits of the drink to help promote sales, adding that it was also rare for a company to target the consumer directly through a website.
"We feel we are dealing with a much more sophisticated consumer, which is why we have gone so far as identifying the studies and putting them, rather than just our own claims, on the site. We are confident that the consumers are intelligent enough to make their own decisions about what the studies show."
He continued: "I am not aware of any one marketing Cognac quite in the same way as we are, and certainly this must be the first attempt to highlight specific studies that relate to Cognac and the potential health benefits when taken in moderation. The French, of course, have been using eau de vie and Cognac as a remedy for any number of ills for centuries, but often without necessarily knowing why. But what we have done is not only try to explain the science behind these benefits but also to put it in English, so a wider audience can have access to it."
Bulmer said that the company had always promoted clear labelling of its Cognacs as a means of informing the consumer, and added that while all Cognac makers were obliged to follow the strictures set down by French law, Pierre Boullmer Estates had always exceeded the minimum requirements for ageing as this was not only an advantage as far as health benefits were concerned but also gave the Cognac a quality advantage.
"Cognac in general, and our brand in particular, can only benefit from more information about its contents, clear labelling and a greater understanding of what is actually in the bottle," he said.
The older the better
Cognac comes in a variety of ages and styles, and can often be confusing to the uninitiated consumer. It can also be seen as a very old-fashioned drink, the preserve of old men in leather chairs, drunk after a heavy dinner with a big cigar. It is this image which Pierre Boullmer is hoping to dispel with its consumer-orientated marketing.
"We are pushing the younger VS and VSOP Cognac types as an excellent choice as an aperitif, diluted with a little water or ice which can help release the light floral taste. But it is the older XO Cognac, which in the case of Pierre Boullmer has spent more than 30 years in oak barrels and which is the classic after dinner drink, which is likely to have the best health attributes," Bulmer said.
Of course, XO Cognacs are among the most expensive on the market, so the trick is to provide a great tasting brandy which has all these potential health benefits but which will not cost the consumer the proverbial arm and leg.
Another potential advantage of wine over Cognac is its greater versatility, but Pierre Boullmer Cognac is also tackling that issue. "Most consumers wouldn't think twice about having a glass of red wine with their meal, and would be glad to benefit from the health benefits that would bring, but drinking Cognac as an accompaniment to food would be unthinkable to most people. But we think that Cognac goes very well with many meals, and all that is stopping people from trying it out is a lack of awareness
"With this in mind, we are preparing another page on our website which will focus on Cognac's effects as a food enhancer - for example, a good XO with chocolate or cheese. Cognac is particularly good as an accompaniment to spicy food because of these flavour-enhancing properties."
He continued: "With these strong tasting foods, Cognac really is an alternative to red wine. Our idea is to create a range of oriental recipes that not only use Cognac as an ingredient but which also go well with Cognac as a drink. That way, consumers can benefit from the healthy properties of Cognac on a much more regular basis - with their meals rather than as an occasional after dinner treat."
Bulmer concluded: "All the studies we have cited on our website of course stress that the benefits from polyphenols can only come in to effect if taken in moderation, and that there is no point in dying with a perfect heart if your liver is completely shot to pieces! I do not think this is something Cognac needs to worry too much about, however, as the price of the drink would make it a very expensive way to go!"