Pre-Phylloxera Hennessy

The January 2021 extended miniatures and memorabilia auction includes three fascinating pieces of communication between Hennessy and William Pulling & Co.

Pre-Phylloxera Hennessy

Our regulars will have seen old documents from various producers and suppliers in our recent Miniatures & Memorabilia auctions, including price lists, invoices and letters sent to wine and spirits merchant William Pulling & Co.

This month we have three lots of correspondence from Hennessy Cognac dating from 1848 to 1877. These offer an insight into the Cognac trade in the mid to late 19th century, a time when many Scotch whisky distilleries were only just obtaining their licenses to distil legally following the Excise Act of 1823. Meanwhile, Cognac houses started adding labels to their bottles for the first time and Hennessy registered it’s ‘Bras Armé’ logo and introduced the ‘star’ grading system.
It was also at this time that the Phylloxera blight began to forge a ruinous path through Europe’s vineyards, destroying over 80% of vines in the Cognac region alone.

As with the other documents from this collection we have a quantity of what we might call ‘order confirmations’. These are extremely courteous and mostly start with the words ‘We beg to acknowledge receipt of your esteemed favour’ and go on to outline the brandies ordered and which ship they will be travelling on from Charente to the English ports. In one example from December 1856, we glimpse a hint of exasperation from Hennessy’s correspondent, who, when advising William Pulling & Co. that the requested vintages are not available due to low stocks, writes: ‘We are sorry to find ourselves so situated, and that importers in England have all along formed such an erroneous notion of their market, but we cannot do impossibilities’.

Another letter being sold as part of the same lot is from Hennessy’s agent John Fisher, who notes that ‘the Vintage of 1861 has proved a total failure’ and supplies must be drawn from previous vintages. This is too early for the crop failure to have been caused by Phylloxera (which wrought its destruction in Charente a decade or so later), but does coincide with a very small harvest in Bordeaux, just 80 miles south of Cognac, due to a heavy frost in early May of that year.

The inclement weather continues into another letter dated June 1872, where the correspondent notes that, while the ‘vines in our district have escaped any damage from frost’, the harvest will not ‘yield such an abundant vintage as we had in 1865 or 1869’. But there was much worse to come.

In the same lot we see the first specific mention of Phylloxera in these documents, in a letter with attached invoice dated 18 September 1877. The letter concludes: ‘The vintage will begin in the course of a few days and will, we hope, turn out a fair one in the vineyards not yet injured by the Phylloxera, but the number of those that are damaged is too large, and the apprehensions of the growers for the future too great, to make even 1877’s brandy cheap, and the older sorts maintain fully their value on our market.’ The apprehension must have been very great indeed. Faced with an almost invisible enemy, viticulturists tried a number of remedies, including submerging their vineyards for a biblical forty days and poisoning the Phylloxera on the vine with carbon disulphide, all to no avail. In the end, the solution was to graft the European vines on to American rootstocks, which had already developed resistance to Phylloxera (the aphid had unwittingly been brought to Europe from the New World by enthusiastic Victorian botanists).

The destruction of such a large area of vineyards was disastrous for the small farmers who made their living selling grapes and eaux-de-vie to the big Cognac houses of the day. Meanwhile companies like Hennessy had large stocks built up during happier times and could now sell at higher prices due to the shortages in the industry. From 1877 to 1893, approximately 240000 hectares of vineyard were lost in the Cognac region. By 1890, Hennessy had become the market leader and has remained a dominant power in the Cognac industry to this day.