For Scotch fans used to the idea of single malts vs. blends, we need to adjust our thinking when thinking about brandy.
Cognac is filled with small and medium sized grape growers, many of whom grow grapes and then hire someone to come and distill their grapes into brandy. Very few of these growers market their own brandy. Instead, the big brands have contracts with these small producers to buy their brandy for use in their brands, much like a blended Scotch whisky, though the term "blended" doesn't seem to be used in brandy. While some of the big name houses have distilleries, most of those in-house operations produce only a fraction of their brandy; they buy the rest from smaller growers. Even many smaller, more upscale brands, like Delemain, are blenders who buy brandy on contract.
Unlike Scotch, in which many distilleries make a single malt as well as selling their whisky for use in blends, most of the small growers don't sell their brandy under a private label. It all gets sold to the big houses.
In Cognac, which is dominated by the four big houses of Remy Martin, Hennessy, Courvoisier and Martell, this system can deter more innovative approaches. As brandy importer/bottler Nicolas Palazzi told me:
Right now in Cognac, there are small guys who would want to go fully on their own but are kind of split because keeping contracts with big houses makes the future more secure. But a younger generation is taking over their families' estates and seem to be more in tune with the drinkers so this will help.
This is another aspect in which brandy today is comparable to whiskey 15 or 20 years ago. The Scotch export market was almost all blends until the 1980s, when single malts started creeping in. Palazzi and a few others are acting as independent bottlers and releasing some of this grower-produced brandy that otherwise only goes into blends. Another way to taste smaller producers is through Armagnac, which has fewer big blenders. Starting next week, I'll be sampling some Armagnacs from K&L's exclusive small producer bottlings as well as some other interesting brandies from smaller producers.