In short Cognac is a brandy made in a specific region in France. The region is in the South West of France, above Bordeaux and Loire valley. The reason for it standing out from brandy is that the grapes used to create cognac come from six vineyard growth areas called Crus. Therefore, all cognac is brandy but not all brandy is cognac. The approval needed to name a brandy a cognac is given by the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac (BNIC), which is the regulating industry body.
According to Cognac.fr and Cognac.com the origins of cognac stem all the way back to the 3rd century. The Roman empire Probus extended the privilege of owning vineyards and making wine to the Gauls.
Fast forward to the 12th century when Guillaume X, Duke of Guyenne and Count fo Poitiers establishes a large vineyard known as the ‘Vignoble de Poitou’.
The story of Cognac becomes international in the 13th century when Dutch ships that traded salt into Nothern Europe begin to also trade wines from the ‘Vignoble de Poitou’. This leads to the expansion of the ‘Vignoble de Poitou’ into Saintonge and Angoumois. Now, the city is not just known for salt but also its wine.
In the 16th Century ‘Brandwijn’-burnt wine- or in English brandy is created by the Dutch. Instead of trading the wines into different regions they decide to distil them in Amsterdam as this allowed them to preserve the regions low alcohol wines. The dutch would drink this with water to recreate the taste of wine. Thereafter, the Dutch decided to disitill them locally as it was cheaper to do so. In the distilleries they used copper from Amsterdam.
In the 17th a new distillation technique comes into effect: Double distillation. This allows local wines to turn into eau-de-vie (water of life). The first distillation that took place in the Charente was by the Dutch. It was later refined by the French into a technique called Charentaise distillation. Eau-de-vie is discovered to be cheaper to ship and that the more time it spends in oak casks the better the taste. At this time the first Cognac house: Augier was established in 1643.
In the late 17th Century and early 18th century cognac companies are created. The owners were mostly from British Isles. They purchased eau-de-vie and exported them to Northern Europe. Notable brands that we know of today were established such as Martell in 1715, Remy Martin in 1724, Hennessy 1765 and Otard 1795.
In the 18th century many companies in the region began trade with the Americans and in the Far East.
In the 19th century many businesses began to trade in bottles instead of casks During this period there was a boom in trade which lead to the ‘Vignoble’ to expand to 280,000 hectares and for Cognac houses such as Bisquit, Courvoisier and Royer to form. Then at the end of the century there is Phylloxera infestation. Phylloxera is an insect that attacks grapevines and sucks the sap from their roots. This resulted in the hectarage shrinking to 42581. This tragedy leads to the establishment of a Viticulture committee in 1882. Currently it is the technical center of cognac.
In the 20th century after the Phylloxera crisis the region replanted using American rootstock which is immune to the insect. The dominant grape becomes ugni Blanc and is used in 90% of the production of cognac. On 1st May 1909 the production area of cognac is delimited. Then on 15th 1936 cognac becomes a controlled appellation of Origin, meaning that only products from the designated region that have certain characteristics can be called Cognac. On 5th January 1941 the National Office for the Distribution of Cognac Wines and Eau-de-vie is created. On May 30 1968 creation of a regional committee of the National Institute of Appellations of Origin.
Cognac Today. Cognac is consumed worldwide and is exported to over 150 counties. Today it is seen as a symbol of French quality. The biggest market is in America with well-known celebrities featuring it in movies, tv shows and rap songs. The biggest distiller is Hennessy which produces 46% of all production followed by Martell, Remy Martin and Courvoisier. Although there are over 226 trading houses. On the production side there are 4289 winegrowers, of which 3632 are distillers. There are 120 boilers by profession and 223.8 million bottles in exporter yearly of which 97.6% is consumed abroad. There are 17000 jobs created directly from cognac and 60000 people live off it, in France.
About the region:
As mentioned above the region of cognac is in the South West of France. It is north of the Aquitaine basin that is near the Atlantic Ocean. The landscape is flat with small hills and smooth reliefs. The Charente river crosses through the region. The climate mild as the average temperature is 13 degrees Celsius. The area spans around one million hectares with the vineyards covering only 80000 hectares. Of which, 95% of the vineyard land is used for Cognac. The area is made of 6 different regions called Crus. The names are derived from the local forests that were cleared for the region. What differentiates this land is the soil features that were described by geologist Henri Coquand in 1860.
The names of the six regions are as follows:
- Grand Champagne
- Petit Champagne
- Fins Bois
- Bons Bois
- Bois à Terroirs or Bois Ordinaires
To understand why this region was delimited it is important to understand the soil of the region. The Champagne region -both Grande and Petit- has clayey and chalky soil. Hence the word champagne which in French is a derivative of chalk. This is not to be confused with the champagne the region of sparkling wine, they are two separate areas. On the top surface the soil of champagne is chalky and clayey. Below this surface, the soil contains very high limestone content which can be in excess of 60%. The clay, known as Montmorillonite clay, provides the soil with good structure and water reserve. Despite of the top of the soil being thin the soil does not suffer from a lack of water. The sub soil acts as a large sponge through which water may slowly rise as the summer dryness increases. Due to this Grand Champagne is known for making powerful cognacs. Petit Champagne on the other hand is known to make elegant cognacs. Cognacs made from grapes from this are called Champagne cognacs.
Borderies is known for making well rounded cognacs with violet aromas. Fin Bois is known for fine and elegant cognacs. In Borderies and Fin Bois there is a thin layer of clay before the clay. Hence the different characteristics to Champagne.
In the region from November to December, the grapevine is dormant. In March the vines begin to break its bud. By mid-May the first leaves appear. Mid-June indicates there is 100 days before harvest. While mid-August indicates 45 days. The grapes become bigger, translucent and they gorge with Sugar. The harvest then arrives at end of September or early October.
The Crus and Tastes in detail:
- Grand Champagne: This cru covers 13159 hectares of vine. The region produces fine, light eau-de-vin with a floral bouquet. They require long ageing in casks to achieve full maturity. If you see 1er Cru written on the label it means it solely from Grande Champagne.
- Petite Champagne: contains 15246 Ha of vine. The taste is similar to Grande Champagne except with greater finesse. This is because the soil is similar but the soft chalky areas are deeper and less porous, which alters the manner in which nutrients are received.
- Borderies: the smallest Cru, consisting of 3987 ha of vines. The soil contains clay and flints stones resulting from the decomposition of limestone. This region produces fine and round eaux-de-vie with smooth aroma of violets. The cognacs reach optimum quality after a shorter ageing period than cognacs from the Grande and Petite Champagne region.
- Fins Bois: this area has clayey and chalky soil known as groies. This soil is similar to the Champagne Crus except for the regions red colour and hard stones from the Jurrasic. Fin Bois is in a lower area called ‘Pay Bays’ (low counties) north of Cognac. The area has heavy clayey soils of which 60% of the soil is expected to be clay. The 31001 hectares surround the other three Crus and produce round, smooth Cognacs. Fins Bois Cognacs age fairly quickly with a bouquet that recalls the scent of freshly pressed grapes.
- Bons Bois: the soil is sandy and on a coastal location. The sands have been eroded from the Massif Central. The vines are spread out, mixed with other crops and surrounded by forests of pine trees and chestnuts. The area of the Bons Bois is 9308 ha. The eaux-de-vie ages very quickly.
- Bois à Terroir or Bois Ordinaires: The are of this Cru is 1101 ha. The soil is largely sandy, lies along the coaist or on the islands of Ré or Oléron, producing fast-agiing eaux-de-vie with a characteristic maritime flavour.
- Fine Champagne is not a Cru but rather a blend of Grande and Petite Champagne eau-de-vie of which 50% is made of Grande Champagne.
A Cognac Tour and Routes?
There is no specific route however there are several places of interest. One of them is taking an Etapes du Cognac trail. These are themed routes which offer insight into how cognac is made. On the trail you will pass the Charente river- which was used for transporting cognac barrels, some vineyards and historic buildings.
Another option is to visit the two museums. One is about the drink the other is about the 2000 years of art and history that took place in the region. A third option is to visit the Martell visitor’s centre to learn about the creation of cognac. If you are short of ideas or don’t know where to go, start at the town center for advice.
How to make it:
As stated above all Cognac is brandy but not all brandy is Cognac. Cognac has a controlled designation of origin- in French a AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée). This means that each bottle of cognac is given a stamp of authority after intense scrutiny.
There are three main white wine grape varieties used to produce Cognac. Trebbiano Toscano (Ugni Blan), Folle Blanche and Colombard. Ugni Blanc makes up 98% of the regions grapes and is sometimes blended woth Folle Blance or Colombard. Winegrowers are also given the opportunity to use up to 10% of other grape types which include rare varieties of Folignan, Jurancon blanc, Meslier St-Francois, Montils or Semillon.
A quick harvest is required for grapes to be used in Cognac. Once harvested they undergo a nomadic press. This is when they burst the grapes in a way that prevents the seed and skin to go into the wine. The residue of the seeds and skins are used as organic fertilizer for the vines, or it can be used to make alcohol for pharmaceutical purposes. Once crushed stainless steel vats are used to ferment the wine. At this stage yeast is also added and the alcohol content is typically between 7.5-10%. Thereafter the process of distillation begins Due to BNIC regulations distillation must end on 31st March while in some cases it can start as early as November. Once this is done the ageing process begins. This is uniform across the industry as the start date for ageing is the 1st of April.
Cognac goes through a double distillation process. The process always takes place in special alembic pots called Charentais copper pots. Each distillation is typically 12 hours. The wine is placed in a boiler and is heated by gas. Due to the heat the vapors go up to the head still, cross the swan’s neck pipe into the wine warmer and then arrives at the cooling coil. The cooling coil is flushed with cold water to condense the vapors. The vapors turn into the first liquid and they have an alcohol content of 27-30%. The first litre and the last litre known as the head and the tail are removed then the distillation process begins again. After the second distillation the head and the tail are removed. The ‘heart’ or remaining alcohol reaches an alcohol percentage of 70. This is called eau-de-vie. A liter of eau-de-vie requires nine litres of wine which is 12 kg of grapes.
Only once the distillation has taken place can the Cognac age. The ageing process takes place in Cognac barrels. A cooperage makes the Cognac barrels. The process to make the barrels is just as carefully controlled. The coopers get oak trees from the forests if Limousin and Troncais, some may get from external countries. Once they have the tree, they remove the bark, outer layer and heart of it because it gives off bad tannins. Therefore, leaving the mid-section of the oak to make planks. The planks are then aged in open air for three years in order to wash away the bad resins in the wood. If a barrel is prepared in this manner it is fit for use to age the cognac. Once a barrel is made it is usually used for 50 to 100 years. Furthermore, the size of the barrels vary from company to company from 250L to 540L, Hennessy typically uses 270L and 350L.
The barrels filled with cognac are then housed in a warehouse. In this step it is common for evaporation to occur, which is known as the ‘angel’s share’. This evaporation feeds the fungus that tends to blacken the walls in the warehouse.
Once the eau-de-vie is kept for three years it can be called Cognac. In most cases a cellar master will work with a tasting committee of eight people to decide when to change the liquid from one barrel to another (this is usually done yearly), or one warehouse to another. Then finally the eau-de-vies are blended to create a specific cognac.
If an eau-de-vie is very special and very old, it is stored in a place called Paradis. These are used in higher end cognacs. It is up to the cellar master to decide how long to keep the eau-de-vie in a barrel.
Once the eau-de-vie has completed the ageing process it is put into deimijohns (glass bottles). When the eau-de-vie is no longer in contact with the wood and the oxygen it stops ageing. At this point the colours and the flavours of the eau-de-vie no longer change. Therefore, if you buy a bottle of cognac today and drink it in 10 years it will be exactly the same.
Types of Cognac: This refers to the number of years the eau-de-vie spends in a barrel
- VS: a minimum of two years. This is known as very special of Three stars.
- VSOP: a minimum of four years, kown as Very Special Old Pale or Reserve.
- Napoleon: this is a unofficial classification but is used to indicate at least six years.
- XO: a minimum of six years although in April 2018 this was changed to 10 years. This known as extra old or Hors d’Age.
- Heritage: this can be 40,50,60 or more years.
Glasses: There are two types of glasses recommended to drink Cognac, the Tulip and the Balloon. The size and shape of the glasses play a big role in tasting the cognac.
The Tulip shaped glass is favoured by cellar masters. The narrow top and thick bottom concentrates and circulates the aromas, making it easier to appreciate them.
The Balloon: it is the traditional choice. It is used all over the world and is typically 25cl.
When drinking cognac make sure to use a clear glass because drinking Cognac is about savouring its colour and roundness with the eye.
Enjoying Cognac: Cognac is a versatile drink. It can be drunk neat or with a bit of water. Interestingly, 80% of cognac consumption is through cocktails.
Some of the cocktails recommended by Cognac.fr to have Cognac with are:
- Martinez Charentais
- Rooibos Ale
- DIY Cognac
- Horse’s Neck
- Collins Cognac
- Sain- Preuil
- Summit Cognac
- Old fashioned Cognac
Cognac and food: Umami, the Japanese food, has been declared the univseral ally of Cognac according to Cognac.fr, however there are more variations of food to try with Cognac.
It is suggested that when eating Cognac with food first start by inhaling the cognac without stirring your glass. Then prepare your palate with a one drop of cognac. Throughout your meal alternate a bite of your food with a drop of cognac.
Below is a suggested meal by Cognac.fr
Bayonne ham, dried for several months and therefore rich in umami, works every time. The same goes for other cured hams such as Parma, Serrano or Iberian. A board of thin slices with a VS or VSOP cognac is an ideal aperitif.
We are used to calling " frozen " cognacs served chilled, taken out of the freezer at -18°C. Appearing about ten years ago, this way of serving cognac is a cognac tasting experience in its own right.
Langoustine and its seasonal vegetables
Between the langoustine, crustacean rich in umami, and the cognac, the complicity is very real and the type of cooking is decisive. While with the Frozen VS the pairing works best on an almost natural product, the association with the XO requires a very cooked langoustine (roasted, seasoned with spices and a sauce).
The tangy red fruits, raspberry and cherry, go naturally with XO cognac but can sometimes go well with younger cognacs.
Other foods that Cognac goes well with is dessert and coffee.
Cognac and Desserts: It goes well with desserts. Cognac.fr suggest a VS frozen with tarte tatin or crème brûlée or for a lighter dessert try citrus fruits. A VSOP or XO can accompany a chocolate or almond dessert.
Cognac and Coffee: Try a VSOP or XO with a quality espresso. Surprisingly the flavours do not clash. They create separate flavour which highlights the acidity, warmth and roundness of each drink.
Lastly, if your passion for Cognac is so immense that you want to learn more you can always become a Cognac Educator. In 2010 the BNIC created a three day course with an oral and written exam followed by a diploma which cements your ability to expand the cognac knowledge worldwide.