Cognac is produced in the town of Cognac and 6 surrounding regions by the distillation of fermented white grapes aged for at least 2 years.
It is customary to say that “Cognac is a brandy, but all brandies are not cognac”.
Cognac is unique because:
- of its long tradition and as it is strictly controlled by laws and regulations.
- it is produced with special technology, from specific varieties, under special soil and climatic conditions.
- it is aged in French oak barrels originating from forests of 60 to 100 years old.
- tradition and culture play a vital role in its production, with each house having its secrets transmitted from generation to generation.
There are 3 myths surrounding the discovery of Cognac:
One of them says that in the 16th century, at the wedding of the French King Henry II and Catherine de Medici, the Italian ambassador offered them a bottle of brandy as a gift.
The second says that the knight of Croix-Maroon from Bordeaux, after being discharged, moved to Segonzac and engaged in the distillation of wine. He liked drinking so much that he dreamt of the devil trying to extract his soul by throwing it into hot water one night.
Having failed the first time, he threw him a second time. Out of fear, he woke up and ran straight to the cauldron. Since the devil tried to take out my soul by boiling me twice, I will “take out the soul” of my wine by double distillation.
The third says, and this time it is not a myth but history: in 1701, a war began between England and France. Exports of French alcohol to England stopped. Much of the spirits were kept in oak barrels. After a long storage period, an improvement in quality and a change in colour, aroma and flavour was noted!
Napoleon and Cognac
Within a year of Napoleon taking power, Cognac exports fell by 60%. Napoleon and his army launched a campaign to promote it so that by the end of the Napoleonic war, it was known throughout the world. From 1860, exports were made in bottles rather than barrels. By chance, the role of the soil in the quality of Cognac was discovered, especially the chalky soils around the town of Cognac.
On 1st May 1909, a special decree was issued specifying the region for the production of Cognac. This is around the town of Cognac and the Charente region.
In other countries and even other regions of France, the same product is called Armagnac, Vignac, Brandy, etc.
Area and varieties
Cognac region is located 465 km southwest of Paris and 120 km north of Bordeaux. The entire Cognac region cultivates about 80,000 ha. of vines, the main variety being Ugni Blanc, also known as Trebbiano Toscano or Saint-Emilion, with Folle Blanche and Colombard as secondary varieties.
This basic variety produces wines with two significant advantages: the high acidity and low alcohol, two essential elements for the production of Cognac.
The region and the raw materials are not the only factors that determine the quality of the brandy: in the production of Cognac, the distillation technique is crucial.
The wines from “Grande Champagne” and “Petite Champagne” give very aromatic, fruity and floral brandies, which become very elegant after long ageing.
The “Borderies” region produces very famous brandies with a characteristic aroma of violets, and when matured for several years, they become full-bodied and round.
The “Bois” region produces the most robust brandies, and thanks to their ability to age quickly, they are the most sophisticated for blending.
- The harvest begins at the beginning of October and ends at the end of the same month.
- The juice extraction is carried out in horizontal pneumatic presses and
- White wine vinification (juice and skin separated before fermentation)
Fermentation lasts 3 weeks and the wine produced has only 8% alcohol. Distillation begins immediately.
The pot stills are made entirely of copper whose bottom is in constant contact with the flame, and the wine is heated evenly.
The alcohol evaporates and, through the onion-shaped head, is directed to the condenser through a long tube (the swan’s neck). The vapours are cooled and turned into liquid (alcohol) collected in oak barrels.
The distillation is carried out in two stages: “chauffes” (double distillation).
The first lasts 8 to 10 hours and produces a cloudy distillate containing 24-30 % vol. Alcohol (brouillis). This is followed by a second distillation lasting about 12 hours, this time only the “heart” containing between 68 and 72 % vol. Alcohol.
The spirit must age to “become” Cognac. This is done in oak barrels of 270 – 450 l. Traditionally, the Cognac region uses wood from the Limousin and Tronçais forests. The Tronçais forest, in the Allier department of France, yields wood that is finely structured and relatively porous for the alcohol. The Limousin forest yields wood that is harder and more porous.
Maintaining a sufficient level of humidity in the cellars is an essential element in the ageing of the spirit because of its high evaporation rate.
The Angel’s Share
For Cognac to develop its qualities and reduce its alcoholic strength, it must be aged for an extended period in oak barrels.
Cognac loses 3 to 4 % of its volume each year during its ageing process. This evaporation amounts to 27 million bottles per year in the entire Cognac region, depending on the annual production.
Although a loss, this process is considered necessary for the ageing of Cognac and is poetically called “The Angels’ Share”.
Cognac ages slowly and steadily. Ageing lasts from 30 months to a few dozen years, with a maximum ageing period of 60 years. Beyond that, Cognac becomes bitter and hard.
Very old Cognac is kept in demijohns in special cellars whose conditions are strictly and regularly controlled. Grey-coloured ‘moulds’ develop on the walls of the cellars, which are the result of the fungus Torula Compniancensis, which grows under such conditions.
The most crucial phase in the production of Cognac is the assemblage. This process is performed by the Cognac Masters, who decide which eux-de-vie to blend from different vineyards and vintages to produce the best Cognac.
Ageing and Grades
The names of the Grades that we see on Cognac bottles (mainly in English) have only to do with ageing.
V.S. (Very Special): cognacs in which the youngest brandy in the blend has been aged for at least two years.
V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale): cognacs in which the youngest brandy in the blend has been aged for at least four years.
X.O. (Extra Old): cognacs in which the youngest brandy in the blend has been aged for at least ten years (before 2018, this designation referred to Cognacs in which the youngest brandy was at least six years). Cognacs with the youngest brandy between six and ten years are now called “Napoleon“.
Hors d’âge: literally means “beyond age”. The Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC) considers this grade part of the XO designation. However, producers typically use it to indicate luxury blends beyond the official age scale.
How is Cognac drunk
Cognac is not drunk but enjoyed, and large tulip-shaped glasses with a relatively short stem are used to enjoy it.
Dr Andreas Emmanuel November 2019