Cognac

 A bit of history

Cognac is famous the world over and numbers speak for themselves. Out of the 126,5 million bottles of cognac sold in 1996, 119 million (94,3%) were exported. The United States of America are the greatest amateurs with over 27,7 million bottles, followed by Japan (with 18,2 million), the United Kingdom (12 million), and Hong-Kong (11,2 million).

The relationship that Cognac has with foreign countries is not new and its evolution has relied on this relationship for centuries.

International commerce

The origins of cognac are closely related to the commerce of two products: salt and wine.

Vinyards have existed in Saintonge as far back as the gallo-roman times. The vinyards of Saintonge were probably planted during the last part of the third century AD.

Probus, the roman emperor, extended the privilege of owning vines and making wine to all Gauls, but the extent of the plantation was still very limited. The real extension came during the 12th century when salt shipments for Norway started to include local wines. The vinyards began to appear inland especially on the banks of the Charente river.

The wine, unfortunately, would not travel very well and was also very bulky. The Dutch transporters, along with the French wine producers from Charente thought of distilling the wine. The product became indeed considerably reduced in volume but also more stable and resistant to transportation.

For practical reasons, the spirits were stored in oak casks, it was then realised that the spirits had matured with age in the casks and could be drunk pure. During the 12th century, the product was improved yet again when double distillation was discovered.

At the end of the 13th century sales abroad tripled with the signing of the first international sales treaties. Later, the Dutch became the main suppliers for a large part of Europe but also for the States. The English remain remained important clients. Many merchants in fact established sales counters to sell their goods straight from the ship.

The vintages

The cognac region is characterised by the great diversity of its soils: uncovered champagne plains with chalky soil, stony red-soiled plains and green valleys separating hillsides and marshlands, crossed by woods of various species of trees. There is only one zone that carries the “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée”, but there is more than just one type of cognac. This zone is itself divided into different vintage regions, which have each their own characteristics.

France Cognac

The 5 vintage regions spread in concentric circles around Segonzac and Cognac. They are the heart of the country that produces the most beautiful spirit in the world.

The Grande-Champagne (13,766 hectares of vineyards) 1 hectare = 2,47 acres

Situated in the heart of the cognac region, Grande-Champagne is the most prestigious cognac vintage. It has a very specific type of soil called the campus (where many fossils are to be found)

The quality, complexity and longevity of the spirits that see the day on the hillsides just to the south of Segonzac, “the capital of the Grande-Champagne vintage region”, are unequalled anywhere in the world. There, the climatic conditions are the most favourable, protected to the west from the vicissitudes of an oceanic climate and to the east from the continental climate.

Grande-Champagne spirits distinguish themselves by the floral dominance of its fragrance that is reminiscent of the vine’s flower, dried vine shoot or even dried lime tree leaves. Its bouquet is remarkable. After ageing, the aromas grow and mature. Floral scents turn into fruity aromas.

The Petite-Champagne (16.171 hectares)

This large semi-circle covers an area whose soil, called “santonian” (chalk of Saintes) is very rich in limestone. A few regions in the Petite-Champagne produce a Cognac that may equal and even surpass the quality of some Grande-Champagne Cognacs (especially on the Archiac hillsides).

It also distinguishes itself by a dominating floral and somewhat fruity scent but the bouquet is much shorter.

The Borderies (4.160 hectares*)

This enclave of vineyards to the north of Cognac produces excellent nutty flavoured spirits on a decalcification soil. Some houses use it as a base for their best cognacs.

A collection of suave scents brings to mind the floral fragrance of a bunch of violets or irises. Very finely scented, Borderies spirits have the added ability to age and mature faster than that of Champagne.

The Fins Bois or Fine Woods (34.265 hectares)

Forming a large ring with various types of soil, this region produces cognacs of many different qualities. The best of them see the light on hard limestony soils to the north-east and south-east.

Fins Bois spirits are heavier and age rapidly but their fruitiness, roundness and smoothness on the palate are what give them their charm.

The Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires (19.979 hectares)

(Good Woods and Ordinary Woods)

This belt, which marks off the cognac region, is made of clay soils that are poor in limestone. Less length in the mouth and age much to rapidly.

The region

The Cognac Delimited Area extends along the banks of the Charente all the way to the Atlantic coast. It covers a large part of the department of Charente, all of the Charente-Maritime and a few areas of the Dordogne and Deux-Sèvres.

This ancient country was once called Aunis, Saintonge and Angoumois. In the heart of the region lies Jarnac, Segonzac and Cognac which gave its name to the spirit. Cognac lies 465 kilometers south-west of Paris and 120 kilometers north of Bordeaux

The entire Cognac vineyard covers around 80.000 hectares (1 hectare = 2,47 acres) and 15.000 plantations that produce white wine for the production of Cognac. The main grape variety that is planted is Ugni blanc (mostly “Folle Blanche” and “Colombard”).

This slow ripening variety is very resistant to diseases and produces a wine that has two vital qualities: a high level of acidity and a generally low alcohol content.

The harvest

Vines are planted about 3 meters appart. Harvest can begin as soon as the grape has reached perfect ripeness. This is usually about the begining of October and lasts until the end of the month. Some wine producers still harvest by hand but most have adopted machine harvesters.

The winemaking

The pressing of the grapes is done immediately after harvest. Nowadays, wine producers use horizontal flat presses or pneumatic presses.

The juice is left to ferment straight away.

The sugars are transformed into alcohol. The addition of sugar (capitalisation) is not permitted. The wines are then stored with their residue.

These two steps (pressing and fermentation) are closely monitored for they will have an important influence on the final quality of the spirit.

The wines that are produced after roughly 3 weeks of fermentation (from the end of October till the last days in November) have an alcohol content of around 8%vol. They are just perfect for distillation.

The distillation

The Cognac region has a lime stony soil and a maritime and temperate climate that is humid, hot and sunny enough to ripen the grapes. Despite all these assets, the wines that are produced would not deserve their reputation if it were not for the alchemy that takes place in the pot still and that produces the cognac.

The alcohol is produced during fermentation from the sugars that are naturally present in the fruit. It is found associated with many other components; it has to be separated from these complex mixes, process which is achieved by distillation.

The process of separation that takes place during distillation is based on the difference in volatility between all components. The only volatile substances that make it into the spirit become the main elements of the bouquet.

The pot-still

The Pot still is entirely made of copper because copper has a catalysing effect and it does not affect the taste of the spirits. The bottom of the main cauldron – where the liquid to be distilled is placed – is in permanent contact with the bare flame of the furnace.

The wine is uniformly heated with its dregs over a large surface. The Alcohols and ethers evaporate. The onion shaped top canalises the vapours into the swan neck, through the “chauffe-vin” cooling them slightly before they reach the cooling tank known as “the pipe”.

The vapours travel through a long coil, condense and are collected in liquid form in an oak cask.

Double distillation

Distillation is carried out in two steps: two heating cylcles called “chauffes”. The first “chauffe” which lasts between 8 and 10 hours produces a cloudy liquid called “brouillis” with an alcohol content of 24 to 30 %vol. The “brouillis” is then redistilled. This second heating is called “la bonne chauffe” and lasts about 12 hours.

This time, only the best, that is “the heart” of the distillation, is kept. The distiller separates the “heart” from the “heads” and the “tails” through a process called “cutting”. The heads and the tails are mixed with the next batch of wine or brouillis in order to be redistilled.

Thus only the heart, a clear spirit averaging between 68 and 72% vol., is kept for ageing to become Cognac.

Cognac was born of a dream…

As for every famous product, Cognac has its legend. It is said that the secret of double distillation was discovered in the 16th century by the Knight Jacques de la Croix-Maron. It is thanks to a nightmare that Cognac saw the light of day: Satan, wanting to have his soul, tried to boil it but did not succeed. It is when the devil threatened to reboil it that the knight awoke suddenly and became convinced that by distilling his wine a second time, he would allow his wine to express itself in a new brouillis.

The ageing

The distilled wine must age before becoming Cognac. This ageing takes place in 270 to 450 litre oak casks.

The natural level of humidity in the cellars is one of the main influencing factors on the ageing of the spirits due to its effect on evaporation.

The charentais coopers have traditionally used wood from the Limousin and the Tronçais forests. The Tronçais forest, in the Allier department of France, provides soft, finely grained wood that is particularly porous to alcohol. The Limousin forest produces medium grained wood, harder and even more porous.

Today, the Cooperage industries of the Cognac region, with their ancestral know-how, export all over the world.

The angels’ share

In order to develop all its qualities and also to reduce its alcohol content, Cognac must mature for many years in oaks casks.

During this ageing, Cognac loses between 3 and 4 % of its volume every year. This evaporation represents 27 million bottles per year for the Cognac region! Although it is a loss, it is a necessity for the maturing process and is poetically known as “the angels’ share”.

The evolution of Cognac in casks

A Cognac’s age is determined solely by the number of years that it has matured in wooden casks. The fundamental principle behind this fact is that in a glass bottle Cognac stops ageing.

A Cognac that has come straight from the pot still has an alcohol content of about 70%. As it ages, Cognac concentrates the aromas and the colours as it darkens to a warm shade of amber.

During the first few years (from 0 to 5 years), the bouquet mellows and becomes less aggressive. The spirit turns to a shade of yellow that darkens more and more. The odour of oak wood develops.

Next, the taste becomes more pleasant and smoother. The oak wood fragrance introduces scents of flowers and vanilla…

Beyond 10 years of age, Cognac reaches maturity and has a much darker colour. The bouquet is at its best and the famous “rancio” appears.

The assembly

From beginning to end, the making of cognac (or ‘elaboration’) is the subject of a complex alchemy. The quality of each and every cognac depends as much on the “assemblies” as on the care given to the vine, the grape harvest, the wine making, the distillation and the ageing in casks.

The cognac that you drink is in fact the fruit of “assemblies” of different vintages and different ages. It is these assemblies that produce the harmony in the taste.

The “assemblies” are the result of unwritten ancestral know-how. They are the secret of the “maîtres de chai” or “cellar masters”, persons of exception who watch over the cognac from its exit from the still to the bottling.

It is the cellar masters who, after years of patient training by the elders, decide to decant casks or to change cellars in order to best develop the quality of the spirit. They also decide when and how to assemble the spirits. It is often said of the cellar masters that they alone represent the true value of Cognac houses.

The assembly is done in several steps that are spread throughout the entire ageing process. The cellar masters do not use any instruments of measure, they rely entirely on their judgement of taste and smell.

Their senses are so accurate that they are always right.

The tasting ceremony

The tasting technique is progressive and follows a classic ritual. The perfect tool is the tulip shaped glass, which contains the aromas and releases them delicately and progressively throughout the tasting.

  • First step: visual aspectThe eye must judge the spirit in three ways: transparency, colour and viscosity (the liquid must not be cloudy nor have sediments). By tilting the glass, one can observe the “legs” or “tears” effect, which is a sign of good age.
  • Second step: the scentFirstly, the connoisseur will detect the very volatile and very subtle scents that are often hidden to the novice: he carries the glass to within an inch of the nostrils and tames the burning vapours, he then smells a little closer before inhaling at length all the released smells with the nose in the glass.

Secondly, the connoisseur discovers the less volatile aromatic components: he stirs and tosses the liquid inside the glass to allow the spirit to release new scents. He repeats this action several times to make the pleasure last and to discover a whole new bouquet every time.

  • Third step: the tasteThe tasting must obey strict rules: The taster takes small sips at a time (1 to 2 ml). He holds each sip in the front of the mouth and appreciates the “taste” (balance between softness, acidity and bitterness) and the “touch” (feeling of roundness, warmth, strength, astringency, body, oiliness, volume, etc…).

The second, longer sip will suffuse the whole mouth and will bring into full bloom the flavours and the less volatile notes that complete the bouquet.

The labels

Cognac labels are the result of much creative and aesthetic research in the same way as are bottles and decanters.

This does not prevent them from giving a lot of consumer information. Beyond all legal information – capacity, place of production or bottling -, the cognac label provides additional information on the product you are about to taste, including its age and its vintages.

The indications on age

Cognac, which has a worldwide reputation to protect, has established very strict rules to protect consumers but also to prevent its production and presentation from being counterfeited. This implies compliance to many rules: for distillation, for stocking, for ageing or for assembly, etc.

A cognac that is ready to be commercialised must be at least two and a half years old starting from the 1st October of the year of harvest. For the different classes of Cognac, it is the age of the youngest spirit that determines its class.

  • ***, V.S. (Very Special), Sélection, de LuxeThe youngest spirit of the assembly may not be less than four and a half years old. But often, the spirits are much older.
  • V.S.O.P., Réserve…The youngest spirit in the assembly for Very Superior Old Pales, also called Reserve Cognacs is between four and a half and six and a half years old.
    • Napoléon, Impérial, Hors d’âge, Vieille Réserve, X.O. All terms like Napoleon, XO or “very old” are assemblies of spirits that are at least six and a half years old.

However, most Cognacs are well above this minimum imposed by the regulation. In fact some of the most prestigious names assemble spirits that are each at least dozens of years above the minimum required.

The indications on vintages

The term “Fine”

The term “Fine” is authorised by the law of 1938 and qualifies a vintage spirit. For example,”Grande Fine Champagne” qualifies a Grande Champagne vintage cognac assembled with spirits that come solely from the Grande Champagne region.

On the other hand, the “Fine Champagne” appellation qualifies a cognac with at least 50% of Grande Champagne spirits and the rest from Petite Champagne.

The appellations by vintage

A “Grande Champagne” or “Fine Grande Champagne” cognac is assembled with 100% Grande Champagne spirits.

A “Petite Champagne” or “Fine Petite Champagne” cognac is assembled with 100% Petite Champagne spirits.

A “Fine Champagne” cognac is the result of an assembly of Grande and Petite Champagne spirits with a minimum of 50% from Grande Champagne.

A “Borderies” or “Fine Borderies” cognac contains 100% of spirits from the Borderies area.

A “Fin Bois” or “Fine Fins Bois” cognac contains 100% of spirits from the Fins Bois area.

A “Bons Bois” ou “Fine Bons Bois” cognac contains 100% of spirits from the Bons Bois area.

Cognac
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