It is throughout the period from December through to end February that the producers in Cognac distill their wine and the sweet aromas fill the air in the medieval town of Cognac and the surrounding villages located in the undulating countryside. The Charente River meanders through the region passing through the key locations. Its water is used in the process.
The slick big houses dominate the town of Cognac (Hennessy, Remi Martin, Martell) but it is on visiting the smaller producers that one begins to get close to the magic of the process. There are many events organised at this time of year including ‘la bonne chauffe’ lunches of the local specialities of pigeon doused in cognac and other hearty cuisine charentaise with a list of cognacs of different ages to sample!
The smaller producers grow the grapes, make the wine and distill it into brandy. They blend different ages together but having a small vineyard it would generally just come from one area – more of a single vineyard cognac like Peyrat. Traditionally they sold their brandy to larger houses. Many now market and sell their own cognac direct to individual buyers, restaurants.
The region has 80,000 ha (the second largest wine region in France after Bordeaux). It is divided into 6 areas, the 6 Cognac Crus. Each terroir has its own characteristics. The best are Grand Champagne and Petite Champagne and a blend of both is called Fine Champagne (minimum of 50% Grande Champagne). The soils are clay and limestone.
Grand Champagne (13,500 ha) this is known as the Premier Cru of Cognac and produces complex, powerful cognacs with floral notes and a long finish.
Petite Champagne (16,000 ha)
Borderies (4000 ha) is the smallest cru and has a distinctive nutty flavour. It has more clay and flint.
Fins Bois (32,000 ha) is a large area producing heavier base cognacs for blending
Bons Bois (10,000 ha), Bons Ordinaires (1000 ha) have a more maritime climate lieing closer to the sea
Here are the Basic Steps of making this world-famous brandy, Cognac and what there is to discover on visiting the region
Step One – Making the Wine End August Harvest of the white grapes (90% Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Colombard) in large yields. The grapes are pressed and fermented with no addition of yeasts or sulphur. The wine has low alcohol levels (around 8%) and very high acidity. It is this high acisity that preserves the wine as it waits for its turn to be distilled.
Step 2 – Distillery Time from November 1st to March 31st. The wine is distilled twice in a copper alembic pot still. The resulting spirit is 70% alcohol.
Step 3 – Ageing in Limousin Oak Casks for 3 to 80 years where through evaporation the level of alcohol falls gradually over time.
Step 4 – Storing in the Paradis. Then the eaux de vie is put into glass jars and kept in areas of the cellars called the ‘Paradis’ – Paradise! These can either be drier areas away from the river where evaporation is quicker or mre humid areas nearer to the Charent River where the evaporation happens at a slower rate. These storage areas are highly inflammable (mobile phones must be switched off in case of a spark!)
Step 5 – the Blending. Unlike Armagnac which often has a vintage, Cognac is blended from a variety of different ages. It’s grade is based on the youngest cognac in the blend. Bigger houses also blend the different geographical areas. The idea is (like whisky of non vintage champagne) to reproduce a consistent style.
History of Cognac: It is thought that Cognac was first made in the Middle Ages when distilling the wine preserved it and protected it from going off during travelling.
It really took off in 17th century (after the end of the British reign) when the Dutch served this ‘burned wine” (brandy) to its sailors.
In the 18th century second sons of aristocrats came to the area to set up merchants that are still main players today; Martell (Guernsey), Hennessy (Ireland) and Hine (Dorset).
Grades of Cognac: these are in English to due the British wine merchants and markets
VS (Very Special) the youngest cognac in the blend has been aged for a minimum of 2 years
VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) the youngest cognac in the blend has been aged for a minimum of 4 years
Napoleon (between VSOP and XO)
XO (Extra Old) the youngest cognac in the blend has been aged for a minimum of 6 years but usually more than 20 years. From 2016 the minimum will change to 10 years.
Hors d’Age (beyond the official ageing scale) the oldest cognacs
Here are a few facts and figures about this fascinating place and process
- Cognac gets its name from the medieval town of Cognac founded by François 1
- the word brandy comes from the Dutch ‘gebrande wijn’ which means burned wine
- the region lies just one hour and a half from Bordeaux, but is world’s apart in its process and ageing process
- No sulphites can be used to presere the wine due to the concentration caused by the distilling
- the word champagne comes from the roman word for chalk, the soil of both Cognac and Champagne
- all is controlled by the BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac)