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Cognac is one of the most desirable and fascinating drinks in the world. It has variously been described as the King of Spirits, La Liqueur des Anges, and the Elixir of the Gods. Praise indeed for this beautiful, amber coloured spirit which originates from the Charentes region of western France and which is the product of a special double-distillation process, of the fruits of the local soil, of the skills of producers large and small and of time elapsed in the barrel where cognac acquires its unique characteristics.
Although the Charentes area had been known as a wine producing region since Roman times, the distillation of wine in to an eau-de-vie that was christened Brandywijn (literally “burnt wine”) by the Dutch traders who installed their stills there dates back to the early 1600’s.
The development of the cognac industry that we know today came about in the eighteenth century with the arrival of more foreigners, many of Anglo-Saxon origin, who were keen to secure their own supplies of the spirit which was increasingly popular in northern European countries – people such as Jean Martell from Jersey, Richard Hennessy and James Delamain from Ireland and Thomas Hine from England, who were to be the founders of some of the large cognac houses that dominate the region today.
These newcomers were originally merchants, rather than producers, and the brandy that they bought was shipped young and in barrel to its final destination where it may was aged in local cellars (as in today’s “early landed” cognacs). The introduction of bottling and the concept of selling a matured product did not really occur until around 1850.
The cognac region, like most wine producing regions in France, suffered badly with the outbreak of Phylloxera in the 1870’s and most of its vineyards had to be replanted with American rootstock. New types of vines, which were more resistant to disease, were introduced, including the Ugni Blanc, the grape most commonly used today in cognac production.
However, one of the things that the cognac region had been blessed with as a result of foresight by Louis XIV in 1669 was the existence of great oak forests in the Troncais and Limousin which were originally planted to provide timber for ship building. These forests today still yield very high quality oak, and this is the only wood permitted in the use of making barrels for the production of cognac.
The laws governing the production of cognac, although following established practice at the time, only date back to 1909 and the current definition of the six different Crus, or growing areas within the cognac region were in fact only formalised under the state controlled system of “Appellations d’Origine Controlées” as recently as 1938. Again these definitions followed boundaries establish since the eighteenth century when the familiar terms such as Grande Champagne (from campagne – i.e. countryside) and Fins Bois (wooded area) had come in to use.
The cognac region covers some 2.8 million acres and encompasses the whole of the Charentes and Charentes-Maritime departments. It stretches from La Rochelle down to the river Gironde on the Atlantic coast, inland to east of Angouleme, and as far south as the Dordogne area. There are however only about 200,000 acres under vine for cognac production and as the map shows, the region is centred around the town of Cognac and from here the six crus move outwards in almost concentric rings.
At the heart of the region lies the Grande Champagne, which is also known as the Premier Cru or first growth. It is characterised by its rolling landscape and chalky soils which produce cognacs of great finesse that require long ageing in the barrel. There are about 30,000 acres of vineyards and about 18% of all cognac production comes from this area.
Forming a semicircle around the south of the Grande Champagne are the vineyards of the Petite Champagne – about 37,000 acres in all. Although still chalky, here the soils are lighter and the resulting cognacs are slightly less intense than those from the Grande Champagne and can have more floral and fruity qualities. A cognac made exclusively from a blend of the two Champagne districts and with a minimum content of 50% Grande Champagne, is specifically called a Fine Champagne.
The Borderies is the smallest of the six crus with less than 10,000 acres of vineyards, situated just to the north of the town of Cognac, and makes some very fine cognacs. Their softness and violet notes are particularly prized by blenders in their assemblages. Whilst not commonly available, single cru Borderies, particularly old ones, are very highly rated.
Surrounding the three crus already mentioned is the first of the wooded areas – the Fins Bois. It provides almost 40% of all cognac production and its eaux-de-vie are fast maturing and robust. Being such a large area there are significant local variations in the soil conditions. Generally the soil is more clay over a hard limestone sub-soil. There are however pockets of chalkier soil and the eaux-de-vie from these small areas sometimes appear as single cru cognacs and can have great style, albeit at a younger age than those from the Champagnes.
Outside the Fins Bois there are two further crus – the Bons Bois and the Bois Ordinaires (sometimes called the Bois Communs) although these fast maturing eaux-de-vie are rarely seen bottled as single cru cognacs.
Cognac starts its life as a rather thin and acid white wine made from specific types of grape, with Ugni Blanc being by far the most common, with Folle Blanche and Colombard still used in small quantities. Harvesting of the grapes usually takes place around the third or fourth week in September.
This wine is then distilled in a copper pot still (known as an Alambic Charentais) not just once, but twice. The first distillation produces a very fruity liquid of around 28% alcohol by volume know as the brouillis. This is then distilled a second time to produce an eau-de-vie which is around 70% alcohol by volume and entirely colourless. One of the great skills of the distiller is only to keep the heart of this second distillation, leaving the heads and tails to be distilled again in a subsequent batch. This ensures that only the purest spirit passes to the next stage. By law, all distillation must be completed by midnight on March 31 following the previous autumn’s grape harvest.
After distillation, the strong fiery spirit is placed in oak casks where it commences its long transformation in to the amber spirit we know as cognac. In the barrel the spirit mellows and acquires its colour from the tannin in the oak. Again, one of the producer’s arts is deciding how long a spirit will spend in new barrels, which have more to give, or when to put it in older barrels which have lost much of their tannin. The spirit is also in contact with the air, and evaporates at the rate of about three percent per year. This lost portion is known as the Angels’ Share and gives rise to a fungus which thrives on the fumes and blackens the buildings around Cognac with a characteristic sooty appearance.
The barrels are kept in warehouses known as chais, which might best be described as above ground cellars. Many traditional chais still have earth floors. The dryness or dampness of an individual producer’s chais, will again have an effect on the characteristics of the eau-de vie as it matures. Indeed, producers move barrels around the chai or from one chai to another as the spirit develops in order to promote the optimum development of aroma and flavour.
To become cognac, the eau-de-vie must mature for at least two and a half years. This is only the legally defined minimum and in reality most eaux-de-vie age for much, much longer than this – up to fifty years or more. It is at this point that the cellar master’s art and skilful judgment comes in to play, for most cognacs are not the product of a single year’s distillation, but are complex assemblages, or blends, of many different eaux-de-vie. These can be eaux-de-vie of different ages and also eaux-de-vie from the different crus, although in the case of many of the cognacs we feature they come from a single cru and can thus be identified as being, for example, a Petite Champagne cognac.