Cognac continues to be an authentic distilled spirits success story. It is the most prized spirit of all because it is so remarkably complex. Available in over 160 countries, Cognac’s largest market is the United States. Americans are lucky enough to have over 49 million bottles of Cognac shipped to them each year from the producers who have practiced their trade in France’s Charente River basin since at least the middle of the 16th century.
Sales records in 1549 from a merchant in the port town of La Rochelle depict the sale of "four barrels of eau-de-vie, wholesome and fit for sale." By the 1570s, eau-de-vie merchants existed and by the early 17th century, sales of Cognac were vigorous and common in Paris and London. Eau-de-vie is French for "water of life".
The 17th century regions of districts like Borderies and the Champagnes were dotted with vineyards devoted mostly to sweet wines. Following a severe frost in 1766 that damaged those vineyards, Bordeaux sweet wine rivals Barsac and Sauternes took the lead in French dessert wines, vanquishing the Charente Basin sweet wine industry in that arena.
From 1600 to 1800 the grapes of note in the Charente district were Balzac and Colombard. By the late 1700s to the 1870s, Folle Blanche was the grape of choice for the making of Cognac. In the 1870s, however, the infestation of a vineyard louse called phylloxera vastatrix began its destruction of the vineyards in the Charente Basin, eventually annihilating all of them. Indeed, the Charente Basin was one of the first places in France where the louse was detected.
But, something better lay ahead for the vineyards of the Charente Basin; something that would make them universally renowned.
When the plague of phylloxera hit in between 1875 and 1880, there were nearly 280,000 hectares, or roughly 691,000 acres, of vineyards in the Cognac region.
The devastation over the ensuing two decades was so extensive that by 1893 a mere 40,000 hectares (98,800 acres) of healthy vines remained in the Cognac region. It took more than a generation to recover and replant the vineyards of Cognac over to the grape variety known as Ugni Blanc, planted atop roots that hailed from places like Texas, Missouri and Louisiana. A late-ripening grape, Ugni Blanc is late-maturing and pest resistant. Today, nearly 80,000 hectares, or 197,600 acres, of healthy vines, of which over 95% are Ugni Blanc, cover six demarcated districts.
Today, only white grapes are used in the production of Cognac. The three primary grapes for the making of the wines that get distilled into the eau-de-vie that eventually becomes Cognac are, as we cited, Ugni Blanc, but also Folle Blanche and Colombard. Lesser amounts of Jurançon, Select, Semillon and Montils can legally be used.
The grape juice of the Charente Basin that eventually makes Cognac is typically fermented to about 8.5 to 9.5 percent alcohol and is high in acids. Fermentation takes from 5 to 7 days at temperatures of 68 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Once fermented, the wines are distilled, or boiled. It is illegal to add sugar to any fermentation.
Distillation is based upon the simple principle that water boils at a higher temperature than alcohol. So by boiling wine at approximately 175 degrees, the water remains in the wine, while the alcohol vaporizes and can be captured and recondensed into a higher proof liquid. Stills will therefore include a chamber for boiling the wine, as well as a tube that allows the alcohol vapor to flow into a condensing chamber. That tube has sometimes been called a col de cygne (or "Swan’s neck") because some tubes had a slender, twisting shape, similar to a swan’s neck.
In the mid-17th century, steel and glass kettles were used for distillation. By the early 18th century (1710), Dutch merchants and French winemakers took the technology of distillation and developed it further by learning the virtues brought about by double distillation in copper kettles called Charentais alembics, or pot stills that are cradled in square brick ovens.
The first copper pot stills, or alembics, were installed in the Charente district by Dutch traders who strove to concentrate the wines of the region by fortifying them with distilling spirits. The traders knew that when you either added unaged grape spirits to wine, or reduced them altogether to high-alcohol spirits, wines withstood the rigors of oceanic travel much better. The Dutch merchants touted their brandewijns, Dutch for "burnt wine" in all their export markets.
Distillation purifies liquids using intense heat, creating vapors, which are then cooled to cause condensation, returning the vapors to concentrated liquids. The first distillation creates a liquid, called the brouillis, of about 26 to 30 percent alcohol. A second distillation purifies the eau-de-vie (French for "water of life") even more, topping out at the legal maximum of 72.4 percent alcohol. This liquid is referred to as bonne chauffe. It takes 25 liters of brouillis to make 7 liters of prime eau-de-vie. Master distillers are careful to harvest the "heart" of the second distillation, which is the best part, for maturation in oak barrels.
Distillation must by law occur by March 31 of the year after grape harvest. Charentais stills are not allowed to accommodate larger loads than 660 gallons. Cognac must be at least 40% alcohol by volume when it is sold in bottle.
But Dutch merchants made another key discovery in the 18th century. All products were shipped in the containers of the day, barrels, which when well constructed are not only water tight, but more or less air-tight. Still, when left for extended periods in wood barrels constructed from wide-grained oak from the Limousin and Troncais forests, the eau-de-vie turned a pale straw yellow color and, most vital, the flavor became rounder and mellower. The interaction of the fresh spirits with the flavor and aromas compounds in oak clearly improved the raw eau-de-vie. Indeed, the longer the eau-de-vie remained in casks, the finer and smoother it became. Modern barrels hold from 75 to 125 gallons of eau-de-vie, but most of the time they hold 90 gallons.
Many cellars in Cognac are subterranean. All hold humidity well in order to keep the barrel staves from drying out and therefore preventing barrel collapse. During the maturation period (legal minimum is two years), the eau-de-vie may be moved from barrel to barrel or from location to location. Evaporation consumes a minimum of 20 million barrels per year and the "angel's share", this evaporated Cognac, leaves behind a more concentrated, intense brandy in the barrels. Virtually all Cognac producers have stores of very old Cognacs in the section of their cellars called "Paradis". Cognacs of up to a century old are held in tightly sealed glass jars called demijohns for use in older blends.
The art of blending is the heart and soul of Cognac production. Highly skilled technicians called maître de chai, or master blenders, lend the human touch to the evolution of nearly every Cognac. Given the responsibility of maintaining a specific and pre-determined house style, the master blender, either alone or with a panel of experts, collects many eaux-de-vie from among the barrels at his/her disposal and creates the final blend that must reflect the established personality of the particular house. The single link between the generations of master blenders lies mostly with the old Cognacs in the Paradis, which are used as benchmarks and guides.Blending
From the end of the 17th century all through the 18th century, pivotal markets for Cognac were Holland, England, and the Scandinavian countries. Shipped in barrels, Cognac was a staple beverage around much of western and northern Europe and in the British Isles.
In the mid-1800s, producers started to package their Cognacs in bottles and ship them across Europe. By doing so, France’s Cognac producers inspired the likes of the packaging industry as glass factories, printers, and cork manufacturers rushed to supply the demand.
In 1938, the Cognac appellation was divided into six "crus", or grape growing districts.
Surrounding the three towns of Cognac, Jarnac, Cognac, and Segonzac, are the six demarcated vineyard districts that fan out in roughly concentric, if irregular circles from the core, or bulls-eye, district that is Grande Champagne (13,000 hectares under vine). The friable, chalky soil of Grande Champagne produces light, acidic white wines that are ideal for brandy production. Aside from their flowery/grapy bouquets, the main feature of Grande Champagne eau-de-vie are that they require long periods of oak-aging to fully develop.
When looking at a district map, one sees that the area that is Petite Champagne (16,000 hectares) cradles the Grande Champagne district. Petite Champagne’s soil is less calcareous than Grande Champagne and, as a result, the eaux-de-vie are not as elegant or long-lived as those from their exalted neighbor. That is not to say that Petite Champagne eaux-de-vie are inferior; they are not. They are simply different.
Borderies is the smallest Cognac district in topographical size at 4,000 hectares, but not necessarily in impact. Borderies eaux-de-vie are customarily nutty and, at their best, are creamy and semisweet after maturation.
Of the remaining three demarcated districts, the best eau-de-vie by a long way originate from Fins Bois, a large area of limestone soil that covers over 354,000 hectares total, with 33,000 hectares devoted to vineyard. Eaux-de-vie from Fins Bois are delightfully fruity and vivid. Both Bons Bois and Bois á Terroir are expansive districts (386,000 hectares and 274,000 hectares, respectively) whose eaux-de-vie frankly are best employed as volume fillers.
The greater Cognac region boasts about 5,000 farms, about which 90% grow grapes. Approximately 20,000 people are involved in the Cognac industry, either as grape growers, distillers, distillery workers, coopers, glassmakers, packaging, printing, etc. The Trade Council of the Cognac industry, Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac, or BNIC, is aimed at developing, representing and defending collective interests of Cognac vintners and trade houses. The French government deals with the Cognac producers through an auditor, who is assigned by the Ministry of Finance.
The Cognac region continues to produce great spirits because the BNIC and the laws that the BNIC has helped craft ensure that Cognac's high standards are protected. These laws apply to Cognac as a product defined as an eau-de-vie of controlled origin; such laws are a guarantee of Cognac's identity from production all the way through to distribution. Regulation n110/2008 of the EU rules on definition, description, presentation, labeling and the protection of geographical indication of spirit drinks, ensures the protection of the Cognac Geographical Indication. The designation Cognac or Eau-de-Vie de Cognac or Eau-de-Vie des Charentes defines every aspect of this remarkable spirit, including even the capacity of the bottle and the alcoholic volume (minimum 40%). Optional references on the label include regional appellations (Grande or Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, etc.) and appellations pertaining to a Cognac age (V.S., V.S.O.P., X.O., etc.).
Meaning of Labels
V.S. means Very Special. The youngest eau-de-vie in this category of Cognac must by law have spent at the minimum two years in oak barrels. That said, most V.S. Cognacs average more than two years.
The next level is Réserve or V.S.O.P., which means Very Superior Old Pale. The youngest eau-de-vie at this rank cannot be younger than four years old, and many contain Cognacs that are much older.
The oldest level is alternately labeled as Hors d’Age, Napoleon or X.O. (Extra Old). The youngest eau-de-vie cannot be younger than six years old.
In general, each Cognac house uses eau-de-vie much older than the minimum requirements in their blends. Those bearing the most prestigious designations may have aged for decades.
Perhaps the world’s most illustrious brandy blend, Cognac labeled as "Fine Champagne", by law, must be comprised of only eau-de-vie from the Petite and Grande Champagne districts. It must likewise be at least 50% Grande Champagne.
How to Read Labels
F. Paul Pacult
Paul Pacult contributes to a wide array of publications, including Playboy, Wine & Spirits, Cheers, Connoisseur, MarketWatch. Travel & Leisure, Men's Journal, and the New York Times Magazine, Delta Sky. He is publisher/editor of F. Paul Pacult's Spirit Journal, contributing editor for Beverage Dynamics, columnist and spirits-tasting director for Wine Enthusiast magazine and founder/director Ultimate Beverage Challenge, LLC in November 2009.
He is the author of five books: Kindred Spirits 2: 2,400 Reviews of Whiskey, Brandy, Vodka, Tequila, Rum, Gin, and Liqueurs from F. Paul Pacult's Spirit Journal 2000-2007 (Spirit Journal, Inc, 2008), A Double Scotch: How Chivas Regal and The Glenlivet Became Global Icons (Wiley, 2005), the best-selling American Still Life: The Jim Beam Story and the Making of the World's #1 Bourbon (Wiley, 2003) as well as Kindred Spirits (Hyperion, 1997) and The Beer Essentials (Hyperion, 1997) and the anonymous author of one other book.
Doug Frost is a Kansas City author who writes and lectures about wine, beer and spirits. In 1991 he passed the rigorous Master Sommelier examination and two years later became America's eighth Master of Wine. He was the second person in history to complete both exams and sixteen years later he is still one of only three people in the world to have achieved both these remarkable distinctions. According to USA Today, "Frost likely knows as much as anyone in the world about how to make, market, serve and identify wines."
He has authored three books: Uncorking Wine (1996), On Wine (2001) and Far From Ordinary: The Spanish Wine Guide (2005); now in its second edition (2008). Recipient of the 2009 Cheers Beverage Industry Innovator of the Year Award, Frost is also a contributor to the Oxford Companion of Wine, The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and The Wine Report, an annual report edited by Tom Stevenson. He writes about wine and spirits for many publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Underground Wine Journal, Drinks International, Practical Winery & Vineyard, Wines & Vines, Wines & Spirits, Cheers Magazine, Santé Magazine, and Epicurious.com and is the beverage columnist for the James Beard award-winning food section of the Kansas City Star, as well as Hemispheres Magazine, Missouri Life and Fine Cooking. Frost is the host of Check Please!, a weekly public TV show filmed in Kansas City and is also the wine and spirits consultant for United Airlines worldwide, helping to select tens of thousands of cases of wines and spirits each year for service aboard the world's most important worldwide carrier. He is the founder and director of the Jefferson Cup Invitational Wine Competition, a ten-year-old national competition, and is Head Judge and founder of the Mid-American Wine Competition, in its third year.