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Cognac – The drink

Cognac the spirit

cognac appThis essentially modest town on the river Charente also has one of the best-known brand names on the planet. Thanks to the mellow spirit which bears its name and the efforts of the many companies that have been marketing it since the 17th century, it must rank with Paris, Champagne, St Tropez etc. as amongst the best known names from France.

A couple of interesting facts: The Cognac appellation ( is the largest white wine growing area in THE WORLD! (not much of it is drunk as wine, of course, as it is grown for distillation). Cognac consumption hasn’t grown as the makers would like and these days the French drink more Scotch whisky per annum than the entire world drinks Cognac…
For a brandy to bear the name Cognac, an Appellation d’origine contrôlée, its production methods must meet certain legal requirements, In particular it must be made from specified grapes , of which Ugni blanc, known locally as Saint-Emilion, is the one most widely used.The brandy must be twice distilled in copper pot stills and aged at least two years in French oak barrels from Limousin or Tronçais. Cognac matures in the same way as whiskies and wine when aged in barrels, and most cognacs are aged considerably longer than the minimum legal requirement.

The Region

Cognac can only be produced according to the rules of the AOC which stipulate the exact area farmers are entitled to plant the vines and therefore which “Cru” applies to them. Also the rest of the process to produce it is closely regulated throughout. The Cognac region combines diverse landscapes with an exceptional micro climate caused by the influences of the nearby ocean. Each of the six Crus of the AOC has its own distinct personality. It expresses itself in the intricate blends of aromas and tastes characteristic of each Cognac.

The Cognac Delimited Region extends along the banks of the Charente, the wide, beautiful river described by Henri IV as “the loveliest stream in my kingdom”.

It covers a large part of the Charente department, all of the Charente-Maritime, and several districts of the Dordogne and Deux-Sèvres.

A rich and varied land this ancient country, once called Aunis, Saintonge, and Angoumois, is characterized by its wide variety of landscapes: “champagnes”, with chalky soils, plains with red, stony earth, and green valleys separating the hills and marches, dotted with woodland of various types.

In the heart of the region are the cities of Jarnac, Segonzac and Cognac, which gave its name to the renowned eau-de-vie.
Cognac lies 465 km from Paris, 120 km from Bordeaux, and 100 km from La Rochelle. The region includes many places worth a visit such as Angoulême, Saintes, Rochefort, Royan, and the islands of Ré (nicknamed “Ré la blanche”) and Oléron (called “Oléron la lumineuse”).

Cognac has sufficient rainfall and an average annual temperature of about 13°C (55 ºF), this give the Cognac region has the perfect climate for producing high quality wines.
This special micro climate certainly contributes to the the pleasant elegance and refined charm of the Cognac art de vivre as it is sometimes described

Growing and making the Wine

There are several thousand small growers, producers and distillers in the region. Mostly they supply the “Big Four” names (and some smaller specialists like Hine, Delamain, Otard, Camus, Tiffon, Braastad, Royer etc.) with their product for blending, but there are more fascinating discoveries to be made – and great value available – under their own labels too.

Before the devastating onset of the Phylloxera disease which wiped out the European vineyards in the 1870’s, the Charentes were a larger wine growing district than Bordeaux, although the quality was generally inferior. Since the subsequent replanting with American root stock, the predominant grape variety used here for Cognac is now the Ugni Blanc.

The growers are strictly regulated as to planting and re-planting vines and the acreage permitted to them. Their precise location also determines the value of their vines and the product from them. Everything else they do is also closely regulated and the BNIC (Bureau National de Cognac) and the Douanes (Customs) claim to have records of every litre of Cognac and Pineau, made, ageing or sold and can do spot checks and issue fines at any moment.

The harvesting of the grapes, almost entirely by machine nowadays, usually happens in late September/early October. The grape is harvested just before it is fully mature in order to maintain a sufficient level of acidity, which conserves these natural wines, often fermented with their lees, until distillation takes place during the following winter.

The grape juice (the “must”) can legally come from a variety of grape varieties, albeit mainly from Ugni Blanc, but some of the ancient varieties like Colombard, Folle Blanche, Semillon or Montils are coming back into use in small quantities. The grapes are pressed immediately after harvest, the special yeast is added immediately to encourage fermentation, but “chaptalisation” (adding sugar) is prohibited. (The local aperitif Pineau is also made at this moment. This is also subject to AOC rules and may only be made by a Cognac maker.)

These juices are stored in stainless steel or concrete vats and the progress of their alcoholic fermentation is subject to careful monitoring. Temperature regulation via a network of water pipes and stainless steel coils, is used in order to preserve their aromatic potential (keeping down the temperature in warmer weather to between 20 and 22 ° C).

After about a week or two, this becomes a low alcohol wine (of the order of 9 ° to 11 °); acidic in character, and which is not pleasant to drink in this state. That is the product awaiting the next stages which will then go on to be double distilled into “Eau de Vie” and then aged in oak casks, then blended, finally to produce what can be called “Cognac”.

Distillation of the wine into Cognac

The principle of double distillation here, dating from the 17th century, is to concentrate the aroma of the grape flowers and their fruit (the essence of their “terroir” or soil) and to rediscover these subtle flavours in the “eau de vie” (water of life). The technology of distillation was left behind by the Arabs (who employed it to produce perfumes) when the Moors passed through this region many centuries earlier. Hence the Moorish shapes of the local Charentais “alambics” (solid copper Cognac stills). Only these may be employed here.
From the historical point of view, the wines from the Charentes were never really top quality growths, and hence they were simply distilled to reduce volumes and for conservation during transit by sea. The resulting product, initially, was little used as a spirit. It was exported to the north of Europe and intended for “cutting”: mixing with water back to a wine and hence simply made into brandy (from the Dutch “braandywijn”) locally to improve conservation and save space in transit. It was discovered, particularly by the sailors, to be a delicious and rather intoxicating beverage in its full strength form after spending time in oak casks – and hence the real virtues of Cognac were discovered by accident!

The double distillation process nowadays is finely developed. The season during which distillation happens is regulated, and must end on March 31 of the year following the harvest. All of these operations require constant attention from the distiller who will work day and night to achieve the results in limited time and stills are permanently alight over the winter.

Distillation takes place in a copper “Charentais” still, whose maximum capacity for holding wine is regulated. Here in the “Grande Champagne” region the wine is generally distilled with its lees (stalks, skin and pips) as much of the character of the long-keeping product from this top area of chalky soil resides in these elements. Martell prefer Cognac distilled without the lees, whereas Remy Martin for example like as much of the lees as possible in what they buy.

When the wine is distilled for the first time, it is called the “brouillis”, and the alcohol is raised from less than 10% to a strength of around 32% vol. Each distiller concentrates on achieving the correct alcohol content, whilst evaluating the nose and, using his experience and expertise, he eliminates the head (first part of the brew to condense) and also the tail (the “queue”, last part to condense) and so preserves the Coeur “heart” – the majority of his brew for the next stage. He (or she) will make three such first distillations (“brouillis”) in succession which take some 24 hours in all. This is because each passage through the still reduces volumes to a third of what they started with and increases the strength by three times in the first distillation and by over 100% in the second.

The heart of these three brews is then distilled once again; this second distillation being known as La Bonne Chauffe. This requires great care, especially in extracting the Coeur. The resulting liquid product is clear, without any colour, and so powerfully high in alcohol (from 70 to 72 vol %) it is nigh undrinkable in this state. The distiller will evaluate its quality mainly from the nose, using all his experience.

Ageing the spirit in Oak casks

From here the product is stored, initially in new oak barrels, from the forests of the Limousin and Troncais, and begins a process of aging that can last from at least three years up to 50 years or more. This is much longer for Grande Champagne Cognacs than in lesser regions. The young “eau de vie” is kept exclusively in such oak barrels from central France, with their exceptional qualities and whose tannins bring colour, power and balance to the eventual Cognac.

The buildings used for this storage are called locally “chais”. Their characteristics are that they must allow free circulation of air around the barrels and not be too dry (hence earth floors) for optimum “breathing” of the eaux de vie. Temperatures may rise and fall over the seasons and this is encouraged. You can always recognise “chais” which hold Cognac in this region because of the characteristic blackening of their walls and the roof tiles from the “Part des Anges” (see next). No hiding place from the Customs’ man!

The Angel’s share

After some six months, stored in the new wood, the eau de vie takes on a pale colour like yellowing straw. Then it will be moved into older barrels for a longer time (sometimes several decades) and the evaporation known as “Part des Anges” (the Angels share) at some 2-3% per annum will contribute to the gradual process of concentrating and developing its rich, deeper amber colour, and the roundness and richness of its bouquet. The flavours become ever more complex. However it should not become too woody, nor dark.

Work of the cellar master (Maitre de Chai)

At the initiative of the cellar master of each Cognac maker, throughout their aging process, the eaux de vie will be changed several times from barrel to barrel. This operation aims to facilitate the oxygenation of Cognacs and it will make them both mellower and less aggressive on the palate. This happens naturally over time. Finally, various years will be assembled into a blend. With the big houses, this forms their own “house style”. It may be made differently for different world markets in some cases. It will be diluted from cask strength to the commercially permitted bottle strength of around 40 vol%. Some are sold a little stronger than this.The skill of any cellar master is to play on the complimentary qualities of the eau de vie in his/her care, in order to create the subtle harmony of flavours he is aiming for in his Cognac.

Some internal practices allegedly exist, but are not necessarily approved of by everybody. These can include adding caramel, accelerating ageing with woodchips or similar and generally selling Cognac too young or misrepresenting its real average age. Clearly there are commercial pressures at work here, but also consumers may be ill-informed and made to believe that a darker Cognac is older (meaning better) or that a very heavily wooded Cognac is a finer/older one – both suppositions are generally felt to be incorrect by experts.

Frequently with local, smaller producers, the average age of their products VSOP, XO (and often other names, like Vieille reserve, Hors d’Age etc. for the oldest spirits) is more than double the minimum age required by the regulatory authorities for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée Cognac for each of these quality levels.

Pineau des Charentes

Pineau des Charentes, (Pineau Charentais, or simply Pineau) is a regional French aperitif, made in the départements of Charente, Charente-Maritime and, to a much lesser extent, Dordogne in western France. While popular within the region of production, it is less well known in other regions of France and somewhat uncommon abroad.

It is a fortified wine (mistelle or vin de liqueur), made from either fresh, unfermented grape juice or a blend of lightly fermented grape must, to which a Cognac eau-de-vie is added and then matured.

Pineau is also found as a home-made product in the neighbouring Deux-Sèvres and Vendée départements. In the Vendée there is also made a similar drink called “Troussepinette”, which is often flavoured with pine or fruits such as pear. Elsewhere in France analogous drinks are made (Macvin in Jura, Floc de Gascogne in the Armagnac area; there is also Pommeau, similarly made by blending apple juice and apple brandy), but these products are much less well known nationally and internationally than Pineau.

There are many varieties of Pineau des Charentes for you to enjoy: white, rosé, red, vieux (old), and très vieux (very old).

Pineau production

The annual production of pineau is around 14,000,000 litres. Around 80% of this is made in the Charente-Maritime département. Its production is controlled under the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée ‘vin de liqueur’ classification, though it is not a wine in the ordinary sense. In principle the same producer grows the grapes, makes the wine and distills it into brandy, presses the fresh grape juice and then blends and matures the result. The geographical zone authorized for the production of Pineau des Charentes AOC is practically identical with that for Cognac, and in fact many of the artisanal producers of pineau (numbering several hundred) also sell their own Cognac.

When a good harvest is expected the best grapes may be picked by hand, but most producers harvest most of their crop mechanically. Very strict rules and formulae for the ratios of brandy and fresh grape juice are followed by each vintner and the process is even more tightly controlled for organic producers. The year of the pineau depends on the year of the eau de vie and not on the grape juice, as the juice must be freshly squeezed from freshly picked grapes – literally squeezed and mixed the same day as harvesting.

The act of mixing the eau de vie with the fresh grape juice is referred to as “assemblage”, assembly or blending. It stops the fermentation of the grape must through a process called “mutage”.

An increasing number of vineyards in the area now produce and sell pineau in which both the grape juice and the brandy come from organically-grown grapes. Their products have certification.

VISITING COGNAC DISTILLERIES

Inevitably our visitors remark that their discoveries of the local producers in the area are amongst their more indelible memories of a visit here! It’s not just the generosity of their tasting measures or their reasonable cellar-door prices either. More it is the surprise at the complexity of the task and the love and care that generations of these families have given to making their Cognac and (not ignoring) Pineau – and the continuity that means that Grandson is now selling Grandfather’s Cognac and fully expecting his grandson to sell his one day!

 

We are very happy to guide our visitors to these discoveries and translate if required. We can also organise visits to barrel-makers where the traditional oak casks are still handmade as they have always been, something equally remarkable to observe.

 

Of course the major Cognac houses also run their own tours with a bit more slickness and they are also interesting in throwing light on the crucial role these negociants have played in the development and the creation of a worldwide series of brands that are marketed everywhere under the label of Cognac.