Cognac, named after the town of Cognac, is a variety of brandy, produced in the wine-growing region surrounding the town from which it takes its name, in the French départements of Charente and Charente-Maritime.
© Chateau du Beaulon
The extensive vineyards of Cognac sprawl across an area of around 200,000 acres. It is the combination of the proximity to the sea, a warming sun that is so perfect for the production of what has been called a ‘happy accident of nature’, and the quality of the soil, what the French call terroir, but which really defies translation, except to describe it as a blend of a whole range of tangible intangibles, like air, wind, rain, soil, location, and just about everything that might conceivably have an influence on the end product. It's a versatile word; drop 'terroir' into a conversation, and sound as though you know what they mean, and your status rises perceptibly.
Cognac was not produced until the 16th century. Before then, vines had been planted around La Rochelle from the 13th century onwards, developing a lively trade in wine production along the Charente. In the 16th century, however, English and Dutch merchants hit on the idea of distilling the wine to produce something stronger that could travel without the risk of deterioration. Alas, a slump in the demand for this ‘improved’ wine meant that large quantities were unsold, until the day that someone happened to taste the wine and found to the delight of all that it had significantly improved with age. Brandy production had arrived. But I found it worrying to discover that during the process of distillation around 2-3% of the brandy evaporates – what the distillers call ‘the Angels’ Share’, but something that amounts to around 23 million bottles each year! There must be quite a party going on in Heaven!
© Chateau du Beaulon
As an Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC), in order to bear the name Cognac, the production methods for the distilled brandy must meet specified legal requirements. It must be made from certain grapes; of these, Ugni Blanc, known locally as Saint-Emilion, is the most widely used variety today. It must be distilled twice in copper pot stills and aged at least two years in French oak barrels.
Most cognacs are aged considerably longer than the minimum legal requirement, because cognac matures in the same way as whiskies and wine when aged in a barrel. The region authorised to produce cognac is divided into six zones, including five crus broadly covering the department of Charente-Maritime, a large part of the department of Charente and a few areas in Deux-Sèvres and the Dordogne. The six zones are: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois and finally Bois Ordinaire. A blend of Grande and Petite Champagne Cognacs, with at least half coming from Grande Champagne, is known as Fine Champagne.
The official quality grades of cognac are, according to the BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac):
In addition the following can be mentioned: