Cognac (pronounced con-nyac) is a type of grape brandy produced in the wine-growing Charente region in South West France. The region is a recognized AOC spread around the small town of Cognac, from which it takes its name. Wine from white grapes is double distilled according to a traditional method, and then aged in oak casks for many years to produce a brandy of gold coloration and expressive aromas and flavours.
From the end of the middle ages a wine trade developed out of the port of Bordeaux, just south of the Charente region. Some vineyards in the area may have existed as early as the late 3rd century. During the second half of the 16th century many Dutch ships came to the Charente region to look for the famous "Champagne" and "Borderies" vintages, raising the area’s reputation for high quality wines. In the 17th century, the Dutch began importing the produce of these vineyards in the form of brandy: the first stills in the Charente were built by the Dutch. wine concentrated through distillation meant a reduced cargo volume and lower taxes, therefore it was cheaper to transport. This product was given the name of ‘brandewijn’ (‘burned wine’).
On May 1st, 1909, the geographical area for cognac production was delimited by the government. In 1936, cognac became recognized as an AOC, since when all the stages involved in cognac production have been regulated with the intention of protecting the products. As a result cognac became increasingly well-known and respected.
Cognac may only be made from a strict list of grape varieties. It must be made from at least 90% Ugni Blanc (also known as Saint-Emilion des Charentes), Folle Blanche, or Colombard grapes. The remainder may consist of the grape varieties Folignan, Jurançon Blanc, Meslier St-François, Sélect, Montils, and Sémillon. These grapes are harvested in October or November each year and fermented to produce a thin, acidic wine at 8 to 9% ABV.
The wine produced must then be distilled twice in a Charentais pot still made from pure copper; often referred to as an ‘alembic’. Distillation must be completed by midnight on March 31st of the year following the harvest. Cognac distillation is conducted very slowly as this allows greater interaction between copper and the spirit.
The first distillation produces ‘brouillis’, a slightly cloudy spirit with an alcoholic strength of between 26 and 29% ABV. The broullis is collected as new spirit (eau-de-vie). The heads, seconds and tails from the first distillation are combined and then redistilled, either mixed in with the next charge of brouillis or the wine.
The second distillation of the brouillis is known as ‘la Bonne Chauffe’. It produces a colourless eau-de-vie at 70% alcohol. Again the best quality heart spirit is collected and the remnants are removed and redistilled.
The resulting eau-de-vie will only become the famous cognac after ageing at least 2 years in French oak casks, though many distilleries will leave their cognac to age for considerably longer than this, even up to 100 years.
The final product is usually diluted to around 40% ABV with pure and distilled water. Some manufacturers may also add a small proportion of caramel to colour their cognacs which, it is claimed, does not affect the flavour.
The Cognac region is split into 6 zones (crus) surrounding the Charente River. They are, in order of decreasing appreciation of the cognacs coming from them: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaires. The region is graced with a moderate climate and exceptional chalk soil, ensuring the grapes do not ripen and lose their acidity too quickly. The wine produced by these grapes is very dry, acidic and thin, not really suitable for drinking, but excellent for distillation.
Grande Champagne is an area of 13766 hectares total. Grande Champagne cognacs are long in the mouth and powerful, dominated by floral notes. This is the most prestigious of the crus. "Champagne" refers to chalky soil, a characteristic shared with the area around Reims where champagne is produced, hence the name "Champagne".
Petite Champagne is an area of 16171 hectares total. Petite Champagne cognacs have similar characteristics to those from Grande Champagne, but are in general shorter on the palate.
Borderies is an area of 4160 hectares total. Cognacs from the Borderies are the most distinctive, with nutty aromas and flavour, as well as a distinct violet or iris characteristic.
Fins Bois is an area of 34265 hectares total. These are heavier and faster ageing cognacs suitable for establishing the base of younger cognacs. They are rounded and fruity, with an agreeable oiliness.
Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires combine to make an area of 19979 hectares. With a poorer soil and greater influence by the maritime climate, less demonstrative cognacs that age more quickly are produced. These lesser crus are overlooked by many large commercial manufacturers.
Official quality grades of cognac are controlled by the BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac).
VS (Very Special) or *** (3 star) where the youngest cognac is aged at least two years in an oak cask.
VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) where the youngest cognac is aged at least four years in an oak cask, but the average wood age is much older.
XO (Extra Old) where the youngest cognac is aged at least six, but usually average upwards of 20 years. (Note: from 2016 the minimum age for XO will be raised to ten years)
Additional unofficial classification also exists.
Napoleon the minimum age of the youngest cognac is between VSOP and XO.
Vieux is another grade between the official grades of VSOP and XO.
Extra with a minimum of 6 years of age, this grade is usually older than a Napoleon or an XO.
Hors d'Age is the term used by producers to market a high quality product beyond the official age scale. Hence the name "Hors d'age" (ageless).
Vieille Rèserve is, like the Hors d´Age, a grade beyond XO.