It is time to talk about cognac.

Technically, cognac is a brandy (a spirit made by wine distillation) produced in French region Cognac according to the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée rules (about EU and French wine laws read here and here ). However, cognac is not just brandy with geographical identification, it is the name, the history, the pride, and the worldwide recognition of France (and its income source, more than 90% of cognac production is exported, and every second, five bottles of cognac are sold in the world).

The motherland of the cognac, like many other beautiful drinks, is my lovely Aquitania. On the most north of Aquitania, just on the north of Bordeaux, along Charente River, on the chalk hills around the Cognac town, the commune of the same name is located. It is very difficult to locate just near Bordeaux, the largest port of France, its gate for international trading, and not to be involved in this trading. Especially, then the Charente River is big enough and provides the connection with the ocean for the whole province, including the capital. From the 11th century, Cognac provided to the international market salt for fish preservation, and from the 14th century also the famous Angouleme paper. Viticulture has existed on the province territory from at least the 1st century. The moderate-cool climate and chalk soil of the Cognac has produced relatively low-alcohol wines with high acidity.

In the Middle Ages, overseas trading was under the Holland, and Dutch regularly visited Cognac buying the salt, paper, and light Cognac wine. At the beginning of the 16th century, the spice world market was under the Dutch, and they started to spend significant time sailing in warm waters. Long overseas transportation in a hot climate does not help wine storage. However, Dutch learned distillation at that time and used “burnt wine” (brandewijn, future brandy) for wine fortification and water disinfection during long sea travels (read the distillation history in the Introduction to Spirit). Light high-acid wines of Cognac were perfect for distillation. In the beginning, Dutch distilled Cognac wine in Holland, but quickly realized, that it is not optimal, and much better to do it just near the Cognac vineyards. Copper pot stills were delivered from Amsterdam, and the first distilleries started to produce “burnt wine” in Cognac. The quality of the product was far from perfect, but the first blow is half the battle.

At the beginning of the 17th century, the French modified and significantly improved Dutch technology. They also introduced secondary distillation. The legend says, the idea of second distillation belongs Chevalier de la Croix Maron, Lord of Segonzac. One day that devote man had a dream, in which Devil tried to get the Chevalier‘s soul by heating the honoured Chevalier in the pot still. The soul of this religious man was so strongly bonded with faith, that did not separate. And Devil started the fire for the second round. Honoured Chevalier was not only devoted but also a very enterprising man, so he decided to apply Devil’s know-how to distillery practice. In this way, Devil contributed to the cognac development.

At those times wine and “burnt wine” were kept and transported only in oak barrels. In Cognac oak from nearby Limousine Forest was used for wine ballers. Logistic problems and delays with transportation helped to realize, that long storage in the oak barrels improves the taste of the distilled product so dramatically, that it can be enjoyed as a drink, instead of use only as a wine fixator and water disinfectant.
In 1643 Augier, the first Cognac House was established. Cognac as a recognizable spirit started its parade around the world.

During the next one and half century Cognac Houses appeared in many towns of the region: Martell in 1715, Rémy Martin in 1724, Delamain in 1759, Hine in 1763, Hennessy in 1765, Otard in 1795, and so on. Most of them were established by British wine merchants. They brought products of small local producers, made blends, and sell to North Europe, where cognac became extremely popular. After Europe, the cognac won the markets of North America and the Far East. Nowadays each of these regions consumes about one-third of all imported cognac.

The 19th century brought new Cognac Houses (Courvoisier in 1843, Royer in 1853, Meukow in 1862, Camus and Hardy in 1863…), and the idea of bottling. It provided perfect advertisement for the Cognac Houses (the label with the House name is always before consumer’s eyes) and brought new workplaces into the region – productions of bottles, corks, labels, and boxes.

In 1875 the phylloxera came to Europe. The Cognac recovery was long and painful, but finally, it won.

On May 1 of 1909, the geographical production zones are delimited.

In 1936 Cognac is recognized as “appellation d’origine contrôlée”

In 1938 regional appellations (cru) are delimited.

Now wine map of Cognac looks this way.

The whole region is divided into six sub-regions (cru): Grand Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois, and Bois Ordinaires (in the order decreasing the quality of the grape growing conditions, and, accordingly, status value). Dividing reflects the terroir peculiarities. On average, better regions have a higher proportion of chalk in the soil. Central regions are better than bordering ones by these criteria. Grand Champagne has thick chalk deposits, covered with a thin layer of soil, and vines should develop a strong root system to reach the water levels. The watering of vines is prohibited by law except for the first year after planting (the first harvest is on the fifth year of the vine). Big Cognac Houses uses only grape from the first four regions. The last two regions even grow much less of the grate. Even Fins Bois has only 1/6 of its territory under the vineyards, then Grand Champagne – half.

Grand Champagne is the best sub-region (premier-cru) of Cognac. Best cognacs are made from the grape of this region. Only cognacs made from the grape of this region can be named Cognac Grande Champagne (see the label at the end of the article.)

It is worth mentioning that Cognac Champagne has nothing in common with the region Champagne that produces the famous sparkling wine, except the same name. The name probably came from Latin “campania” which means the open hill country.

Petite Champagne is the second-best region. Its production often used to make a blend with Grande Champagne products. Such cognacs (at least 50% of blend from Grande Champagne, the rest from Petite Champagne) are called Cognac Champagne.

Borderies is the smallest and coolest Cognac region. Most of its production is used to blend with products of Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne.

The biggest region Fins Bois is specialized in young blends.

Thus, from the time of Cognac AOC recognition, cognac exists in the same way as we drink it now. In reasonable frames, of course.

It was history, and now about technology that fills our glasses with vivid liquid.

The life of the cognac has four main stages: base wine production, a distillation of this wine into eau de vie, maturation of eau de vie, and blending.

Base wine should have relatively low alcohol content (from 7 to 12 % abv according to the law, however, wine stronger than 9.5% abv normally does not use), be dry and acid. High acidity requirement relates to impossibility (and law prohibition) to use sulfur dioxide, that traditionally and wildly used as disinfectant and antioxidant on all stages of winemaking from vine to a bottle. However, after distillation, it gives an unpleasant aroma to the product. High acidity stabilizes wine in the absence of sulfur dioxide. Sugar addition also prohibited by law, by the way. Yet, who will use additional sugar at such fighting for low alcohol content?

Such wine properties are provided by local climate (Cognac has a cool mild climate) and grape variety choice (late-ripening, that in Cognac climate means low sugar, and high acidity). Eight white varieties can be used for cognac production, which of them to use is a winemaker choice. As a result, nowadays mainly three varieties are used – Ugni Blanc (in Italy known as Trebbiano), Folle Blanche and Colombard. After the phylloxera epidemy at the end of the 19th century, Ugni Blanc dramatically pushed out other varieties, and now 98% of all vineyards are covered with it. Just a small amount of Cognac Houses is faithful to more capricious Folle Blanche, which is more aromatic and gave additional elegance to the final product.

Even a minimal amount of tannins in the wine is bad for the final product taste, so the grape for future cognac is pressed very gently to avoid the damage of stems and seeds (the source of tannins). Сontinuous screw presses are prohibited as to rough. Nowadays most used bladder presses (inflamed huge rubber bag inside the stainless still cylinder). Before this child of technical progress was innovated, the grape was pressed with basket plate presses. Some small producers still use them, but they become less and less popular as still too rough for gentle cognac wine.

After pressing, the juice is fermented with wild yeast or, more often now, with special strains, that speed up process and gives better control. Two-three weeks, and we have dry white wine with 8.5-9% abv. All cognac wines also treated with malolactic fermentation, which converts sharp malic acid into mild lactic one.

Ready wine is stored in huge cisterns. Distillation starts immediately as wine is ready, at the end of November. According to the law, distillation must be finished by March 31 of the year after harvest. Originally it was necessary because spring warm can cause secondary fermentation and wine oxidation. So, distillation does not stop during the whole winter, day and night. Nowadays, wine is stored in chilled cisterns under inert gas that prevent oxidation, so there is no need in such a rush, and producers try to abolish this law to make their life easy.

Distillation has strong law regulation. Cognac should be distilled twice in a copper still. Charentais copper stills are used for this. This is the modification of alembic (copper pot still in turban shape that was innovated by Arabian) that was delivered to Cognac by Dutch and improved. Charentais copper still looks this way (from L’encyclopédie du Cognac).

A boiler of spherical shape for distilling liquid (wine or “brouillis”). According to the law, a boiler can be heated only by the open fire (early, wood and charcoal, now gas, but no electricity), so at working conditions, it is surrounded by brick walls, something like oven. There is a still head above the boiler for the accumulation of vapours. It has the shape of turban, onion, or olive. Shape and size influent the product quality – wider and flatter still head make cleaner spirit. Because additives determine the taste of cognac, the shape and size of heat is a choice of distiller master. The still head continues into the condenser tube that passes through the refrigerator. Vapours cool in the tube and become liquid. The round thing that is circled by the condenser tube is pre-heater. The tube passes some heat to the wine or “brouillis” before they will be delivered into the boiler. It is made just to save energy and is not the obligatory element.

For the first distillation, big pots (up to 14000 litres with the load volume to 12000 litres) are used. The process takes about 12 hours, and the result is unclear liquid 28-32% abv, called «brouillis» which is the subject of second distillation.

The second distillation named ‘Bonne Chauffe’ (good heat) is made in small pots (up to 3000 litres with the load volume to 2500 litres), and it is time for the master to divide et empera. The first fraction, “head”, that collected in the still head and condensate is ethanol with light additives. “Head” represents 1-2% of total volume and has the highest ethanol content – 78-82%. “Head” is collected separately. The second fraction, “heart”, is a clear pure liquid with an alcohol content of 68-72% abv. It is a final product of distillation, eau de vie, that is delivered directly to the barrels for maturation. After the “head” second cut with ethanol content 60% abv follows, it is also collected separately. The last fraction, “tail”, contains compounds heavier than ethanol. Head and second cut would be sent for another round of distillation with the next portion of wine or «brouillis». Master of distillation decides how to cut one or another fraction, and which and how much aromatic compounds should be taken into eau de vie.

Except for the choice of shape still head and fraction cuts, the master also decides to use wine on the lees (dead yeast sediment) or purify it preliminarily. Distillation with the lees gives the product a more complex and saturated taste.

After distillation, the time of maturation comes. It should be said, the whole process of cognac product is not significantly separated neither by law nor by fact. There is no strict separation on winemaker, distillers, and whose who does maturation, blending, and trading, as it happened, for example, with Xeres (different stages, of course, but strong separation). Of course, some winemakers not to have deal with distillation, and sell base wine to distillers. Nevertheless, there are about 4000 winemakers-distillers (bouilleurs de cru) in the region, 1300 of them have their own stills (there are also some cooperatives with common stills). They distil their own wine, and wine of neighbours. About 500 of them complete the process and sell their own cognac. The rest sell eau de vie to the big Cognac Houses. And only about 100 distillers restrict themselves with distillation only – they buy base wine, make eau de vie, and sell it to Cognac Houses. Big Houses distil only a small part of the product, they prefer to buy eau de vie from bouilleurs de crus, mature it, blend, and sell the ready product under the house name. Anyway, the expanse of big Houses is inescapable. 80% of all cognac is sold by only four big Houses, Martel, Courvoisier, Remy Martin, and Hennessy; and only the rest 20% sold by smaller Houses and individual producers.

Thus, what is the future of fresh-made eau de vie?

Its future is an oak barrel. Because to be named cognac, eau de vie should be matured in an oak barrel at specifically certified places for at least two years.

Two oak species are used for cognac maturation – sessile oak (Quércus pétraea) from the Tronçais forest and common or English oak (Quércus róbur) the Limousine Forest. Sessile oak has soft, dark, and more dense wood, than the wood of English oak is harder, less dense, and has bigger pores. Sessile oaks content fewer tannins and more lignins; cognac matured in this oak is softer. After English oak they harder and more astringent. Choice of the oak is a cognac master business.

Casks for cognac maturation are between 270 to 450 litres. To make such barrels oak should be at least a hundred years old (planks can be made only from the trunk of a specific size). Freshly split planks are left exposed to the fresh air for at least three years (until water content decrease up to 15%) to change the bitterness of fresh wood to the vanilla aroma. After, master copper assembles the cask and burn it inside. The level of burning significantly influent on the cognac characteristic and is chosen by the cognac master.

Eau de vie should meet the barrel no later than one month after it left pot still, accordingly, all eau de vie of the latest harvest should be in the barrels no later than April 30.

About the first 18 months, eau de vie are usually spend in a fresh, new barrel, after they transferred into an already used barrel (exact timing is different for different cognac and chosen by the master).

What happens with the cognac in the barrel? First, it extracts from the wood tannins and aromatic compounds; second, it oxidizes; third, it evaporates. The second and third are happened because of the pores in the wood. The main extraction happens in the first years in the fresh barrel. After cognac accumulates all required chemical compounds of the wood, it transferred into used barres, where mainly oxidation and evaporation happen.

You may notice that the alcohol content of eau de vie after distillation is about 70% abv. The alcohol content of the cognac is 40% abv. Before transferring in the barred eau de vie is diluted by distilled water up to 65% abv (it is the optimal concentration for extraction from the wood). Follow decreasing of alcohol content is happened because of evaporation through barrel pores. Both, ethanol and water, evaporate through the pores, however, on average, ethanol evaporate better, and its concentration decreases.

About 2% of the barrel content evaporated in a year. This process named “angel share” (“la part des Anges”). I think the angel concentration in the Cognac region is the highest in the world. And like many things in the human world, it is so unjustness – Devil helped humans with cognac development, but they give the share to the angels.

Together with the legion of the drunk angels, “angel share” is consumed by sublunar world inhabitants. Microscopical fungi Baudoinia compniacensis aka Torula compniacensis, also known under charactonym “whiskey fungus”, covered walls and ceilings of cognac cellar, giving them a specific black colour. Ethanol vapour is their main source of nutrition (fungi are such inventors when it comes to the diet).
Old cognacs, that aged 40-60 years, decrease their alcohol concentration up to the final 40% abv only by “angel share”.

Of course, only a small number of cognacs matured so long. Younger cognacs are diluted up to the required concentration with distilled water, usually in several steps. Every year, consumed by angels eau de vie is replanted (in partly filled casks the oxidation is too quick that is bad for product taste) with eau de vie of the same distillation (roughly said, one barrel in a row is split between others) or with distilled water (or its mix with eau de vie) if alcohol decreasing is desired.

Cognacs become perfect at the age of 50-60 years (of course, maturation of most cognacs ends march earlier). There is no sense to keep such cognacs longer in the barrels (the taste even can start to fail) and they are transferred into glass vessels (demijohns). The cellar with such vessels is called “Paradise (“Paradis”).

The taste of future cognac depends not only on eau de vie quality, choice of barrels, and the time of maturation. The cellars for cognac maturation are also important. In relatively dry cellars (with relative humidity 40-60%) alcohol and water evaporate through barrel pores with approximately the same speed. As a result, we have drier cognac with expressed character. In cellars with relatively high humidity (80-90%) mainly alcohol evaporate through pores, and cognac from them softer and rounder. As a result, cognac cellars can be found from under the riverbank underground to the top floors of the distillery.

However, maturation is not the final stage of cognac life. Any cognac is a blend of at least two eau de vie (usually much more). Every cognac has a different unique taste, and to replicate it from year to year, master of blending looking for a specific proportion of different eau de vie.

Most cognacs are a blend of eau de vie of different ages. However, when the year is especially good, vintage cognacs from one year harvest are created. Despite the same year of harvest, vintage cognacs are still blend – different vineyards, different distillery, different ageing conditions.

After the blending, high-quality cognacs spend additional six months in the barrel to settle the mix taste.

Can anything be added to the cognac? Surprisingly, yes. Best cognacs are made only from grape, water, and yeast. However, the law allows adding caramel, sugar, and “boise”, dark goo made by boiling oak wood. Adding caramel (for colour) and sugar (most cognacs content about 1.5 g sugar per litre, but no more than 2 volume per cent) is a common practice, and cognac society feels normal about it. Boise adding is an attempt to replace long and gentle maturation in a barrel. Cognac Houses that practice “noise”, usually never confirm this, however, it is a common practice for cheap cognacs.

Age classification of cognac was established at the time when Englishmen owned most Cognac Houses, as result is based on English words. The age of the youngest eau de vie in the blend determines the age of the cognac. Also, classification marks the minimal appropriate age of the cognac, in reality, the product usually much older.

VS (very special) or *** – the youngest cognac, the youngest eau de vie is at least 2 years (2.5 years from the harvest)

VSOP or VO or Reserve – the youngest eau de vie is at least 4 years (4.5 years from the harvest)
VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) now used more often than VO (very old) or Reserve.
Definition VSOP originates from the House Hennessy. In 1817 England Prince Regent and future King George sent an order to Hennessy for «Very Superior Old Pale» cognac. Thus, the style and classification were created.

Napoleon – the youngest eau de vie is at least 6 years (6.5 years from the harvest)
Courvoisier claims that the term Napoleon originated when they laid aside brandy for Napoleon, who was planning to leave for the USA after his abdication. Usually, Napoleon is older than six years.

XO (Extra Old), Extra, Hors d’âge – the youngest eau de vie is at least 10 years (until 2016 the law requires 6 years, but it was increased). In reality, XO is at least 15–20-year-old, often much older.

What can and should tell cognac label to the consumer? (For example, here is the label of Delamain that inspirited me during this writing)

AOC must be shown on the label. All grapes must be from the mentioned region (in my case – Appellation Cognac Grande Champagne Controlee). More often it would be Appellation Cognac Controlee – anywhere from the Cognac region.

Only Appellation Cognac Champagne Controlee means not a separate cru, but a grape from two regions, Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, with at least 50% of grape from Grande Champagne.

Age classification must be shown (XO here)

Usually the name of the Cognac House (Delamain)

The word “Fine” may be mentioned. In the case of cognac, it is exceedingly. “Fine” means that the spirit is distilled from wine or cider. Cognac by definition can be made only from wine.

Vintage cognac must have the year of the harvest.

And a little bit about aromas that can be expected depending on the cognac age.

Among fruity notes, young cognacs show apricot, peach, or pear, that after ten years substituted with almond, walnut, or hazelnut. After twenty years cherry, muscat, and orange appeared. After forty years coconut and Passiflora.

Among floral aromas rose and violet appears in young cognacs. After ten years they replaced with Iris and lilac. After twenty apple blossom and jasmine are dominant.

Among woody notes oak and vanilla of young cognac are replaced with chocolate and leather after fifteen years; sandal, cedar and cigar boxes start to dominate after thirty years.

Spicy aromas (ginger and cinnamon) appear in fifteen-year-old cognacs, after twenty years saffron appear, after thirty – nutmeg.

So, choose the cognac according to your taste and feel, and enjoy.

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