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The Serious Eats Guide to Cognac

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[Photograph: Cyclonebill on Flickr]


Cognac. To many, it's the ultimate in brandy. Now, you may ask why. Does it taste better? is it the expense? The time to make it? The grapes? The history? I'd say it's all of those things, and more.

Cognac is a spirit that rewards long aging—more so even than Scotch. Cognacs of 50 or more years are relatively common ... though not cheap.

The specific grape varieties, and the soil in which they're grown, add a unique character to cognac, not found in other brandies. As you'll see, however, some controversy has arisen over the grape varieties used in cognac production. (Who knew booze-making could stoke such passion!)

And, of course, there's simply the reputation of cognac. It's a spirit long associated with wealth and power and luxury. Now, cognac's cousin, armagnac, may lay claim for being the better brandy. It's a little more rustic, and I keep hearing that the French themselves actually prefer it to cognac, leaving the latter spirit primarily for the export market and keeping the best armagnacs for themselves. Sneaky.

While you can certainly debate whether cognac is the best brandy around, you can't deny it's the most famous, the best known, and the luxest spirit of all. You want to show that you've made it in this world? Drink cognac.

But what is cognac? How's it made, and what makes it special? Let's start with a little geography.

The Geography of Cognac

Cognac—the town, not the brandy—is located in the Charente department in the southwest of France, 465 kilometers (289 miles) southwest of Paris.

Cognac—the brandy—comes from the town of Cognac, naturally, and the regions surrounding the town, mainly the departments of Charente and Charente-Maritime.

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Locations of Charente (at left) and Charente-Maritime in France. [Maps: Wikimedia Commons]

The Cognac Delimited Region is the area in which cognac can be legally made. The Delimited Region includes all of the Charente-Maritime, most of the Charente, and a few districts of the departments of Dordogne and Deux-Sèvres.

Charente and Charante-Maritime take their name from the Charente River, which flows through the region. The climate is ideal for winemaking, with an average annual temperature of about 13º C (55º F) and a good amount of rainfall.

Growing Areas

The Cognac Delimited Region is divided into six growing areas, or crus. Each cru produces a specific style of cognac, influenced by the geography, soil, and climate of the particular cru. However, as I'll explain later, many cognacs are a blend of eaux-de-vie from various crus.

Cognac makers use the term eau-de-vie (plural: eaux-de-vie) to describe cognacs in their aging process, prior to bottling. If it's still in the barrel, aging, it's called eau-de-vie. If it's ready to be blended, it's eau-de-vie. If it's blended and ready for bottling, it's cognac.

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Cognac Delimited Region. [Map: Wikimedia Commons]

  • Grande Champagne—fine, light eaux de vie, require long aging. Aromas are floral: grape-vine flower, lime blossom.
  • Petite Champagne—similar to eaux de vie from Grande, but lacking some of the finesse. Aromas are floral and lightly fruity.
  • Borderies—fine, round eaux de vie with aromas of violet and iris. Age faster than the Champagne zones
  • Fins Bois—round, supple, fruity, and lightly floral. Age quickly.
  • Bon Bois—mostly fruity. Fast aging.
  • Bois Ordinaire—maritime influences, rustic, fruity. Age quickly.

(Some sources list a seventh: Bois Communs or Bois Terroir, located alongside Bois Ordinaire.)

Don't be confused by the word Champagne. It doesn't refer to the sparkling wine or to the region in which the fizzy is made. Champagne here means a type of soil that's ideal for growing certain grape varieties. (The region of Champagne has that name because it has essentially the same soil.) The soil is high in limestone, chalk, and clay. The clay holds a lot of water under the surface, which is ideal in the heat of summer when soil might otherwise dry out.

Connoisseurs generally prefer cognacs from the Grand and Petite zones, which means subtler cognacs that emphasize floral notes over fruity.

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The banks of the Charente look like a lovely place for a picnic and a long nap. [Photograph: L'encyclopédie du Cognac]

Viniculture

Cognac starts with a thin, acidic white wine made primarily from three grapes: Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard. In lesser quantities, producers may also include Jurançon, Sémillon, Montils, Folignan, and Sélect. The wine itself is said to be unpleasant to drink; it's made for the express purpose of distillation.

Grapes are harvested in October. Cognac producers press the juice from the grapes and leave it to ferment using natural yeasts from the air and grape skins, resulting in a wine that is about 8 to 10 percent alcohol and high in acids. In Cognac, producers are prohibited from adding sugars at this stage. The addition of sugar produces a wine higher in alcohol, but lacking in flavor.

Distillation

Cognac, by decree, must be made using copper pot stills, sometimes called Charentais alembic stills. (Charentais derives from Charente, which is of course the river that runs through the Cognac producing region.) The brandy's double distilled, with both distillations occuring in such stills. The first distillation increases the alcohol content to about 28 to 32% ABV. The second distillation comes in at around 68–72%.

By law, distillation in Cognac must be finished by March 31st in the year following the harvest. So, in other words, brandymakers in Cognac are, right now, distilling wine made from grapes harvested in October 2012.

Pot stills, incidentally, are less efficient than column stills, and they need to be cleaned out after each distillation. But they produce a spirit that contains more character of the grape than you'd get from column distillation. What this means is, pot distillation is one feature that makes cognac what it is, but it also makes the product more expensive than other brandies, which are generally column distilled.

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Charentais alembic still. [Photograph: L'encyclopédie du Cognac]

Aging

After distillation, the brandy is transferred to oak barrels. Cognac uses French oak barrels, made of oak from the Tronçais and Limousin forests. Brandies that age 40 or 50 years will lose much of their alcohol during the aging phase. The sheer act of evaporation can reduce the ABV of cognac from around 70% to around 40% in that period. Younger brandies need to be diluted with water to reach bottling proof, but that dilutes the flavors as well.

Whiskies, on the other hand, never age long enough to lose that much alcohol to evaporation. Unless a whisk(e)y is released at barrel-proof (or cask-strength), it's always diluted with water before bottling.

Blending

Each cognac house employs a master blender, whose job it is to taste the brandies as they age. Master blenders are responsible for ensuring that the cognacs they produce are in keeping with the house style, and consistent from year to year. (Don't we all wish for a career like that?)

Each cognac house keeps very old stocks of brandy, some aged as much as 100 years, to use as benchmarks for determining the house style, and to add to high-end blends.

The blend is a mix of eaux-de-vie of different ages and different crus. Each eau-de-vie adds something unique to the blend, and by balancing the various qualities of each one, the master blender can achieve a final cognac that harmonizes smoothly and maintains the style of the brand.

The Magic of Rancio

Think of earthy, ripe cheeses or mushrooms, with a hint of soy sauce. When those qualities pop up in cognac, the term used to describe them is rancio. (The same word is used to describe Spanish and Portuguese fortified wines, such as sherry, Madeira, and port, hence its appropriation by the French.) A full 10 years or more of oak aging are required to develop rancio in cognac.

The concept is similar to that of hogo in rum, incidentally—in each, it's a hard-to-define funkiness that enriches the flavors and aromas.

Grades of Cognac:

  • *** (3-Star) or VS (Very Special): The youngest brandy in the blend must have aged at least two years in oak.
  • VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale): The youngest brandy must have aged at least four years, although in practice, most brandies at this class are usually much older.
  • Napoléon, XO (Extra Old), Extra, or Hors d'age: The youngest brandy has six years on oak, but on average, these brandies are 20 years old or more. In 2016, the minimum age will be raised to ten years.

Fine Champagne: must be made of brandies from the Petite Champagne and Grande Champagne districts, and must consist of at least 50% Grande Champagne.

History

Winemaking near the Charente River has a long history. Romans planted vineyards there no later than the third century.

A thousand years later, the Dutch began trading in wines from the region. Last week, in my general guide to brandy, I discussed the role of the Dutch mercantile fleet in the history of cognac. The Dutch were avid consumers of French wine, but they began to realize that distilling the wine would make transportation more efficient, as well as preserving the wine against spoilage. The Dutch invested in distilleries, located next to the vineyards of the Charente region, for the purpose of making brandy for export.

In 1875, though, phylloxera arrived in the Charente, chomping its way through the rootstock of virtually every vineyard in the region. (The little pest nearly wiped out the entire French wine industry before it was stopped, but that's a story for another time.)

What saved the wine industry, and cognac as well, was grafting. French grape varieties were grafted onto American rootstock, which is resistant to phylloxera. Varieties such as Colombard and Folle Blanche, don't handle grafting well, and therefore they're largely being supplanted by Ugni Blanc.

Pre-phylloxera cognacs sometimes come up for auction; they're naturally quite expensive considering their rarity, but they're also highly prized by connoisseurs, who feel that modern cognacs lack certain subtle qualities that are present in the ancient bottles. These folks feel that Folle Blanche produces cognacs of superior character and aroma to those made of Ugni Blanc.

Boy, I don't know about you, but I'm in the mood for a Sidecar. Or a Prescription Julep. Or possibly a bowl of punch.

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