Uncover the Secrets of the Luxurious Cognac: A Guide to its Aromatic Flavors, Rich History, and Production Areas
Cognac comes from the double distillation of wine and is one of the most sumptuous and elegant spirits you can drink.
It is one of those virtuous cases where product and terroir coincide, in fact, this famous French distillate takes the name of the city where it was born: Cognac, in the Charente region, not even 130 kilometers north of Bordeaux.
To be honest, it can also be made in the Charente-Maritime, a part of the Dordogne, and the Deux-Sèvres, but Cognac and Segonzac are at its heart. Just where the Dutch used to stop after going up the Charente River to buy salt, wine, and timber.
But the wine they bought deteriorated quickly; it couldn’t withstand long journeys. It’s 1620, and clarets, which aren’t particularly long-lived wines, are popular. And so the Dutch, who had already invented Genever in the early 1600s, taught the inhabitants of Cognac the art of distillation, and thus the myth of Cognac was born.
But what is so special about cognac, and why is it so prized and loved that it is protected by an AOC? After all, it’s just a brandy like many others, a different twin of Armagnac…
Everything contributes to the production and perfection of Cognac: the wood of the barrels where it ages comes from the nearby woods of Limousine, the historic cellars that have the right temperature and a perfect degree of humidity to help the cognac breathe, the breezes that come from the sea, and then there is once again the chalk.
The lands where Ugni Blanc (the mythical Trebbiano you can find in Italy too), Colombard, and Folle Blanche are planted are mainly chalky. Yes, exactly, just like for the most prestigious Champagne and Sherry crus. It is the gypsum that makes the difference and gives texture and flavor to the base wine. Or rather, the more chalk there is in the earth, the more elegant and majestic the distillate becomes.
But the French love transparency and dotting the i’s, and in this case the classification work of the Crus is painstaking, certainly not comparable to the Italian doc.
Production areas of Cognac, the 6 historical crus
Cognac and Segonzac are the epicenter of finesse and the highest expression of Cognac and are found in Grande Champagne, a small, protected oasis, characterized by a perfect microclimate. It makes the best cognacs, which are known for their unique finesse, thickness, and aromas of flowers, citrus fruits, and highly developed, mature notes that last forever. The land is characterized by the presence of gypsum and fossils.
La Petite Champagne is a half-circle area south of Cognac that still makes great spirits, with peaks that are as good as those in the Grande Champagne but don’t last as long.
La Borderie: the smallest area, just above Cognac. It makes refined spirits with a rich, deep bouquet of flowers and clear, recognizable hints of dried fruit. They change much faster than the others, so by the time they are bottled, they have already changed a lot. In this area, you can make excellent purchases, there are excellent quality spirits at very affordable prices.
From here on, the regions spread like wildfire around the heart of Cognac.
- Le Fin Bois: the finesse is waning, they are less valuable and intense Cognacs, but the quality is still decent.
- Le Bon Bois: rustic cognacs with a rough taste.
- Le Boir Ordinaries and Communes: it is the last zone, the one that reaches the sea and La Rochelle. As the name itself says, you will not find masterpieces, but distilled without praise or infamy.
How is Cognac made?
The base wine must be low in alcohol, absolutely non-aromatic, have an alcohol content between 8 and 10 degrees, and not contain sulfites.
The grapes are harvested well in advance so that they have strong acidity, and then they are fermented for about twenty days. But don’t think about a drinkable wine; it is a sort of acidic, undrinkable, and immature mixture that will then be distilled. It is very similar “as a base” to the wort, the first fermented malt liquid used to distill whiskey, and the procedure is very similar.
Distillation is always based on the fact that the various substances—aldenes, alcohols, and ethers—have different volatility, which means they evaporate at very different temperatures; in French, distillation is known as chauffe.
The Charentais alembic is another important part. It is made of copper so that flavors and smells don’t change and heat doesn’t jump around.
The wine is placed in the boiler, which usually has a capacity of 12 hectoliters. In contact with the fire, it is heated, and thus it is transformed into vapor. Vapors that rise and sneak into the so-called swan neck pass into the chauffe vin (wine warmer) and finally into the cooler, where they return to the liquid state.
But this is only the first distillation, which produces brouillis, a cloudy liquid that reaches 30 degrees alcohol at most. A second distillation is needed, the bonne chauffe, which can last up to 12 hours. Do not think of a river of distillate, the final product falls almost in drops.
During the bonne chauffe, the distiller decides how, where, and when to cut the heads, which are unpleasant aldehydes, sulfur dioxide, and methyl alcohol that evaporate before the alcohol and the heads, which are heavier. Obviously, heads and tails do not jump, they still have precious alcohol, and so they are added to the next chauffe and redistilled.
Aging of Cognac in cask: the secret ingredient
However, the distillate that comes out of the still is not yet cognac; it needs the aging phase in wood, which must be at least 2 years old. The wood comes from the forests of Limousine and Tronçais. The finest cognac is aged in good wood, preferably less toasted, to avoid being ruined by excessive smoking. It is not easy to find the right wood, because at first, you need a more incisive wood that releases tannin and color, then it must only act as a container for aging.
And keep in mind that Cognac loses about 4% of its volume in barrels every year. This is a necessary process, just as important as distillation, because it refines, smooths out, loses alcohol, and loses the most pungent notes. And the cellars of the Charente are perfect, on the ground floor, where a good humidity creates the optimal conditions for the maturation of the distillate.
The assembly of Cognac
Like brandy, cognac doesn’t have a vintage, but in a few rare cases, it does have a unique vintage. But we are talking about events that are more unique than rare. The age of a cognac is given by the youngest distillate present in the blend.
This is why the last step of mixing the different cognacs is so important; it’s like a recipe within a recipe. The cellar master selects and models the cuvées until he finds the product he desires or that has made the maison famous.
The aging of Cognac
Be aware that the age of cognac is determined by the number of years it spends in wood; once bottled, maturation ceases. So a 50-year-old cognac has spent 50 years in wood; the period in the bottle is irrelevant.
There are three classifications to designate Cognac based on age.
Three Stars, V.S. (Very Special), Sélection, and De Luxe: the first step is to blend a young Cognac (at least two and a half years) with more mature spirits (usually 5-10 years).
V.S.O.P. o Réserve: Very Superior The youngest distillate in Old Pale Cognac has aged in cask for at least four and a half years. And here we start to get serious, complexity, roundness, and sumptuousness are more evident.
XO or Napoleon: the youngest Cognac has a minimum age of 6 years.
Hors d’âge: they are Napoleon’s as a denomination, but they indicate particularly valuable products, refined for up to 50 years.
Medaillon, Cordon, Vielle Reserve, Centenarie, and Age Inconnu designate the age of particularly fine spirits.
Cognac Food Pairings
It’s great for spoon desserts like chocolate, bread cake, tiramisu, apple pie, trifle, kunefe, baklava, chocolate salami, and galaktoboureko, but it’s also great for flavoring the desserts themselves.