Julie Harrison - Cognac

Publish Date
Friday, 13 July 2018, 5:08PM
By Julie Harrison

Cognac is made using wine produced from grapes sourced from vineyards in the area around the town of Cognac about 120km to the north of Bordeaux in South West France. To be Cognac it has to come from the designated Cognac region, undergo two distillations and be aged for a minimum of two years in oak.  Ugni blanc is the main grape variety used for Cognac making and to be Cognac the base wine needs to be at least 90% this variety. Small amounts of Folle Blanche and Colombard are permitted in the blend.   Ugni Blanc produces pretty terrible wine but is excellent for Cognac as it has very little flavour.  The grapes are harvested around late September and made into a wine that is dry, acidic and around 9% alcohol. 

The distillation process occurs between October and March 31st.   The base wine is double distilled in small batches in traditional copper pot stills that look a bit like an Aladdin’s lamp and are called Alembic Charentais.  The first part of the still is the pot or boiler, the second is the still head and swans neck and the third part the cooler.  The result of the first distillation is called the brouillis, which is cloudy, around 27-32% alcohol and does not taste particularly good.   The brouillis is then distilled again in the same way in a process named la bonne chauffe.    The initial liquid produced from the second distillation is called the head and is around 82% alcohol and a bit harsh so is separated out.   As the distillation progresses the alcohol reduces and the desirable, higher quality aromatic distillate called the “heart” comes through.  The “heart” or the middle distillate is what is used to make Cognac. The last part of the distillate to run off is the tail, which is weak and lacking any punch.  The distillation cycle takes around 24 hours and needs to be monitored constantly.   It is up to the Cognac master to sample the distillate over this time and determine when to make the “cut” to separate the quality heart from the heads and tail.  The final product is called eau de vie (water of life) and is clear and around 70% alcohol. 

The eau de vie now undergoes the aging process in oak barrels where it must age for a minimum of 2 years.  These barrels are made from oak that comes from the forests of Troncais and Limousin.   The barrels give the eau de vie colour and flavour.  New casks are usually used at the beginning of the aging process but the spirit may be moved to older barrels at a later stage.  Aging is not a static process and over time the ethanol in the eau de vie evaporates.  The result of this is that the alcohol content of the cask decreases over time.   Rather romantically the alcohol lost is described as “the angels share” and the angels take care of around 20 million bottles of Cognac each year!  In reality there is a black fungus that grows on the walls of Cognac cellars that has a bit of an alcohol problem and lives on the alcohol fumes.   The final alcohol content of the eau de vie has to be 40% so once it has finished aging it may be diluted with distilled water to reduce the alcohol to this level.  The Cognac can stay in the oak barrels for many years.  Whilst in the barrel a degree of oxidation occurs and after some time you get what is described as rancio character (described by Courvoisier’s Patrice Pinet as hot fruit cake).   This is highly desirable and found in Cognacs that have been aged over a long period. 

Once the cellar master decides the eau de vie is ready to come out of oak it is time for the all-important blending.  Cognac is made from at least two different eau de vies blended together and in fact it is usually a blend of many eau de vies from different years and vineyards as this results in a far more complex and interesting cognac.   The Cognac blender is in charge of making sure that the quality, consistency and characteristics of the blend are maintained over time.  The length of time the eau de vie spends in the barrels determines its final classification. 

Learning to decipher the Cognac label will help you understand what you are drinking.  Firstly there are 4 classifications and they relate to time spent aging in the barrel.  These are VS, VSOP, Napoleon and XO.

The youngest component of VS (very special) Cognacs has the minimum of 2 years in the barrel.

The youngest component of VSOP (very special old pale) – has had at least 4 years in the barrel.

The youngest component of Napoleon Brandy has had at least 6 years in the barrel.

The youngest component of XO (Extra Old) has had at least 10 years in the barrel (since 1st April 2018 – prior to this it was 6 years)

As you can see above the youngest portion of the blend determines the quality classification of a Cognac.  With XO cognac the youngest component is often a lot older than 10 years and the oldest component may be decades old.  One other term you may come across on the bottle is Hors d’age (beyond age).  This is a usually a very high quality Cognac that is at least 30 years old.  Younger Cognacs tend to have light flowery, fruity notes with age bringing caramel characters, nuttiness, spiciness, earthiness and more complexity to the Cognac.

The other thing on the label may be a description of where the grapes for the Cognac are from.  There are six Cognac growth areas or “crus”. The soils and climates of these regions will determine the characteristics of the eau de vie.  The most prized crus are Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne (nothing to do with the bubbly or where the bubbly grapes are grown).  These two areas have a chalky soil and produce what are arguably the best Cognacs from the region.  The other crus are (arguably in order of quality) Borderies, Fins Bois,  Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires and Communs.

There are many different Cognac producers with the majority coming from well know companies such as Hennessy, Remy Martin, Courvoisier and Martell.  Savour a delicious XO Cognac or a less expensive VSOP Cognac on a cold winters, swirling it in your glass while sitting by the fire (or in front of a heat pump) or do what they do in Cognac and try a VS Cognac with tonic for an interesting and more refreshing drink.


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