Regardless of the way it is consumed, Cognac is, from the far East to the American continent and in Europe, synonymous with great quality, France and its art de vivre. The product is so popular that, worldwide, more than 300 bottles of Cognac are sold per minute—that’s five per second.
The Cognac production area, bordering the Atlantic Ocean
The Cognac production area is located in the north of the Aquitaine basin, bordering the Atlantic Ocean. To the west it borders the Gironde estuary and the islands of Ré and Oléron, and to the east it neighbors the region of Angoulême and the foothills of the Massif Central.
Produced with specific standards in a specific region of France, Cognac has been an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) since the 1936 and 1938 decrees describing the Cognac growing areas – the Delimited Region – and the grape varieties that should be used for the production of Cognac. Mainly the Ugni Blanc, a variety of white grape, is planted. Based on the soil features, 6 Cognac growing areas (Crus) were defined: Cognac Grande Champagne and Cognac Petite Champagne, Cognac Borderies, Cognac Fins Bois, Cognac Bons Bois and Cognac Bois à Terroirs. The Cognac Grande Champagne, Cognac Petite Champagne and Borderies are the center growing areas and the most productive.
The production area covers the Charente-Maritime and most of the Charente departments, and several districts of the Dordogne and Deux-Sèvres. It has a homogenous and mild seaside climate. The Delimited Region has a total area of over one million hectares (2,706,000 acres), but the actual vineyards only occupy 197,000 acres. Approximately 95% of them are used for Cognac production.
A bit of history
Grapes have been grown in the Cognac production area since the 3rd century in the Saintonge vineyards. From the 13th century, Dutch ships bringing salt from the area to northern European countries also carried wines from this area. This early wine trade helped develop a business mentality in the Charente region and the success of the local wines lead to expansion of the vineyard. The city of Cognac became renowned for its wine trade, adding to a reputation for storing salt since the 11th century.
Much later – at the beginning of the 17th century – double distillation made its appearance in the region and the transformation of local wines into eau-de-vie was enabled. Given its concentration, eau-de-vie was much cheaper and easier to ship than wine.
The first distillation stills in the Charente were built by the Dutch. They were then progressively modified until French distillers refined the method of double distillation also known as the Charentaise method.
Delays in the handling of ship cargo led to the realization that eau-de-vie gets better when it spends extended time in oak casks and that it can even be consumed straight from the cask!
Cognac is made from a white, slightly sharp wine, the Vin Blanc des Charentes. Some 4,950 farmers produce this wine exclusively to turn it into Cognac.The wine is then distilled following a specific, traditional method: The Charentaise distillation. It consists in distilling the wine twice in a traditional Charentais still. The first distillation is called the brouillis and the second is the repasse. The maximum alcohol content should be 72.4 % by volume at 20°C (68°F).
The following step is the aging process. It should take place in oak casks that traditionally come from Tronçais or Limousin and a minimum aging of 24 months following the end of the distillation period is required for a Cognac to be marketable. Of course, a Cognac can age for decades inside its original oak barrel.
Finally, the Maître de Chai (the master blender) blends together eaux-de-vie of different ages and from different crus. It is also he who progressively adds distilled or demineralized water to the eau-de-vie in order to slowly reach the desired alcohol content for its release into the market. Cognac’s minimum alcohol content must be 40%. This delicate operation is referred to as “reduction.”
The taste and fragrances of Cognac
The five principle aromas that characterize Cognac are: vanilla, prune, caramel, orange and apricot, although a list edited by a group of the best “noses” – specialists of Cognac tasting – in the world revealed 63 aromas in total.
Cognac can be enjoyed in a cocktail with orange or lime, with sodas (like tonic or ginger ale) or just on ice. It can also be included as part of a meal, thanks to its variety of aromas, to accompany salmon or hare, or with a chocolate dessert. Cognac also goes very well with coffee. Experts agree that the the traditional tulip-shaped glass is the best kind with which to enjoy pure Cognac.
Cognac is the most-imported French spirit to the United States
With almost $700 million worth of Cognac exported from France in 2011, Cognac is the number-one French spirit exported to the United States. Cognac is exported to over 150 countries but the United States remains the single biggest importer of Cognac in the world. The country imported 48.4 million bottles in 2011.
To learn more:
BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac) www.cognac.fr/cognac/_en/intro.aspx