ABC of Cognac

A is for Awesome, B is for Brandy and C stands for Class; that is Cognac

Version Française

What is it and where it is? How is it made? The  pleasure of ageing How to enjoy it? In which glass to drink it? How to drink it? When and where to drink it? Who makes it?
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What is it and where it is?


Cognac is a brandy produced from white grapes (mostly ugni blanc) which are grown in the strictly-defined region of the Charentes (Department 16 and 17) and a small part of Deux Sevres. This region is divided into growths (crus) based on soil characteristics that are reflected in the final product.

The Grande Champagne cru is located around the town of Segonzac. It produces a very fine, high-quality Cognac. It is known as the Premier Cru du Cognac. Petit Champagne is very much of the same quality, but a touch lighter. It’s vineyards lie to the south-west and south-east of Grande Champagne. Borderies, which lie around the town of Burie (north-west of City of Cognac), is the smallest of the crus in the terms of acreage. Eaux-de-vie from Borderies has rich, flowery aromas and it is known as "…Cognac that ladies prefer". The largest, and by far the intriguing cru, is Fins Bois. Geographically, it rings the other three crus. It lies, approximately, in the triangle between the towns of Rouilliac, Matha and Pons. It has a rich, full, strong aromas with a touch of the maritime climate. Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires are the exterior crus heavily influenced by the climate of the Atlantic ocean. They contribute less and less to the overall production of Cognac but are, nevertheless, known to produce some interesting Cognacs. The price of a hectare of vineyard varies considerably, depending on the cru in which it is located, Grande Champagne being the most (940 bytes)

How is it made?  alenbic1.jpg (17025 bytes)

The grape harvest usually begins in this region around the 3rd or 4th week in September. The majority of grapes are harvested mechanically, than pressed and fermented. The resulting white wine is double distilled. Some producers like Paul Giraud, Daniel Bouju, Rémy Martin or Cartais-Lamaure still harvest at least part of their vineyards manually.

The distillation period has a variable start date, but it must end, by law, at midnight on 31 March each year.

A traditional still, alambic, with uniquely Charentaise characteristics such as a swan’s neck, is used for distillation. Today, only a very few alambics are heated with wood (for example at the Guy Gombert estate), most use gas or oil. Distillation, itself is based on the simple premise that the boiling point of water is higher than alcohol’s. The process of distilling cognac has two parts (thus the term of double distillation); in the first, a raw eaux-de-vie known as brouillis is produced. In the second, known as bonne chauffe, only the heart (the coeur) is saved and the head and tail are either discarded or re-processed. The clear liquid, eaux-de-vie, which is the end product, the coeur, of distillation, is stored in wooden casks. Thse are mostly made of oak from the Limousin region of France. The characteristics of this oak are its porosity and a high content of tannins, both of which make it an ideal wood to start the next process in developing the Cognac. The interaction between the air, the eaux-de-vie and the tannins is one of the secrets of Cognac. During this process, about 3% of the stock is lost annually through evaporation. This is known as 'la partes des anges - the angels’ share, and a rather expensive share it is, too. Each producer has his or her own approach to the next steps in the development of Cognac. Blending, ageing and, finally, bottling are very much signature processes of the individual producer. top.gif (940 bytes)

The pleasure of ageing voyercasks.jpg (32517 bytes)

The age, or rather the quality, of Cognac is always reflected in its label. VS, and *** Cognacs must be no less that 2.5 years old; V.O. (Very Old), V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale) and Réserve, between four and half and six and half years old; X.O (eXtra Old), Vielle Réserve, Extra, Hors d'âge and Napoléon, six and half years, or older. There are limited quantities of Cognac known as vintage, (millésime) which identify the year of the Cognac. Some producers, such as A.E. Dor, Ragnaud-Sabourin, use numbers to reflect the age and quality of their Cognac. The key to understanding the age and quality of Cognac is to know that the law requires the label to indicate the minimum, but not the maximum, age of the eaux-de-vie used. This simply means that an XO may have 20, 30 or 40 year-old eaux-de-vie in the blend, which presents a marketing challenge. Thus, the next best indicator of the age and quality of Cognac is it’s price, so we believe that, in most cases the higher the price, the higher the quality of the product.

Blending is an art that is guided, as much by the nose of the Cellar Master, as by the minimum legal requirements and the demands of the market. All Cognac sold must be at least 40% volume. Since the eaux-de-vie, at the end of distillation, has a high alcohol content, the producer must cut or blend its product. Some use time and patience, that lets nature take care of alcohol reduction. Many, however, use distilled water as the prime reduction component, as well as a different eaux-de-vie. To meet certain markets’ tastes (sweeter Cognac is preferred in Asia, for example), or certain traditions passed from generation to generation, some producers use caramel and sugar to alter colour and taste. The blending usually reflects the signature taste of the brand. In the case of Rémy Martin, it is the signature of the house. Rémy Martin blends only Grande and Petite Champagne to produce what is known as Fine Champagne Cognac. A.E. Dor, Les Antiquaires du Cognac, L & L, Ragnaud-Sabourin, Paul Giraud, Daniel Bouju, Jean Laval and others sell single cru, frequently unblended Cognacs. But, the majority of Cognacs on the market are blended: Hennessy, Martell, Courvoisier, Boutinet, Larsen, Leteux, Hine, Balluet, Forgeron, Landier, Delamain, Gautier, A. Hardy, Louis Bouron, André Petit and others.

There are no clear rules about ageing, but lots of tradition. The only important fact is that once the eaux-de-vie is out of the casks, the ageing stops!

It is generally accepted that an eaux-de-vie of 50 years or so has reached maximum age. It is usually transferred into the glass demijohns to stop the ageing process. Today, it is a very rare opportunity to purchase Cognac from the XIXth century, although an 1802 Fins Bois recently came to the market in a very limited quantity. Another important factor to consider is the fact that during the 1870s all of the Cognac vineyards were destroyed by the disease called phylloxera. During the same period, war affected Cognac production, as well as its markets, having a dramatic impact, not only on the future production but also on the stocks. There are very few producers who use pre-phylloxera eaux-de-vie in their top products but Ragnaud-Sabourin is one of them.

If there is one element in the Cognac production that changes frequently, it is the bottling and packaging process. Almost all of the producers use some form of automated bottling, but what changes frequently is the shape of the bottle, style of the label and the cork. This is almost always dictated by the demands of the market; Asian markets prefer fancy bottles and gold labels; European markets are more conservative, but are looking for a distinctive bottle; Americans look for the brand name, rather than packaging. So, of course, there is no shortage of fancy bottles and boxes but, finally, what is in the bottle is what it is all about. top.gif (940 bytes) 

How to enjoy it? porte2.jpg (18947 bytes)

Tasting Cognac is not a simple matter. It requires patience and time. First, the Cognac must be at a room temperature; then try to enjoy the bouquet; the aromas of flowers, wood, fruits etc. That should take a few minutes. Repeat this three or four times and a change in the bouquet, and aromas will become very noticeable. And this is just the beginning of the pleasure. Next, take a small sip of the Cognac to coat your mouth. Let it work! Only then, should you take a mouthful and enjoy it. You will immidiately sense if the Cognac is round, if it is short or long, and if you can taste the same elements as those you smelled. If all of if it falls into place, and you enjoy it, than you found a right Cognac for you - Cognac is an individual experience. And, please, your Cognac will appreciate if you remember to keep its bottle upright, in a dark place and at room temperature.

So, the question often asked; "Which is the best Cognac?" can not be answered. You will be the judge! top.gif (940 bytes)

In which glass to drink it? cognactulip1.jpg (9002 bytes)

classic tulip

chimney tulip (10628 bytes)

spreading tulip

old-fashioned glass

ballooncognacballon.jpg (13961 bytes)  cognacice.jpg (16858 bytes)
clean and odourless

Each glass type will bring different emphasis to the enjoyment of Cognac. As with the liquid itself, you need to find your own preference. top.gif (940 bytes)

How to drink it? straight

with ice

with splash of water

with tonic or fruit juices

with lemonade

with your imagination being the limit

When and where to drink it? With friends, in the bar, before or after meal, with a cigar, with coffee, with dessert, with chocolates. In the winter, in the summer, all year around. The possibilities are endless. But, what must be remembered is that Cognac is an alcohol of at least 40% volume, so enjoy it in moderation. top.gif (940 bytes)

  01 January 2001

Copyright © 2001 Lusina ISG, Inc