Monday, June 18, 2012

Cognac – An Introduction, France

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller

In early September of this year, I will spend a couple of hours in Cognac, on the way from Orleans in the Loire region to Pauillac in the Bordeaux during the Bordeaux Trip of the Weinfreundeskreis Hochheim, which my wife Annette is organizing. In Cognac, we will be treated to a tour of and tasting at Hennessey, followed by lunch.

See: Tour de France de Vin: 6 Days, 7 Regions, 3500 km - In 6 Days through 7 Wine Regions of France


Cognac is a brandy named after the town of Cognac. For a brandy to bear the name Cognac - an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée - it must meet a number of requirements, as is the case for all AOCs.

Picture: The Wine Regions of France

The Cognac area extends along the banks of the Charente all the way to the Atlantic coast. The entire Cognac vineyard covers around 80.000 hectares.

Grapes and Fermentation

Cognac may be made only from a strict list of grape varieties. If it is to carry the name of one of the crus (see below) then it must be at least 90% Ugni Blanc (known in Italy as Trebbiano), Folle Blanche and Colombard. For other Cognacs, the rules are less restrictive.

Charente wines typically have from 7 to 8% alcohol. This wine is quite thin and acid, but good for distillation. Chaptalization is forbidden.


Distillation takes place in traditionally shaped Charentais copper stills. Two distillations must be carried out; the resulting eau-de-vie is a colorless spirit of about 70% alcohol.

In the first stage, the first distillate is obtained, known as the “brouillis”. During the second stage, known as the “la bonne chauffe” the spirit is finally extracted from the liquid. Here, the distiller performs a delicate process called “cutting” by separating the “heart” from the “heads” (alcohol content is too high) and the “tails” (alcohol content is too low).


Cognac must be aged in oak for at least two years before it can be sold to the public. As the Cognac interacts with the oak barrel and the air, it evaporates at the rate of about three percent each year, slowly losing both alcohol and water. Because the alcohol dissipates faster than the water, Cognac reaches the target 40% alcohol by volume in about four or five years.


The last step in the process is very important for a Cognac’s ultimate taste, aroma, body, and even label. All Cognac Houses have a master taster (maître de chai), who is responsible for creating this delicate blend of spirits. The age of the Cognac shown on the label matches the youngest Cognac used in the blend.

Single Vineyard Cognacs

The success of artisanal producers who blend from the eaux-de-vie of different years, but typically from a single vineyard, has encouraged some larger industrial-scale producers to produce single-vineyard Cognacs.


The history of Cognac is related to trade. The town of Cognac has always been linked to important international trade routes through the river Charente, which gave the small town easy access to the Atlantic Ocean. During the 16th century, the Dutch merchants used to ship salt and wine from the Southwestern parts of France to northern European countries. However, they often encountered a problem: the wine would often spoil during the long voyage. To protect the wine, the merchants began to distill it, and they named it Brandewijn or ‘burnt wine.’ This became the forerunner of Brandy.

6 Cognac Crus

There are 6 crus.

Picture: The 6 Crus of Cognac

Grande Champagne - The most prestigious of the crus.

Petite Champagne - Cognacs made from a mixture of Grande and Petite Champagne (with at least 50% Grande Champagne) may be marketed as Fine Champagne.

Borderies - The smallest cru. Cordon Bleu by Martell is from Borderies.

Fins Bois

Bons Bois

Bois Ordinaires - Further out from the four central growth areas are the Bons Bois and the Bois Ordinaires grown regions. Generally used for high-volume production.


The official quality grades of Cognac are the following. The names of the grades are in English because the British market was long the primary market for cognac.

VS ("very special"), Very Special, or ✯✯✯ (three stars) designates a blend in which the youngest brandy has been stored for at least two years in cask.

VSOP ("very superior old pale") designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least four years in a cask.

XO ("extra old") designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least six years but on average for upwards of 20 years.

In addition the following can be mentioned:

Napoleon is a grade equal to XO in terms of minimum age, but it is generally marketed in-between VSOP and XO.

Extra designates a minimum of 6 years of age; this grade is usually older than a Napoleon or an XO.
Vieux is another grade between the official grades of VSOP and XO.

Vieille Réserve is, like the Hors d´Âge, a grade beyond XO.

Hors d'âge ("beyond age") is a designation equal to XO, but in practice the term is used by producers to market a high quality product beyond the official age scale.


While there are close to 200 cognac producers, a large percentage of Cognac—90% according to one 2008 estimate —is produced by only four companies:  Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell, and Rémy Martin.


Jas Hennessy and Co., or more simply Hennessy, sells about 50 million bottles a year worldwide, or more than 40 percent of the world’s Cognac, making it the world's largest Cognac producer.
Like most Cognac houses, Hennessy sits on the bank of the Charente River, which before trains and trucks was both a source of water for distillation and a means of transporting bottles of Cognac to the market.

The Hennessy cognac distillery was founded by Irishman Richard Hennessy in 1765. During the 1970s, Kilian Hennessy, a fifth generation direct descendent of Hennessy, spearheaded the company's 1971 merger with Moët et Chandon, which created Moët Hennessy. Moët Hennessy became part of Louis Vuitton in 1987, creating one of the world's largest luxury brand conglomerates, Moët-Hennessy • Louis Vuitton or LVMH.

Cognac-based Drinks

Grand Marnier: made from Cognac and distilled essence of bitter orange.

Pineau des Charentes: a sweet aperitif, composed of eau-de-vie and grape must, made in the Charente region.

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