Learning the history of one of the world’s favorite fine spirits
Cognac; there’s something almost mythical about this spirit. Originating in the south western part of France in the 16th century, Cognac was accidentally discovered like most other alcoholic beverages. In the early 1500’s, Dutch settlers had traveled to the Cognac region of France to purchase resources like salt, wood and wine from the native people. However, the long journey home made preserving the wine extremely difficult, and no one was okay with that.
The Dutch quickly discovered a way to conserve the wine by distilling the wine into eau-de-vie; which was a good solution, but eventually they realized that a second distillation made a far more superior and elegant beverage. This distillation process is believed to have been the birth of brandy. In fact, the word “brandy” comes from the Dutch “brandewijn”, meaning “to burn wine”.
While brandy is made all over the world, not all brandy can be considered Cognac. Only brandy produced in the Cognac regions of France and under strict guidelines can be considered real Cognac. These specific regions of France stretch over the Charente-Maritime (bordering the Atlantic Ocean) and Charente (further inland) regions of the south western part of the country.
These are the only places in the world that grow the three specific grape vines that are used when making Cognac; the Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche vines.
Ugni Blanc is the primary vine in today’s Cognac. Prior to the Phylloxera crisis of the late 1800s that affected all of Europe, Folle Blanch was the main variety for Cognac. In the wake of the destruction caused by a pesky insect, the vineyards of the Cognac region were replanted with Ugni Blanc. This specific vine of grapes was chosen for its high acidity levels, as well as its resistance to the infection.
To this day, Ugni blanc remains the dominate variety of Cognac and makes up 95 percent of all Cognac produced in France.
The process of making Cognac begins with pressing the grapes into a juice, followed by a ten-day fermentation process. The resulting white wine is highly acidic and low in alcohol (8 to 10 percent) content. The distillation is done by heating the wine and delicately separating the alcohol and other volatile elements. The goal during distillation is to concentrate the aroma and bouquet contained in the wine.
Distillation of Cognac is only possible when using an alembic charentail. It is a large copper pot, mainly composed of a boiler and an onion-shaped tank with a swan neck, and a condensing serpentine plunged in water. The boiler is heated and the impurities of the wine are separated using this device. We know it all sounds very complicated, which is why we let the professionals do the work and we do the purchasing.
And when purchasing Cognac, the older the vintage, the more expensive it will be. However, that doesn’t mean it was money well spent. Similar to wine, tasting Cognac is a subjective experience and someone can easily prefer a Cognac that has only been aged two years versus a Cognac that’s been aged six. Check your wallet and take your pick.
There are hundreds of Cognac producers in the Cognac region of France, but the top distillers by sales are: Hennessy, Remy Martin, Martell, Courvoisier, and Camus. While they each have their own beginnings, each Cognac distillery share three major values; tradition, passion, and a pioneering spirit.