Eater Drinks recently took a broad look at the world of brandy, hammering home the point that not all brandy is Cognac. Now though, it's time to focus on France's Cognac region and offer a thorough explanation of its namesake spirit and its many finer points.
A Brief History of Cognac
The history of Cognac stretches back to the 1600s. Story has it that wine exported from the region to Holland was deemed unsatisfactory. The Dutch had already begun distilling gin, so they began distilling the wine they were receiving, too. As they took notice in France, winemakers then shifted to distillation themselves.
Some of the largest brands formed quite early. For instance, this year offered notable anniversaries for two: Martell, the oldest continually operational Cognac brand, with a history stretching back to 1715, celebrated its 300th anniversary; and Hennessy, with its own history stretching to 1765, celebrated its 250th birthday. While it's not a celebratory year for Rémy Martin, the brand's history stretches back nearly as far as Martell's, to 1724.
Cognac is a specific type of brandy produced from distilled white wine.
Today, Hennessy is by far the largest distiller, accounting for roughly 46 percent of all Cognac production. They're followed by Martell, Rémy Martin and Courvoisier. Of the four biggest players, therefore, Courvoisier is the "newest" on the scene—those young guns were founded in 1809 and didn't get started in the Cognac region until 1828.
Baron Otard Cognac dates back to 1795. The brand is unavailable in the United States, however it's the producer of the Jay-Z backed D'USSÉ. Baron Otard calls the Château de Cognac it's home, which is the actual 12th century castle which was used to fortify the city of Cognac. Nothing shouts history more than centuries-old, spider web and moss covered barrels stashed away in the recesses of a castle's nooks and crannies.
Cognac Distillation and Blending
What is Cognac exactly? Cognac is a specific type of brandy produced from distilled white wine. It must be distilled twice, using copper pot stills, and aged in French oak barrels for a minimum of two years.
Cognac's distillation season lasts from October 1 through March 31, a five-month annual window. For most producers, distillation lasts for even less time, though. It cannot begin until after the grape harvest and the wine production which ensues. Therefore, distillation in earnest does not begin for most until closer to the start of November.
The primary reason why the season closes at the end of March is that, per regulation, Cognac cannot be made with wine which has had added sulfites. Therefore, as the weather warms post winter, newly produced wine sans sulfites simply won't retain its quality as it sits in large tanks waiting for distillation.
Cognac can be distilled either with, or without, the lies—wine sediment. Most producers choose one or the other, contributing to their house's style, whereas Courvoisier is the only major house to change its process based upon which region its working with for that distillation batch. And while the spirit is most commonly bottled at 40 percent ABV, there's a small, growing contingent of labels offering higher proof bottles.
Distillation itself doesn't turn wine into Cognac, though. Not directly. The first distillation, in a still no greater than 10,000 L in size, produces brouillis. The second distillation, in a still no greater than 2,500 L, produces eau de vie.
"An eau de vie can be great but it can never be complete..."
An eau de vie can remain in the barrel for centuries and still not be "Cognac." Regardless of age, eau de vies remain known as such until they're blended together. It is the blending, therefore, that takes myriad eau de vies and turns them collectively into Cognac.
After blending, the Cognac then marries together in massive vats for set times dependent upon style and brand choice. At this point the spirit is ready for release as a Cognac, although it is occasionally re-barreled for further aging after the marrying process. Blending is the key to producing Cognac, and consistently delivering a particular profile from one year to the next.
"An eau de vie can be great but it can never be complete," says Hennessy brand ambassador Fabien Levieux. A single eau de vie won't provide the full depth of character and range of flavor that a blended Cognac would. Therefore, it's the cellar masters, master blenders and master tasters who are the true voices of authority for any Cognac house.
At Hennessy, a prestigious seven person tasting committee samples 10,000 eau de vies per year. It's a highly rigid process, everything is controlled from glass shape and type of water drank with the samples, to time of the day—11 a.m., always—ensuring that only one variable is in play, the particular characteristics of each eau de vie.
Hennessy likes to say that until members have served 10 years on the committee, they're not allowed to talk, or voice an opinion to more distinguished colleagues. Yann Fillioux, 7th generation Hennessy master blender, has been on the committee for 50 years.
... blending enables long-term consistency, while allowing for flexibility to achieve that consistency.
Each brand will have its own process for building a "complete" Cognac, but what remains consistent is that blending enables long-term consistency, while allowing for flexibility to achieve that consistency.
"Every year we have to adjust to the different vintage," notes Benoit de Sutter, Courvoisier's spirits purchaser and master distiller. Different vintages may produce grapes which are more or less acidic, resulting in different eau de vies, and a need to adjust blends rather than rely upon a single formula.
"I have to make the blend to respect the style of the house," adds Baptiste Loiseau, cellar master for Rémy Martin. That's where tasting all those thousands of samples comes into play. At Rémy, their 20-person tasting committee samples at least 20 to 30 eau de vies per day.
With blending, eau de vies incorporated into a Cognac can come from a wide range of ages. Therefore, Cognacs do not bear age labels, but rather are categorized based on the minimum ages of the eau de vies in the blend. The current legally defined categories of Cognac include:
- V.S.: Eau de vies with a minimum age of two years. Also known as Very Special or Three Stars.
- V.S.O.P.: Eau de vies with a minimum age of four years. Also known as Very Special Old Pale or Reserve.
- X.O.: Eau de vies with a minimum age of six years. Also known as Extra Old or Hors d'Age, which often unofficially indicates particularly old or premium releases.
But, these categories are set to be updated. By April 2018, X.O. will indicate a minimum age of 10 years, while Napoleon, previously an unofficial classification, will be added in order to indicate a minimum age of six years.
There are two primary reasons for the change. "It's more about adapting the standards for the market to products which already exist," explains Lionel Lalague of BNIC. He means that the vast majority of X.O. on store shelves already incorporate minimum ages of 10 for their blends. As two examples, Martell's X.O. incorporates eau de vies aged 10 to 35 years, and Rémy Martin's utilizes eau de vies 10 to 30 years.
Beyond that, adding a new, official category simply lets brands put more product on shelves, offering consumers additional choices, flavor profiles, and price points.
Regions & Grapes
In addition to all of the specifications already mentioned, Cognac is further regulated, most importantly in regards to its Appellation of Origin and the regions within it.
Cognac is located southwest of Paris and just north of Bordeaux. Around the city is the defined, protected Appellation of Origin for Cognac, which was legally classified in 1909 and includes six specified areas, or crus:
- Grand Champagne*
- Petite Champagne
- Fins Bois
- Bons Bois
- Bois Ordinaires
Cognac can be made from three different white grapes, yet Ugni Blanc is the dominant force, accounting for 98 percent of all production. The other two grapes are Folle Blanche and Colombard. The wine produced from these grapes is highly acidic, which is why aging for Cognac is both necessary for quality and also yields such great results, comparative to a brandy like unaged Pisco, made from sweet grapes.
While the grape varietals remain consistent, the different soils and various other characteristics lead to distinctive terroir qualities from one cru to the next.
While the grape varietals remain consistent, the different soils and various other characteristics lead to distinctive terroir qualities from one cru to the next. Another difference worth nothing amongst the Cognac crus is that certain regions, namely Grand Champagne and Petit Champagne, tend to produce eau de vies which lend themselves better to extended aging times. Any Cognac which incorporates 50 percent or more of Grand Champagne can also be labeled as "Fine Champagne."
Brands approach this quite differently to develop their own signature style. For instance, Rémy Martin only uses grapes from Grand Champagne and Petit Champagne. Martell, on the other hand, relies heavily on Borderies, with 50 percent of all Borderies production going to their house. Meanwhile, Courvoisier turns chiefly to Fins Bois, which accounts for about 60 percent of their grapes. Fins Bois is actually the largest producing region, attributed with over 42 percent of all Cognac production, while Bins Ordinaires is hardly utilized, accounting for just one percent of production.
Similarly to how Scotch drinkers may not specify a favorite brand but, instead, a region, such as Speyside or peat-soaked Islay, many Cognac aficionados will do the same, focusing on an area, such as Borderies, prior to an individual brand.
Merchants vs. Winegrowers
One fascinating component of Cognac production which many American drinkers aren't aware of is the concept of merchants and winegrowers, or "professional distillers" versus bouilleurs de cru, which translates to "boilers of the region."
In Cognac, there are over 4,500 small winegrowers. These are essentially family-run farms which may own around 50 acres of vineyards. They grow their own grapes, and produce their own wine. At this stage, they could either sell their wine directly to one of the merchants or professional distillers, or they could distill themselves. From there, they could either age their eau de vie onsite to a particular brand's specifications, or sell the unaged eau de vie to a larger house who wants to do their own aging. Small winegrowers can take on as many of these roles, in any combination, that they'd prefer, and can also still release their own labels.
Either way, the small winegrowers are typically contracted out to one or several larger merchants. To whichever extent they are involved in the production process, they adhere to the larger brand's guidelines for production.
For instance, the estate of winegrower Michele Guilloteau dates back to 1744, and he now works exclusively with Courvoisier. He ages his eau de vie for 18 months before handing it over to Courvoisier, at which point he'll receive a quality bonus depending on how the eau de vie is graded. The bonus system is commonplace throughout Cognac, although different houses have unique specifications and scales.
Guilloteau's still is sized and shaped to Courvoisier's preferences, with an onion-shaped chapiteau, the top of the still. Barrels are also typically provided by the larger brand to the winegrower, once again aligning with the brand's style.
Kept in his own private cellar, Guilloteau has also stashed away barrels of eau de vie from each year of production. This personal bounty, a common practice for small winegrowers, will be a de facto retirement plan for him once he's ready to step down from active winemaking and distillation.
The big brands work with hundreds, or even thousands, of winegrowers to handle various phases of the production process. Courvoisier buys approximately 25 percent of their production and Rémy Martin purchases roughly 30 percent of theirs. At Hennessy, by far the largest producer, they do things differently. They work with over 1,500 winegrowers, and purchase upwards of 93 percent of their production. The remaining fraction, which they directly produce, is done specifically to serve as a teaching tool to their huge swath of contracted winegrowers. "We don't do that for volume, we do that for guidance," says Hennessy brand ambassador Levieux. "To help our winemakers make great wines and eau de vies." They are distilling only to instruct their producers how to do it to their strict standards. "We help them so they can help us, as we must make sure they make quality eau de vies," says Levieux.
Cognac must be aged in French oak barrels, which includes oak primarily sourced from two forests, Limousin and Troncais.
Barrels & Aging
Cognac must be aged in French oak barrels, which includes oak primarily sourced from two forests, Limousin and Troncais. As compared to French Limousin oak, Troncais oak is known to have a finer grain. Barrels can be used and reused, as long as they have never held a non-wine product, i.e., there's no ex-bourbon barrels being used here.
Barrels are indeed reused heavily though, from 50 to 100 years. Different houses have various grading systems for their barrels, moving eau de vies from fresh barrels to older barrels in order to control the aging and impart different flavors and characteristics.
The barrels used can come in various sizes, although they're all substantially larger than typical bourbon barrels. For instance, while Hennessy uses mostly 350L and 270L barrels, for their special anniversary release, Hennessy 250, they specifically used 250 250L barrels. Brands are free to use their own mix, with other common sizes skewing even larger, including 450L and 540L varieties.
With no age labels on Cognac, eau de vies are left in the barrel for as long as it takes to achieve a desired result. "It could be 40 or 50 years until you get the reveal of the full potential of the eau de vie," says Baptiste Loiseau, cellar master for Rémy Martin.
Whenever an eau de vie has reached its peak maturation, whether that means it's been aging for 10, 30 or 100 years, if it's not going directly into a blend, it's stashed away in demijohns.
Demijohns are glass vessels, housed in wicker containers that look a bit like topped laundry baskets, which enable an eau de vie to be kept indefinitely, without further aging, oxidation or evaporation. As such, a trip to Martell's cellars could include sampling an eau de vie distilled in 1848, barrel-aged for 65 years until 1913, and then stored for another century in a demijohn.
Cognac must be aged in French oak barrels, which includes oak primarily sourced from two forests, Limousin and Troncais.
Other factors affecting Cognac's aging process include whether or not the barrels were toasted, and to what degree, and whether they've been stored in humid or dry cellars. Dry cellars produce higher rates of liquid evaporation, providing woodier, and spicier notes, while humid cellars produce higher rates of alcohol evaporation. A tasting at Baron Otard's Château de Cognac of eau de vies distilled at the same time but kept in cellars of different climates showcases a stark contrast.
Another factor is the stacking mechanisms used. Courvoisier, for instance, primarily stands their barrels up vertically, whereas other brands may use horizontal rickhouse style systems, or the more traditional approach of pyramid-stacking barrels.
Cognac's Place Today
Cognac is rapidly growing in the U.S. market. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), in 2014 there were 4.1 million 9-liter cases of Cognac sold across the country, representing an increase of nearly 12 percent from 2013.
The bulk of those sales, nearly three quarters worth, come in the most affordable market segment, the V.S. category. The disparity is not quite as wide globally. According to the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC) approximately 49 percent of global sales fall into the VS category.
North America is Cognac's largest market, although Asia is where massive growth has occurred over the past decade. BNIC reported a 1,000 percent increase in China over the prior 10 years, for instance.
Perhaps most interestingly though in regards to Cognac's place in the spirit industry is that it is almost exclusively drank outside of France. BNIC reports that 98 percent of all Cognac is exported across the world, leaving slim pickings, and apparently little interest, at home. Think about that -- what other regionally produced food or drink across the globe is not enjoyed first and foremost right where it's made.
"It's difficult, the French market is very saturated with lots of wine and spirits," says Martell cellar master Benoit Fil. "Historically, the first distillation was exported." As Cognac was always produced with a foreign market in mind, it never became an indoctrinated part of local culture.
Cognac is traditionally enjoyed as either an aperitif or digestif, with less consumption during meals. As with most rigid stereotypes though, feel free to pay them no mind.
"I recommend people to use it as they like it," says Benoit Fil, the Martell cellar master. So cast those rules aside and drink it neat, pair it with that cigar, ice it down, or mix it into a cocktail, however the mood may strike.
In fact, a number of Cognacs are produced specifically with cocktails in mind. The list includes the likes of Martell's Caractère, Pierre Ferrand 1840, and D'USSÉ VSOP. Just three years old, D'USSÉ was launched specifically with the American market and American tastes in mind, and the V.S.O.P. is blended to offer a balance of flavor that can hold up to cocktails.