Cognac: Behind the bottle

HARVEST AND WINEMAKING

It all starts with the selection of grape varieties, mostly Ugni Blanc, perfectly suited to make Cognac. This is followed by the traditional harvest, the pressing of the grapes and winemaking according to natural methods.

The vineyards of a noble spirit

The vineyards of the Cognac Delimited Region include approximately 5000 grape growers who produce white wine for Cognac making. The variety most widely planted is Ugni Blanc, although Folle Blanche and Colombard are also found. This late maturing variety has a good resistance to grey rot and produces a wine with two essential features: a high acidity level and, generally speaking, a low alcohol content. Since the phylloxera plague suffered at the end of the 19th century, all the varieties used have been grafted onto various roostocks according to the type of soil.

The Harvest

On average, vines are planted 3 meters apart. All types of pruning are permitted. The most commonly used is the “Guyot Double” method. Some growers continue to harvest by hand, but the great majority now use harvesting machines. These machines have existed for about 30 years and are perfectly suited to the needs of the region’s growers. Harvesting may begin as soon as the grapes are ripe generally at the beginning of October and conclude at the end of the month.

Pressing and Fermentation: The Natural Method

The grapes are pressed immediately after harvesting in traditional horizontal basket presses or pneumatic bladder presses. The use of continuous screw presses is forbidden. Fermentation of the juice follows immediately. Chaptalization (the addition of sugar) is forbidden by law. Pressing and fermentation are closely supervised, as they have a determining influence on the final quality of the eau-de-vie.

From wine to eau-de-vie

About 4 to 8 days after the beginning of fermentation, the wines for Cognac contain about 9% alcohol. With their high acidity and low alcohol content, they are perfect for distillation, which must be completed by the next March 31st at the very latest.

THE DISTILLATION PROCESS

Once alcoholic fermentation is completed, the white wine has to be distilled to make the eau-de-vie. The distillation method has not changed since the birth of Cognac. The special Charentais copper stills “à repasse” that were used then are still in use today. Cognac distillation is performed in a two-stage process. Stage one: a first distillate is obtained, referred to as “brouillis”, with an alcohol content of 28 to 32%. Stage two: The “brouillis” is returned to the boiler for a second heating, known as “la bonne chauffe”.

Why is Distillation Necessary?

Alcohol is a product of the fermentation of sugar, found in its natural form in fruit as fructose and glucose. Alcohol is also asso- ciated to many other components and must therefore be isolated from them. This operation is performed by distillation. The principle of distillation is based on the volatility differences of these components. In a distilled eau-de-vie we only find those volatile substances that make up the main features of the bouquet.

A copper still

Distillation is carried out in two “chauffes”, that is, in two separate heatings, using a special Charentais copper still. It is made of a uniquely shaped boiler heated on a naked flame topped by a still-head in the shape of a turban, an olive, or an onion, and prolonged by a swan-neck tube that turns into a coil and passes through a cooling tank referred called “la pipe”.

The distillation Method

Unfiltered wine is poured into the boiler and brought to the boil. Alcohol vapours are freed and collected in the still-head. They then enter the swan-neck and continue into the coil. Upon contact with the coolant, they condense, forming a liquid known as “brouillis”. This slightly cloudy liquid with an alcohol content of 28 to 32 % alcohol is returned to the boiler for a second distillation, known as “la bonne chauffe”. For this second heating, the boiler capacity must not exceed 30 hectoliters, and the load volume is limited to 25 hectoliters. The master distiller must then carry out the delicate operation known as “the cut” or “la coupe”: the first vapours that arrive, called “the heads”, have the highest alcohol content, and are separated from the rest. Then comes “the heart”, a clear spirit that will produce Cognac. Afterwords the distiller gets rid of “the second cut” when the al- coholometer registers 60%. And finally he eliminates the tails. The “heads” and “second cuts” are redistilled with the next batch of wine or “brouillis”. The success of the distilling cycle, which lasts about 24 hours, lies in the constant supervision it requires and in the extensive experience of the master distiller, who may also intervene in the distillation techniques (proportion of fine lees, recycling of “tails” in batches of wine or “brouillis”, temperature curves…), thus conferring Cognac facets of his personality. The distillation season for white wines destined for the production of Cognac closes on March 31st following the harvest.

Charentais pot still and distillation

The traditional Charentais still is often equipped with an energy- saving wine preheater. This optional device, in which the heat is provided by the alcohol vapours passing through it, preheats the wine that is to be distilled in the next cycle. ,/

The Ambiance of the Charentes

Distilleries work day and night during the winter months. It is a time when the Charentais adapt their lives to the rhythm of the stills, in an atmosphere where the glow of the flames, the quiet bubbling of the alcohol, the water, the copper and the bricks form a marvelous combination.

AGEING

Cognac is a living product. During its long ageing in oak casks, it is in permanent contact with air. This allows the extraction of substances from the wood that give Cognac both its color and bouquet.

An exchange of flavors

The long work of maturing Cognac, which may at times last decades, is made possible thanks to the wood’s porosity. It allows indirect contact between the spirit in the casks and the air out- side. This way, the substances extracted by the Cognac from the wood, known as dry extracts, alter the Cognac’s physical appearance, giving it a color ranging from golden yellow to fiery brown. With time, the transfer of the natural characteristics of the oak gradually produces “rancio” aromas and develops the bouquet of Cognac.

Ageing is essential for an eau-de-vie to be sold as Cognac. It takes place in casks that hold between 270 to 450 litres of spirit. The natural humidity of the cellars in which the casks are stored, with its influence on evaporation, is one of the determining factors in the ageing process. When humidity, dryness and temperature are in balance, the spirit becomes mellow and ages harmoniously.

This evolution in the ageing process is made up of three basic stages: extraction, hydrolysis, and oxidation.

Extraction : The new eau-de-vie is stored in new casks where it dissolves the wood’s extractable substances and acquires a golden yellow color. Part of the volatile components are eliminated… Eaux-de-vie undergo an evolution in terms of color (they progressively pass from being colorless to a marked yellow color), flavor and bouquet (aroma of oak with a hint of vanilla).

Hydrolysis : This is a transitory stage that precedes an important evolution of the spirit’s organoleptic characteristics. The eau-de-vie is about to “digest the wood”. Its color tends to darken.

Oxidation : The taste softens, the notes of steamed oak disappear and give way to floral aromas with hints of vanilla, the color deepens. With the years, the eau-de-vie becomes increasingly mellow, the bouquet grows richer, and the “rancio” flavor appears.

A corner of paradise

The oldest Cognacs are usually kept away from the other cellars, in a dark cellar known as “the Paradise”. Once they have reached maturity, the master blender decides to end their ageing process and places them first into very old casks and then into large glass containers called “demijohns” or “dame jeanne”, where they may rest for many decades with no air contact.

The angel’s share

While Cognac is ageing in casks, absorbing the best of the oak and developing its most exquisite flavors, it is in contact with the air and gradually loses some of its alcohol and some volume, but without excess. This natural evaporation is poetically referred to as “The Angel’s Share”. It is the equivalent of more than twenty million bottles per year that disappear into the atmosphere: a high price that Cognac producers do not hesitate to pay in their quest for perfection.

BLENDING

Making Cognac is the work of the Master Blender. Like the “master nose” and his perfumes, the Cognac Master Blender (Maître de Chai) subtly blends together eaux-de-vie of different ages and from different crus. Rigorously, with experience and intuition, he strives to achieve consistency in his blends and loyalty among the followers of his House.

For many years now, rules have codified the ways in which Cognac is made and presented. Nonetheless, all Cognacs are diffe- rent. Every Master Blender creates unique Cognacs to seduce connoisseurs through subtle and endless variations of flavours.

A Master at Work

The Master Blender buys eaux-de-vie and follows their development from the moment they come out of the pot stills. He monitors their ageing, tastes them regularly, and decides whether it is time to change them from one oak cask or from a chai – ageing warehouse – to another so they become rounder or dryer. 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 work of the master blender requires extensive experience. It allows each Cognac House to control the quality of its spirit. By blending eaux-de-vie of different ages and from different crus, the master blender creates genuine harmonies, like a painter or a musician. This patient craftsmanship will allow each consumer to recognize and appreciate the Cognac he/she loves.

BARREL MAKING
Subtle exchanges between oak and the eaux-de-vie…

Cognac is kept and aged for many years in oak casks. The making of a Cognac cask follows a traditional and ancestral method. Nothing is left to chance from the selection of the oak to the assembly of the casks, in order for Cognac to acquire the best of the oak over many years.

An eau-de-vie only becomes Cognac following slow ageing in oak casks whose wood has been selected because of its natural properties and its ability to transfer them to the spirit. The contact with the wood will give each eau-de-vie its unique color and bouquet, without which it could not receive the Cognac appellation.

Selecting the wood

Eaux-de-vie are aged exclusively in oak casks. This oak can have different origins and come from different specis (e.g. «sessile» and «pedunculate») or different modes of sylviculture (e.g «timber forest» or natural forest»). This wood has been selected because of its hardness, porosity and extraction characteristics. Timber
forests are composed of trees of the same age; density is high and the grain is tight. Logs are long, without knots. These oaks are known to have particularly soft tannins. Natural forest trees are of different ages and density is lower. This dynamic cultivation method produces greater volumes of wood. Logs can be cut younger The grain is wider and the logs are shorter. An eau-de-vie resting in casks made from this kind of oak can extract more tannin.

In the best casks

Cask making suffers no improvisation. The “merrains” or boards used to make each cask are culled between the heartwood and sapwood of oak trees season. Then they must be split in order to respect the wood’s grain, and for about three years where they can lose their sap and the wood’s bitter flavours. Following this long curing period, the boards are shaped into curved staves. The coopers can now start their work.

They hoop the staves over and around a fire made with wood shavings and oak pieces. The wood is repeatedly moistened and heated to bend the staves into shape giving out an unforgettable smell of freshly baked bread. How much the wood is charred in this process called “le bousinage” – barrel toasting –will strongly influence the characteristics of the eau-de-vie in the cask. During the heating period, a wire rope placed around the base of the cask is progressively tightened in order to bring the staves closer together, and finally join them without any need for nails or glue.

After the finishing touches, the cask must pass several solidity and boiling water tests to detect possible leaks. Some coopers sign their “master pieces” to demonstrate their full commitment to their work.

How to read a label
and better identify Cognac…

Each Cognac is identified by its label, based on a number of mentions and designations.

Ageing Designations

A Cognac may not be sold to the public unless it has been aged in oak cask for at least two years counting from the end of the distillation period, that is from April 1st of the year following the harvest (compte 2). Once bottled, a Cognac retains the same age indefinitely.
The executive decision of August 23, 1983 codified the usage of designations based on the length of ageing of the youngest eau- de-vie in the blend such as:
v.s. (very special) ou *** (3 stars)… : Indicates that the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is at least two years old.
v.s.O.P. (very superior Old Pale), reserve… : indicates that the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend is at least four years old.
Napoléon, x.O (extra Old), hors d’âge… : Cognacs whose youngest eau-de-vie is at least six years old.

Generally speaking, Cognac Master Blenders use eaux-de- vie that are much older than the minimum requirement for their blends. In fact, the most prestigious designations may have aged for dozens of years in oak casks before being presented to the public.
Vintage Cognacs : Cognacs made with eaux-de-vie from a single harvest. The year of the harvest is specified on the label. Producing vintage Cognac is not a common practice.
The BNIC is in charge of controlling the stocks and the age of maturing Cognac.
Fine : The term may be used for any eaux-de-vie produced within the viticultural Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. It does not provide any special indication with regard to Cognac, other than with regard to the Fine Champagne category. This AOC must be composed of eaux-de-vie that come only from the Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne Crus and must contain at least 50% of Grande

Mandatory mentions

Among the mandatory mentions on a Cognac label appear : de- nomination, alcohol content, content of bottle.