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Making Cognac

The bustling riverside town of Cognac remains world famous for one of the region’s most celebrated exports...

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Seventeenth century Dutch merchants discovered that, when stored in oak casks, distilled wine not only took up less space but also improved with age. Brandewijn - burnt wine - gave us the word brandy but it was local producers who gradually developed the double distillation process which created the rich, sensuous appeal of what came to be known throughout the world as cognac.

Like Champagne, cognac’s production is now strictly controlled, to preserve its reputation, heritage and above all its quality. On 1 May 1909, the area in which cognac could be produced was formally defined, and in 1936 cognac was awarded its own Appellation d’origine contrôlée or AOC.

Cognac can be produced in only one of the region’s six terroir areas, and is clearly demarcated to ensure that ‘lesser’ grapes and brandy producers cannot lower the standard of production. The six areas are based upon the findings of geologist Henri Coquand in 1860. Working with a taster, he defined the precise borders of both ‘Grande Champagne’ and ‘Petite Champagne’ (the ‘Premier Cru’ grape-producing areas) and established geographical boundaries for the cognac producing region.

Only specified grape varieties can produce cognac: Colombard, Folle blanche and, most important of all, Ugni blanc (sometimes called St Emilion in France). The most celebrated cognacs have the highest percentages of Ugni blanc grapes, carefully cultivated and tended throughout the year in the ‘Premier Cru’ region.

Grapes nourished by the chalky soils and sunny climate are harvested in early October, gently pressed and allowed to ferment for several weeks, before being distilled not once but twice. Many producers still use the traditional pot-bellied stills or alembics. This second distillation, la bonne chauffe, contributes significantly to cognac’s characteristic complexity and aromas.

Following distillation, the resulting eaux-de-vie are aged in large barrels made from oak sourced in the forêt de Tronçais (in central France) or from neighbouring Limousin. Inevitably, during the aging process part of the eau-de-vie evaporates and is known, rather romantically, as la part des anges or ‘the angels share’. The fumes also feed a fungus which blackens the walls of the warehouses or chais – a sure sign of cognac production.

At the end of a minimum of two years’ aging the barrels’ precious contents have acquired a rich brown colour, and developed unique flavours. From now on the art of highly skilled master blenders takes over, mixing painstakingly selected eaux-de-vie to create the characteristic signatures of their cognac house. Only when this is completed is the cognac ready to be bottled and labelled.

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