Cognac is a grape brandy produced in the French region of the same name, in the Charente-Maritime and Charente départements, as well as in a few areas in Deux-Sèvres and the Dordogne. The permitted grape varieties include Ugni Blanc (predominantly), Folle Blanche and Colombard. According to the appellation regulations, Cognac must be distilled twice in traditionally shaped Charentais copper pot stills and aged at least two years in French oak.
Although still wines have been produced in the Cognac region since the 12th century, the rise of Cognac came courtesy of the Dutch in the 17th century who wanted brandewijn, or distilled wine, rather than normal wine, for its sailors. The trade has flourished ever since, even though it came under severe pressure during the economic crises in the Far East in the late 1990s.
The delimited region of production for Cognac is made up of six areas (crus):
Grande Champagne produces the most prestigious Cognacs; full-bodied, powerful and pungent, with persistent flavours;
Petite Champagne is similar to Grande Champagne, but the spirit is less persistent on the palate;
Borderies produces an elegant, floral style;
Fins Bois makes fruity and soft Cognac, but it tends to lack ageing potential;
Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires both produce light, quick-ageing Cognacs, which are often excluded from blends.
The term ‘Champagne’ refers to Cognac’s chalky soil, which is similar to that of the Champagne region. A Cognac made from just Grande Champagne (at least 50 percent) and Petite Champagne is called Fine Champagne Cognac.
During the ageing, a percentage of the alcohol evaporates through the porous oak barrels. This natural evaporation is poetically referred to as ‘The Angels’ Share’ and – far from being a small proportion – is the equivalent of more than 20 million bottles per year. The final spirit is usually diluted with water to 40 percent alcohol, while a small quantity of (flavourless) caramel may be used to adjust its colour. The last stage includes the ‘assembly’ (blending) of Cognacs from different casks, and – typically – from different vintages and/or locations. In this respect Cognac may be likened to blended whisky or non-vintage Champagne, which also rely on blending to achieve consistency of style.
The age featured on the label of a Cognac reflects that of the youngest spirit used in the blend. The unofficial age grades that may be used on the label include:
VS: at least two years in cask
VSOP or Réserve: at least four years in cask
XO, Napoléon or Hors d'Age: at least six years in cask
In the 18th century the second sons of British and Irish families came to Cognac and established négociant businesses that are still a dominant force in the Cognac trade today, such as Martell (Guernsey), Hennessy (Ireland) and Hine (Dorset). ). The finest Cognacs are produced by a small selection of family-run companies where quality rather than quantity is the byword.
Hine is owned by Angostura but is still run by Jacques and Bernard Hine and produces Cognacs of distinction and class.
Delamain was founded 250 years ago and is renowned for its smooth, elegant, and wonderfully fragrant Cognacs.
Frapin owns over 200 hectares of prime vineyard sites in the Grande Champagne sub-region and has been supplying Berry Bros. & Rudd for nearly a century – Frapin's Château de Fontpinot is consistently one of the finest Cognacs in the region.
Peyrat is a small house handling several estate-grown, single vineyard Cognacs.