Cognac is a grape brandy produced in the French region of the same name in the Charente-Maritime and Charente departments and in a few areas in Deux-Sèvres and the Dordogne. The permitted 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 2 years in French oak.
Still wines had being produced in the Cognac region as early as 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 is made of 6 growth areas (crus); Grande Champagne (the most prestigious Cognacs, full-bodied, powerful, pungent, persistent flavours), Petite Champagne (similar to the Grand Champagne, but less persistent on the palate), Borderies (elegant, floral style), Fins Bois (fruity and soft, but lacking ageing potential), Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires (both producing light, quick-ageing Cognacs-often excluded from blends). The term "champagne" derives from an ancient French word meaning chalky soil, which is the typical soil composition in the region. A cognac made from just Grande Champagne (at least 50%) 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 Angel's Share". It is the equivalent of more than 20 million bottles per year! The final spirit is usually diluted to 40% alcohol with water, 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 likened to blended whisky or non-vintage Champagne, which also rely on blending to achieve consistency of style.
The age of the Cognac on the label 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), XO or Napoléon or Hors d'Age (at least six years).
In the 18th century the second sons of British and Irish families came to Cognac and established necociant businesses that are still a domonant force in the Cognanc trade, 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 Grand Champagne sub-region and has been supplying Berrys for nearly a century - Frapin's Chateau de Fontpinot is consistently one of the finest Cognacs in the region.
Peyrat is also a small house handling several estate-grown, single vineyard Cognacs.
Click here to download the Cognac Flavour Wheel