First, cognac is always brandy, but brandy is not necessarily cognac. The word "brandy" comes from the Dutch brandywijn, meaning, burnt wine. Dutch traders took a clue from alchemists and distilled (cooked down) wine for easier transport that could be reconstituted at its final destination. The resulting product proved good enough to drink.
While brandy may be made from any kind of fruit, Cognac must be made from certain varieties of grapes. In 1908, like French wines, it gained an AOC "appellation d'origine contrôlée," which presents the following conditions:
Cognac grapes must be of the following varieties: Folle Blanche, Colombard and Ugni Blanc (a.k.a. St. Emilion Charente or Trebbiano) - about 98% of cognac is made from this last type.
It must be grown in the designated cognac region, which is divided into 6 crus: La Grande Champagne, la Petite Champagne, les Borderies, les Fins Bois, les Bons Bois, les Bois Ordinaires. The resulting "eaux de vie" from these different crus have different characters.
It must be twice distilled in a pot still called an alembic.
The grape juice is extracted, fermented, then double-distilled in the alembic over an open flame. After the second distillation, or bonne chauffe, only the "middle" is retained. The head is too strong and tail lacks balance, only the heart is used to make cognac. It is aged in oak casks (new or old) for at least two years.
During maturation of the eau-de-vie the proof drops, and somewhere between 3% - 7% of the total volume of the cognac is lost due to evaporation. (That?s roughly 20 ? 27 million bottles per year.) This lost portion is called the ?angel?s share?. The evaporation encourages the growth of fungus on some of the buildings in the town of Cognac, as well as on the walls of the cellars where they are aged, but the locals claim it aids health and longevity.
In the last, delicate step, a master blender combines numerous eaux-de-vie of different ages and crus (growth areas) to create a harmonious blend with great depth and complexity of flavor.
All Cognacs originate from Cognac- - and its surroundings, in two French départements, which include Segonzac and Jarnac.
Is that obvious, redundant? Maybe so.
However, until 1909 when a decree protecting the delimited area was signed, this was not all that clear. The decree claims that only the spirit made with eaux-de-vie from the protected zone and permitted grapes are entitled to the name Cognac. They must be distilled and aged following specifically authorised techniques, respecting the double distillation process in a copper alembic, and aged in oak barrels for a minimum period of time.
Thus, all Cognac is brandy but not all coñac, kognac, or brandy is Cognac.
Not all Cognacs are alike:
With a rich clay soil, a softly tempered sea climate, and generous amounts of sunlight, the Charente valley enjoys a climate specifically favourable to cultivating vines. It covers over 200, 000 acres along the Charente river and may be distinguished by six different viticultural areas, or 'crus'.
Enjoying specific climate and soil, each region produces different and complimentary qualities of eaux-de-vie. The areas form a circular belt surrounding Cognac, and the eaux-de-vie loose sharpness and gain in body as they move further from the center.
The blending, or "marriage", of these distinct qualities will confer to each Cognac its individual, unique, character.
Fast Facts About Cognac
Cognac might have made a name for itself with its wine and salt trading while the Cognaçais, proud of their nickname: 'cagouillard' (snail ), enjoyed a slow pace of life, had it not been for the river Charente, dubbed 'my kingdom's nicest' by King Henry the IVth.
This river, particularly navigable, gave Cognac easy access to the nearby Atlantic ocean, in South Western France, not far from Bordeaux. A climate and soil most appropriate to vine growing, combined with a solid intuition for trade, and a love of perfection did the rest.
Merchants, mostly English and Dutch, began to distill the wines in order to avoid the long boat trips spoiling their quality. The Dutch turned it into 'Brandewijn', or burned wine. This would become the forerunner of 'Brandy'.
During the XVIIth century, the Cognaçais initiated the process of double distillation, allowing the concentrated alcohol, the 'water of life' known as 'eau-de-vie', to travel in the safest and most economical conditions. This alcohol, stored in oak barrels,was to be diluted upon arrival. It is purely by chance that they realised that these eaux-de-vie improved with time and contact with the oak wood. They began to drink it as such. Soon, it would be named: Cognac.
The Cognac region was then primarily Protestant. The "Edict of Nantes" was their guarantee of "freedom of faith and worship, and safe heaven". When King Louis the XIVth, the Sun King, cancelled the edict, it forced many Protestant families to leave. They established themselves in England, Ireland or Holland and some began to import the eaux-de-vie produced by their relatives in the region. A strong export network thus began to spread.
The XVIIIth century saw the first exports to Holland, England, North America and the Far East.Trading Houses created in the XIXth century began to ship their products in bottles and no longer in casks. This was the start of yet another economic cycle, leading to the creation of factories producing bottles, boxes, corks and labels. Cognac was fast becoming a major trade and export centre.
At the end of the XIXth centurya major crisis hit the region, with the onset of the infamous phylloxera, a fungus that spread throughout the vineyards, destroying them. In 1888, a French scientist traveled to Dennison, Texas, where he found the long termcure to phylloxera. The Cognac merchants led the way in replanting, partly from American vines, while helping growers with plants, fertilisers and advice...
Little by little, the vineyards were entirely replanted, and became France's largest for white wine. This left the Charentais with new battles to fight, such as opening new markets throughout the world, guaranteeing quality, maintaining the region's global economy and protecting against Cognac's imitators.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the cure of phylloxera in 1988, Dennison, Texas and Cognac, France, became sister cities. Meanwhile, in the historic part of the town of Cognac, the rue 'Saulnier' (salt trader in old French) remains the only witness to the town's original trade.
The Romans are credited with planting the first grapes in the region around the town of Cognac, in France.
The age of cognac is determined by its time in the barrel. It is not considered any more aged once it's bottled - no matter how long it stays there.
By law, distillation must take place March 31st of the year following harvest in order to capture the fresh, fruity qualities of the wine.
Legend has it that cognac's double distillation originated when an 18th century brandy producer, Chevalier de La Croix-Marone (the Knight of the Brown Cross), dreamt that the devil was trying to extract his soul by boiling him. It took the devil two times to do so, hence he realized he could find the soul of the brandy by distilling it twice.
The "paradis" is the most cherished spot in the cognac cellar, where the oldest cognacs are kept in glass vessels.
Ideally cognac should be served in a narrow tulip-shaped glass. This allows the aroma to be concentrated and slowly released without being overwhelming - as with a snifter.
Cognac bottles should be stored vertically or the spirit will attack the cork. (Down Cognac, down!)
VS = Very Superior - a blend of 40 cognacs and is aged a minimum of 2-1/2 years VSOP = Very Superior Old Pale - a blend aged a minimum of 4-1/2 XO/Napoleon/Hors d'age = Extra Old - is aged a minimum of 6 years
What's the difference between cognac and armagnac?
Of these two French brandies, armagnac is the elder by a few hundred years.
Region: Charente (around the town of cognac)
Distillation: multiple distillations in pot stills
Proof: must have a minimum alcohol content of 40% vol.
Aged: in white oak
Character: smooth & polished
Distillation: single distillation in a continuous still, resulting in a more robust flavor that is truer to its components and which must be tempered during aging
Proof: about 110
Aged: in black oak. The age listed on the bottle must refer to the age of the youngest element of the blend.
Character: fiery, earthy, aka "the velvet flame" (not to be confused with Mel Tormé, "the velvet fog").