Of course, every Cognac is made from wine. The grapes used in the Charente are 3 different varieties: Those grape varieties will not deliver a very good wine but a wine perfect for distilling. Cognac grape varieties such as Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Colombard make light and acidic wine.
1. Ugni Blanc
This grape variety is even more known under its Italian name Trebbiano. Apparently the variety originally comes from the Toscana region. Here, the grape is used for light, fresh wine. Ugni Blanc delivers relatively high quantities: the wine grower can produce about 100 – 200 hectoliter per hectare.
The grape variety is not very known in France – but actually one of the top varieties: Ugni Blanc is cultivated in several regions, such as Midi, Charentes, Gers, Lot-et-Garonne, Landes, Entre-deux-mers, Bouches-du-Rhônes, Loire, Longuedoc, Provence and Corse.
But Ugni Blanc is also cultivated in other countries: Worldwide it ranks at No. 4 of the most used varietes; Italy, Bulgaria, Mexico, Australia, Greece, South Africa, California, Argentina, India, Chile, Rumania, Russia, Brazil and others.
Ugni Blanc is an important white grape variety in France, with about 100,000 hectares of vineyards. For a long time it has also been used to create aromatic and dry white wines, classified as Vins de Pays. The grapes are quite sensitive to winter frosts, the plant needs mild climates. Cognac being a northern wine area, the wine is more acidic and low in alcohol – ideal for distillation.
But wait, there is quite a confusing naming: While Ugni Blanc is also called “Saint Emilion” in the Cognac region, other regions invented their own names for the variety:
Chatar, Cadillac, Cadillate, Castillonne, Muscadet (Gironde), Clairette à grains ronds, Clairette ronde (Provence), Buan et Beou, Queue de Renard, Roussan (Alpes Maritimes), Gredelin (Vaucluse), Rossola (Corse). More names for the Ugni Blanc variety: Trebbiano Toscano, Trebbiano, Trebbiano Fiorentino, Procacino, Malvasia lunga, Buzetto, Campolese, Albanella (Italy), Talia, Branquinta, Douradinha (Portugal),White Hermitage (Australia) and Juni blan (Croatia).
If Ugni Blanc grapes grow close to the sea, the wine becomes slightly sour, acidic. This is quite important for distilling Cognac. When cultivated more in the countryside, the wine gets more balanced and neutral. In Provence, Ugni Blanc wines are smooth with complex notes of pine resin, quince and lemon.
Close to Angoulême, there is a Ugni-Blanc Conservatorium, the Lycée agricole de L’Oisellerie – a school. The genetic heritage of the grapes is conserved here: Experts gathered the oldest vine plants in Charente and South of France. In order to save the diversity the plants are cloned.
2. Folle Blanche
A classic grape which is mostly used for Armagnac and Cognac production. In the region of Cognac, the variety is slowly pushed away by Ugni Blanc. Like Ugni Blanc and Colombard, Folle Blanche creates high quantities of grape juice. It develops early in spring.
The Folle Blanche variety makes light, fresh and acid wine. In Loire and Vendée the variety is called Gros Plant, in Gers it’s called Piquepoul.
The origin of the name Folle Blanche is quite difficult to explain. The plant does not have a very exuberant vegetation – it is very productive; the individual fruits/grapes are of normal size and do not differ a lot from the other varieties.
There is a theory that Folle Blanche is practically the same variety of grapes that are cultivated at the banks of the Rhine and Wurtemburg. The color of the Folle Blanche grape when ripe is sort of yellow green, the fruit almost round. Sometimes the grapes are also called Folle jaune, and when more green coloured, Folle verte.
This variety is very extended throughout the vineyards of France. The Folle Blanche grapes cover a surface which is limited on the west by the ocean and on the east by a line which passes by Toulouse, Cahors and Orleans.
More in detail:
17% of sugar, the average which they contain, would not produce more than 8.5 % of alcohol by weight in the wine, this is regarded as a light wine regarding its alcoholic content.
Colombard is a traditional variety of Charente. If not used for distillation, the wine gets very acidic and light but has more alcohol than Folle Blanche or Ugni Blanc.
I was told that from professionals that Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche are better for the eaux-de-vie process.
Colombard is cultivated in western France but also in other, more dry areas. Since the 1990’s the use of Colombard got less and less and in some regions you still find the variety: Gironde, Landes, Lot-et-Garonne, Loire-Atlantique and of course the Cognac region of Charente.
Colombard is also used in California, Texas, South Africa, Australia, Mexico and Israel.
Of course, there are again different names, describing the same variety: Colombier (in Gironde), Colombié, Queue tendre, Chabrier vert, Donne verte, Gros blanc roux, Blanc Emery, Bon Blanc, Pied tendre, Guenille, Blanquette (Tarn-et-Garonne). In South Africa the variety is called Colombar and in Canada, Chile and Israel French Colombard.
Other varieties of grapes which are used in the Charente for Cognac distilling:
Le Jurancon, Blanc-Rame, Balzac Blanc, Chalosse, Saint-Pierre, Bouilleaud, Saint-Rabier, Balzac Noir and Petit Noir.