When talking about making Cognac, it is very important to understand the interaction between man and nature. One of the best examples of this is at the ageing and blending stages of production. First, however, we need to make a short trip northeast of the town of Cognac, to the thousands of hectares of oak forests surrounding Limoges. Famous for its porcelain.
Oak is a hardwood belonging to the beech family and it produces the small nuts known as acorns. The Trees are large, wide-grained and, most importantly, contain lots of tannin. A bit further east, towards the centre of France, is another forest also producing oak trees, Troncay oaks are more elegant, more refined and, of course, they also contain tannin. Tannin is basically an acid of yellow-like colour that is produced by the bark of the tree and resides in the L’ wood. Oak trees that are used in Cognac production must be at least ninety years old, with an ideal age of between 120 and ISO in order to· reach the right size, as the coopers use only the lower part of the tree in making the casks, barrels and blending vats.
Once nature has provided the oak trees rich in tannin, man takes over. The trees, after being cut, are split, not sawn (an important distinction, so as to preserve the natural grain), into staves. These, in turn, are left in the open to weather with the action of sun and rain. This action has a cleansing effect in eliminating fatty and bitter substances, and to dry the wood out. This interaction with nature lasts three to five years. Once the wood meets the cooper’s quality requirements, the process of making a cask begins. Here again, a fabulous interaction between nature and man occurs, where fire plays a significant role in shaping the staves during the making of a barrel.
At the same time, an important part of the future of a Cognac is being decided. The length of drying and cleansing of the staves, and the size of the grain, will affect both the speed of alcohol evaporation, and the amount of fire necessary in stave shaping. All of this will have an impact on the Cognac’s taste. So, the role of a cooper is very important 10 the whole process.
We now have a cask, which is usually a barrel of 300 or 350 litres, and the Cognac producer is ready to fill it with the eau-de-vie from the final distillation in the alambic.
Please remember: the texts of this series are from 1999.
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