Cognacs are created by blending different spirts (eaux-de-vie). The eau-de-vie is made through a special distillation process where the grapes are distilled twice. The white wines, which are used for distilling, can only be produced in the region of the Charente, more specifically the area surrounding the town called Cognac. The region is divided into six different zones, terroirs, dependent on soil quality such as chalk, sand or clay.
The distilling takes place in the “alembic Charentais”, a special pot still used in the region. Later on, the spirit is aged in oak barrels from the Limousin, an area rich in forest and to the east of the Charente. The eaux-de-vie must be aged at least for two years before the blending process can begin. This is basically the one difference between Cognac and Whisky. Whisky is normally not blended, while Cognac often is.
And at the end of this long process stands our product: the Cognac.
If one thinks of Cognac, one should be aware of the source of the spirit: its wine. At the beginning there is the plant, the grape, the juice and then after the fermenting process: the wine. At the same time, Cognac is a spirit – a golden spirit.
Every single Cognac has a history, a soul and a whole background. It’s might be comparable to a perfume or a symphony in its multiple facets and complex body. There are people, families and corporations involved. Cognac has an influence on the whole region, defines its landscape and its culture.
There are about 160,000 acres of grapes planted in the Cognac region, which total about 15,000 plantations for the production of Cognac. The favorite grape variety is Ugni Blanc, because it is quite disease resistant and makes a certain type of wine needed for Cognac production.
AOC regulations and Cognac words
Eau de vie: a transparent, colourless, young spirit produced by the double distillation of white grapes
Crus: the delimited growing areas are separated into six quality zones: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, Bois ordinaires. In order to grow grapes, one must have or acquire a special license. From 2012/2014 onwards, this license will no longer be necessary in order to grow grapes that are dedicated for distillation – of course the vineyard must be situated in one of the six Cru areas, but other than that, there will be no limit on production anymore.
Fine Champagne: an appellation which is a blend of eaux-de-vie, at least 50% Grande Champagne mixed with eau-de -vie from Petite Champagne.
Grapes and varieties in the Cognac region: almost all vineyards have Ugni Blanc grapes, but Colombard, Jurancon Blanc, Folle Blanche and Meslier Saint-Francois, Montils, Simillon and Folignan and Sélect can also be found in the region.
Alcohol level must be at least 40% in order to be classed as a Cognac.
The Charentais distilling method: first the wine is distilled, leading to a 30% abv spirit, then it is distilled a second time around. The first distillation is called brouillis, the second repasse. The deadline for the last distillation is March 31st following the previous year’s grape harvest.
Traditional pot stills (Alembic Charentais) must not exceed 30hl capacity for distillation and maximum 25hl for the second distillation.
10 liters of white wine equals 1 liter of eau-de-vie, the aroma is concentrated 10 times.
A Cognac must be aged in French oak casks (typically Limousin casks or Troncais) for at least two years, counting from the termination of the distillation process. Then it can be sold.
Age of Cognac
VS means Very Special: Youngest eau-de-vie of the blend is at least two years old
VSOP means Very Superior Old Pale or Reserve: Youngest eau-de-vie is at least four years old
XO means Extra Old, also known as Napoléon or Hors d’âge: Youngest eau-de-vie is at least six years old.
From 2016 onwards, the youngest eau-de-vie for XOs will be 10 years old (currently 6 years). This will probably lead to quite an improvement of quality.
Vintage Cognacs are not very common – they must consist of the eau-de-vie of one single harvest, one single Cru.
If you would like to learn more about this topic read our article about Cognac Ages and Classification