Wine Culture and Information - Volume 12
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  Not Just Wine Issue 15, January 2004   
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Cognac

The king of brandies, it is the result of the mastery of man and generosity of nature, a masterpiece unique in its kind

 Cognac is a distilled of wine which is produced after a long period of aging in oak casks. Cognac basically is a brandy, obtained by the distillation of wines produced in a particular area in France which is located around the city having the same name of the famous brandy. Cognac is a lovely city where the village landscapes, shaped by the years, reminds of traditions as ancient as cognac itself, where the smell of “part des anges” is in the air and the memory of histories, now lost in time, comes to mind and frees from the stressful modern times. The first written evidences of cognac are dated back to 1638 and the first bulk distillation took place about in the seventeenth century.

 

Area of Production

 The origin of cognac is dated back to the 1600's. The area of production is located in France, precisely in the region of Charentes, with a small part in Dordogne and Deux Sèvres. The region, located in the western part of France, north from Bordeaux and with an area of about 80,000 hectares (about 198,000 acres), is favored by a climate particular suited for the cultivation of vine. It is in this region the Atlantic climate meets the continental climate and the whole region has recognized to the AOC rank (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée). The area has been regulated by the so called “cru map”, emanated in 1909, which divides the region into six official wine areas, called “cru”. These areas are called as follows:

 

  • Grande Champagne - Produces light and very refined cognacs, with a dominant aroma of flowers, and which takes a long period of aging in order to reach full maturity
  • Borderies - Located north from the city of Cognac, thanks to its particular microclimate produces round and sweet brandies which generally age faster than Champagne's brandies
  • Petite Champagne - Thanks to the influence of the oceanic climate, cognacs produced in this area are characterized by an excellent finesse, just like Grande Champagne's brandies
  • Fins Bois - Produces bodied and round cognacs, with dominant aromas of fruit and that age quickly
  • Bons Bois - In this area, which completely surrounds the one of Fins Bois, are produced pretty rough and aggressive cognacs that generally age in pretty short times
  • Bois à Terroir or Bois Ordinaire - Located along the coast of Atlantic ocean, produces coarser brandies with a pronounced earthy taste

The six crus of cognac
The six crus of cognac

 The division of the areas was determined according to the calcareous percentage of soils and according to local climate. In order to safeguarding the quality of the product they also decided to regulate the type of vines allowed for the production of the brandy. The main grape used for the production of cognac is Ugni Blanc, name with which Trebbiano Toscano is known in France and locally called Saint-Emilion. Other grapes used for the production of cognac, although marginally, are Folle Blanche and Colombard. Wines produced with these grapes are very light, with a low percentage of alcohol and a high percentage of acidity, particularly suited for distillation. Every area has a proper climate and soil which contribute to characterize every vineyard and producing wines, therefore brandies, with different organoleptic qualities and different aging capacities.

 The area and the raw matter are not the only factors which characterize the brandy: in the production of cognac the distillation technique is of fundamental importance. Wines from the “Grande Champagne” and the “Petite Champagne” produce very aromatic brandies, with floral and fruity hints, which become very elegant after a long aging. In the “Borderies” area are produced famous brandies having the characteristic aroma of violet, and when allowed to age for many years, they become bodied and round. The areas of “Bois” produce the most robust brandies, and thanks to their capacity of aging quickly, they are very appreciated in the production of blends.

 

The Production of Cognac

 Wines coming from the many crus are brought in wintertime to distilleries and are distilled separately in order to keep the characteristics and qualities of each one. In this phase is held in consideration every difference: every peculiarity must be protected from uniformity, a characteristic that will be delegated to blending.

 The process of distillation takes place between September 1st and March 31st, a period which has not changed in the course of time, by using stills known as “Charentais” and whose origin is dated back to the fifteenth century. Stills are strictly made of copper which, besides ensuring a good resistance and a high thermal conductivity, prevent the development of acid fats. This characteristic prevents the risk of spoiling the brandy with unpleasing smells and flavors. The boiler of stills are onion shaped and has on the top a dome which collects and directs the steam. From the top of the dome there is a pipe, called “swan neck”, connected to a serpentine that from the top of the boiler submerges in a refrigerating liquid and therefore arrives of a container in which the distilled liquid is collected. The process consists in two ebullitions called “chauffes”. This process of double ebullition, allows the production of brandies with particular finesse and purity, a distillation technique which has never changed during the course of time.

 The distillation process begins by filling the boiler with wine. The wine is then heated at a moderate temperature, for about 8-10 hours, and produces an alcoholic steam which raises and pass through the circuit of serpentine. In this phase the steam cools down and condense and reach the end of the circuit where the liquid is collected in a container. From the first phase is obtained a milky liquid, thick, with little aromas and a low percentage of alcohol, called “bruillis”. At the end of the first ebullition the process is repeated by using the “raw” brandy. The second ebullition, called “la bonne chauffe”, is the most important one and lasts about 12 hours. It is a very delicate process which requires a great mastery of the operators as they will have to eliminate the head and the tail, that is the first and the last part of the liquid, while keeping the central part only, the famous “heart” of the brandy. The product obtained from the first distillation has a pretty low percentage of alcohol, whereas the second one gives a brandy with about 70% of alcohol. The end of the two distillation processes just represents the first phase of the production: the distilled brandy will require two more phases in order to become cognac which will be finally commercialized.

 The next phase is aging. The brandy is put in 350 liters casks (about 92 Gallons) made of oak from the forests of Limousin and Tronçais. This particular wood confer to cognac an amber color while slowly passing its aromas to the brandy as well as tannins and lignin. The porosity of the wood also favors the evaporation of a pretty high quantity of cognac of about hundreds of casks per year: the so called “part des anges”, that is the part of angels. Aging is a phase that can last from a minimum of 30 months up to tens of years. The maximum aging for a cognac is of 60 years, beyond this period it gets a bitter and rough character. The duration of aging also depends on the type of wine used for distillation as well as the decisions of producers and climate.


Cognac is one of the most famous brandies in
the world
Cognac is one of the most famous brandies in the world

 The production of cognac is made by little steps, all of them very important, and each one contributes to the final quality. Neither extra old cognacs are left in the cask more than the time needed: they are poured in demijohns, called “bonbonnes”, and kept in special rooms called “paradis”. The cellar is rigorously and continuously controlled. A room having the right percentage of humidity allows the right releasing of water and alcohol from casks: a condition that must be constant over time and for all the duration of aging. Cellars where casks of cognac are held have gray colored walls: this color is not chosen by men, it is because of the presence of a microscopic mould called Torula Compniacensis, which develops in these particular conditions and gets nourishment from the alcohol evaporating from casks.

 The last phase of the production, following aging, is blending, the so called assemblage. This delicate operation is done by the “master of cellar” (maitre de chai), who decides the duration of aging of every single cognac. This phase consists in the dilution and the blending of cognacs from different vintages and vineyards in order to get the very best quality: a homogeneous and harmonious product. Traditionally, most of distilleries make use of brandies older than what required by law in order to obtain a particularly favorable assemblage or to keep the quality of the product high and constant. Assemblage also consists in diluting cognac with spring water, or distilled water, in order to lower the percentage of alcohol down to about 40%. Cognac is finally bottled and released on the market therefore making it available in shops all over the world.

 The quality of a cognac is also determined by its age, which is not expressed in years, but with proper abbreviations and terms. The age of the younger cognac used for the blend determines the denomination of aging. Moreover, as opposed to wine, the age of cognac is determined according to the time spent in a cask, whereas the time spent in a bottle does not affect the aging of brandy. The definitions used to indicate the age of a cognac are the following:

 

  • If the younger brandy used in the blend has up to four years and a half of age, the cognac is defined as VS (Very Superior) or Trois Etoiles (three stars)
  • If the younger brandy has an age between four years and a half and six years and a half, the cognac is defined as VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), VO (Very Old) or Réserve
  • If the younger brandy is older than six years and a half, the cognac is defined as Vieille Reserve (Old Reserve), Grande Réserve (Gran Reserve), Royal, Vieux (Old), XO (Extra Old), Napoléon. Generally speaking, these are cognac with excellent qualities
  • The terms Hors d'Age and Paradis can be used in case the younger brandy is older than six years and a half, however they are used for cognacs more than 50 years old

 In case at least 50% of the brandies used in the blend come from the areas of Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, the cognac can be defined as “Fine Champagne”.

 

How to Taste Cognac


 

 The best glass for tasting cognac is the tulip shaped glass which with the narrowing of the opening directs the aromas towards the nose. Connoisseurs prefer drinking cognac plain, in the characteristic tulip shaped or balloon shaped glasses, at an ideal temperature of about 20°-22° C (68°-71° F), solely warmed, when needed, by the heat of the hand which helps to free its unmistakable and unique aromas. In wintertime it is used as a base ingredient in many hot beverages, whereas in summertime it can be used for the preparation of thirst quenching long drinks. Of course it is also an important ingredient in many cocktails which contributes, with its bouquet, to enrich and characterize every creation of “blended drinks”. There are many international cocktails which make use of cognac, among the most famous one there is Sidecar, whose name derives from its inventor: a postman. It seems that a postman, who used a sidecar for its job, during the cold winter evenings, used to stop by a bar, which was located along the road, and ordered a cognac with ice and cointreau. That's how the recipe was born: 2/4 of cognac, 1/4 of cointreau, 1/4 of lemon juice. Cognac also allows interesting matchings, very famous, such as with chocolate. Among smokers it is frequent to match cognac with cigars: a marriage, they say, which is very happy.

 



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  Not Just Wine Issue 15, January 2004   
CognacCognac Wine ParadeWine Parade  Contents 
Issue 14, December 2003 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 16, February 2004

Wine Parade


 

The best 15 wines according to DiWineTaste's readers. To express your best three wines send us an E-mail or fill in the form available at our WEB site.


Rank Wine, Producer
1 Franciacorta Cuvée Annamaria Clementi 1996, Ca' del Bosco (Italy)
2 Fumé Blanc Napa Valley 2001, Grgich Hills (USA)
3 Alto Adige Gewürztraminer Kolbenhof 2002, Hofstätter (Italy)
4 Margaux 2000, Ségla (France)
5 Masseto 1998, Tenuta dell'Ornellaia (Italy)
6 Colli Bolognesi Pignoletto Superiore “Prova d'Autore” 2001, Bonfiglio (Italy)
7 Teroldego Rotaliano Granato 1998, Foradori (Italy)
8 Syrah Winemaker's Lot Vic 3, Concha y Toro (Chile)
9 Capo di Stato 1998, Conte Loredan Gasparin (Italy)
10 Barolo Brunate 1999, Enzo Boglietti (Italy)
11 Sauvignon Blanc Reserve Marlborough 2002, Kaituna Hills (New Zealand)
12 Turriga 1998, Argiolas (Italy)
13 Sauvignon Blanc 2000, Cakebread (USA)
14 Shiraz 2000, Plantaganet (Australia)
15 Château Laroque Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classè 1998 (France)

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