The Production of Cognac

An introduction to the growing, distilling and aging process of the French Brandy - Cognac - which is produced in the Charente, Charente-Maritimes and Deux-Sevres <em>départements</em>. Includes links to further information...

The production of Cognac - a high-quality brandy - is hugely important to the region around the town of the same name. The area where it is cultivated is divided into six specific areas or crus and extends from the department of Charente-Maritime, through most of Charente and into small areas of Deux Sèvres and the Dordogne.

Growing the Grapes

The dry chalky soil and sunny climate is perfect for the cultivation of the white grapes from which Cognac is distilled. Most Cognac is made from the Ugni Blanc grape only, although 10 percent of the grapes may either be Colombard or Folle Blanche varieties.

The six key growing areas (crus) for Cognac grapes are:

  1. Grande Champagne (different to the Champagne area making sparkling white wine)
  2. Petite Champagne
  3. Borderies
  4. Fins Bois
  5. Bons Bois
  6. Bois Ordinaires or Bois à Terroirs

The manufacture of Brandy in France is strictly regulated, and only the brandy which comes from this region may be labelled Cognac. To be called a "Fine Champagne" Cognac, a Cognac must be made from at least 50 percent grapes of the Grande Champagne cru.

Distillation and Blending

When harvested, the Ugni Blanc grapes produce a light acidic wine which is distilled in traditional copper Charentais stills as soon as its fermentation has ended. Some of the residue from this process - the lees - is also kept and later added to the resulting pure liquid to give a depth of flavour and complexity to the spirit.

Having been once distilled, the liquid is distilled a second time which increases the subtlety of the final product. So, nine litres of wine provide only one litre of Cognac which makes it the most expensive distilled spirit in the world. The twice distilled colourless liquid is called eaux-de-vie and has about 70 percent alcohol.

Distilled water is now added, (along with small quantities of caramel by some of the manufacturers)

The eaux-de-vie is usually blended by the large producers with other eaux-de-vie to increase the complexity of flavour before being aged in small oak casks. Typically, each eaux-de-vie has a different age, so the age of the Cognac will be calculated to be the same as that of the youngest. The blending - a process managed by a maître de chai or head taster - is carefully controlled to achieve a consistency in the final product.

Aged Cognac

The aging process must take a minimum of two years before the Cognac can be sold. However frequently the spirit is transferred to older casks and the spirit is left to mature for several decades.

During the ageing process some eaux-de-vie evaporates through the porous wooden casks. This is known as the part des anges (angel’s share). It also gives rise to the black fungus Torula compniacensis richon which grows on the walls and stonework of buildings throughout the Grande Champagne region giving them a distinctive black discolouration. This is known locally as la chair des anges (angel’s flesh).

The grading system

  • VS (Very Special), Sélection or de Luxe: otherwise known as 3 stars. In this case the youngest eaux-de-vie has been stored for at least two years
  • VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), Réserve: where the youngest eaux-de-vie has been stored for at least four years
  • XO (Extra Old), Napoléon, Impérial, Hors d’âge or Vieille Réserve: where the youngest eaux-de-vie has been stored for at least six years

Further Information