Overview of Cognac

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The variety of brandy called Cognac, got its name from the town in France with that same name.  The spirit is produced in the wine-growing area that surrounds the town of Cognac, in France’s Departements of Charente-Maritime and Charente.

In order for any distilled brandy to be called Cognac, there are certain legal requirements that must be met by the production methods.  Cognac must be made using specified grapes.  The Ugni blanc, which is known as Saint-Emilion in the local area, is the grape that is most widely used.  Also, the brandy has to be twice distilled using copper pot stills as well as aged for a minimum of two years inside French oak barrels that are from either Troncais or Limousin.  When it is aged inside barrels, Cognac matures the same way that wine and whiskies do.  A majority of cognacs are aged for much longer than the legal minimum requirement. 

cognac

Production Process

Cognac is a form of brandy.  After it has been distilled and while it is being aged, it is referred to as eau de vie.  Cognac is produced by double distilling a white wine from one of the designated growing areas.

The white wine that is used to make Cognac is thin, acidic and very dry.  It has been described as practically undrinkable, however it is excellent to use in the distillation and aging processes.  Only a grape variety from a very strict list can be used.

Fermentation and Distillation

Once the grapes have been pressed, the fermentation process begins.  The juice is left for a two to week three period to ferment.  The area’s wild, native yeasts convert the sugar into alcohol.  Sulfur and sugar are not allowed to be added.  The wine at this point is around 7 or 8% alcohol.

The distillation happens in Charentais traditionally shaped copper stills that are referred to as alembic.  The dimensions and design of these are controlled legally as well.  Two distillations are required to be performed.  The eau de vie is a 70% colorless spirit.




The Aging Process

After the distillation process has been completed, it has to be aged for two years at least in Limousin oak casks before it can be legally sold.  Typically it is put into casks with a 70% alcohol by volume strength.  The Cognac interacts with both the air and oak barrel, which results in it evaporating at about a three percent rate per year as is slowly loses both water and alcohol.  The alcohol evaporates at a faster rate than the water does.  So over time the concentration of alcohol drops to around 40%.  Next the Cognac is transferred to bonbonnes, which are large glass carboys, where they are stored for blending in the future.  After four to five decades, oak barrels do not contribute to flavor any longer.  Therefore, longer aging periods might not be all that beneficial.

Cognac bottle

Blending

The Cognac’s age is calculated to be the youngest eau de vie that is used for the blend.  Usually the blend consists of various ages that are from different areas in the region.  It is important to blend various eau de vie together in order to get the complexity of flavors that cannot be obtained from eau de vie from one vineyard or distillery.  There is a master taster at every cognac house.  Blending the spirits is their responsibility to ensure that the company’s Cognac that is produced has a consistent house quality and style.  It is very similar in this respect to the blending process for non-vintage Champagne or whisky for achieving consistent brand flavors.  There are a few producers who don’t blend the final product using different eau de vie ages.  They produce a flavor that is purer this way.  There are hundreds of Cognac AOC region vineyards that sell their own brands of Cognac.  They are also blended using eau de vie from different years.  However, these are single-vineyard Cognacs.  There is a slight variation year to year and also according to the producer’s taste.  They therefore lack some predictability that some of the more well-known commercial products exhibit.

Grades

The following are the official Cognac quality grades:

•  V.S. (superior or very special), it designates a blend where the youngest brandy has aged in a cask for a minimum of two years.

•  V.S.O.P (superior old pale or very special), it designates a blend where the youngest brandy has aged in a cask for a minimum of four years.  However, the average wood age is a lot older.
•  XO (extra old), this designates a blend where the youngest brandy has aged in a cask for a minimum of six years.  However, the age is 20 years or more.




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