It begins each spring with bud break, and goes well beyond the fall harvest. So much goes into producing Cognac that within each glass you can taste the essence of the grape, the history of aged eaux de vie and the talents of a master blender.
Here is an overview of how Cognac is made:
The region is divided into six zones: Grande Champagne (thought to produce the best Cognac, with a soil similar to the Champagne region in northeast France), Petite Champagne, Borderies (which is where the city of Cognac is located), Fins Bois (meaning fine wood), Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaire.
Click here to see a map of the region.
Ugni Blanc (known as Trebbiano in Italy) is the main grape used to produce Cognac, though a number of grapes like Folle Blanche and Colombard may be used. Ugni Blanc is a hearty and high-yielding variety that produces wines of high acidity, qualities that make it ideal for Cognac.
The grapes are harvested by machine, typically at the end of September or beginning of October.
Once the grapes are harvested and pressed, the juice undergoes fermentation. The resulting wine is dry, high in acidity and 9% to 10% alcohol. This helps to preserve the desirable fruit and floral tastes of the grapes in the final Cognac.
The wine goes through two distillations, a process that runs from November to March. By French law, distillation must stop at midnight on March 31st.
Using large copper stills, the wine is heated to the temperature at which alcohol vaporizes. The alcohol in gas form travels through the neck, turning back into liquid when it reaches the cooling tank. The resulting liquid is called “le brouillis,” and is between 25% and 30% alcohol.
The second distillation is called “la bonne chauffe,” which translates to the good heating. The distillation process is repeated with the brouillis. The resulting liquid is separated into three parts: the head, the heart and the tails. The head is the first liquid that collects in the cooling tank and it is set aside. The heart comes next, and is the eau de vie that will be blended and aged for Cognac. The tails come last, and are often mixed with the head and distilled again.
The heart is clear in color and approximately 70% alcohol. At this point in the process the liquid is called eau de vie, meaning water of life. Though the liquid is not drinkable, it is possible to determine that the eau de vie retains the fruit and floral essence of the grapes.
The Blending and Aging
Before an eau de vie becomes a Cognac, it is blended and aged. French oak barrels are used to impart color and flavor. Over time the eau de vie goes from clear, to golden yellow, to amber, to brown. Varying levels of toast on the barrels influence the flavors.
Large barrels called “foudres” are used for blending the eau de vie. These barrels can last for 100 years. Smaller barrels are used for aging the eau de vie. The maître de chai or cellar master oversees all steps of the blending and aging process, ensuring quality and consistency.
A portion of the liquid (called “the Angels’ share”) is lost due to evaporation; more eau de vie or water is added to maintain the volume within the barrel.
Over time the alcohol level of the aging eau de vie must be brought down from 70% to 40%, the lowest legal limit for Cognac. This occurs naturally over the span of 40 to 50 years, or it may be sped up with the gradual addition of water to the barrels.
Eau de vie may be aged in dry cellars or humid cellars, which affect the rate of alcohol and water evaporation as well as the resulting Cognac’s taste. Dry cellars are said impart finesse to the Cognac, while humid cellars impart sweetness.
Barrel aging cellars are dark and covered in cobwebs – and no, it’s not just for visual effect. The walls and ceilings are covered by a black fungus that thrives on the evaporating alcohol. Spiders are encouraged in the cellars because they eat the bugs that could damage the oak barrels.
When the eau de vie is removed from the barrels for bottling, the aging process has ended. Cognac does not age in the bottle, so a 10 year-old Cognac does not become a 12 year-old Cognac after sitting in your liquor cabinet for two years.
An important task for the cellar master is to ensure consistency of the Cognac. For example, a 50 year-old Cognac from Hennessy that you bought today at a liquor store in New York should taste exactly like a 50 year-old Cognac from Hennessy that you buy in ten years in Hong Kong.
The Classifications of Cognac
Cognacs are classified based on the age of the blend. The age indicated on the label is the youngest vintage in the blend, so a 10 year-old Cognac may be a blend of much older eau de vie.
The classifications are:
VS – A Cognac that has aged for at least two years.
VSOP – A Cognac that has aged for at least four years.
XO – A Cognac that has aged for at least six years; some Cognac houses use this classification for Cognac that has been aged 20 or more years.
If the Cognac comes from a specific region (Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, etc), it may be indicated on the label.
Serving and Enjoying
Like wine, Cognac develops as it is exposed to the air, so you may want to let your glass sit for up to 15 minutes before you take your first sip.
Younger Cognacs may be enjoyed in cocktails. Click here for cocktail recipes.