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History > History of Cognac

History of Cognac

2,000 year of Cognac
Rewind the clock to just about... 2,000 years ago, when the Romans first brought vines to France. Then 500 years later when they left, they had laid the foundation for almost all the greatest vineyards in the modern world.

For many centuries later, France was producing wine that was considered to be a gift from the gods. Up until the early 1600's, wine was steadily making France good money. As trading was expanding, the delicate wines couldn't cope with the rough and long sea traveling. In order to transport the wine in better condition, traders began to distill wine. Then the Dutch called this new spirit "brandewijn" -- literally burnt wine. And that's where the name "brandy" comes from. (Picture: From Martel Distillery, Cognac France)

Soon brandewijn became the nation's significant economic source. With its prestigious reputation, Cognac region's brandewijn was distinguished from all the others by its new name, "Cognac". All Cognac is brandy, but not all Cognac is brandy. Brandy can be produced by the distillation of any wine. And the wine used can be made from not only any grape but almost any fruit according to Bureau National Interprofessional du Cognac. Cognac, on the other hand, has to be made from the wines of specific regions in Cognac called delimited area.

At the beginning of 17th century, double distillation makes its appearance in the region. Distillation allowed local wines to be shipped by sea in eau-de-vie form without damage. (Eau-de-vie literary means water of life. It's also the base spirit of Cognac before it's aged in barrels.) Eau-de-vie was also much cheaper to ship than wine. The first stills in the Charente were built by the Dutch. Then the French distillers refined double-distillation, also known as "charentaise" distillation.

As early as 1309, Arnaud de Villeneuve, professor at the faculty of medicine in Montpellier described the procedure, which leads to obtaining eau-de-view, giving this name, Charentais still, due to the virtues attributed to it. It wasn't until the end of the 16th century in the Charente before distilling became widespread. Encouraged by the Dutch, great importers of white wine, the Charentais undertook the art of distillation and began using stills. (Picture: Old still from Delamain Cognac Distillery)

Unlike the column still used in Armagnac production, Charentais still is a simple instrument, directly inspired by the retort system used by chemists and alchemists. The principle is said to have been perfected in Egypt, where it was used to produce kohl.

It was made of three parts of copper parts: cucurvite, situated above a hearth in which is burned wood, cool or today, gas; the chapiteau or head, which helps to concentrate the vapors and evacuate them as they form, and the serpentine or coil, a spiral tube which is submerged in a vat of water and serves as a coolant. The wine heater, which save energy, came into use in 1857. In order to obtain the label "Cognac", the contents cannot exceed 30 hectoliters. It held an average of 5 hectoliters at the beginning of the century. In the 18th century, as export of Cognac became important, the spirit travelled to Holland, England, Northern Europe and later, America and to the far east. The market was becoming better organized and local offices were created in the main towns of the region to meet the demand.

In the 20th century, traditional grapes such as Colombard and Folle Branche were replaced by Ugni Blanc, which is today used for more than 90 percent of the production of Cognac.

On May 1, 1909, the geographical area for production is delimited by the government. From 1939, Cognac is recognized as a Controlled Appellation of Origin. During the WWII, wine and eau-de-vie distillation bureau is created to protect the stocks of Cognac. When the war was over, it was replaced by the Bureau National Interprofessionael du Cognac (BNIC). Today, all the steps of making Cognac are subject to regulation in order to protect the interest of the industry as a whole. And more than 90 percent of Cognac is exported to over 150 countries worldwide.

Cognac region
In the heart of Cognac region, there are cities of Jarnac, Segonzac and Cognac, which gave its name to the renowned eau-de-vie. Cognac lies 465 km from Paris, and 120 km from Bordeaux. The Cognac Delimited Region extends along the banks of the Charente, the wide, beautiful river described by Henri IV as "the loveliest stream in my kingdom." It covers a large part of Charente department, all of the Charente-Maritime, and several districts of the Dordogne and Deux-Sevres.

Only 6 regions are allowed to produce wines for Cognac -- Based on the soil features described by the geologist Henri Coquand in 1860, 6 Cognac growing areas (crus) were delimited and then ratified by decree in 1938: Champagnes (Grande and petite Champagne), Borderies and Bois (Fine Bois, Bon Bois and Bois a Terroirs). The crus received their names when the local forests were cleared at the beginning of the 19th century.

The Cognac Delimited Region is located at the north of the Aquitaine basin, bordering the Atlantic Ocean. To the West, it borders the Gironde estuary and the island of Re and Oleron and to the East it neighbors the region of Angouleme and the Massi Central foothills. The Charente river crosses the region, nourished by other streams including Ne, the Antenne, and the Seugone rivers.

Annual average temperature in the area is about 13C (or 55F) and winters are normally mild. The Delimited Region has a total area of over one million hectors, but the actual vineyards only occupy about 80 hectors. Approximately 95 percent of them are used for Cognac production.

Grande Champagne (GC)
Characteristics of the eaux-de-vie: Breed, elegance, subtlety, power, long finish, suppleness
Aromas: Mostly floral, grape-vine flower, lime blossom, dry wood
Aging: Slow
Clayey, chalky thin soils on top of soft chalk from the Cretaceous. From the surface down, the limestone content is very high and in excess of 60% in some places. Despite their thinness, their soils do not suffer from lack of water as the sub-soil acts as a giant sponge through which water may slowly rise as the summer dryness increases. Grande Champane is planted with about 13,000 hectors of vines used in the production of Cognac white wines. These wines produce fine, light Cognacs with a predominantly floral bouquet, requiring long aging in casks to achieve full maturity.

Petite Champagne (PG)
Characteristics of the eaux-de-vie: Breed, elegance, suppleness, delicacy
Aromas: Floral and fruity
Aging: Slow
Petite Champagne has approximately 15,000 devoted to Cognac production. The resulting eaux-de-vie are very similar to those of Grande Champagne, but without their finesse.

Characteristics of the eaux-de-vie: Subtlety, delicacy, long finish
Aromas: Mostly floral, violet, irish
Aging: Faster than GC and PC
The Borderies is the smallest of the 6 crus. Its soil contains clay and flint stones resulting from the decomposition of limestone. Lying North-East of Cognac, its 3,987 hector of wines produce fine, round Cognacs, smooth and scented with an aroma of violets. They reach optimum quality after a shorter aging period than Cognacs from the Grande and Petite Champagne regions.

Fines Bois
Characteristics of the eaux-de-vie: intensity, roundness, smoothness
Aromas: Mostly fruity (crushed grapes), lightly floral
Aging: Faster than GC and PC
Most of this area is covered by clayey, chalk soils known as "groies" very similar to those of the Champagne Crus, except for their red color and hard stones from the Jurassic. Lying in a lower area known as the "Pays Bas" (Low Countries) north of Cognac, heavy clayey soils can also be found (60% clay). The Fins Bois surround the first three crus. Their 31,000 hector producer round, smooth Cognacs that age fairly quickly, with a bouquet that recalls the scent of freshly pressed grapes.

Bons Bois
Characteristics of the eaux-de-vie: Dominated by terroir charactor
Aromas: Fruity
Aging: Fast
In the Bons Bois Crus, there are sandy soils on coastal locations, in certain valleys, and most especially in all the southern part of the vineyard. These are sands that have eroded from the Massif Central Vines are quite dispersed, mixed with other crops, surrounded by forests of pine trees and chestnuts. The ons Bois from a vest belt, of which 9,308 hectors are destined to Cognac production.

Bois Ordinaries:
Characteristics of the eaux-de-vie: Dominated by terroir character
Aromas:Fruity (strong maritime influences)
This growing area has less of 1,110 hectors of vines destines to Cognac white wine production. The soil, almost exclusively sandly, lies along the coast or on the island of Re or Oleron, producing fast-aging eaux-de-vie with a characteristic maritime flavor.

Fine Champagne:
Fine Champagne is not a cru, but rather a Controlled Appelation of Origin composed of a blend of Grande and Petite Champagne eaux-de-vie, with at least 50% of Grande Champagne.

(Source: BNIC, Le Musee de Arts du Cognac)

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