Renowned above all the brandies, Cognac has a smoothness and character of its own, often with an uncanny fresh grape sweetness. A common misconception is that all French brandy is Cognac. In fact, Cognac comes from the region of the same name in France, about 100 miles north of Bordeaux on the Atlantic coast. Cognac is made from wine that is fermented from whole grapes skins — seeds and all — and then double distilled in pot stills. It is aged in new oak casks for one year, and then transferred to used oak casks for more aging to prevent the Cognac from taking on too much tannin from the virgin oak (tannin imparts that dry, puckery feeling in your mouth). Labels on Cognac bottles use special abbreviations that are designed to denote the quality of the spirit inside: V = Very S = Special O = Old P = Pale F = Fine X = Extra C = Cognac E = Especial
Here is a close up look at Cognac with excerpts from the Wine Spectator’s Cognac report by Gordon Mott:
There's always something in the air in the town of Cognac. Locals call the airborne element “the angel's share,” part of the never ending, almost invisible mist of evaporation from aging Cognac in thousands upon thousands of wooden barrels hidden in cellars below ground level and along the streets of this small, west central French city. The Cognac cognoscenti also joke that the sun is their best customer, but whether it wafts to the sun or the angels or the millions of devoted after-dinner drink imbibers, this golden spirit's complexity, distinctiveness and final value depend greatly upon the details of this simple maturation process.
There is much more, of course, to the creation of great Cognac. The grape varieties used, the location of the vineyards, the local climate, the distiller's second by second decisions as the still churns away at another batch, the choice of oak used in the barrel, and the final painstaking blend, all of which are often passed down from master blender to master blender, contribute to the final product. In addition, each Cognac house or firm has individual standards for each brand that, in many cases, exceed the minimums established by the French government. The almost infinite combinations of these factors complicate easy assessments of facile comparisons of various brands of Cognac.
Cognac can be made from the St.-Émilion, Folle Blanche and Colombard grapes. Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc Remé, Jurançon Blanc and Montils are also permitted, but in proportions of less than 10-percent. In practice, much Cognac is the result of a single grape variety, usually the St.-Émilion, or Ugni Blanc as it is also known. Most large producers do not own their vineyards but have long-term contracts with growers who supply them with grapes and, in many cases, also distill the grapes.
Once harvested, pressed and fermented, the base wine for Cognac is put through a double distillation, the first yields a clear white spirit at about 28-percent alcohol, and the second distillation produces a spirit at about 70-percent alcohol. The double distilling creates a smoother, more refined eau de vie. After this, many growers will age the Cognacs for a couple of years before turning them over to the bigger Cognac houses.
Barrel aging begins after the distillation process. Two distinct types of oak are used for the barrels, either from the Limousin or Tronçais region. The clear spirit will rests in the barrels for years, acquiring from the wood some of its golden hues and a variety of complex flavors that range from caramel, honey and nuts, to vanilla, flowers and even a hint of smokiness.
Then it is the blender's turn. A master blender must keep track of all the brandies aging in his cellars, monitoring their development and keeping a mental catalogue of flavors and aromas. Somewhere, he also has a definite profile of Cognac that he will recreate. It may be a certain style for a specific quality level, or it may be as broad as to cover a house style. The final decisions are up to the blender, however, and he may marry a number of different Cognacs, varying them in terms of age and region, to come up with the final product.
“The art of the blender,” says Bernard Hine, of the Hine Cognac family, “is to start with many different products and come out at the end with a product which is consistent with the house brand or style.” Once a blender has determined the proportions, the final step involves diluting the Cognac to its legal strength: 40-percent alcohol. This is done through the painstaking addition of distilled water, which is often carried out in several steps over a number of years. The blender is careful not to “shock” the Cognac by trying to do it all at once; he wants the Cognac to “marry” each time before adding more water. When the dilution is finished, the Cognac may be ready for bottling.
The final blend determines the label designation. V.S. Has Cognacs that are aged at least two years. V.S.O.P Cannot have Cognacs that are aged less than four years. X.O. All the Cognacs in a blend are aged more than ten years.
A label designation of Fine Champagne means that more than 50-percent of the grapes used to make the Cognac came from the Grande Champagne region. If all the grapes come from either of the top-two producing regions (Grande or Petite Champagne), the label can carry the specific region designation.
The final test is in the glass. Connoisseurs know the real pleasure of sitting back after a fine meal and pouring a Cognac into a snifter. Warming the liquid by holding the glasses in their hands, they release the intense aromas. The rich aroma and flavors cleanses their palates and provides the perfect ending to a meal.