Cognac (pronounced /ˈkɒnjæk/), named after the town of Cognac in France, is the most famous variety of brandy, produced in the wine-growing region surrounding the town from which it takes its name, in the French Departements of Charente and Charente-Maritime. The town of Cognac is one of only three officially demarcated brandy regions in Europe; the others are the French town of Armagnac and the Spanish town of Jerez.
According to French Law, in order to bear the name, Cognac must meet strenuous legal requirements, ensuring that the 300-year old production process remains unchanged. It must be made from at least 90% Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, or Colombard grapes, although Ugni Blanc, specifically Saint-Emilion grapes, are today virtually the exclusive variety used. The remainder may consist of the grape varieties Folignan, Jurançon blanc, Meslier St-François (also called Blanc Ramé), Sélect, Montils, and Sémillon. It must be distilled twice in copper pot stills and aged at least two years in French oak barrels, most commonly from oak shipped from all over Europe but passing through the town of Limoges and for that reason called ‘limousin’ oak.
Producing region and legal definitions
The region authorised to produce cognac is divided up into six zones, including five crus (singular cru), broadly covers the department of Charente-Maritime, a large part of the department of Charente and a few areas in Deux-Sèvres and the Dordogne. The six zones are, in order of decreasing appreciation of the cognacs coming from them: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois and finally Bois Ordinaire.
Cognac is made from eaux-de-vie (literally, “waters of life”) produced by doubly distilling the white wines produced in any of the growth areas. The wine is a very dry, acidic, thin wine, not really suitable for drinking, but excellent for distillation. It may only be made from a strict list of grape varieties. Distillation takes place in traditionally shaped Charentais copper stills, also known as an alembic, the design and dimensions of which are also legally controlled. Two distillations must be carried out; the resulting eau-de-vie is a colourless spirit of about 70% alcohol.
Cognac may not be sold to the public, or indeed called ‘Cognac’, until it has been aged for at least two years, counting from the end of the period of distillation (1 April following the year the grapes were harvested).
The final product is usually diluted to 40% alcohol content (80 proof) with pure and distilled water. Major manufacturers add a small proportion of caramel to colour their cognacs (at least the less expensive qualities).
The age of the cognac is calculated as that of the youngest eau-de-vie used in the blend. The blend is usually of different ages and (in the case of the larger and more commercial producers) from different local areas. This blending, or marriage, of different eaux-de-vie is important to obtain a complexity of flavours absent from an eau-de-vie from a single distillery or vineyard. Each cognac house has a master taster (maître de chai) who is responsible for creating this delicate blend of spirits, so that the cognac produced by a company today will taste almost exactly the same as a cognac produced by that same company 50 years ago, or in 50 years’ time. In this respect it may be seen to be similar to a blended whisky or non-vintage Champagne, which also rely on blending to achieve a consistent brand flavour.
Hundreds of vineyards in the Cognac AOC region sell their own cognac. These are likewise blended from the eaux-de-vie of different years, but they are single-vineyard cognacs, varying slightly from year to year and according to the taste of the producer, hence lacking some of the predictability of the better-known commercial products. Depending on their success in marketing, small producers may sell a larger or smaller proportion of their product to individual buyers, wine dealers, bars and restaurants, the remainder being acquired by larger cognac houses for blending. The success of artisanal cognacs (and of single malt whiskies) has compelled some larger producers to market single-vineyard cognacs from vineyards that they own. A recent example of this is the cognac house Hennessy, who released Izambard, Le Peu and Camp Romain, being three of their distilleries, in 1999.
The official quality grades of cognac are, according to the BNIC (Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac):
* VS Very Special, or *** (three stars) where the youngest brandy is stored at least two years in cask.
* VSOP Very Superior Old Pale, where the youngest brandy is stored at least four years in cask, but the average wood age is much older.
* XO Extra Old, where the youngest brandy is stored at least six, but average upwards of 20 years.
In addition can be mentioned:
* Napoleon Although the BNIC states this grade is equal to XO in terms of minimum age, it is generally marketed in-between VSOP and XO in the product range offered by the producers.
* Extra A minimum of 6 years of age, this grade is usually older than a Napoleon or an XO.
* Vieux Is another grade between the official grades of VSOP and XO.
* Vieille Rèserve Is like the Hors d´Age a grade beyond XO.
* Hors d’age The BNIC states that also this grade is equal to XO, but in practice the term is used by producers to market a high quality product beyond the official age scale. Hence the name “Hors d’age” (ageless).
It is important to notice, that no house of cognac produces all the above mentioned grades/qualities.
The crus where the grapes were grown can also be used to define the cognac, and give a guide to some of the flavour characteristics of the cognac:
* Grande Champagne (13766 hectares total) Grande Champagne eaux de vie are long in the mouth and powerful, dominated by floral notes. The most prestigious of the crus. “Champagne” means chalky soil, a characteristic shared with the area around Reims where Champagne is produced. Hence the name “Champagne”.
* Petite Champagne (16171 hectares total) Petite Champagne eaux de vie have similar characteristics to those from Grande Champagne, but are in general shorter on the palate.
* Borderies (4160 hectares total) The smallest cru, eaux de vie from the Borderies are the most distinctive, with nutty aromas and flavour, as well as a distinct violet or iris characteristic. Cognacs made with a high percentage of these eaux de vie, for example, “Cordon Bleu” by Martell, are dominated by these very sought-after flavours.
* Fins Bois (34265 hectares total) Heavier and faster ageing eaux de vie suitable for establishing the base of some cognacs. Rounded and fruity, with an agreeable oiliness.
* Bons Bois
* Bois Ordinaires (19979 hectares together with Bons Bois). Further out from the four central growth areas are the Bons Bois and the Bois Ordinaires. With a poorer soil and very much influenced by the maritime climate, this area of 20,000 hectares produces eaux de vie that are less demonstrative and age more quickly. These lesser crus are excluded from blends by some manufacturers.
The growth areas are tightly defined; there exist pockets with soils atypical of the area producing eaux de vie that may have characteristics particular to their location. Hennessy usually uses the unofficial brandy grades for its cognac offerings, but has also produced three single distillery cognacs each with very distinctive flavours arising from the different soils and, to a lesser extent, climate. Other cognac houses, such as Moyet, exclusively use the crus to describe their different cognacs.
The top cognac houses also produce premium-level cognacs. These include:
* Extra by Martell by Martell is a blend of “eaux-de-vie” hailing in part from Martell’s cellar known as “Le Paradis”.
* L’Or by Martell is a cognac stored in a decanter with gold plated shoulders and closure. It is made of the oldest and most refined “eaux-de-vie” from Martell’s “Paradis” (heaven). This is a place where “eaux-de-vie” over 50 or 60 years old are stored. Some date back to 1830.
* Extra by Camus is their premium cognac beyond XO containing their oldest cognacs from the Borderies, Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne regions in a distinctive decanter style bottle.
* Louis XIII by Rémy Martin is composed of more than 1,200 of the finest eaux-de-vie aged a minimum 55 years (usually 65-100+) in very old Limousin oak barrels, presented in Baccarat crystal decanter, and individually numbered and owner registered.
* Richard Hennessy – produced by Hennessy, ‘Richard’ is a blend of over 100 eaux-de-vie aged up to 200 years. It is sold in a Baccarat crystal blackman and is named after the founder of the company.
* L’Esprit de Courvoisier – Courvoisier’s leading cognac, presented in a hand-cut Lalique decanter, blended from eaux-de-vie up to 200 years old, and individually numbered.
* Moyet Antiques – Moyet’s Très Vieille Fine Champagne and Très Vieille Grand Champagne cognacs blended from some barrels over 150 years old, individually numbered and signed by the cellar master.
Cognac and hip-hop culture
Since the early 1990s, cognac has seen a significant transformation in its American consumer base, from a predominantly older, affluent white demographic to a younger, urban, and significantly black consumer. Cognac has become ingrained in hip-hop culture, celebrated in songs by artists ranging from Tupac Shakur to Busta Rhymes to Mac Dre and Jay-Z, among many others. It is estimated that between 60% and 80% of the American cognac market now comprises African American consumers, the majority of whom have indicated in studies that the endorsement of popular musical artists is a key factor in their preference for the drink, which also spawned its nickname ‘Yak’ (or ‘Yack’). Moreover, Pernod-Ricard, the parent company of Martell, has acknowledged that “the USA is the biggest market for cognac and African-Americans are a priority target” Many have credited hip-hop culture as the savior of cognac sales in the USA; after nearly floundering in 1998 due to economic crisis in Asia—cognac’s main export market at the time—sales of cognac increased to approximately US $1 billion in America in 2003, a growth paralleled by (but not necessarily related to) hip-hop’s rise into the mainstream of American music.
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