“The ocean was here!” is something you may hear from winemakers in Cognac to this very day. 80 million years ago, the ocean was indeed in Cognac: The numerous fossils hiding in the Cognac wine soils prove this. It is not uncommon to find fossilized shells in the southwestern French wine-growing region.
Today, the North Atlantic is barely 50 kilometers away: 80 million years left their mark, entire continents shifted. But what remains are the soils in which entire eons of the earth’s history can be read.
The basis of Cognac
The basis of Cognac is the white grape variety Ugni Blanc, also called Trebbiano, whose roots reach almost 15 meters deep into the earth. Ugni Blanc: It is one of the oldest and most widely cultivated grape varieties in the world and is profitable. Ugni Blanc is not only used for Cognac: numerous wines with controlled designation of origin (DOC) are based on this grape variety. The grape variety is often not recognized as such, as there are no less than 157 synonyms for the Ugni Blanc grape variety.
Growing areas and production
70,000 hectares of vines, six wine regions: The core area of the region is called Grande Champagne. In addition, there are the Petite Champagne, the Fins Bois, the Borderies, the Bons Bois and the Bois Ordinaires. The designation Fine Champagne earns a Cognac, which originates to one half from the Grande Champagne and to the other half from the Petite Champagne.
After the selection, slightly acidic wine is produced first, followed by a double distillation process to produce the legendary fine brandy.
Now follows the decisive quality feature of a Cognac: the storage. The storage of the brandy takes place in barrels made of Limousin oak. The wood for those barrels is obtained from the nearby forests of the Limousin region.
A cognac is classified according to how long it is aged in barrique: VS stands for “Very Special” and requires barrel aging of at least two years. Cognac labeled VSOP (“Very Superior Old Pale”) must be stored at least four years in the barrel, and Cognac labeled XO (“Extra Old”) must be stored at least ten years. In most cases, a bottle of Cognac is an assemblage (composition) of brandy from different vintages and sites.
It can be said that the longer the storage time, the more precious the cognac. A longer storage time allows the aromas from the wine to mix with the aromas from the wooden barrel in which the brandy is stored. As a result of the long storage time, the distillate, which is actually clear, acquires an amber-brown color: The longer the storage time, the darker the product.
Export hit Cognac
200 million bottles of Cognac are exported every year – this means that almost 98 percent of Cognac production is exported to the world market. Even in the Far East and in India, people know the name Cognac. The U.S. in particular is experiencing a major cognac boom: African-American GIs got to know cognac during World War I and brought it back home.
Almost 50,000 winegrowers are involved in cognac production, but only 6,000 of them distill their products themselves. Most winemakers hand over their selections to the 250 distilleries and over 300 trading houses that distill, store and market the cognac worldwide.
Simon von Ludwig
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig, all rights reserved
Main sources: Jarrard, Kyle: “The Seductive Saga of the World’s Most Coveted Spirit”, 2005 John Wiley & Sons and the Brockhaus Encyclopedia (German)