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Cognac is an enigma to many. Is it brandy? Does it have to come from France? Why is it the drink of choice for such an eclectic mix of people as American rappers, Chinese businessmen and neighbourhood grandmothers? The answers to some of these questions are simple, others complex.
''Cradling your snifter of Cognac (the drink’s purpose-built, amusingly named glass) in your hand, your nose will likely be reminded of a single malt scotch, albeit one that has a thin slice of fruitcake swimming in it.''
All Cognacs are brandies, but not all brandies are Cognacs. Capiche? Perhaps not.
It’s probably simpler to say that what Champagne is to sparkling wine, Cognac is to brandy. It’s a French appellation d'origine controlee (protected designation of origin), where brandy producers are legally bound to certain production and labelling rules. Subsequently, Cognac is an area that produces the world’s finest examples of that magical spirit produced by distilling wine.
But what exactly makes Cognac brandies different, their postcode aside? And why are the products of this region treated with such reverence? Is it simply a case of the French being outwardly French, or is there some meat on this brandy-soaked bone? To decode the Cognac puzzle, let’s take a look at exactly how the region built its enviable reputation, and find out what a genuine Cognac experience feels like.
Thank the Dutch
The early history of Cognac is that of brandy at large. The origin of the spirit can be traced back to Dutch merchants, who began importing French wine in the 16th century. They soon realised that distilling the wine – upping its alcohol levels by separating its components – made transportation easier, as the liquid took up less room and lasted longer. Soon the demand for brandewijn (literally burnt wine, from which we’ve commandeered the word brandy) grew, with the supply coming largely from the Cognac region.
The first of the “big four” Cognac houses – Martell – was established in 1715, with Remy Martin, Courvoisier and Hennessy founded in subsequent decades. Rather than making everything from scratch, these houses instead bought grapes and even unaged brandies from local vineyards and distillers who met their exacting standards, before ageing, blending and labelling the Cognacs in-house. This fact might have brandy purists shouting out “sacré bleu”, but that’s exactly how the houses operate to this day.
What makes a brandy a Cognac?
How exactly does Cognac differ from any other brandy, save where it’s bottled? In French eyes at least, to be labelled Cognac is an honour that has to be earned. The rules and regulations applied to Cognac production could fill a novel, but can be broadly summarised as follows:
- Grapes: The “virtually undrinkable” base wine from which Cognac is made must come from very specific grapes. At least 90% must be ugni blanc, folle blanche and/or colombard, while six other grapes are permitted for the remaining 10%.
- Distillation: The crushed grapes must be fermented with wild yeasts native to Cognac for 2-3 weeks, before being twice distilled in copper pots to an alcohol level of around 70%.
- Ageing: Cognac must be aged in Limousin oak for at least two years before it can be sold to the public. During this time “the angels take their share”, (in French, la part des anges) and alcohol levels decrease to around 40%.
- Blending: The master taster of the house blends various brandies of different ages to achieve a deep, rich, and house-specific flavour. The age grading of the Cognac blend is determined by its youngest component. V.S. Cognacs have been aged for a minimum of two years, V.S.O.P. for four, Napoleon for six, and XO for 10.
Encapsulating the Cognac experience
But what is the quintessential Cognac experience? Cradling your snifter of Cognac (the drink’s purpose-built, amusingly named glass) in your hand, your nose will likely be reminded of a single malt scotch, albeit one that has a thin slice of fruitcake swimming in it. This smell translates to the tongue, with flowery, citrusy and oaky notes at the start, and deeply flavourful dried fruits to finish. A sweet burn unique to Cognac follows the liquid down the throat.
There will be obvious differences between the likes of V.S. and XO Cognacs, mostly in the depth, complexity and intensity of flavour. While the label and the age of the Cognac will have the greatest effect on its taste, serious connoisseurs know that the serving temperature shouldn’t be overlooked. Serving Cognac slightly chilled will highlight its barrel flavours and spice notes, while a room temperature Cognac will offer up far more fruit.
- If you see “Fine Champagne” on a restaurant menu in Cognac, don’t expect bubbles – these are actually brandies from the Champagne region of Cognac.
- While there are almost 200 Cognac producers, the four major houses – Martell, Remy Martin, Courvoisier and Hennessy – make up around 90% of the region’s total exports.
- Surprisingly, the French aren’t that enamoured with Cognac. It suffers from an old-fashioned image in its home country, to the degree that one bottle of Cognac is sold for every 80 bottles of whisky.