Cognac is a type of brandy that is made from white wine grapes from vines grown in the neighborhood of the city of Cognac, relatively warm area of the Charente.
Production of Cognac
Cognac enthusiasts have described the flavours in this drink as elegant and romantic. This can be attributed to its careful production process, which usually takes several years. In simple terms, cognac is produced through the double distillation of white wine from grapes that are grown in several distinct regions. However, the process is much more complex. In order to truly understand the production process, one must divide it into five steps. These steps are harvesting, pressing and fermentation, distillation, aging, and blending.
Grapes that are used to produce cognac can either be Ugni Blanc, Colombard, or Folle Blanche. These grapes are usually harvested in the beginning of October because this is when they have attained aromatic maturity. This means that the grapes embody the characteristics of the soil that they were grown in. In the past, harvesting was done by hand. However, these days, most regions use mechanical pickers to harvest the grapes.
Pressing and fermentation
The grapes are pressed immediately after they are harvested. The pressing is done by a traditional horizontal press or a pneumatic press. The grapes pips are usually eliminated during this stage in order to get rid of tannings that might alter the flavour of the final product. After pressing, the liquid is left to distil naturally. By law, adding of sugar in order to increase the alcohol content is prohibited. The manufacturers are also forbidden from adding any antioxidant such as sulphur dioxide as this could alter the taste of the final brandy. The process of fermentation usually lasts for two to three weeks.
After fermentation, the wine is usually very delicate, and it must be distilled while it is still fresh. It is usually thin and acidic, with low alcohol content. This makes it perfect for distillation. However, since it has a very low alcohol content, about ten gallons of the wine have to be distilled to produce one gallon of cognac.
The reason why cognac has such a stellar reputation is because of the care and attention that goes into the distillation process. It is the double distillation that converts the liquid from wine to an eau-de-vie. The distillation pots are usually made from copper because this metal has a catalysing effect that will not have any impact on the final product. The bottom of this cauldron is always in contact with the source of heat. It is also important to ensure that the liquid is heated uniformly.
During the first distillation stage, the unfiltered wine is brought to a boil. The vapour passes through a swan neck and condenses in a coolant. This vapour is usually cloudy, and is referred to as brouillis. The brouillis usually has an alcohol content of between 28% and 32%. This first distillation process usually lasts between eight and ten hours.
During the second distillation stage, the brouillis is taken back to the boiler and re-heated. However, not all the vapour will be collected this time. The vapour that arrives first is usually referred to as the head, and it usually has a very high alcohol content. This first vapour is usually separated from the rest. The second vapour is known as the heart, and it usually has an alcohol content of about 70%. The distiller will collect the heart in its purest form, as this is what eventually becomes the cognac. The final vapours, or the tails, will then be cut off because their alcohol content is too low. The second distillation process usually lasts about twelve hours.
The eau-de-vie, or the heart of the distilled wine, has to be aged in oak casks in order to become cognac. The woods that are used to make these casks are from 100 year old oak trees that sourced from the Limousin and Tronçais forests. Furthermore, the casks have to be made in a traditional way. The eau-de-vie is put in these casks which are placed in dark cellars for at least two years. During aging, the wood transfers its tannings to the colourless spirit. This is what gives the cognac its distinct amber colour.
Though the minimum amount of time for aging cognac is two years, the spirit can be aged for up to fifty years in order to increase its quality.
This is the last process that involves the mixing of cognacs that were distilled in different years in order to come up with a distinct flavour. This is usually done by expert blenders. Each Cognac company usually has their own master blender, and the procedure that they use to create a particular blend are a closely guarded secret. This is because the different blends are what determine the value and the personality of a particular cognac.
When a master blender mixes blends that are at least two years old, it is given the label V.S., which means Very Special.
If the youngest blend in the spirit is at least four years old, the blend will be labelled V.S.O.P/Réserve, which means Very Superior Old Pale.
If the youngest blend in the spirit is at least five years old, the blend will be labelled V.V.S.O.P/Grande Réserve, which means Very Very Superior Old Pale.
If the youngest blend is six years or more, the Cognac is labelled X.O or Napoleon.“Fine Champagne“: min. 50% grapes from Grande Champagne, with the remainder from Petite Champagne
Grande Champagne: completely chalky soils and climate is more favorable; finest cognacs comes from this area.
Petite Champagne: less chalky soils and climate just less favorable; cognac is very similar to the previous, but with less structure and complexity and has great finesse.
Borderies: modest climate oceanic influences; cognacs are full bodied, floral and well structured, suitable for aging
Fins Bois the largest production area; cognacs are modest bodied, fruity and floral, rapid aging potential.
Bons Bois: heterogeneous soils; cognacs are rustic, more vigorous than before, and rapid aging potential
Bois Ordinaires: the climate is marine, sandy soils; spirits are weak and rough; age in a few years.
Brandy is one of the finest spirits. The production process reveals why this is the case. It is only through this careful and attentive process that enthusiasts can enjoy their favourite alcoholic spirit.