June 04, 2015

The Story Of Cognac, A~Z

While I am not a drinker of fine cognac, I aspire to be. This liquor has long captured my fascination, my only exposure to it was when, as a young man, I had a toothache and my mom would bring out 'the good stuff,' have me dab my pinky into it and rub it on my gum to numb the pain. It always worked, but to me with my seven year old, twinkie and chocolate milk palate, it could well have been turpentine. Now as an adult, I have come to appreciate the finer points of a good glass of cognac, sipped slowly after a nice meal or in front of a cozy fire....mm.....nice........what? Oh, right. I got a little lost there....back on point.

According to French Law, in order to be called Cognac, it must meet strict 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 of these, Ugni Blanc, (Saint-Emilion,) is the variety most used today by some way. It must be distilled twice in copper pot stills and aged at least two years in French oak barrels from Limousin or Tronçais.

The Harvest
Believe it or not harvest is almost exactly as it is with winemakers, but that is where the similarities end. The entire Cognac vineyard covers around 216,000 acres with as many as 15,000 plantations producing white wine for the production of Cognac. The main grape variety that is planted is Ugni blanc (mostly "Folle Blanche" and "Colombard"). This slow ripening variety is very resistant to diseases and produces a wine that has two vital qualities: a high level of acidity and a generally low alcohol content. The pressing of the grapes is done immediately after harvest. Today, wine producers use horizontal flat presses or pneumatic presses. The juice is left to ferment immediately and the sugars are transformed into alcohol. The addition of sugar (chaptalisation) is not permitted. The wines are then stored with their residue. The Cognac region has a limestony soil and a maritime and temperate climate that is humid, hot and sunny enough to ripen the grapes. Despite all these assets, the wines that are produced would not deserve their reputation if it were not for the alchemy that takes place in the pot still that produces the cognac.

Cognac, The Region 
The Cognac Delimited Area extends along the banks of the Charente all the way to the Atlantic coast. It covers a large part of the department of Charente, all of the Charente-Maritime and a few areas of the Dordogne and Deux-Sèvres. This ancient country was once called Aunis, Saintonge and Angoumois. In the heart of the region lies Jarnac, Segonzac and Cognac which gave its name to the spirit. Cognac lies 465 kilometers south-west of Paris and 120 kilometers north of Bordeaux. The world's best-known brandy comes from the peaceful countryside surrounding the Charente River. This slow moving river, which King François I called the 'loveliest river in his kingdom,' passes through a placid landscape of vineyards bathed by a clear and radiant light. A twenty-mile area called the 'golden circle' of cognac production encompasses Cognac and the second distilling town of Jarnac.

Cognac, the medieval town which bears the name of the region, is attractive with its narrow medieval cobbled streets and elegant Renaissance facades. It is here that the fabled nectar has been produced since the 17th century. It is said the very air one breathes is permeated by 'angels's share', the heavy scent of spirits evaporating from oak casks held in storage. World famous firms such as Camus, Hennessy, Niartell, Otard, Prince Hubert de Polignac, Rémy-Martin, Courvoisier, and Renault-Bisquit are located herewith each distillery having its own secret and unique process for mixing the various blends of its eaux-de-vie.

La Rochelle
La Rochelle is most famous for its old harbor and its three outstanding medieval towers. For the locals, that familiar, inviting sight doesn't just symbolize the port's rich history: it's also a haven of style, good times and lively quayside cafes. The vibrant lifestyle attracts an international set and there are trendy bars and excellent restaurants aplenty. The town is full of fascinating details: look out for the huge chain on the restaurant-filled Cours des Dames, under the Tour de la Chaine. It used to be slung across the mouth of the harbor, between la Tour de La Chaine and its fellow sentinel, the Tour Saint-Nicolas. Third of la Rochelle's seafront towers is la Tour de la Lnaterne, in which a huge candle was lit nightly as a beacon for incoming craft. Another impressive piece of architecture on the harbor is the porte de la Grosse Horloge. Behind this portal, the town center is easily reached, and on the bustling arcaded streets, you'll see plenty of fine architecture. With its café and clubs, this is an exuberant town at any time of the year, but it excels during the summer with an international film festival and in mid-July, the nation's top musical happening, les Francofolies, in which French-speaking musicians and music-lovers from all over the world congregate.

Located just 5 miles from Poitiers, this science amusement park is a voyage into a wonderland of new technology devoted to the moving image. With the most advanced film projection techniques, the world's largest \screens and a multitude of mind boggling activities to choose from, it is no wonder that Futuroscope draws nearly 3 million visitors annually.
Marais Poitevin
The waterways of the "Marais Poitevin" are sometimes likened to the bayous of Cajun country, for man hardly appears to have made an impact on the landscape. But unlike the bayous, this is not uninviting, alligator-rich swampland! In fact, the maze of canals is all man-made. They date from the middle ages, when monks started a huge project to drain the Golfe du Poitou (a huge bay that nearly reached Niort. The contours of its cliffs can still be traced on a map). The avenues are regularly tended by local authorities as though they were roads, which to all intents and purposes they are. The more picturesque name given to the area, "La Venise Verte" or "Green Venice" is a hint that getting around by car in the area might be easier said than done.

Set on a majestic hilltop above the river Clain, this is one of France's oldest cities, filled with history and tales of antiquity; whether it be Joan of Arc, Richard the Lionhearted or Eleanor of Aquitaine. The visitor will discover a trove of Romanesque art and architecture, museums, a 4th century Baptistery (one of the oldest Christian edifices in France) as well as the entirely renovated Romanesque church of Notre-Dame-La-Grande.
Located on the banks of the Charente river, this 2000 year old town was once the Roman capital of southwestern France. The presence of one of the oldest remaining amphitheaters as well as Roman baths, which may be visited, attests to this. Between visits to the cathedral of St-Pierre and the church of St-Eutrope, be sure to stroll through the wonderful medieval city of narrow streets and markets.
How Cognac is Made
The Pot-Still
The Pot still is entirely made of copper because copper has a catalysing effect and it does not affect the taste of the spirits. The bottom of the main cauldron - where the liquid to be distilled is placed - is in permanent contact with the bare flame of the furnace. The wine is uniformly heated with its dregs over a large surface. The Alcohols and ethers evaporate. The onion shaped top canalises the vapors into the swan neck, through the "chauffe-vin" cooling them slightly before they reach the cooling tank known as "the pipe". The vapors travel through a long coil, condense and are collected in liquid form in an oak cask.

Double distillation
Distillation is carried out in two steps : two heating cylcles called "chauffes". The first "chauffe" which lasts between 8 and 10 hours produces a cloudy liquid called "brouillis" with an alcohol content of 24 to 30 % volume. The "brouillis" is then re distilled. This second heating is called "la bonne chauffe" and lasts about 12 hours. This time, only the best, that is "the heart" of the distillation, is kept. The distiller separates the "heart" from the "heads" and the "tails" through a process called "cutting". The heads and the tails are mixed with the next batch of wine or brouillis in order to be re distilled. Thus only the heart, a clear spirit averaging between 68 and 72% vol., is kept for ageing to become Cognac.

The distilled wine must age before becoming Cognac. This aging takes place in 270 to 450 litre oak casks. The natural level of humidity in the cellars is one of the main influencing factors on the ageing of the spirits due to its effect on evaporation. The charentais coopers have traditionally used wood from the Limousin and the Tronçais forests. The Tronçais forest, in the Allier department of France, provides soft, finely grained wood which is particularly porous to alcohol. The Limousin forest produces medium grained wood, harder and even more porous. The wood used in the Cognac barrels must come from the nearby forests. None may be brought in from outside the region. Some producers prefer to use Troncais oak, because it imparts flavors more quickly to the Cognac. The downside of this is again, in the quality of the finished product. The producers of our Single Vineyard Cognacs rely exclusively on Limousine oak. This wood imparts flavor to the oak more slowly, and the result is transcendentally wonderful Cognacs. A Cognac’s age is determined solely by the number of years that it has matured in wood. The fundamental principle behind this fact is that in a glass bottle Cognac stops aging. A Cognac that has come straight from the pot still has an alcohol content of about 70%. As it ages, Cognac concentrates the aromas and the colors as it darkens to a warm shade of amber. During the first few years (from 0 to 5 years), the bouque mellows and becomes less agressivea nd the spirit turns to a shade of yellow that continues to darken. The odor of oakwood develops. Next, the taste becomes more pleasant and smoother. The oakwood fragrance introduces scents of flowers and vanilla. Beyond 10 years of age, Cognac reaches maturity and has a much darker color. The bouquet is at its best and the famous "rancio" appear.

From beginning to end, the making of cognac (or ’elaboration’) is the subject of a complex alchemy. The quality of each and every cognac depends as much on the "assemblies" as on the care given to the vine, the grape harvest, the wine making, the distillation and the aging in casks. The cognac that you drink is in fact the fruit of "assemblies" of different vintages and different ages. It is these assemblies that produce the harmony in the taste.

The "assemblies" are the result of unwritten ancestral know-how. They are the secret of the "maîtres de chai" or "cellar masters", persons of exception who watch over the cognac from its exit from the still to the bottling. It is the cellar masters who, after years of patient training by the elders, decide to decant casks or to change cellars in order to best develop the quality of the spirit. They also decide when and how to assemble the spirits. It is often said of the cellar masters that they alone represent the true value of Cognac houses. The assembly is done in several steps that are spread throughout the entire ageing process. The cellar masters do not use any instruments of measure, they rely entirely on their judgement of taste and smell. Their senses are so accurate that they are always right.
Grades of Cognac
VS Very Special, or (three stars) where the youngest brandy is stored at least two years in cask.
VSOP Very Special (less commonly, but officially according to the BNIC, '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.
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. Of note: According to the legend handed down, though most of this is hearsay; Cognac was Napoleon’s favorite beverage. Years ago, Cognac was a white, or clear, spirit. It was harsh and difficult to drink, yet Napoleon loved it. As he was leaving to conquer Russia, he realized that he could not carry with him his entire store of Cognac. He left the extra with trusted friends, admonishing them strictly not to disturb the barrels he was leaving in their cellars for any reason. When he returned six and a half years later to reclaim his barrels of Cognac, Napoleon found them as he had left them, undisturbed and safe. Yet the Cognac within was radically different from the cognac he had left there those many years ago. Over the intervening six and a half years, the Cognac had aged in the barrels. Napoleon’s Cognac had taken on the characteristics of the barrels. It had mellowed, and yet grown flavorful and more powerful, acquiring some of the color and flavor of the wood. Napoleon proclaimed it to be the finest beverage in all the world.
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 Réserve is like the Hors d´Age a grade beyond XO.
Hors d'âge 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" (beyond age).

From a recent Article in Nations Restaurant News by Stephen Beaumont, Ben Demarchelier, bar manager of Brasserie Cognac in midtown Manhattan is quoted as saying, “I like introducing people to Cognac through cocktails, some originals, some classics and some variations on the classics,” Demarchelier said. “It helps younger people in particular look at Cognac as a smooth, fun drink, rather than your grandfather’s Cognac.” “If I start them out with something younger, on a subsequent visit they may ask me to recommend something different,” he said. “That’s when I’ll move them up to something older and more complex.” He also dismisses the notion of the old fashioned snifter, saying, "The Cognac tulip glass is what I use for most of my Cognacs, because it better presents the spirit, intensifying the aroma by allowing it to breathe and expand, all the way to the finish,” he said. “In the snifter, I find the Cognac will snuff itself out, reducing its aroma to little more than pure alcohol, while the tulip keeps it fresh to the very end.”
The eye must judge the spirit in three ways: transparency, color and viscosity (the liquid must not be cloudy nor have sediments). By tilting the glass, one can observe the "legs" or "tears" effect which is a sign of good age.
Firstly, the connoisseur will detect the very volatile and very subtle scents that are often hidden to the novice: Carry the glass to within an inch of the nostrils then smell a little closer before with the nose in the glass, inhaling at length all the released smells. Secondly stir and toss the liquid inside the glass to allow the spirit to release new scents. Repeats this action several times to make the pleasure last and to discover a whole new bouquet every time.

The tasting must obey strict rules: The taster takes small sips at a time (1 to 2 ml). Hold each sip in the front of the mouth and appreciate the "taste" (balance between softness, acidity and bitterness) and the "touch" (feeling of roundness, warmth, strength, astringency, body, oiliness, volume, etc...). The second, longer sip will suffuse the whole mouth and will bring into full bloom the flavors and the less volatile notes that complete the bouquet.

As always drink in moderation and good luck on your journey.

Bon Appetit,


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