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The Complex World of Cognac

How a grape-growing region in the south of France unites a coalition of small winemakers and craft distillers with some of the biggest players in the spirits firmament to make the most renowned brandy on the globe
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
The Brains Behind Homeland, May/June 2012

Michel Guilloteau’s little operation might be the envy of any of the recent wave of micro-distillers on the cutting edge of the crafts spirits movement. Here on his small vineyard in the Cognac-making region of southwest France, he seems to have mastered the dream of taking local produce from the field to the liquid state in very small batches. He grows his own grapes, then squeezes, ferments and distills them himself. And, in a tiny cellar weathered with moss, he even has laid up an admirable stock of casks, some decades old.

But for Guilloteau making brandy is not part of some recent vogue in spirits making. It’s what he’s done since 1968, when he took over the vineyard from his father, and what generations of his family have done here for centuries—since 1742 according to the sign at the entranceway.

Another notable difference between Guilloteau and the micro-distilling movement in the United States is that, despite his small scale and its apparent self-containment, he is very much a part of the larger complex that distributes the world’s preeminent brandy over the globe. The casks he keeps are a small percentage of what he makes. Most of the grape grower’s output is earmarked for Courvoisier, one of the big four houses that produce 90 percent of the Cognac consumed worldwide.

This region legally designated for the production of Cognac is fascinatingly complex in its interaction between layers of very small- and large-scale operations, all working hand-in-hand in a tiny area to create a very big brandy industry that is at once governed by years of tradition, but constantly innovating. Whether or not you prefer Hennessy to Rémy Martin or Martell, think the subregions of Grande and Petite Champagne make superior Cognac or believe that superaged XO outclasses the younger brandies, you can’t help but marvel at what goes on here.

Cigar lovers, in particular, should be impressed with this brandy haven that has so consistently produced exquisite and complex spirits with the innate sweet and savory qualities that make them perfect in smoking pairings.

The region’s placid appearance belies a superstructure that reconciles grape growers, artisans and huge corporations. Five thousand independent farmers on 195,000 acres grow, ferment and sometimes distill their own product. A number of independent distilleries process almost all the rest. The names that go on the bottles most often refer to companies that buy the resulting eaux de vies (the spirit in its unaged form) and shepherd it through the aging and blending processes.

Cognac is a subset of a class of spirits called brandy, which is basically grape juice that has been fermented, distilled and aged. It becomes Cognac only when every part of that process—from the vineyards up—has been performed in a legally designated area within about a 50-mile radius of the town of Cognac on the Charente River. It is a geographical appellation much like Scotch whisky, which is only made in Scotland, or Irish whiskey, which comes only Ireland. Except in the case of Cognac the regional constraints are much smaller. Furthermore the grapes must all come from Cognac, while the distillers of those whiskies are allowed to import grains.

This brandy lives and dies by the grapes that are grown here, and its story therefore begins ages ago—geological ages. The earth that brandy’s grapes thrive in developed during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods in the Mesozoic era. In addition to dinosaurs, the former era created the rocky soil in which Guilloteau grows  his grapes. Some other vineyards in the area lie on chalky soil created in the Cretaceous period.

Because grape vintages constantly fluctuate, current events also have a huge effect. A small number of Cognacs reflect this in vintage bottlings—based on the year in which the grapes were grown—meant to showcase growing conditions in that season. Most of the brandy is blended, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the small region must continue to grow the quality grapes needed to slake the global thirst for Cognac. Therefore the Cognac houses, regardless of their size, pay close attention to what happens on hundreds of plots of soil owned by small growers scattered about the Cognac region.

This past growing season an unusually warm spring was followed by a very rainy July and the vintage set records of a sort.

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