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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

(continued from page 1)

Grapes ripened quickly and harvesting forecasts were adjusted to far sooner than the October 1 norm. The boutique producer Cognac Ferrand owns its own vineyards and made the decision to harvest as early as September 2. Independent growers, like Guilloteau, are often responsive to what the large houses with whom they have contracts would like them to do with their vines. The large houses typically work closely with growers, giving them guidelines on how to grow and when to pick. “We don’t insist [farmers follow our directives],” says Laurent Lozano, assistant blender of Hennessy, by far the largest Cognac producer. “We strongly suggest.”

Cognacs responsiveness to outside factors is forever intertwined in its history. The Dutch first brought stills here to refine the region’s wines some 500 years ago. The British fell in love with Cognac in the eighteenth century and importers moved in to ensure a steady stream of the stuff to London. That explains the un-Gaullic names—such as Hardy, Hennessy and Hine—on some of the labels. The unassuming town of Cognac itself—only about 20,000 people strong—gave its name to the entire region because of its convenient placement on the Charente. Boats loaded with brandy shipped out of that town, and many makers set up shop along the river.

Of course, most growing is not done in the town of Cognac itself. Neither is the distilling, which is largely done by third-party operators, who receive wine from the growers and deliver it to Cognac makers as eau de vie. The large houses typically do some farming, fermenting and distillation, but this is mainly for experimental purposes and represents a drop in the bucket of their production.

Nor is the aging of Cognac now centered in the town that shares the liquid’s name. Vast stores of distilled alcohol are fire hazards, and local laws prevent the large houses from holding all their product in any one spot. To visit the aging houses of a formidable maker entails an automobile ride in the countryside, wending through acres and acres of pristine vineyards.

Cognac was one of the spirits for which the importance of aging was first recognized. During the eighteenth century long-distance shipping became more commonplace. The distilled wines of this region, as they were compacted and not as sensitive to the adversities of shipping and handling, were great candidates as cargo. Lo and behold, when the casks arrived at their destinations, perhaps a year or two later, the brandy had been mellowed and matured by time spent sloshing around in a wooden cask. Today, aging of Cognac is part of its legal definition.

Because Cognac’s character is so altered by distillation, aging and blending between the time it is fermented and when it is bottled, the assumption is often made that its grapes—typically Ugni Blanc—are inferior and go through the process only as a sort of salvaging operation. While the grapes are undeniably tart and almost no one has a taste for the sour wines they make, Ugni Blanc is specifically chosen for the process that Cognac undergoes. “It’s not a case of repurposing inferior wine,” says Alexandre Gabriel of Cognac Ferrand. “These are the perfect grapes for making Cognac.”

The wine the grapes render is low in alcohol and high in acidity. Its paucity of alcohol after fermentation is beside the point because distillation will bump up the proof. The process also sweetens the wine by concentrating what sugars there are. A sweeter wine would not only be too saccharine for condensing through distillation, it wouldn’t be hardy enough for long aging, which can easily go on for three decades and more.

Whether the distillation is performed by a vineyard owner or by a third party, the equipment used is fairly comparable. Tradition—and law—dictates that they use onion-shaped copper pot stills and distill the liquid twice before aging. The swan-necked stills are markedly smaller than those used by most Scotch single-malt makers and the much more efficient columns stills are never used. Still sizes may be larger for the first distillation, but they are limited to 2,500-liter loads in the second. Not much in the process has changed since double distillation began here in the seventeenth century. Distillers still use an open flame to heat the stills, although it is now typically fueled with gas rather than wood. The stills also use a preheater unique to Cognac. Before wine enters the still it is piped through a chamber holding the steam from the previous distillation. This makes heating the stills more efficient during the winter, when most distillation occurs because of the legal deadline—March 31—by which all Cognac from the previous vintage must be distilled. 

What differentiates larger third-party distillers from farmers who do it themselves on a smaller scale is for the most part that the former operate more stills. However, those wine growers who have but one still are limited to using the smaller, second-distillation still, which they utilize for each of two successive runs.

Many of the skills used in whiskey-making are shared in Cognac. For instance a still operator has to be very careful about what part of the run to reserve as the heart of the distillation. The impure beginning and the low-alcohol feints at the end are diverted and redistilled.

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