Cognac's Cocktail Comeback
Though Purists May Shudder, France's Premier Brandy Mixes with the Cocktail Crowd
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98
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Ironically, this fine, aged spirit begins as a young undistinguished wine, one which has been made in the Charente river basin of western France since the third century, when this region of Gaul was controlled by the Roman Empire. By the thirteenth century, the wine--such as it was--became sufficiently popular that Dutch traders carried it as far and wide as the salt for which the Charente coastal region was well known. But throughout the centuries, production eventually outpaced demand, creating more wine than could be disposed of in a timely manner. In addition, the low-alcohol wines suffered under longer sea voyages.
By the 1500s the enterprising Dutch, who had become skilled distillers, decided to distill the wine before transporting it, with the idea of reconstituting this brandwijn, or burnt wine, at its final destination. But the spirit was so delicious that many people never bothered to add the water.
Production proceeded nicely until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the the phylloxera virus devastated the Charente vines. The resulting Cognac shortages spawned imitators in Italy and Germany. To protect the integrity of Cognac, the French government in 1909 decreed that it could be produced only on vineyards within a 2.8-million-acre area that covers much of the Charente and all of the Charente-Maritime departments north of Bordeaux; within the region, Cognac grapes are planted on nearly 200,000 acres. In 1936, the Cognac growing region was subdivided into seven districts, or crus, each with its own unique characteristics. Subsequently, two crus were combined, making six.
The districts form a series of rough concentric circles around the town of Cognac, beginning with Grande Champagne, the most desirable district. As you go outward from Grande Champagne to Petite Champagne, then Borderies, Fin Bois, Bon Bois and Bois Ordinaires, the grapes become less desirable. (Champagne in Cognac should not be confused with the place that makes the sparkling wine. Champagne simply means an open field in French.)
Grande Champagne's desirability comes mainly from its chalky soil, which when combined with the district's microclimate produces grapes with high acidity, perfect for long-aged, full-flavored Cognac. Petite Champagne has the second highest chalk concentration.
Every Cognac producer likes to tout the origin of its grapes. For example, Cognac Pierre Frapin prides itself that all its grapes are from Grande Champagne. Just as important, those grapes are estate grown. This is the exception in Cognac, where there are some 10,000 farmers who grow grapes and make wine. Forty percent do their own distilling, the rest sell to distillers. Some Cognac producers, or houses, purchase wine and distill it themselves, while others buy already distilled brandy and age and blend it themselves.
Martell points to its distinct concentration of grapes from Borderies, which is known for its great floral character. Rémy Martin boasts that all its Cognacs are Fine Champagne, meaning at least 50 percent of the grapes come from Grand Champagne and the rest from Petite Champagne. (Grande Fine or Grande Champagne means that 100 percent of the grapes come from the Grande Champagne cru.) Courvoisier has a two-tiered style. At the higher end (XO quality and above), more old cognac from Borderies is used for additional complexity, aroma and length. With VSOP Cognac, Courvoisier uses only fine Champagne Cognacs.
Martell and Rémy Martin, along with fellow "Big Four" Cognac producers Hennessy and Courvoisier, focus on blends of many Cognacs to produce a recognizable house style, much the way Champagne producers (the guys who make the bubbly) make nonvintage blends for their house styles. But smaller producers often make more distinctive Cognacs that are worth seeking out. Maison Brillet, for example, is a grower, distiller and blender that makes single-cru Cognacs from Petite and Grand Champagne. Gabriel & Andreu makes single-district Cognacs from Petite Champagne, Grand Champagne, Borderies and Fine Bois. A. Hardy & Co. makes an absolutely lovely Borderies Cognac.
By law only three white wine grapes can be used in the production of Cognac--Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche. Today about 98 percent of Cognac is made from Ugni Blanc, also known as Saint Emilion Charente in France and Trebbiano in Italy. When asked why they don't make more varietal Cognacs, most producers say Ugni Blanc is the best candidate for distillation and aging because of its high acidity and low alcohol. But Bénédicte Hardy of A. Hardy disagrees. "I think Colombard has more character and ages better than Ugni Blanc. Ugni Blanc was used more because it was resistant to phylloxera (the vine-killing root louse), not because it was better in quality," she says. To prove it, she serves a glass of Hardy Perfection, a 130-year-old Cognac made from Colombard grapes. The Cognac has amazing freshness and youth. (Frapin cellar master Olivier Paultes says the main reason for using Ugni Blanc, by far the most widely planted white wine grape in France, is that it is much more consistent than Colombard or Folle Blanche.)
Once the grapes are pressed, they are fermented into a wine of about 8 to 9 percent alcohol and put into an alembic, an onion-shaped copper pot still introduced into Europe by the Moors in the thirteenth century--alembic is Arabic for still. The shiny copper has since been covered with a reddish brown paint in most distilleries. The stills sit on brick-enclosed gas-fired ovens, which heat the wine. The first distillation is done in a larger still. The harsh beginning and end of the first distillation, known as the "heads" and "tails," are redistilled. The second distillation, which produces the more refined final product, must be done in smaller stills so that more control can be maintained. The whole process takes about 24 hours and produces wonderful aromas reminiscent of freshly baked apple pie. This hominess is somewhat deceptive in large operations such as Martell, where computers do everything except taste. To capture the fresh, fruity quality of the wine, all distillation must be completed by March 31.
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