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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
By Jack Bettridge | From The Brains Behind Homeland, May/June 2012
The Complex World of Cognac

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.

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.

One advantage to a farmer who also distills is in collecting nest eggs of a sort. While contracts insure that he sells off most of the result, the grower can maintain an aging cellar himself. Guilloteau regards the casks that he’s retained as a kind of piggy bank to be broken into when he needs cash to buy a tractor or replace his still. There is a saying in Cognac that if your daughter is getting married you can finance the festivities with the proceeds from selling one cask.

The buyers are often such Cognac négociants as Nicolas Palazzi of Paul-Marie & Fils, whose business it is to source exquisite barrels and bottle them in small editions, “Everybody has a stash of brandy,” he says. “Their thinking is you don’t keep money in the bank, because you have Cognac in your cellar.”

For their part, the large houses husband the majority of the region’s eaux de vies, maturing them in oak casks and finally blending them into Cognac. The task is as gargantuan as the scale. Furthermore, the liquid is rotated through different vessels because new casks are better suited to new eaux de vies. As brandies become ancient they find their way into decades-old casks in cellars where moss darkens the walls and cobwebs grow into ropes.

Cognac can also be classified depending on which of six delimited regions it comes from. Many blend between regions, but  some expressions, like the flowery Borderies XO Cognac from Camus, use but one appelation. The products of Borderies and Fins Bois, come to maturity faster than those of the Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne regions. The latter are known for aging potential because of the high chalk content in the soil that gives them their names. Rémy Martin uses Grande and Petite Champagne. Therefore the company doesn’t make a VS expression, the youngest of the Cognac age designations at two years old or more. The other two age designations are VSOP (four years and older) and XO (six years and older). These parameters often don’t accurately reflect the high quality of some Cognacs as parts of an XO blend are often 30 years and older. Courvoisier recently introduced the first-age statement Cognac in an effort to better convey just how old its products can be.

Ultimately, Cognac is a blender’s art as the individual casks from  huge conglomerations are specifically chosen to mix with others to create the different products the houses offer—and guarantee that they taste the same, bottle after bottle, year after year. The process begins with choosing casks by hand—or more accurately by nose—but the scale of the task now dictates that the large producers use computers to monitor the blending and adjustments with water and caramel coloring (the only two additives legally allowed). Standing next to a glowing screen that seems out of place in a brandy cellar, Patrice Pinet, the Courvoisier master blender, explains that the technology saves on manpower and that other contemporary business practices, like the just-in-time inventory system, keep down carrying costs. “But that’s what Cognac is,” he says. “Tradition plus modernity.”