Cognac, a general look at a complex spirit…

6 August 2023

The history of cognac dates back to the 16th century and is closely intertwined with the rich cultural heritage of the Cognac region in southwestern France. The cognac region is located just below the Gironde River, near Bordeaux, in the departments of Charente and Charente-Maritime.

The cognac production process consists of several steps. The region’s unique limestone soil, combined with a maritime climate provides ideal conditions for growing grapes.
Primarily the variety ugni blanc, but folle Blanche, colombard, montils and folignan are also allowed. The harvested grapes are fermented into wine, which is then distilled twice in traditional copper stills the “Alambic Charentaise.” The distillation process must be completed by March 31 the year following the harvest of the grapes. After the 2nd distillation, the eau-de-vie must not exceed 72.4%.

The resulting eaux-de-vie are aged for a minimum of two years in oak barrels from forests from the areas of Limousin (natural forests, coarser grain, contains more tannins and grows +/- 2cm per year in size) or Tronçais (planted forests, finer grain, more vanilla and spice and grows +/- 2mm
per year). These French oak barrels contain less tannins than the American ones and have more pigmentation, hence the elegance and the typical “redder” color of cognac. About 20% of a tree can be used for the barrel. Maturation takes place in chais (cellars) that can have very dry to extremely humid climates.

Today, cognac is protected by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) status, which ensures that only cognac can legally be called cognac that has been produced according to specific methods in the Cognac region. The regulations included in the “cahier des charges” are there to ensure quality and authenticity. The region is divided into six crus, Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires (see map). All grapes used for cognac production must come from one of these 6 regions. Today there are about 83,000 hectares of vineyards planted, divided among about 1,300 winemakers who distill themselves. About 450 or so sell their cognacs under their own brand.