It says something that an entire region is named after France’s signature liquor. Only 3 hours away from Paris by train, the Village of Cognac, world famous for its namesake eau-de-vie (water of life) is also the birthplace of King François I, narrow winding streets, the towers of St Jacques’ gate, and many large 18th century houses made of stone typically coated with “black velvet” or Torula Compniacensis, a microscopic fungus that also graces the walls of the region’s cognac cellars.
One of the most coveted terroirs in the world, the Cognac region’s consistent year round temperatures averaging 55 F are thanks to the nearby Atlantic Ocean’s moderating effects funneling inland via winds coursing through the Massif Central foothills over soils rich in clay and chalk. Oddly enough, the Cognac region was first renowned for its salt trade with Northern Europe dating back to the 11th century. It wasn’t until 2 centuries later that ships began adding casks of wine from the Vignoble de Poitou to their cargo before supplanting salt altogether. The success of these local wines expanded vineyards into Poitou, Saintonge and Angoumois. Fast forward to the 16th Century and Dutch ships were returning from Cognac and Charentais with shipments of the renowned Champagne and Borderies wines distilled into “brandwijn” (burnt wine or brandy). In the attempt to recreate the original wine after the long voyage, water was then added back in before imbibing.
Double distillation introduced in the 17th century gave birth to bonafide cognac production. Still made today using traditional onion domed Charentais stills, wines from all 6 Cognac Crus (growing areas) are treated with the respect they deserve transforming them into eau-de-vie (water of life) rather than brandy. Eau de vie is really cognac in its pure essence made by crushing and fermenting grapes and distilling the mash to a colorless, bone-dry, 80 proof liquid. Shipping it during these early years brought the twofold benefit of making it virtually impervious to spoilage while merchants pleasantly discovered that delays at sea made the eau-de-vie more complex and better tasting as it sat in oak casks.
Local grapes like Colombard, Folle Blanche, and particularly Ugni Blanc have high acidity and low alcohol levels, essential characteristics for producing top quality cognac. Immediately after harvesting, grapes are pressed in traditional basket plate or pneumatic bladder presses and go straight to fermentation. Within 5 to 7 days, the mash hits 9 % alcohol signaling the next step of double distillation in 2 chauffes (separate heatings) in Charentais copper still over an open flame. Unfiltered wine is poured into a boiler where alcohol vapors are collected in the still-head and then flow through a coil surrounded by coolant which condenses the vapor into “brouillis”, a slightly cloudy liquid with an alcohol content of 28-32 % alcohol. This brouillis is returned to the boiler for a second distillation.
Next, the master distiller begins the artful transformation of eau-de-vie into cognac destined for distinctiveness defined by years of aging. 2 years in wood casks made from Limousin or Tronçais-type oak is the minimum but longer, some past a century, are much more common. The cellars’ natural humidity and wood’s porosity shapes the cognac’s flavor and appearance thanks to infusion and evaporation. All casks lose some alcohol and volume through evaporation poetically referred to as The Angel’s Share. In fact, it is estimated that more than 20 million bottles disappear this way into the atmosphere each year.
Over the years, the eau-de-vie becomes increasingly mellow with a bouquet evolving from notes of steamed oak to floral aromas with hints of vanilla along with a deepening color. The oldest Cognacs are usually kept away from the other cellars, in a dark cellar known as “the Paradise”. Once they have reached maturity, the Master Blender decides to end their ageing process and places them first into very old casks and then into large glass containers called “demijohns” where they can rest for many decades longer with no air contact. Additives are often used but strictly limited to distilled or demineralized water, sugar, or caramel.
With such a rich cognac making history, it’s ironic that 90% of all cognac now produced in France is exported elsewhere. The French actually drink far more whiskey than the multitude of cognacs available in their own backyard. Much of this is due to the very real issue of cost which puts it out of the reach of many who would otherwise imbibe more frequently than special occasions. But gradually this is changing.
Although it’s a common stereotype that cognac can only be enjoyed straight in a “tulip” or “balloon” shaped glass as a postprandial beverage by the fire in a leather chair, it also blends harmoniously with sparkling or tonic water as well as mixing well in a growing array of cocktails. VS (Very Special) cognac, aged to a minimum of two years instead of a 15 year old XO (Extra Old), can be quite tasty at a more manageable price point making it perfect for mixing. It is in this realm that cognac’s image is changing with the younger generation from being stodgy to new and exciting with many flavor possibilities. Now exported to over 150 countries across the globe, cognac remains synonymous with premium quality and the ultimate symbol of French culture.
You can walk the vineyards and tour cellars of some well known larger cognac houses as well as smaller family run producers known only inside France. Here is a short list to get you started:
The Hennessey chateau is situated on manor grounds complete with terraces overlooking broad verdant lawns and gardens while the interior features an expansive solarium, formal dining room, and living spaces featuring a classic drawing room outfitted with overstuffed seating and tea station. Just down the street, Hennessey has their own cooperage where craftspeople make all barrels from scratch onsite. Guided tours can be arranged in advance.
This chateau actually houses a museum covering all the aspects of Courvoisier’s role in cognac making extending back to Napoleon’s influence complete with a framed document containing a lock of his hair. A floor-to-ceiling glass column illustrates the striations of soil in the region and extensive collections of vintage bottles issued over the decades grace the walls. A more personal invite gets you into their cellars packed with vintage casks dating back to the early 1800’s and well as a glass tabled tasting room and Victorian-era dining room perfect for some classic pairings.
A family run house in the truest sense, it is here that you can walk the cellars with walls covered with torula compniacensis, a microscopic fungus that blackens any available surface. Don’t worry, this is totally natural and actually fed by alcohol vapors that seep from the aging casks known as The Angel’s Share. Stepping through their catacombs and tasting straight from the barrel makes your visit feel like a sacred passage back in time tasting a piece of history.
Situated on the cobbled streets in Cognac’s Old Town, Meukow’s heritage extends back to its founding in 1862. Commemorating its 150th anniversary in 2012, Meukow opened a refurbished and modernized welcome center and tasting room complete with onsite restaurant Chai Meukow where flambées, sauces, and marinades in many dishes incorporate cognac into the flavor profile along with specialty cocktails. Tours include visiting the barrel rooms, tastings, and narrated descriptions of artwork that fill their onsite galleries.
Little has changed in the cellars here over the last 250 years in this Jarnac based chateau on the River Charente. Cellar master Eric Forget emphasizes the fact that a cognac’s quality begins with the grape. “If you aren’t starting out with stellar grapes, there is no magic formula of blending and aging that can turn it into a remarkable cognac.” If the vines get the ideal dry, sunny weather in the days leading up to harvest, there’s a good chance that Forget will set aside a few casks of Grande Champagne cognacs to be aged as single vintages. You can see how the rest ends up first hand with a tour and narrated tasting of lineup ranging from their signature Antique XO to a more accessible Rare VSOP.
Photos courtesy of Steve Mirsky. Coverage made possible by participating in a sponsored visit.