How Cognac Is Made
Cognac is essentially a brandy or what the French refer to as “an eau-de-vie de vin”. However, there are a number of important factors that distinguish it from other brandies that are produced both in France and abroad.
As we detail below, cognac production first takes place in vinyards by cultivating different varieties of dry and acidic grapes. In early October, they are harvested upon maturity. Unlike some varieties of wine, mechanisation is allowed for the harvesting process.
The grapes are then immediately pressed. In most cases, producers will use pneumatic bladder presses, which apply gentle pressure to the grapes. However, traditional artisans continue to employ basket plate presses. Nevertheless, Archimedes’ screw presses are not allowed for making cognac.
The initial process is similar to wine and the juice is fermented for around three weeks with the help of a small amount of yeast. However, additional sugars to speed up the process are banned.
A wine of 9% ABV is considered ideal for distillation. Indeed, stronger wines are supposedly challenging to distil and the wine may not be watered down beforehand. Occasionally, the yeast is filtered from the wine before it’s distilled. However, some producers prefer to keep them for added complexity.
In some cases, larger cognac houses will contract the process to several distilleries to the sheer quantities and varieties of eau-de-vie that they require. Such independent distilleries who supply the larger houses are known as “bouilleurs de cru”.
Traditionally, distillation takes place over winter and could not continue after the 31st March. This law was imposed to prevent secondary fermentation of the wine as the temperatures rise.
Yet, as most cognac producers use modern methods to cool and seal the tanks with inert gasses, many are campaigning for it to be repealed.
Since the stills are inert throughout the spring and summer, some producers have even started manufacturing gin. Nevertheless, those that do have had to fulfil a variety of requirements.
Unlike a variety of alcoholic spirits, the distillation process for making cognac is incredibly complex. Cognac is usually produced using copper pot alembic stills that are referred to as “Charentais”.
The stills can often have affectionate names due to their various shapes, which each create a different flavour and varying levels of impurities. Cognac undertakes two distillations, which are known as “chauffes” and must be heated with a naked flame.
The first run is referred to as the “brouillis”, which is then distilled a second time to produce “la bonne chauffe”. The second run takes place in a smaller still, which has a similar design. Like whisky, the heads and tails are discarded. However, those of the brouillis can be used as part of the next distillation batch.
A distiller must carefully balance the purity and the flavour of the final spirit. For instance, a purer spirit will ultimately lose some of the flavours yet a spirit with too much flavour may be too impure to enjoy.
The final distillate is usually around 70% ABV. However, this is often reduced to 65% ABV to encourage better wood extraction during the ageing process.
A vital part of making cognac isn’t just the ageing process but the way the casks are crafted specifically for the spirit. Firstly, the casks are made from two different varieties of French oak, which each have their own characteristics:
- Tronçais Oak: Lighter in tannins and produces a softer spirit.
- Limousin Oak: Heavier in tannins for a more robust flavour.
Only a small portion of mature oak trees that are over 100 years old can be used, which are left to age several years for the bitter sap to dry. After the planks are bent into shape and assembled into a cask, the casks are toasted or “bousiné” with a flame.
The cognac will spend its first 18 months in a new oak cask before being transferred to older barrels, which provide a subtler flavour. As you’ll learn below, the brandy must be aged for at least two years before it can be recognised as cognac.
Every six months, a small mixture of cognac and water or “petites eaux” is added to the barrels to slowly reduce its strength for better ageing.
Each cask also has a term depending on how long it is used for ageing cognac:
- Meures-Meurs: 1 – 4 Years
- Barriques Rouges: 4 – 10 Years
- Vieilles: Over 10 Years
Due to a 2% yearly angel’s share, cognac from the same batch is often consolidated to reduce the number of barrels and keep them full, which slows down the evaporation.
Finally, cognac that’s over 35 years old will often be transferred to glass demijohns to prevent it from turning bitter or falling below 40% ABV in strength.
Cognac blending is a complex process undertaken by a master blender referred to as a “Maître de Chai”. A single cognac can be blended from multiple grapes, zones, and harvests from different vintages and ages.
Indeed, the process is somewhat similar to blending whisky or non-vintage champagne where the maître de chai has to ensure that every production of each label remains consistent. Cognac has to be blended from at least two different spirits but some may contain more than 150 different batches.
After it has been finalised, the resulting blend is then reintroduced into a cask for a final 6-months of ageing, which helps marry the flavours.
Typically, the Maître de Chai may add caramel to correct the cognac’s colour or even a very small amount of sugar to the final blend, which improves the overall flavour.
Occasionally, cognac may also include “boise”, which is a syrup made from boiled wood, to adds more maturity to younger cognac. However, boise is often regarded as a controversial additive.
What Is Cognac Made From?
As mentioned above, cognac is produced using specific grapes that are natively grown in the cognac region. Although the grapes used for cognac are undrinkable as wine, they yield excellent results when distilled and aged.
Cognac only uses white grapes and a “cru” cognac must not contain less than 90% of the following varieties:
- Ugni Blanc: A high-yield grape also known as Saint-Emilion or Trebbiano.
- Folle Blanche: Susceptible to disease and sometimes referred to as picpoule, gros plant, and enrageant blanc.
- Colombard: An offspring of Chenin blanc and Gouais blanc wine grapes that is occasionally used for Bordeaux and Goscony wines.
Meanwhile, the following grapes can only account for up to 10% of a “cru” cognac:
- Follignan: A complex grape produced by crossing Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche.
- Jurançon Blanc: Known to produce average or low-quality wines.
- Meslier St-François: Another Guoais and Chenin crossing that originated in the Loire valley.
- Sélect: An “accessory” grape for producing cognac.
- Montils: A rarer grape that was nearly lost to phylloxera.
- Sémillon: Usually used for producing sweet “moelleux” Sauternes and Barsac wines.
Cognac is a large appellation region, which is divided into smaller “cru” zones. If a cognac wishes to be designated as a cru from one of these zones, it must abide by the above concentrations. However, cognac labels choosing not to carry a cru name have a much greater level of flexibility when blending their creations.
How Strong Is Cognac?
In both Europe and the USA, cognac must be at least 40% ABV to be regarded as a brandy or alcohol spirit. While most cognacs adhere to this strength quite closely, some blends may be a little stronger. However, it’s rare that a commercial cognac will ever be as strong as 45% ABV.
Unlike whisky, cognac is rarely cut with water or chilled. Instead, it is almost always enjoyed neat unless you’re preparing a cocktail. In fact, as we described above, it’s slowly hydrated as it’s aged with a water and cognac solution, which brings down the total ABV while still in the barrel.
A cognac much stronger than 40% ABV would produce an alcohol bloom that would likely conceal the spirit’s nuances and flavours. Therefore, it’s no surprise that most cognacs adhere to 40% ABV and rarely more.
Different Types Of Cognac & Regions
You may have noticed a variety of different terms an initials on cognac bottles, which can be very confusing to newcomers. These initials consider a cognac’s age and it specifically refers to how long a blend’s youngest brandy has been aged in a cask. Indeed, the classification is somewhat similar to Scotch whisky.
As you’ll learn in our main guide, the terms are in English due to their historical presence in the industry. The Bureau National Interprofessional du Cognac (BNIC) has classified the terms as follows:
- V.S. (Very Special): 2 Years
- V.S.O.P (Very Superior Old Pale) or Réserve: 4 Years
- Napoléon: 6 Years
- X.O. (Extra Old): 10 Years
- X.X.O: 14 Years
- Hors d’Âge: Officially 10 Years Or Older
Officially, an Hors d’Âge cognac is regarded as an X.O by the aforementioned BNIC given that the youngest spirit has been aged for at least 10 years. However, producers will use the term instead as a marketing term to emphasise its age.
Similarly, an X.O. cognac can technically feature a 6-year old spirit if it was bottled before 2018 as the classification was increased in 2016. Additionally, a new “X.X.O.” classification has been recognised for cognac that is 14 years or older.
Meanwhile, the “Napoléon” grade was previously unofficial but has become a common term since the revised X.O. classification.
Finally, a 2-year old cognac may occasionally feature three stars on the bottle instead of or as well as “V.S.”.
Different Cognac Crus Regions
As mentioned above, the cognac region is divided into separate crus, which are zones that have varying characteristics:
- Grande Champagne: Not to be confused with the sparkling wine, Grande Champagne is one of the most revered cognac crus that represents 17% of its production over a 34,703-hectare zone.
- Petite Champagne: Nearly twice as large as Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne consists of 66,000 hectares. However, only 15,000 hectares are actually used for growing cognac grapes. As Petite Champagne offers a thinner chalk substrate, it is regarded as a slightly lesser cognac cru.
- Borderies: Found slightly north of Grande Champagne, Borderies consists of 12,500 hectares that are known to age quickly compared to the above crus.
- Fins Bois: A large cru that surrounds the above three and represents as much as 42% of total cognac production. Like Borderies, it ages quickly and its limestone or clay soil produces a popular blending base spirit.
- Bons Bois: A distant growing region that produces a particular flavour.
- Bois Ordinaires: Although a large 260,000-hectare zone, just over one per cent is even used for growing cognac grapes. Its soil is somewhat poorer given the nearby coast and resulting climate.
- Bois & Terroirs: Sandy outskirts of Les Bois crus that have a distinctively sandy soil.
Finally, you can also have other appellations like Cognac Fine Champagne Contrôlée. This particular example refers to brandy made solely with at least 50% Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne for the remaining amount.
Having now learned about how cognac is made and the different varieties, why do you read more about the majestic spirit?