Cognac is the world's most famous brandy, better known even than its Gascon cousin Armagnac. It comes from the Charentais, a large area of western France situated immediately north of Bordeaux, and takes its name from the historic town of Cognac, the long-standing epicenter of local brandy production.
Although not particularly well known, the Charentais is one of France's largest vineyard areas. It is composed of two administrative departments (Charente and Charente-Maritime), each of which generates more wine each year than the whole of Burgundy. While a certain proportion of this is basic table wine (sold as Vin de Pays or Vin de France), the vast majority is produced specifically for distillation into Cognac.
The vines grown for Cognac production cover many thousands of hectares in the Charentais. The finest are generally around Cognac town itself, in the Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne sub-districts. They are cultivated by a significant number of small growers, who typically sell their produce to the large Cognac houses, the largest and most famous of which are Hennessey, Martell and Remy-Martin. There are, of course, some artisanal producers and local co-operatives who vinify and distill their own grape harvests, but these constitute only a tiny fraction of total Cognac production.
The grape varieties used in Cognac have been carefully chosen for the task. Cognac production requires grapes which are relatively high in acidity and low in sugar. Low sugar levels in the grapes mean low alcohol levels in the base wines. This allows them to be distilled for longer before they reach their intended alcoholic strength of 72% by volume; the more they are distilled, the purer the spirit. High acidity acts as a natural antiseptic, keeping the grapes and wines free from bacterial spoilage. Sulfur, the wine industry's ubiquitous anti-bacterial agent, cannot be used in Cognac production, as the distillation process would concentrate it to unpleasant levels (leading to aromas of cabbage and rotten eggs).
Good disease resistance is another requirement for grapes used in Cognac. The Charentais' relatively cool, wet climate makes for a high risk of rot in the vineyards. Rot-prone grape varieties would simply not be useful here; rotten grapes make bad wine, bad wine makes awful brandy.
Ugni Blanc – disease-resistant, high in acid, low in sugar – satisfies all three of the requirements above. As a result, it is by far the most important variety in Cognac. Roughly 95% of the base wines distilled into Cognac are made from Ugni Blanc grapes. The remaining 5% is taken up mostly by Folle Blanche and Colombard, although the appellation laws also permit the use of Semillon and Montils.
In French, Cognac is technically classified as an eau-de-vie de vin – a category which covers all spirits distilled from wine. The spirit's full, official name is in fact 'Eau-de-Vie de Cognac' or 'Eau-de-Vie des Charentes', but the shorter version has become so widely used that these longer versions are almost never seen on labels.
Legally protected and regulated since May 1936, Cognac was among the very first AOC titles confirmed when the INAO was created in the mid-1930s. Prior to this, the title was already protected by a decree of 1909, which began the official delimitation of the Cognac catchment area. There are six sub-appellations here, reflecting the six different vine-growing areas that have been recognized and delimited over the years. In ascending order of prestige, these are Bois Ordinaires, Bons Bois, Fins Bois, Borderies, Petite Champagne and Grande Champagne.
Cognac quality is graded in three official tiers, which reflect how long the spirit spent in barrel. VS (Very Special) is the lowest tier and means the brandy has been stored for a minimum of two years in casks. VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) is the middle tier and denotes Cognac that has been aged for at least four years. XO is the finest grade and is reserved exclusively for those cuvees aged for six years or more. The phrase Hors d'Age is used for Cognacs aged beyond any of the official age statements.
Barrel maturation is an absolutely essential part of how Cognac is made. Although brandy doesn't develop in bottle, the time it spends in oak allows it to take on greater complexity and smoothness – as well as the deep amber color that is all part of the Cognac attraction.