Cognac is the appellation title for wine-based eau-de-vie (brandy) from the Charentais – a large area of western France situated between Bordeaux to the south and the Loire Valley to the north. It takes its name from the historic town of Cognac, the long-standing epicenter of local brandy production. The full, official name for Cognac is '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.
Although not particularly well known, the Charentais is one of France's largest vineyard areas. Its is composed of two constituent departements – namely the two Charentes (Charente and Charente-Maritime) each of which generates more wine each year than the whole of Champagne. While a certain proportion of this output is table wine (sold as Vin de Pays or Vin de Table) the vast majority is produced specifically for distillation into various kinds of eau-de-vie. The most famous of these is, of course, Cognac –the world's most famous brandy.
The vines grown for Cognac production cover many thousands of hectares around the eponymous town. They are cultivated by a significant number of small growers, who sell their produce to large distilling firms. 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 grown in these vineyards are almost entirely white, as no black-skinned varieties are sanctioned for use in Cognac. The three most important of these, in terms of quantity, are Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Colombard. They have traditionally been chosen over the handful of other permitted varieties (which include Semillon, Jurancon Blanc and Montils), either for their favorable aromas or their resistance to vine pests and disease.
Colombard was the preferred variety for brandy production in the 18th Century and is still widely used for this purpose today, mostly in South Africa and California. In the 19th Century, it was supplanted in Cognac vineyards by the more pleasingly aromatic Folle Blanche, which continued in favor until the early 20th Century. However, the ongoing effects of phylloxera and various fungal diseases introduced to Europe's vineyards from America, led Ugni Blanc (less flavorful, but – critically – more disease resistant) to be chosen as the new favorite variety of Cognac.
The ideal wine for distillation into Cognac has good acidity (making it sufficiently resilient to the rigors of distillation); an alcohol content of about 9%; and a good core of aromatic components, which will eventually dictate the flavor quality of the finished product. Distillation effectively concentrates both the alcohol and flavor of a base wine, so it is important to get these elements in balance; too much alcohol and the flavors will be overpowered.
Legally protected and regulated since May 1936, the Cognac name 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 which have been recognized and delimited over the years. In ascending order of prestige, they are: Bois Ordinaires, Bons Bois, Fins Bois, Borderies, Petite Champagne and finally Grande Champagne.
Cognac quality is graded in three official tiers (although various other terms are used on its labels), which reflect time 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. So great are the benefits of barrel ageing that producers regularly exceed the minimum ageing requirements. This has brought about the phrase Hors d'Age, signifying ageing far beyond the official age statements. 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 which is part of the Cognac attraction.