Cognac Grande Champagne is Cognac made in the traditional way – and under the production conditions of the Cognac appellation – from grapes grown in the Grande Champagne cru. The name often leads to confusion between Cognac and the Champagne sparkling wine region, 300 miles (280km) to the north, but this is easily explained. Champagne originally meant 'open country' and carried connotations of idyllic, perhaps gently rolling, pastoral landscapes – a character demonstrated by both of the great vineyard regions which bear the name. In both cases, the champagne landscape in question is characterized by a high content of chalk or limestone. These geological factors are an essential part of the terroir.
The Cognac vineyards are classified into six crus (delimited growing areas), which radiate unevenly from the eponymous town itself. Despite its name, Grande Champagne is less than half the size of neighboring Petite Champagne, although it produces nearly as much Cognac each year. In 2009, the total area qualifying for the title was 60,500 acres (24,500 ha). A remarkable 56% of the land is planted with vines used for Cognac production, with much of the remainder occupied by small hamlets and narrow country lanes. It also includes the substantial Cognac-Chateaubernard military airbase and fighter pilot training school on the outskirts of Cognac town.
The Grande Champagne area is located to the south and south-east of Cognac town, sandwiched between the river Charente (which gives the Charentais its name) and its tributary, the river Ne. The famous village of Segonzac lies at the heart of this densely planted viticultural haven, encircled by vineyards for five miles (8km) in every direction.
The Grande Champagne terroir is characterized by a maritime climate, and chalky soils over limestone and sandstone bedrock. With the concept and importance of terroir being as important in Cognac as anywhere else in France, these white soils are widely viewed as the reason behind the finesse and elegance of Grande Champagne Cognac. They were laid down about 70 million years ago, when global sea levels were at their highest and the area was essentially the eastern corner of the Atlantic seabed. Millions upon millions of seashells were deposited during this time, then ground up over the millennia and compacted into the chalk and limestone which remain today. Such was the impact on local geology that the age has formally been dubbed the 'Campanian' after Champagne, a village just to the north-west of Cognac (but not, confusingly, within either of the Champagne crus).
Like all Cognac, that produced in Grande Champagne is made mostly from Ugni Blanc, with certain quantities of Colombard and Folle Blanche. It has marked fruity, floral aromas and is famed for its balance of intensity and elegance. It takes many years to evolve into its finest form, typically requiring between 20 and 30 years. Cognac develops only in barrel, where it is free to interact with a limited, but all-important, supply of oxygen. It ceases to change and mature once it is bottled.