The brandy of Cognac is something of an aberration. This town's most famous citizen, Francis I, never tasted the stuff because it was first made only half a century after his death. The Scandinavians, English and Dutch had been buying the wines of Cognac since the early Middle ages, but mostly as an afterthought.
They really came for wheat and salt.
Economic conditions, taxation of wine by bulk and the serious entry into the wine trade of Spain after the Moors were finally chased out of the best wine-producing region of the peninsula in 1492 threatened catastrophe for the wine of Cognac.
While the taste for Cognac wine was still prevalent, the growers decided that drastic measures were called for. They boiled the wine to concentrate the alcohol so that bulk tariffs would not be so onerous. Once this "burned wine" – brandewijn in Dutch, hence brandy in English – arrived at its destination, the buyers added water and drank it as reconstituted wine.
It was that fortuitous situation that brought about the creation of cognac as we know it today, a far more subtle, rich and elegant drink than the crudely distilled stuff of the 17th century.
Cognac owes its reputation as the most famous of brandies to three essential factors – soil, vine and barrel. The best soil of Cognac is chalky as is that of Champagne, and the two best areas, curiously enough, are Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne. In descending order the others are Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires. Only wine produced in these strictly limited areas may be used to make cognac.
The grape type used to be almost exclusively Folle Blanche, but today Colombard and especially Ugni Blanc (or Saint-Emilion) make up the great majority. The vintage is late, in October and even in November, and as soon as the wine has finished fermenting it is ready for distilling.
This fiery liquid is clear as it comes from the still. Mixed with water, its fruitiness is already evident but it lacks everything else that makes cognac great. It is the barrel that gives it color, much of its taste and its smoothness. And only one type of wood will do – oak from the neighboring Limousin.
The tannin in the oak gives cognac its color and it also acts as a catalyst in the oxidation which gradually mellows the brandy. The barrels are under cover but open to air and temperature changes, which also speed the aging.
Since cognac ages only in contact with the air through the wood of the barrel, once it is bottled there is no further aging. There is no point in laying away a bottle to see if it will improve. It won't.
During the aging, which lasts about five years for Three-Star and much more for V.S.O.P. (Very Special Old Pale), although the law requires only four years, about 3 percent of volume a year is lost in evaporation through the wood. If this went on indefinitely, in 40 years a barrel would be empty.
Every year the barrels are refilled to make up the loss, which out of total stocks equals the annual consumption of cognac in France. Even so, before it is bottled, cognac must be brought down to 80 proof by the addition of rain or distilled water.
The largest companies – Hennessy, Martell, Courvoisier and Rémy Martin – have some vineyards themselves but they and other firms buy wine from growers and do their own distilling, aging and blending to obtain a constant product with a distinct house style, much as is done by the great champagne firms.
In addition to the standard Three-Star and V.S.O.P. qualities, most firms also put out one or another extra-fine and very old cognac with a fanciful name such as "Napoléon" (Courvoisier), "Cordon Bleu" (Martell), or "Louis XIII" (Rémy Martin).
Eighty percent of cognac production is exported, especially to Britain, Germany and the United States. Rémy Martin, which makes only V.S.O.P. quality from the Grande and Petite Champagne districts, actually exports 92 percent of its production, 15 percent of which goes to the United States, its best customer.