Could Cognac exist without wine?
Year on year, the popularity of cognac just keeps growing, drawing aficionados from China to the USA. The undisputed king of cognacs is Hennessy, appreciated the world over. What is the secret of this drink? Is there a key ingredient that sets cognac apart from other varieties of brandy? The answer lies in the vineyards of the small French town that gives this celebrated drink its name and the spectacular wines that are made from its vines.
Harvest time in Cognac is also when the life of a cognac starts; a reminder that cognac could not exist without wine. There are a number of factors that set cognac apart from other brandies; its name for a start. As with champagne, only brandy from a certain part of France can be called cognac.
From grapes to wine
Brandy can be made from a number of different fruits, but cognac is only made from grapes. The grapes used must come from vineyards in the areas known collectively as the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), which is a French certification granted to certain geographical areas for food and drink. The main grape in cognac is ugni blanc which, because of its prominent role in the making of cognac, makes it France's most widely planted white grape. It is however more famous in Italy where it is known as trebbiano. Folle blanche and colombard grapes are also sometimes used in cognac, but ugni blanc is the main variety. Hennessy cognacs are made from grapes from the four grand cru regions within the AOC: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies and Fins Bois. Once harvested, the grapes are turned into wine using traditional winemaking methods. The result is a still wine that’s intentionally low in alcohol (around 7-8% abv) and high in acidity. You would not want to drink it at this stage, but these properties make it ideal for distillation and ageing. The quality of the grapes and the wine itself are still very important if the eau-de-vie itself is to be of a high quality.
From wine to eau-de-vie
The resulting white wine is then put through a double distillation process in order to turn it into eau-de-vie ("water of life"). This forms the base of cognac. 'Charentais' copper pot stills are used for the double distillation process and each stage takes a minimum of twelve hours to complete. This double distillation transforms the wine into what is known as eau-de-vie. It is crystal clear and around 70% alcohol by volume. Hennessy owns the largest reserves of cognac eaux-de-vies in the world; more than 350,000 casks can be found in their cellars.
From eau-de-vie to cognac
Once the cognac-makers are satisfied with the quality of the eau-de-vie, maturation can begin. The eau-de-vie is poured into oak barrels to age and develop the classic cognac colour. Once a year during the ageing process, the eau-de-vie will be transferred from one barrel to another. Cognac is aged for a minimum of two years, but most cognacs are aged for much longer than this. The abbreviations seen on the labels of cognac bottles indicate how long the cognac has been aged for. VS (Very Special) means that the cognac has been aged for at least two years, VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale) for at least four years, and XO (Extra Old) for a minimum of six years. Many cognacs are aged for much longer periods. Another word sometimes seen on cognac bottles along with these abbreviations is Paradis. This refers to the oldest vintages (‘Paradis’ is the name cognac houses give to the special cellars in which they keep their oldest vintages).
The next step is blending. At Hennessy, blending is an art that has been meticulously developed over more than two hundred years. Seven generations of master blenders from the Fillioux family have devoted their lives to creating exceptional cognac; their hard work and talent have enabled Hennessy to keep its crown as the king of the cognacs. A member of the Fillioux family still chairs Hennessy’s tasting committee.
A cognac is a spirit made from wine. Without eau-de-vie made from cognac grapes, the drink as we know it would simply not exist. It would be brandy (a very good brandy, no doubt), but it would neither have the history of the Hennessy name, nor the experience of the Fillioux family. Most of all, it would not be cognac.