All cognacs are brandy, but not all brandies are cognac. For that designation, the grapes used in the eaux de vie — or “water of life” — must come from the six vineyard growing areas, or crus, of Cognac. (And yes there’s a town to that goes by the name of Cognac too). But those facts don’t do this lovely — and largely undiscovered by tourists — region justice.
One of the first things that surprised me when I traveled up to Cognac from Bordeaux was the sheer number of vineyards. I had heard that it was the second largest wine area in France, but until you see it for yourself on a cognac tour, it’s hard to believe… and then comes the next thought: wine? and cognac? How are the two related?
Very much so, it turns out. The history of cognac is some of the most fascinating, even more so when you realize that each family and each house has their own version of events (as well as how their own process for producing cognac). Even so, if you’re talking to the larger marketing houses — like Remy Martin, Hennessy, Meukow, Martell, etc. — you’ll learn that while many of them have their own vineyards — with a lot of ugni blanc grapes — they’re also sourcing much of their eaux-de-vie from smaller vineyards and producers.
The great thing about making cognac is that it teaches you above everything else to wait – man proposes, but time and God and the seasons have to be on your side.
– Jean Monnet
As for the process of making cognac, it’s largely the same generally speaking. After all, the wine is distilled twice in a copper pot (both heated and cooled each time), and then the result is called eau-di-vie. Then it’s time to age it… but it doesn’t just sit in the barrel like wine. The cellar master, along with a tasting committee, will move the cognac from barrel to barrel as the cognac evaporates and ages. (And it’s because of this evaporation process that you’ll see black along the walls of where the cognac is being stored; its a fungi byproduct!)
All cognac then must be aged for at least two years, but most is aged much longer than that. Remy Martin’s famous Louis XIII cognac, for one, is aged between 40 to 100 years! One indication of the length of aging is the color of the cognac; the darker the color, the longer it’s been aging.
Want to know more? Come see Cognac country for yourself. Experience the vineyards first hand, learn how the wine barrels are made in cooperages, and taste plenty of cognac. Our Discover Cognac Country tour is led by a fabulous gentleman and cognac master educator, who not only runs the relais with his wife, but leads all the tours himself. And by the way, that’s him in the photo. But he’s enjoying pineau de charentes — the little brother of cognac (more on that a different day) — as an aperitif before dinner. After all, you’ll be drinking plenty of cognac during his tour!
By Liz Hall
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